Frequent flying

A while back, one of our brood managed to lose a large set of keys to
our house and car. This must have, in some way, been working on the
subconscious of my beloved earlier this morning because, in the depth
of the night and half asleep herself, SWMBO shook me violently and,
in a rasping whisper not unlike Golum’s, insisted that she ‘could
hear Keith Chegwin outside!’ Being woken at three in the morning to
be told that the moon-faced darling of 1970′s BBC children’s
television is creeping around our garden is not my preferred way to
prepare for a early morning interview. Incredulity turned to
comprehension when upon replaying the phrase in my head, my befuddled
brain realised that she had actually said that she ‘could hear keys
jangling outside’. The need for sleep notwithstanding, paternal duty
and a certain amount of nervous male pride ensured that I spent the
next 5 minutes creeping from window to window, scanning the section
for intruders, famous or otherwise, whilst trying not to recall
details of brutal ‘home invasions’ from recent local news reports.
Having relayed that fact that the jangling was coming from the collar
bell of one of SWMBO’s four cats, I returned to bed to prepare for my
interview with a few hours of restless tossing and turning, now
accompanied by persistent unbidden recollections of Keith Chegwin’s
incessant nasal chirping.

It is two months exactly since we boarded an Air New Zealand Boeing
747 left the UK. In the morning, along with other bleary-eyed
business folk, I will climb aboard a much smaller aircraft for my
third day trip to Auckland in as many weeks. However, tomorrow’s
flight will be different from my previous excursions up country in
that, this time, the cost of the flight will be covered by a
prospective employer, rather than our slowly diminishing family
budget. Whilst there is no business class champagne and caviar
breakfast option available on the thirty seat turboprop crop-duster
I’ll be flying, I might just chance my arm and ask Kevin or Kerry,
the regular cabin crew on this route, for an extra packet of
Macadamia nut cookies to go with my stewed tea.

Whilst I am certainly no jet set executive, I have been lucky enough
to travel to a variety of places on business over the years.
Business travel can be an absolute grind, especially when the
itinerary is tight or the schedules mean long flights with bad
connections. With this in mind, I try to find something new to
offset the drawbacks and provide me with a new perspective to enjoy.
On the outbound flight of my last Auckland trip, I was seated in
front of an Un Min, the airline industry’s contraction for an
unaccompanied minor. From the tone of the conversations he struck up
with both myself and another chap behind him, this small boy, no
older than ten, was already the veteran of many an internal flight
around New Zealand and Australia. From what I could gather, the lad
lived on a remote farm station and any journey to visit far-flung
family or distant friends involved, at the very least, a four wheel
drive and a small light aircraft and that was before he had left the
family property. Yet this seasoned flyer, whose trip home would
involve progressively smaller and smaller aircraft, was not too
seasoned to relish being given the job of handing round the sweets to
the other passengers, whom he proceeded to charm with a winning
combination of healthy outback complexion, cheeky smile and endless
barrage of questions.

With both my bicycles locked inside a bonded container somewhere in
the Port of Wellington, the majority of my terrestrial travel thus
far has been by car or train. Topography, geology and seismology
have all played a part in making road transport the main choice for
moving people and things up and down these long and varied islands,
with ships and boats fulfilling the crucial role of bridging the gap
in the middle and providing alternatives along the sides. I use the
all-encompassing phrase ‘road transport’ as we have seen all manner
of vehicles on the roads here and have become used to rounding a
corner to be confronted by some new form of wheeled vehicle the like
of which we have never seen. Even at the dinner table a week or so
back, I looked up and out of the window to see a London Route Master
double decker bus (No.18 route for those that want to know) driving
past the end of our road and down to the beach. This, we suspect,
was the ‘English Rose’, a bus used for tours and corporate events we
later saw plying it’s trade in Wellington.

As someone who, at one time or another, has piloted bicycles,
minibuses, vans, minicabs and trucks around the busy streets of
London and around the UK, it has taken me a while to adapt to better
suit the more relaxed, though arguably more dangerous, style of
driving here. Although I would describe myself as an average driver,
my spouse has maintained for years that I am prone to certain traits
that are to be found in the sub genus Homo Automobilus. These, I am
reliably informed, include resetting the trip odometer to ’0′ before
each journey but never checking the final mileage, passing toilet
stops and rest areas to avoid being overtaken by those I have just
passed and demanding what other drivers are doing ‘on my road’. It
goes without saying that I utterly refute such allegations but am
happy to repeat them here in the interests of balanced reporting.
That said, in the early weeks here, I did notice that I was
constantly passing people on the roads. Over the weeks, it has
dawned on me that this ‘must pass’ mentality was a hang over from
driving on British roads where every mile might be your last before
becoming trapped in a 20 mile Bank holiday tail-back. Of late, I am
more than happy, when the conditions allow, to edge up to just shy of
the prevailing speed limit, set the cruise control to keep me legal
and let the car take the strain, knowing that we’ll get there soon
enough.

