Travel Fun

I’ve just been travelling. I love visiting new places, seeing new things and particularly experiencing new cultures that challenge my way of thinking. I have been fortunate to visit Nepal, Tanzania and Morocco and each one brought new adventures and challenges and a completely different attitude and approach to doing things. I’ve been to various places in Europe and America and while the culture is general familiar, there are always little characteristics that make a place special. I love that. But there was one common element to each of those trips that I hated. Getting there.

We can fly across the world. It is now possible to fly non-stop to Australia thanks to technology. I can check the weather in the High Atlas, chat to friends over the internet from the top of Kilimanjaro and send electronic postcards almost instantly from Everest Base Camp. But it still takes 6 hours to get to Gatwick, via a bus and I still have to walk several hundred yards to get me and my baggage from bus to check-in. And at the other end, I have to walk the same amount again to get my bag and drag it out of the airport. And lets not talk about airport transfers.

In Nepal, the airport at Kathmandu was an experience I wasn’t keen on repeating. I had to queue for a visa and for the 30 minutes I was there, I was subjecting to the same repeating jingle advertising the Rum Doodle restaurant. It had an annoying jingle followed the the statement “There are two steps – one leads to Everest, the other leads to Rum Doodle”. By the time I had my visa, I had been subtly brainwashed, as had all the trekkers on my trip. We successfully got to base camp, and on our return to Kathmandu, we ate at Rum Doodle.

Outside the airport, we were assaulted by a chaos of Nepali boys and young men all trying to carry our baggage. Fortunately, we were being met by the hotel transfer bus but in the few minutes it took to identify and make contact with the bus driver, several boys had tried to pick my bag up (it was very heavy, so they couldn’t whisk it away) and I’d managed to grab it back from all of them. I loaded my bag and helped load others and still they asked me for tips and money for carrying my bag. And all the while, A Nepalese policeman with a rifle on his back almost as long as he was blew a whistle to try and regain order.

To get to the start of our trek, we had to take an internal flight to Lukla. Google ‘Worlds most dangerous airport’. It’s usually Lukla. The flight was an event in itself and while I wouldn’t quite lump it in with the nightmare of ‘getting there’, it is definitely not for those who dislike flight. The little plane climbs constantly to lift itself over the mountains that surround Kathmandu, and then continues to climb in amongst the lower Himalayan mountains until, weaving through a narrow valley, the pilots line up with an elongated postage stamp of a runway for which there is no ‘go-around’ procedure and land. If the clouds swirl up, obscuring the runway at the last minute, it’s tough. And in many cases, its tough and fiery.

On the way back, if the weather is good, the take-off is only marginally less challenging. As the air heats up during the day, it gets thinner and less able to support aeroplanes, particularly ones loaded with trekkers and heavy trekking gear. At the end of the runway is a steep drop of some 2000 feet. I watched one aircraft, late in the morning, drop off the end of the runway and only reappear 20 seconds later as it struggled to gain height to clear the mountains beyond. And the next flight out was ours.

Flying to Tanzania was via Nairobi airport. Nairobi had been bombed the year before and although security was tight, more than half the airport was closed due tot he damage caused by the bomb and subsequent fire. So transferring, we were crammed into a dark and dingy semi circular corridor that looked as if it had been built in the 70’s and promptly forgotten again, only to be rediscovered when they need ed the space. “What’s behind this door?” “No idea, lets see…”

The flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International airport was via a large twin prop passenger plane. It looked modern and inside the cabin was clean and spacious. But then I watched them loading the luggage – by hand through a door in the side between us and the pilot. The bags were stacked haphazardly behind a curtain in the front bulkhead. I didn’t see my bag being loaded but when I picked it up at the end of the flight, it had been ripped at the seams and was unusable.

The transfer from Kili airport to Arusha was an exciting hour along the main road, fairly busy with slow buses and lorries and our minibus, only slightly faster. But the driver insisted on overtaking everything, even if it took 5 minutes. We stopped looking in the end as oncoming traffic got closer and closer. We passed overturned lorries and buses and this should have been enough to warn the driver. But we survived, and turned off the main road to get to the hotel. It was along a track that had never seem any form of tarmac and was, instead, created entirely from potholes creatively linked by ruts.

The transfer from the hotel to the start of the trek was equally adventurous. After leaving the main road, we drove on rough tracks for a while before leaving roads completely and driving along what I could only describe as a muddy river bed. The ruts in the mud, enlarged by flood water which had mercifully drained since, were deep enough the the bus grounded several times on the drive up to the park gate. At one pint, we passed another bus coming the other way and only just avoided rolling down a bank into a field.

