snakey summer

We have become accustomed to sharing our summer garden with tiger snakes, they have the perfect home around the pond and they have been very polite lodgers. Last year Michael had reconfigured the ponds and surrounding rocks and plants and, apart from a brief visit to check out the new design, no-one actually moved in. Our latest resident appeared early in the summer, curled up in a favourite spot to capture the morning sun.

The weather has been unseasonal this year, with a very wet and mild November making the process of warming up quite difficult. Tasmanian tiger snakes are darker than their mainland cousins in order to absorb more heat but there is still a need to flatten out and speed up the process.

The rocks hold their warmth, a great place to stretch in the sun

until it gets too hot and then there is a shady grevillea to retreat to.

Being extremely vulnerable while shedding their skin, snakes are usually discreet about it. We were very surprised when we came in from gardening to find she had done so out in the open.

After a while, she changed her morning sunning spot, perhaps realising it warmed up earlier than her usual position.

One morning we found her completely out of her comfort zone and wondered if she had been caught unawares the previous evening as the temperature can drop quickly once the sun starts its descent. She flattened out on the stones for a while

and finally made her way, very slowly, to her usual place under the box hedge.

Her home was actually in the rocks, we would see her go to bed each night around 5.30pm (no, we didn’t read her a bedtime story).

A few of weeks ago, we noticed she was looking dull, she was quite restless and her eyes were cloudy, a sure sign another skin shedding was imminent.

We kept a close eye on her movements and the camera within reach in the hope of witnessing and filming the shedding experience. It wasn’t to be, our last vision of her was in her tired, old skin and we haven’t seen her now for three weeks.

Hopefully, she has taken her shiny new self out to the forest to find a mate. Maybe she will return next year?

piccioni Italiani

The mention of pigeons in Italy usually conjures images of tourists in Venice being smothered by masses of the unruly birds, left with hair dishevelled, clothing akimbo and the odd splattering of egesta. The feeding of pigeons in Piazza San Marco was legally banned in 2008 with a penalty up to €700 to discourage the practice. While we saw the occasional pigeon on our travels, they were very discreet and didn’t exhibit any manic flock behaviour. A paddle in the waters of Fontana dell’Acqua Felice cooled the feet on a warm day in Rome.

The ancient stonework of the Colosseum now serves as a comfortable columbarium. The word is from the Greek for pigeon or dove and describes the niches in walls designed for roosting and breeding.

The merging of local and imported breeds over the centuries has led to an array of colours and markings. There aren’t many places better to enjoy the morning sun than the walls of Chiesa di San Pietro at Porto Venere.

Pigeons have long been maligned as bearers of disease, possibly due to their indiscreet toilet habits and their link to the infection, psittacosis, which causes a pneumonia type illness in humans. Along with that, it seems they were responsible for the closure of five rooms in the Uffizi Gallery in April 2016. An infestation of ticks was discovered by a security guard and the rooms, displaying 15th century Italian paintings, were closed for two days to undergo pest control. The outbreak was blamed on the pigeons that perch on the Uffizi’s windows. No such problem in the Torre Guinigi at Lucca, there is plenty of aeration and fabulous views.

Pigeons obviously have a head for heights, what bird doesn’t? They can fly at altitudes of 6,000 feet or more with speeds up to 90 mph and can travel 700 miles in a single day. Some are happy to just find a quiet perch and admire the fabulous vista in Pienza.

One of the most intelligent birds on the planet, the pigeon can apparently recognise itself in a mirror as well as all 26 letters of the alphabet. Sounds like interesting research, some do look more inquisitive than others.

The belltower of Chiesa di San Donato in Bagnoregio provides a perfect niche from which to observe the wanderings of tourists in the piazza.

Pigeons have been used as messengers for centuries, the earliest reference dating back to 2500 BC. They have been credited with saving tens of thousands of lives in both World Wars with their efficient, reliable service. It wasn’t until 2006 that the last service, used by the police force in Orrisa, India, was disbanded. Presumably, the Orsini family relied on the birds to keep in touch at their palazzo in Pitigliano.

As well as breeding for food, sport and as messengers, pigeons were found to have another valuable resource. In the 16th century, their excrement was found to contain saltpetre, a substance used in the manufacture of gunpowder and fertiliser. It seemed to be in plentiful supply on the window ledges of Acquapendente.

