Friday, December 26, 2008

Graduations, reunions & a spot of riding, of course.

With the mix & match roster of being the relief supervisor, December has been a bit of a mess as far as routine goes. But that can hardly be blamed entirely on work rosters as there have been a few little trips around the country. First up, was Adele’s graduation in Dunedin – I managed to fit in six days down south. Flying in to Oamaru for the first time (it has always been fly in to Christchurch or Dunedin & then drive to Oamaru) was quite exciting & small planes are just great – you get that feeling of the tail slewing all around the place on take off & can watch the pilots & the instruments from your seat. I was amused to see that the emergency response vehicle at the airfield was a rather dated Nissan Sentra (all three doors of it) – after that I was even more thankful for an uneventful landing. Out for dinner – the start of too much food, a pity the table smelt like it had been cleaned with a bacteria-ridden cloth, it was like being back in the flat again.

Thursday, I made the mistake of wearing jeans for the trip up to Timaru. It turned out to be stinking hot & Dad & I spent the afternoon traipsing around houses – it turned out that the first one we looked at was the best & Adele & I are now in the process of buying it together for her & another doctor flatmate to live in. After a trip to the accountants, which was pretty much an excuse to talk about mountain-biking in the North & South Islands, it was off to pick up Adele from work (where she had the tragic finding of no air-con in the hospital) & back out to the chosen house to give her a look. Having concluded that house-filled afternoon, Adele quickly packed for the weekend & it was back to mighty Oamaru (mmmmm roast).

More unpacking & repacking later, we managed to leave on time on Friday morning for the trip down to Dunedin. On the way we stopped & looked at the farm that is being cut up in to lots & Mum & Dad intend buying one & building on it for their retirement (if that ever happens). With mountain & estuary views, it’s a nice spot – although it maybe a little cold that far south. While Mum was at an appointment & Adele picked up her gown, Dad & I did the honourable Pheasant thing & read the paper. That exhaustion over it was a rush to check in to our rooms, get flashed up & then back to the university for an appointment with a photographer. Lots of photos ensued, thankfully not too many with me in them. In between Mum giving & gleaning photography tips, there were plenty of us looking suitably proud – a shame we never got one of the clock tower without a pesky red car in front of it. More rushing around as Dad & I hurried out to the airport to pick up my Uncle flying in from Australia & Adele got ready for the med. ball that night. Having arrived at the airport, we quickly realised when there was no sign of Geoff that we had no idea which flight he was on, which airline he was flying with or even if he had come direct from Sydney or via Auckland or Christchurch – so we went to a cafĂ©. He eventually turned up. Couldn’t go too wrong with a steakhouse for dinner that night, even if we did have to sit in the fishbowl at the front of the restaurant.

Off to Med school prize giving for Adele, Mum & Dad while Geoff & I lazed around & ambled around the university & Dunedin on Saturday morning. After lunch it was off to George St to watch all the graduands parade on past towards the Octagon & Town Hall. Brisk walking between town & the hotel & another change it to slightly flashier clothes & it was off to the Town Hall for Adele's ceremony. Due to our lower status, Geoff & I were relegated to another hall to watch it all on the big screen - this turned out to be a blessing as apparently it was ridiculously hot up the top of the town hall. Much pomp & ceremony later I'd seen a few people I recognised & missed a few I should have recognised & Adele finally graduated as a doctor - well done. Following the guest speaker, who typically talked a lot about themself, it was a good night of socialising with various friends & family.
As we had Geoff with us, it was the tourist route home on Sunday morning - via Middlemarch & Dansey's Pass. The biggest surprise of this was meeting the mother of one Adele's best friends from her days in Te Puke in a charming cafe in Middlemarch - got to love NZ. Another beautiful day (I'd been pleasantly surprised by the weather so far - all Dad wanted was rain for the farms) & nice trip over the Dansey's punctuated by a flat tyre on the way down & we were back home again. Monday the weather packed in & was spent pottering around & applying for the house loan. Flying home Tuesday morning the huge 19-seater had a whole four passengers on it (as opposed to three whole passengers & two halves) - back to work just for a change.