In Morocco, I flew in to Marrakech airport and after a mix up with the transfer arrangements, I was taken in a car to the hotel. The driver was clearly under orders to get there and back as quickly as possible and so we shot off at high speed. My attempts at conversation were hampered by my lack of Arabic, my poor schoolboy French and the drivers need to concentrate on the road lest he hit something. Except he didn’t really seem to mind about the impact side of things in his mission to get to the hotel in record time. We sped across pedestrian crossing barely missing people who were already half way across the road. I watched in horror as the face of one man, mouth agape, passed by inches from the side window. We overtook on corners, undertook on other corners, undertook on roundabouts, forced motorcycles out of the way and generally sped through the busy streets to finally arrive outside the hotel. To be fair, we hit nothing, knocked no one over and got to the hotel in half the time it took to transfer back at the end of the trek.

You could argue that these experiences are just part of the fun of travel, and I guess you’d be right. But sometimes, after a long flight crammed in to the seat, dehydrated and tired, arms aching from carrying bags and brain frazzled from trying to understand what the passport checking police man has just asked you, you just want a gentle transfer and to wake up in a comfy bed ready for the adventure. We’ll get there one day.

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Why we walk the hills

By Dave and Rufus.

There is no sound other than the birds high up in the sky and the gentle breeze making its way through the grass. The early morning sun is shining with a yellow glow, the air is crisp and clear and the remains of last night’s frost crunches under foot. In puddles, ice has formed random and surreal patterns that few will see. It’s warm despite the early hour. The noise of traffic is not invited here.

From the top of Moel Feity, our venue for today, there is a panoramic view of mountains and countryside. in the distance to the north a line of clouds have formed, as if waiting to enter into our arena. But they’re not allowed to spoil the morning. To the west, Fan Brecheiniog looks grey with it’s thin coating of frost yet to be touched by the sun. A small cloud pops over the top and spills down towards Llyn y Fan Fawr like a slow motion waterfall. The twin table tops of Corn Du and Pen y Fan are silhouetted off to the east. Even at this early hour they are probably busy with those keen to be the highest people south of Snowdonia.

We have this hill to ourselves. We can go where ever we want. There are little paths and tracks that the sheep have worn over the years but the sheep are all gathered together further down the valley this morning. We choose to follow the paths or not as the whim takes us.

He’s going to start going on about how time has no meaning next. I know, and I apologise on behalf of my human. Allow him his indulgence.

There is no sign of the passage of time other than the distant clouds and the mist on Fan Brecheiniog. Even the sun is lazy this morning.

There. See. 

We come across the little memorial to the crew of Liberator 38753 and a little later, a small pile of aluminium, some melted, which has been gathered from the crash site. I stop to tidy them both up as I always do when we come here, and we spend a moment or two having a think before moving on.

We walk the hills because of all these things and the things we will see next time. Sometimes its for the challenge, sometimes it’s to get away from the crap and sometimes its to get to the top.

Before he gets too carried away with the artistic dribble, lets talk about the real reason we walk the hills. Dave has this need to prove himself and I have to tag along just to make sure he doesn’t overdo things. I don’t mind; he’s good to me so I return the favour. When I wasn’t well, he stayed with me so he’s a bit out of shape right now. In the past he’s done it to get fit to climb hills in other countries – without me! But I don’t care really because I enjoy walking the hills with Dave.

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Air Show 2015

Today was the first day of the Wales National Air Show in Swansea. I try to go every time it’s on but this year was special as there was a chance to see the last flying Vulcan bomber. And, as I found out, it was the last year the plane would be flying.

The Vulcan and I go back a long way. One of my earliest memories is at the age of about 4, being woken up by the deep, earth shaking roar of a squadron of Vulcans taking off from RAF Cottesmore. This would happen quite regularly, at any time of the day or night. As a child, it was exciting and slightly scary. What I didn’t realise then was that this was the training and preparation for the third world war. Each time the aircraft were scrambled, my dad (a flight sergeant in the RAF) would have to get ready in case it was for real. If it had been for real, those bombers would have been our deterrent to nuclear attack and the fact they were taking off would signify an attack was imminent. Thankfully, the four year old me didn’t know this. I don’t know how my dad felt every time he had to rush off to his post on the base and I don’t know what my mum thought when he went. I just remember the big planes.

I was taken to see a Vulcan in it’s hanger by my dad. His mate in the maintenance unit managed to arrange for a private tour. The plane was up on the equivalent of car jacks as it’s undercarriage was being serviced. While I was there, they retracted and deployed the undercarriage, and then opened the bomb bay doors. I can’t describe how cool that was to me. I talked about it for years afterwards and anyone who knows me now must be fed up of hearing the story once I knew the Vulcan was flying at today’s airshow. I apologise!