The vast majority of Kiwi drivers are perfectly sensible and
courteous but the tiny remainder fall into two distinct camps – the
dreamers and the boy racers. The former are those who make use of
the full width of the road, including the opposite lane and both
shoulders, as though driving was like one of those early video
driving games, which simply required one to steer down the black
ribbon between two sets of green pixelated markers. These folks mean
no harm but simply seem incapable of steering a vehicle within the
confines of a designated lane and clearly have less of a grasp
concerning New Zealand’s particular ‘give way to the right’ rules
than I do. The latter, allowed to drive from the age of 15, feature
daily in the newspapers here, where graphic tales of speed freak
antics and lurid reports on road deaths share the same pages as
details of the latest safety campaigns and editorials exploring the
causal factors involved. Shock tactic television adverts feature
tearful actors as bereaved relatives or families in magically
suspended cars suddenly dropped to earth to simulate a head accident
but the thrill, kudos and machismo associated with customised cars,
ear-shattering sound-offs and street racing by New Zealand’s youth
ensures the tolls continues to rise.

As with road deaths the world over, there are no easy answers and few
governments will risk their majority by taking on the road transport
lobby head to head. The inevitable corollary to this is that the
drive for such change invariably falls to volunteer campaigners and
pressure groups. Having been involved in a small way with the London
Cycle Campaign and Tower Hamlets Wheelers’ Bike Buddy scheme, two
stories in Wellington’s Dominion Post caught my attention this
morning which illustrate how the efforts of such groups can make all
the difference. The first concerned a novice cyclist who died whilst
out training for an upcoming charity ride. After carrying the bike
in a car, it seems that both the rider and their friend neglected to
reattach the quick-release brake cables after refitting the wheels.
Any but the shortest journey in Wellington will involve at least one
steep hill, so the consequence of this oversight was the cyclist
careered downhill, through a junction and into a pickup truck, with
fatal consequences. As “not a confident bike rider” who disliked
“riding in the city”, perhaps this rider might have benefited from
having an experienced bike buddy who, as well as helping them ride
confidently along the safest route possible, might just have advised
them to check the reassembled bike before heading down a steep
slope. In the second story, prompted by a coroner’s report,
Wellington City Council is considering lowering the speed limit in
the city centre from 50 to 30 kph in order to reduce deaths and
accidents involving vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and
cyclists. However, the union representing the bus and tram drivers
here claim that, because pedestrians stepping into the street leave
their members “nowhere to go”, the pavements should be lined with
chains or railings except at designated crossing points. This is all
well and good unless, as has been found in London, you are a cyclist,
when these railings are potential killers that prevent riders falling
away from the traffic and leave them more vulnerable to being
crushed. Without a unified and comprehensive approach, the city runs
the risk of reducing casualty statistics in one user group only to
cause them to rise in another. Who knows, I may just add my voice to
the debate.

Talking of casualties, we had our first opportunity to experience New
Zealand’s healthcare system when daughter two managed to over-extend
daughter three’s ankle joint in a bout of playground rough and
tumble. Despite the lack of visible symptoms, an increase in the
pain after a few hours raised concerns enough to indicate a swift
drive to the emergency room forty kilometres away was in order.
Despite some concerns over the extent of the reciprocal healthcare
agreement between the UK and NZ, we were dealt with pleasantly and
efficiently in a clean and welcoming environment, a welcome change
from the madhouse atmosphere and cast of social outcasts that made up
London’s busiest ER, which was nearest to our old UK home. After a
couple of hours waiting punctuated by a visit from a triage nurse and
a trip to x-ray, we were ushered into a consulting room to see the
doctor. Seemingly almost as young, blonde and smiley as her patient,
the lovely Dr Williams spoke with a soft lilting voice that could
only originate in the valleys of South Wales. The telltale signs of
junior doctor tiredness receded a little as she talked of home and
checked the ankle for damage. Having ascertained that the damage was
minimal, we said our goodbyes and left the good doctor to her work.
Whilst she professed to be enjoying her work experience and social
life abroad very much, I detected more than a hint of homesickness in
her tone and suspect that, on completion of her rotation, she’ll be
heading back to the UK. Come tomorrow morning, I’m interviewing for
a job that may just mean that, when March rolls around, we can avoid
having to do the same.

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