A day and a half of work was more than enough & Wednesday afternoon the car & bike were loaded up & it was off to Rotorua for the night. I had been persuaded by a Te Puke mate, Brendan (spelt the correct way), to help out on a school mountain bike camp (it didn't take a lot of persuading to be honest). The clincher was it was a day of being shuttled to the top of the largest hill in the forest on a bus & riding down multiple times. It was a bit of fun & there was some amusement provided by the novice riders; generally it was a slow day & we seemed to spend a lot of time sitting waiting for the bus or sitting on the bus - I'm sure that was good riding time wasted! But no up hills was great - just as well as we went further out on the last run around a slight hill most of the riders were pathetically walkers. Still a good day & a rush back in the afternoon to the Franklin MTB club Christmas barbeque - the highlight of which was the rather chaotic game of bike football. Bike football is of course riding around on a bike trying to play football without putting your feet on the ground. Really it was a game of chicken as when the ball found a bit of space four or five bikes (& riders) would rush at the ball & invite certain carnage until the ball was kicked about a metre or so.
Enough frivolity, managed to fit work in on Friday before flying off to Palmy to see Dad (second time in four days - what the?). Dad & all his siblings (five altogether) were getting together for a little reunion - first time in three and a half years - & I didn't really need much of an excuse to head south & catch up with them all & also with mates from my time in Palmy. Not that there all that many left to visit any more - somewhat unsurprisingly. A great weekend hearing all sorts of old stories, eating too much great food (Spostato is always good) & even enjoying a bit of sun (the wind was still there of course & there seem to be more windmills every time I go back) - I never knew there was such a large rose garden at the Esplanade.
After that rather filled week & a half I managed to fit four days of work in (including two shifts) before a smaller trip - back to the Bay of Plenty for more riding (mainly). Armed with the latest edition (7th) of the NZ MTBr's bible - the Kennett Bros book - Luke, Neil & I set out on Saturday for the Tree Trunk Gorge ride. This turned out to be around the top of the Desert Road. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was pretty miserable and funnily enough the weather was pretty poor too. Overcast most of the way to Turangi & then it started raining. The drive down was hardly uneventful (it never is in the Galant - there is always some rattle to listen too & guess where it might be coming from); this particular trip made more exciting by Neil's bike not having been tied on to the bike rack too well. Without wheels (in the boot for various reasons), the bike was rather light & after passing a car (fortunately) along Broadlands I was wondering why they might be flashing their lights at me. As it turned out, Neil's trusty stead was slowly making its way to a drop of certain peril off the end of the bike rack. When we stopped, the barends were a lot shorter from bouncing along the road & it was dangling off the bike rack by only one side of the rear triangle - a close thing indeed.

We made it to the Pillars of Hercules with all bikes in tact (bar ends excluded). The ride started in the drizzle over the new swing bridge, which is so high you can't really see the Pillars, and then proceeded to climb (mostly gradually) for a good twenty minutes through really nice bush (its attraction also due to it sheltering properties). Coming in to a clearing we were all of a sudden sitting on the side of the windy part of the Desert Road & it sure was raining. Due to it being a weekend & miserable weather, there was only light traffic so as we proceeded to get soaked riding up the rest of the windy part we weren't knocked over by any stray cars or trucks. Reaching Tree Trunk Gorge it was downhill for six kilometres, which got us even more drenched, before reaching the start of the shared track.

The track itself was a nice gentle gradient down, not too technical & a lot of fun. It was generally pretty wide for the first descent & the track was covered in lots of small leaves. A chilly ford crossing later it was a pretty good climb up for five or ten minutes - which had all of us walking at various stages. The final piece of track back to the car was more technical & still very enjoyable. After loading up & getting out of our wet clothes it was off back to Rotorua & then Te Puke. Sunday was much less traveling for the ride - a trip over to Rotorua with Brendan & Richard - & a much easier ride - a cruise around A-Trail, Tickler, Bunny Jugs, Rollercoaster (surprisingly overgrown at the start - just shows how popular the shuttle is), Dragon's Tail & the Exit out. A bit of test match watching back at the Wilsons before on the road again home.

With working Christmas Eve & Christmas night shifts, Christmas this year has been a bit of a write off - but I did get a good Christmas dinner at Doug's parents' place (thanks), which meant I didn't need to eat again well in to last night's shift. The Peace has had a upgrade in the forks department - thanks to my first TradeMe purchase in ages - I no longer have to ride a fully rigid bike when I want to go for the one gear option.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Stupid things to do after night shifts...

Firstly, work for twelve hours through the night, go home, catch two or three hours of sleep & then get up & do the MTB leg of a multisport race in the midday heat. Or secondly, get home, watch the ABs beat Ireland with some mates until 8.30, once again catch two hours of sleep, get up, pack & go to Sydney. As my grandfather (whom I've just visited in Sydney) would say - happy days.