Seeing the Vulcan approaching over Mumbles Head this afternoon gave me goose bumps and sent a shiver down my back. That iconic and unmistakeable shape banked over Oystermouth, sun glinting off the delta wings, and made a low level run along the bay. As soon as I heard the deep roar of the engines, I was back to my early childhood. The noise was so familiar that I could picture the base and the house we lived in. As it climbed at the end of the run, that extra kick of power and the chest pounding noise took me straight back to the exercises and alerts of 1968. I was four again! I took photos but made sure I also watched the plane with my own eyes. As I did so, I found memories of my parents coming back. As the Vulcan disappeared into the distance, it left me with that feeling of excitement, a little scared and with a great big lump in my throat.

EDIT: In the photo of the Typhoon, notice it’s in the Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary colours – these are the original 1940 camouflage colours that appeared on Hurricanes and Spitfires. It’s 75 years this month since the battle started. Let’s remember the few. 

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More history on your doorstep

I went back to Mynydd Betws with Rufus this morning. It’s a nice place in good weather and he can roam free. I had another purpose to go there, though, and that was to have a look at some marks on the ground I had seen on a Google Earth image and which I had found out were the remains of anti invasion defences from World War 2.

This part of the mountain, about a mile south of the wind farm, doesn’t have a clear name on the map. But when you climb up off the road and reach the flat top, you can see how easy it would be to land some gliders there. Looking south, you can see Swansea and Port Talbot – both important ports during the war. Swansea, of course, was deemed important enough to spend three consecutive nights blitzing it during 1941, which resulted in the almost complete destruction of the town centre.

Rather than permanently station troops in the hill, which would have been stretching limited resources, they dug a series of parallel ditch and mound structures in a grid. Any kind of aircraft trying to land there when the structures were fresh would have tipped over, or had it’s wheels or belly ripped open.

Today, all that remains is a series of low humps which would still make landing a plane very risky. They resemble the henge monuments of 4000 years ago in terms of appearance, except that these are in straight lines rather than circles.

Last year, I may have missed these when walking over them; they are so spread out that they seem unconnected. It’s only when you see the bigger picture – literally in this case – that they make sense.

Rufus, oblivious of the history around him, enjoyed a good walk in the countryside.

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What to say?

I’ve been trying to think of things to blog about this week. When I started this blog it was going to be to showcase my photography but it very quickly went beyond that. There’s an argument that says if I want it to be successful popular I should pamper to the masses and do things that generate likes and followers and re-posts. But to me, that’s false because there is an inevitable change in the things I write and the way I write them. I would rather have 100 followers who do so because they like what i wriote than 1000 followers who do so because I write what they like to see and hear.

I could easily add video (one of the current popular things on social media) or blog endlessly about work related stuff (to tap into the professional side of my life) but that’s not what interests me on this site.

So today, some random, unconnected stuff that I feel I want to say. You may agree, you may not. It probably won’t get me followers. That’s ok, too.

Everyone has the right to believe in what they want, in terms of religion. One god, many gods, no god; it’s ok. But regardless of your opinion no one should die because of someone else’s beliefs, because they are just beliefs. All the major religions are, or have been guilty, but the recent issue of the pregnant woman being condemned to death because she renounced the major faith of the country she lives in is wrong.

How come, with all the research and study and highly paid people, that no one spotted many decades ago that we are all living longer? After all, it was on the news and in all the TV popular science programmes. Suddenly, the people responsible for managing our pensions realised that they were going to have to pay out for longer because the average lifespan of a UK citizen has increased. That didn’t happen overnight – it’s been a trend for hundreds of years. If I made such a fundamental mistake in my job I would quite rightly be encouraged to leave the company.

A friend pointed out to me after the final of Masterchef last week, that a large proportion of the world’s population are considered by the UN to be undernourished. Now, while it’s unlikely that the food on Masterchef would make a dent in that (although with the calorific value of some of the dishes, I wouldn’t put any money on that statement), I bet more people tuned in to watch it than have donated to a charity addressing the food issues (and I’m not talking about emergency famine relief, but long term projects). This is not a political grumble, by the way, and nor is it a plea for you to donate. It’s a comment on the state of the world.