The first mention of domesticated pigeons being used for food was in Egypt in 3000 BC and it is not unusual to find a piccione dish on menus throughout Tuscany. In January 2016, Italian celebrity chef, Carlo Cracco, caused controversy when he cooked a pigeon with turnips on Masterchef Italia. The president of the Italian Institute for the Protection of Animal and the Environment reported him to the police for encouraging people to cook wild animals. He overlooked the fact that pigeons are farmed for food and the law protecting pigeons only applies to wild ones. Of all the pigeons we encountered in Italy, this was by far my favourite.

Whakarewarewa

We were looking forward to experiencing some Māori culture while in New Zealand and Rotorua is the place to do just that. There are a few options available but we chose Whakarewarewa because it is the only one that is an actual living village. The full name is Whakarewarewa-tanga-o-te-ope-taua-a-Wāhiao (The Uprising of the Army of Wāhiao) and was first occupied in 1325. The full name was adopted when, 300 years ago, a Warrior Chief named Wāhiao, gathered an army to avenge the killing of his father. They waited, hidden by geothermal steam and then performed a Haka before charging into battle.
After lunching on a tasty Hangi Pie at the Geyser Café, we entered the village through the memorial archway. Commemorating the fallen soldiers and tribal members who served in the two World Wars, the inscription, Te Hokowhitu a Tū, acknowledges the war god Tūmatauenga and was the motto of the Māori contingent.

Tourism came to the village in the 1800s when the Europeans began arriving in New Zealand. They were fascinated by the geothermal activity and local way of life. Before the bridge was built in 1885, the only way visitors could enter the village was to be carried across the river by the men, often in return for a penny. For generations, local village children have jumped from the bridge to retrieve the coins tossed in by visitors, earning them the nickname ‘Penny Divers’.

The Te Puarenga is also known as ‘Floating Blossom’ due to the yellow sulphur deposits that float on the surface as they make their way downstream.

Just over the bridge is a wharepuni, or sleeping house, traditionally built with natural materials such as tree ferns. A bit too close to the hot springs for my liking but apparently handy to make use of the heat.

The Ancestral Meeting House is named after Wāhaio, the traditional carvings tell stories and legends of his people and their tribal connections.

With time to spare before the afternoon cultural performance, we wandered past thermal lakes, mud pools and steam vents

to the bubbling waters of Te Roto a Tamaheke. Named after a chief living in the area many years ago, the lake has a number of hot springs that heat it above boiling point.

Before the entertainment began, we were introduced to some of the quirks of the Māori language. The explanation of the vowel sounds, none of which are pronounced the same as in the English language, was highly amusing. We were surprised to learn that ‘Wh’ is vocalised as an ‘f’ sound, an interesting concept when the name of the village is shortened to Whaka. The local performing group, Te Pakira, opened the show with a waiata-ā-ringa, an action song where the use of fluttering hand movements support the lyrics, symbolising shimmering waters, heat waves and such like.

A beautiful rendition of the love song, Pokarekare Ana, brought a tear to the eye. First sung at an army camp at Auckland in 1914, the song tells of Paraire Tomoana’s courtship of Kuini Raerena.

Next came the moment we had been waiting for – the Haka. The loud chanting, foot stomping, thigh-slapping war dance accompanied by poking tongues and staring eyes certainly stirred the blood. For me, it is the highlight of any All Blacks rugby game.

The skill and accuracy displayed in the stick games and Poi dances was boggling. The poi is a ball (or two) on a chord that is twirled in perfect unison with others and the direction can be changed by striking the ball on a part of the body, creating a percussive rhythm.

The performance over, we joined our guide for a tour of the village. The guiding tradition began over 200 years ago as tourism developed in the area and became a formalised profession for local Māori guides. The Catholic Church was built in 1905 and, due to the ongoing geothermal activity, in the cemetery the deceased are placed in tombs above the ground.

Retracing our steps down Tukiterangi Street

we turned left at Tuhoromatakaka, the family house built by master carver Tene Waitere in 1909 for guide Maggie Papakura.

The first inhabitants of the village discovered that food can be cooked by harnessing the heat from the ground and the steam box hangi is still used by the twenty one families living in Whakarewarewa.

The largest hot spring in the village, Parekohuru, is used for cooking leaf & root vegetables and seafood. Every 45 minutes or so, the pool pulsates and the water rises. The water level then drops and bubbles rise to the surface, hence the name ‘Champagne Pool’. I must say, I prefer my champagne on the cooler side.

At this point, I was distracted by the spectacular cloud formations.

Storms weren’t forecast but the nearby pools, Purerehua, told a different story. They are affected by the change in atmospheric pressure and when the water level drops, it means a change in the weather is imminent.