The local multisport event, Steelman Ironmaiden (www.steelmanironmaiden.co.nz) has been running for a few years now & I was talked in to doing the MTB leg (there were also a road ride, a kayak down the Waikato & a run through the countryside back in to Waiuku to finish) with a Melters B-Shift (either current or past) team. A slow ride on the road helping to fix other's punctures & a good kayak later & I was lucky enough to be starting in the latter half of the field for the MTB - good for the ego as I passed twenty-five others on the 33 km course. I was pleased with an hour and a half for the course, as with a lack of sleep I was hardly in peak condition (not that my body has any idea what peak condition is). It must be said however, that MTB was a bit of a misnomer for the course - I think I spent well over half of the time in the big chainring on the mostly gravel & sealed roads of the course. Never mind, it was an awful lot of fun & we were pleased to finish tenth of about twenty teams in our category.

A couple of day shifts, four days off at home with a bit of singlespeeding at Puni thrown in (with a massive dose of hayfever that managed to swell my right eye closed), two more night shifts & then it was off to NSW for five days. The reason for the trip was the final installment of the graduate course at work (always to catch up with other young graduates from around the business). Coincidentally, Mum was also in Sydney for two weeks staying with her family so it was great to catch up with all of Mum's immediate family. Also got to catch up with a couple of ex-NZSteel mates that are now working at Port Kembla - funnily enough, unbeknown to them, until we met up for a beer, was that they live within about a hundred metres of each other.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An early long weekend & a new bike.

Excited enough to be going back down to Rotorua for a three-day stay, it just got better when I became the relief supervisor at work (meaning I now cover the leave of the other supervisors), got off my regular shift & somehow landed an eight day weekend. Even better, I was able to spend each of those eight days riding!

Arriving Thursday a fortnight ago, I couldn't be bothered waiting for Luke to get home from work so set off for a short ride while he turned up. Much to my disbelief I got caught in a torrential downpour halfway around the Haro & started sliding all around the place. Since I was already pretty wet (soaked through really), there was only the option of carrying on & sliding & swimming my way down the Grinder (rather interesting when you can't see a lot) and around the Diamondback. I was somewhat pertubed to see that the gully in Diamondback has been smoothed out, never mind - more speed. Back at Luke's house, the sun was out again but I still had to wash off with the hose - when Luke finally arrived home, I inadvertently managed to buy a brand new GT Peace fully-rigid singlespeed (that he just happened to have lying around) off him. I am still not completely sure how that happened, but I finally have a singlespeed - even if I wasn't really look for one - & it is great.
So the week continued in a similar vein - a lot of riding. Taking the Peace out for its first ride, it wasn't raining so much, but I still got saturated from the mud & puddles. After that ride the rest of the week was perfect riding weather - not too hot, not windy, not raining & trails in great condition. Getting back to the Peace - my first ride on a singlespeed was around the Long Mile - A-Trail - Tickler - Rude & Exit loop. I survived & loved it. I think the shock of a lack of shocks was more to adjust to than just the one gear - it must be over five years since I have ridden a fully rigid bike off road (the ever trusty Hardrock that I got in third form). One gear is quite manageable & oh so quiet. Wasn't so game to take that dropoff in the Tickler - but that came a couple of days later; one small spill sideways on the Exit from getting stuck in a rut just before the overhanging tree. It is also so much easier to clean than a full suspension rig!

So without going in to too much more detail, the highlights of the rest of the week were riding at Craters of the Moon, Taupo, for the first time in a year - the new trails Mr & Mrs and Better Than P had me grinning & laughing all the way down; riding with Te Puke mates & managing to get the single speed up the steep road to Gunna Gotta; getting confused & crossing over between Corners & the jump track - first time on these trails; and riding all of the trails worth riding. Off the bike it was great to spend time at the lake with Terry & Bronny and catch up with Andrew & Kate - more great hospitality. Also, caught African Odyssey at the Basement Cinema - which I very much enjoyed (www.africanodyssey.co.nz) - the handycam diary of four guys in their twenties from Whakatane who decided it would be a good adventure to ride from Cape Town to London (straight up Africa to Cairo, across to Tunis, ferry to Italy) on their clapped out 250cc motorbikes.

After that great week, it was two day shifts at work (bit of a shock getting up at 0430 after a week of lying in!) & then two great rides down the Luck At Last track just out of Whangamata. The first was particularly good as it rained a lot beforehand and the track was pine-needled, muddy, sliding goodness. By Labour Day the track had dried out quite a bit and we must have been a bit jaded. Now just to wait for my new MacBook to turn up...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Finally...