Am I the only person that looks up into the sky, see’s a high flying jet, and wonders about the people on board and their destination and what they are doing? Its a rhetorical question, I know I’m not because I’ve spoken to friends about it before. In an uncharacteristically warm summer’s morning, I was out in the garden having a cup of coffee and watching the birds fly high above me. I saw three plans fly over head in a short space of time. My house is above on of the corridors for aircraft flying to and from the USA so it’s not unusually to see many planes. I used an app on my phone to see where they were going. The one that caught my imagination was the London to Dallas flight, climbing to it’s final altitude of 33,000 feet. First I realised that it was only 4000 feet higher then Mount Everest. Then I thought about the people on the plane and what their stories were. Business, holiday, celebration, misery. There would be some people on there frightened to death of the flight itself, and some excited about the time in the US to come.

Finally, for now, Rufus is back with me after a couple of weeks in his temporary home with his permanent family. Despite a comprehensive collection of fences, gates and wooden rails, he managed to escape several times and it seemed better for all concerned if he came back to stay with me while we create a permanent place for him to stay during the day when no one is around. It coincides with a week off for me, so some adventures are on the cards. I’m happy to have my buddy with me for company. I think he’s happy too. There is a lot of tail wagging going on!

 

 

 

 

 

What could have been 2 – what was.

As a brilliant birthday present last year, my friend bought me a flight in an old bi-plane.  I’d had several attempts at booking the flight, all of which had been postponed by the weather. I re-booked for Wednesday and at the last minute changed the date to today. I rang up the company this morning just before I left and was told that the sky had turned a funny shade of blue and it was ideal flying weather. I set off, nervous and excited and eager to get to the airport, in Gloucester. Staverton was an old RAF station that  was home to training flights and played a part in developing air-to-air refueling at the end of WW2. I’d studied Google maps and the place looked like a maze but I drove slowly between the hangars and finally spotted Tiger Airways on the left.

The hangar was full of aerobatic monoplanes and two Stampe SV4Cs with their engines disassembled. Tiger, the half greyhound, welcomed me in to the office where Chris set up the Pre-flight Briefing DVD. Apparently, if I touched anything with yellow tape on it, the plane was likely to plummet to the ground and if I didn’t do the harness up properly, I was likely to plummet to the ground – no parachutes here. If I talked while the air traffic control were talking, I could make us miss something important and if didn’t plummet to the ground, people would shout at me.  Then it was on with a flying jacket and white silk scarf and out to the waiting aircraft – a Stampe SV4C G-AZGE with a complete engine. After filling the tank, I climbed into the front cockpit, nervous and excited. Tizi, the chief instructor pilot, fitted the leather flying helmet and I did a radio check. Chris took photos.

Then, just like the movies, there was a lot of  ‘fuel pumps on, brakes on, carbs primed, contact,’ stuff and on the second attempt and with the aid of a hammer, the engine started. They even said ‘chocs away’ just before we started off. After some contact with air traffic control, we taxied out to the runway and waited for a Cessna to land. It bounced quite high and Tizi laughed as only an experienced pilot is allowed to. Then, with the wind in my face, we bumped down the runway. In a surprisingly short time, we were airborne and climbing away from the airport. The wind buffeted the plane, making it shake and shimmy, but there was no stomach churning turbulence. I actually felt part of the plane rather than sitting in it. We always returned to the same heading and level flight. Tizi tested me out on the controls and then offered me the chance to experience some simple aerobatics. We looped, then we did a loop with a roll. The thought of both made me doubt I wanted to do them, but the reality was that they were exhilarating, fun and not nearly as bad as I was expecting.

Then I had a chance to fly the plane. The control stick was remarkably sensitive and required the lightest of touches from finger and thumb to make the plane bank, climb and descend. It was very simple to maneouver the plane and the bit of the briefing that said ‘it’s easier to fly this plane than to drive a car’ felt true. With Tizi’s guidance, we climbed up over the flooded Severn, over Tewkesbury and then circled gently around to fly over the airfield at around 2000 feet. We watched other aircraft landing and taking off from above. Then we circled again to join the landing circuit. I was just about getting the hang of the tiny movements required to guide the plane as we dropped in behind a Cessna that was ahead of us in the queue to land. Tizi only took over again as we descended and slowed on final approach. The landing was smooth and we taxied back to the hangar.

Sitting in the cockpit waiting to fly, I thought about WW1 pilots and how flimsy their planes were to take into combat. I was feeling nervous at that point and it must have been similar for them. As we taxied, I felt excitement too, but it wasn’t like the flights to and from Lukla. I felt more in control as I could see more and feel the plane – as I said before, it felt as if I was part of it. In the air, it was nothing like flying in a passenger plane. I could see clearly out but the height wasn’t an issue. I guess because I was looking sideways rather than down. Watching the ground above me was odd but not frightening. Diving towards the ground coming out of the loop and roll was disconcerting but not scary.