Many families in the village bathe in the communal baths known as oil baths because of the oily texture and mineral deposits in the water. It is very good for the skin as well as treating the aches and pains of arthritis and rheumatism.

The view from the Pōhutu Geyser lookout was quite ethereal. There are three active geysers aligned on the sinter terrace, a rock made of very fine-grained silica formed from the waters of the hot springs. The blue pool in front of the terrace is not fed by its own hot spring but collects water from the geysers.

The activity of each geyser affects the others with the largest, Pōhutu, erupting hourly up to a height of 30 metres. Its closest neighbour, Prince of Wales Feathers, always precedes Pōhutu but only to a height of 9 metres. The original name was Te Tohu (The Indicator) but it was renamed in 1901 on the occasion of a visit from the Prince of Wales because the geyser’s plume resembled the feathers on his coat of arms. The third geyser, Kererū, is named after an endemic New Zealand pigeon because the behaviour is as erratic as that of the bird. Unfortunately, we didn’t witness the full spectacle but were most impressed by the display we observed.

According to Māori myths and legends, the Whakarewarewa thermal area was created when Te Hoata and Te Pupu (Goddesses of Fire) travelled from Hawaiki in the form of fire to relieve their brother’s chills. Along the way, they created New Zealand’s volcanoes, mud pools, geysers and hot springs. I think they excelled themselves.

We meandered back through the village, reflecting on the lifestyle in this amazing part of the world

and the stunning landscape beyond.

Cascate del Mulino

After a few hectic days, a soak in the healing waters of hot springs sounded like heaven. We made an early start to avoid the crowds at Terme di Saturnia, a group of thermal springs a few kilometres from the town of Saturnia.

According to medieval legend, during one of the many fights between the god Jupiter and his father Saturn, a lightning bolt thrown by Jupiter missed Saturn and hit the ground. The impact of the projectile formed a crater and its heat warms the water that continually fills the spring. The pool from the legend is actually enclosed in the 5-star Terme di Saturnia Spa Resort and from there, the water flows along a travertine channel, called Gorello, for just over a kilometre.

The gentle pace picks up as the water tumbles over rocks at a magnificent thermal waterfall.

Over thousands of years, the cascading water has created terraces and shimmering blue pools.

An old mill house lends its name to Cascate del Mulino (Mill Falls)

which used to consist of two waterfalls. The first is the one beside the mill house and the second one dropped from an elevated terrace (at the far end of this photo).

In October 2014, 140mm of rain and hail fell in two hours, floodwaters brought mud and debris and a landslide damaged the lower terracettes. It took six months to repair the damage and the second waterfall no longer exists. Fortunately, there is still much to enjoy.

The water is a constant 37.5°C, the scientific composition described as, “a sulphurous-carbonic, sulphate-bicarbonate-alkaline mineral water, and includes among its peculiarities the presence of two dissolved gases such as hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide”. We soon got used to the odour, it certainly wasn’t overpowering. We found our own private space in one of the tiered pools, it was impossible to not be relaxed.

There are no changing facilities on site but a huge towel preserved a modicum of decorum, although I did notice one curious observer.

The early start certainly paid off, another couple of hours and it would be standing room only.

remarkable regeneration

After some lovely spring weather, summer has arrived with a cold snap. Plenty of rain, high winds and even snow on some peaks. It is not unusual to lose a few trees during these storms

and a few months ago we lost a magnificent eucalypt along one of our forest paths.

We cut enough wood to clear the path and decided to leave the remainder of the tree where it lay, as nature’s retaining wall.

No surprise that the mosses are thriving

but rather than just giving up, there is new life along the trunk.

The majesty of our surroundings never ceases to amaze me.

Sadly, our peaceful walks in the forest are becoming less and less enjoyable due to the ever increasing presence of a group of dogs who are free to wander and hunt, torture and kill wildlife on our property. The accompaniment of constant manic barking echoing through the trees is far from tranquil. Unfortunately, the owners consider it is a dogs right to roam freely, despite legislation that clearly states, among many other requirements, “The owner or person in charge of a dog must ensure that the dog is not at large.” It is, however, a farmers right to dispatch marauding dogs threatening livestock.

It would be nice to wander our property without the prospect of being confronted by five dogs with their blood up, we all know what animals hunting in a pack are capable of.

Some of you reading this may consider me “precious”. Whether I am or not, my dog certainly is and she is treated with the care and respect she deserves.