On the way to work last night, the mighty Galant did this:

Not bad for a eighteen year old car that I bought for three thousand dollars, seven years ago.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Wires Rd hike-a-bike

I couldn't stay at home for a complete set of days-off two weeks in a row, so Monday I packed up the bike & a few other things & went out for my first ride around the Farm Loop at Hunua in three months. As expected, after all the rain in the recent months & general Hunua conditions (it's not a water catchment area for nothing) it was pretty slippy & bits of the track had changed slightly (not to mention an extension I hadn't done before). Due to general lack of riding & being by myself (although I was surprised to see three other groups of riders out there on a Monday afternoon) it was a pretty cruisy ride, but I loved getting back in to the slightly more technical single track - & the Challenge Downhill is always a bit of fun. As always, saw a few wild pheasants.

For a change from Hunua, I ducked out to SH2 (it's always nice to be on roads I've never been on before - even if they are close to home) & headed off to stay with Betsy & Paul (Aunt & Uncle) as they have recently moved close to Thames. Good to catch up & sit through another sitting of UK & Europe photos & see their new place. Leaving early enough for a day off, next stop was Maratoto (home of the Maratoto Challenge - which I think of as a mini-Karapoti) & the Wires Rd track - just north of Paeroa. It must be about three years since about six or seven of us did part of this track (back when I wasn't on shift & had a social life) from the Whangamata side. Short history is that the track goes over the ranges from Maratoto to Whangamata sort following the old telegraph wires that had to be put through during the Land War. Anyway, this time I was attacking it from the west side & it just happens that one of the guys on my shift at work lives close by so I dropped in for a visit. Interesting to see the earthen-walled house that Tim is building & the small wind & hydro turbines that he has installed around his 90 acres of bush & grazing block that has great views down the valley.

Somehow, Tim was persuaded to come on the ride up the Wires - it's always good to have a bit of local knowledge. It turned out just as well, as the ride that Tim had in mind for me was nothing like the one I had initially envisaged. Our ride started off in the cloud down the road for a while before we got to Wires Rd, with Tim filling me on recent local history & meeting a couple of locals along the way for a chat - & Tyler the dog trying to keep up. It wasn't long before we slowed significantly as we hit the up hill for two hours & Tyler was constantly waiting for us. Being maintained by a 4WD club the track was nice & wide & mostly-comfortably rideable in the middle chainring - although I did have one impressive fall trying to tackle a two-stage steep incline of smooth rock. I got up the first bit ok, ran out of momentum halfway up the second, realised disaster was creeping up on me & unclipped one foot & tried a dismount. After a few seconds of hopping around on one foot, but still on the saddle I was over backwards leaving an amused Tim to come around the corner to find me lying on my back!

Eventually we reached the ridge & it was the normal up & down with some nice rocky downhills to keep me interested & a few stream crossings.We eventually reached the Loop Track, which must have been what we did three years ago - but nothing really looked familiar. Anywho, Tim had other ideas - the Waipaheke Motorbike Track. This apparently used to be part of a much longer Maratoto Challenge, but was taken out because it was so hard (it was done in the reverse direction to the way were going), they couldn't get enough crazy people to do it. We found the track easily enough & there was some conjecture of which peaks we were actually going to go around - by now the sun was out nicely & we had some decent views occasionally. In the end that didn't really matter as we spent most of the next hour an a half looking at the track as we pushed our bike along. Since Tim had last been along here a few years ago, the region has had some massive deluges & the track was now severely rutted & overgrown. We battled on & the rest/food stops became a bit more frequent. Eventually we reached the saddle were rewarded with some good views of the ranges & all the way down to Whangamata.Unfortunately, the first half hour or so of the downhill the bikes were mostly pushed as it was very steep & very rocky. I did get some nice bits of riding in at times - big rocks strewn around the track always make things challenging & I tended to bounce around all over the track. My enthusiasm only landed on the ground once - who knows what really happened there? The size of the some of the slips that had carried the track away were quite impressive, even if it did mean more carrying. Eventually, & to my immense relief, the track became more & more rideable & as it had been previously used by motorbikes, a lot of the corners were very nicely bermed & great fun to ride. Plenty of stream crossing & then we were down following & crossing the river - it sure got a lot muddier here. Five hours after setting off, we were finally back facing the climb that is Tim's driveway - what a great ride/push/carry. Rush back home for dinner & now I'm slightly jaded after two pretty quiet night shifts & waiting for the Warriors game tonight.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Northland rain and Waikaremoana sun & snow.