When I got home, I looked up the history of the plane on the Internet. It was built in 1947 in Belgium and was probably a trainer. But the most fascinating this for me was that in 1976, it was modified to look like a WW1 SE5a fighter and used in the film ‘Aces High’. Look at this link to see the plane itself – scroll down until you see the plane on the ground with the tail number E-940. I sat in the front of that!

What a great experience!

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Italy VII – Just when you thought it was safe to come out…

Aaaaahhhh! You thought I’d finished the blog about Italy yesterday. Well, there are a few loose ends to clear up. All the stuff that doesn’t really fit into the individual days.

Map of Italy

Red dots show where we went. From the top: Riva, Verona, Venice, Florence, San Gimignano, Siena, Assisi, Chianciano Terme, Rome.

I love the travelling part of travel. Admittedly, some mornings it was hard to enjoy the coach journey but there were other mornings when I enjoyed just staring out of the window watching the world go by. I tried taking photos from the coach and although the contrast was a little low, and there was some blur from the movement, I was pleased with the results. On the way back to the hotel from the cities, the air conditioned coach was most welcome, along with Andreas’ (the driver) supply of chilled water. For most of the trip we had the coveted front seats (although we didn’t realise exactly how much they were coveted until the complaints on day four led the tour rep to say ‘It’s a free for all tomorrow and I don’t want to be involved’. And indeed, she hid in the hotel that morning until just before the coach left. The ensuing fuss was entertaining to watch from our new coveted seats half way down the bus, by the middle door.)

The people on our trip, with a few exceptions, were an odd bunch, most of whom seemed to want to complain about something. I have no problem with that; as a nation we don’t complain enough when it is justified. But many people seemed to use it as a means to get attention. I don’t care if your room isn’t perfect (ours wasn’t on the first night). Don’t tell me, tell the hotel staff (as we did – no fuss, we were moved, we were happy). There were a few complaints (or mutterings or whatever) about the walking and distances involved. Given that some of the group were a little unsteady on their feet, this was inevitable. I was impressed that people coped with the heat and the distance as well as they did, but ultimately, this was a trip that very obviously would involve a lot of travelling and a lot of walking. It was not suitable for all.

I think the worst bit for me was the journey home. Our flight from Milan was scheduled for 14.35 and we had to be in the airport at 12.30 for check-in. Our coach left Chianciano Terme at 5am to rendezvous with another from Lake Garda at Verona airport at 10am, from where there was another 2hr transfer to Milan. Fair enough. A long journey, but so be it. But when we got to Milan, it turned out that the flight had been ‘rescheduled’ to depart at 4pm. Only if I were cynical would I dare to suggest that the early departure from Chianciano was actually to allow the tour rep to pick up her new tour group from Verona airport at 10.20 without having to go through the hassle of putting on a second coach so we could leave at 7am. Only were I to be deeply unimpressed with the rep’s performance throughout the trip would I suggest that maybe she should have been aware of the rescheduled flight times, and perhaps she was but chose not to tell us.

All this makes it seem that I didn’t enjoy the trip. I did, and very much so. It helped that I was in fantastic company (thanks Em), and that early on we met a couple of like minded souls who helped made the evening meals and, particularly, the last night at Chianciano a special (and at times, hysterically funny) experience. Together, the four of us overcame the inflated Vatican Museum Tour Priority Ticket prices and conquered the queues. Em and I avoided the obvious during most of the city tours and tried to find the hidden in most of the places we went to, which paid off.

For the geeks (amongst whose number I include myself), I took 913 photos, mostly on my little compact camera. If I was going again, I wouldn’t pack so much and I’d leave more room for souvenirs. I’d think again about the camera I took. If I wanted to do the tour again, I’d concentrate on Riva del Garda, Venice, San Gimignano, Assisi, Chianciano and Rome. We discussed this after we got home and the ideal tour would be at our own pace with our own transport. We’d build in days with no firm plans so that we could just sit in a cafe and watch. I would like to spend a bit more time looking at the Roman ruins in Rome, but the rest of the city doesn’t interest me.

I have to mention the food and drink. For me this was the underlying pleasure that everything else rested on. The food, every bit of it, was of superior quality compared to what we are used to here in the UK. The simplest snacks were richly tasty and well presented. The coffee was superb. The wine was wonderful (and I’m not a red wine fan). The ice cream was thick and creamy. And despite what I’d been told (and not counting the Florence Ice Cream incident), the prices were not excessive. I’m prepared to pay for quality, but I was surprised at how little I did pay for it.

Italy gets a tick from me.

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