After two long weeks back at work (it was straight in to three night shifts the day after arriving from London - jet lag? Didn't have a chance.), it was time for another holiday in the apparently miserably wet NZ winter (thankfully I missed most of that!). Adele & two of her friends (Anna & Ben) had flown up to Auckland that day & we managed to fit everyone & everything in the mighty (so to speak) Galant - including three large tramping packs & my bike (of course), you could easily tell that the rear shocks had not been replaced in the seven years I've had the car (probably never). Staying the night at Matakohe, we visited the Kauri museum in the morning - mostly for Adele's benefit as there is a bit of Dad's family's history in there, not to mention the restored house of our great-great-grandfather. A stop in Whangarei saw the rest of the car filled with wedding presents & we continued up to Coopers Beach, where Anna had rented us a house for the rest of the week.Settling in to watch the Olympics on the 14" television with awful reception, I tried to acquaint myself with Adele's macbook & mostly enjoyed it - but it still bugs me that there is no easy way to maximise windows (not that I could find anyway). As Thursday dawned reasonably fine, if a little breezy, we hightailed it in to Kaitaia, had a quick look around & met up with a lot of the people involved in the wedding (two of Adele's med school friends, also a former flatmate, getting married). Eventually our little procession of cars set off to Cape Reinga stopping a lot along the way - to look at flowers on the side of the road, wait for stragglers, change a flat tyre, stop at a service station & so on. Eventually we hit the twenty kilometres of gravel that is the top of SH1 only to find that it wasn't quite twenty kilometres - sealing of road has started at the top of the country & is working slowly down (apparently so that all the heavy vehicles don't ruin the recently laid tarseal while going to lay the next section). Obligatory photos at the top of the country in the wind & then off to the sand dunes to have a look - somewhere on that road is part of a rental Corolla's muffler & a fair chunk of the underbelly of the Galant as we managed to bottom out twice landing in rather large holes in the road. Somehow I found myself at the stag party for someone I didn't even know six hours previously - for such a low key event, it was surprisingly eventful. Mike got knocked out on Coopers Beach, the cops turned up & then finally (to add injury to insult or injury to injury) Mike went off to A&E with a rather large gash in his heel.Friday's weather was utterly miserable, but we were happy to stay inside & read, start a jigsaw, watch the Olympics & generally do sweet buggerall. I did manage to have a phone interview that day - but as I was outside in the car (stuffed cellphone battery) in the middle of a massive thunder storm, I was slightly distracted (not to mention firmly in holiday mode) & was a bit poor at answering questions. About the only thing I did know was what a pivot table was - geek that I am, I had made one that morning while I was still trying to work out the macbook. Saturday dawned a lot better & it was almost warm for the wedding (it definitely wasn't raining). Sunday, up early for the hike back to Newmarket where we spent much too much on tramping gear - pack, down jacket, gators, shoes, Camelbak... Dropping Ben at the airport, it was back home to Pukekohe for a night of rest & unpacking & repacking for Waikaremoana.

Monday held another big day of driving, via Hamilton to drop Anna at her parents, on to Rotorua to leave valuables at Andrew & Kate's (I don't rate the security of my car) & the mission that is the gravel road to Waikaremoana. Adele managed to drive most of that, so it was good to have a break; with the weather closing in, it started to sleet & then snow on us - much to Adele's surprise ("this is the North Island, it's not supposed to snow down here"). At the motor camp we decided to change the direction of our walk to start at the flat (ish) end as the forecast wasn't looking fantastic & so we would have a bit more company than just each other (a German couple - Anna & Thomas - were the only other people we saw for three days). A much better packing of our gear was called for & then it was off to bed with the snow falling outside - this was possibly the coldest night of the trip & we hadn't even started walking yet.

When we got up on Tuesday morning it wasn't much warmer & walking to breakfast the snow started falling again. Looking out of the dining room it was quite easy to see the snow settled on the trees not so far away. Well packed & our hut passes changed the four of us loaded our packs on to the water taxi for the ride across the lake to Whanganui hut (we had to start here as there was a impassable landslip blocking the track close to the end). Well rugged up on the back of the boat it wasn't too cold & the lake was so wonderfully flat I was dreaming of a waterski; however the cloud was still low & I would have taken a lot of persuading & a thick wetsuit to jump in.


Landing, the water taxi took off & left us to ourselves in the middle of nowhere. The sun even managed to come out long enough for me to drag my sunnies out of my pack - & then promptly disappeared. The first morning of the tramp was a mixture of ascending & descending - nothing too high or steep & a mixture of rain and then snow. At this stage we were still quite excited by the sight of snow at such a relatively low altitude in the North Island. Thankfully we didn't have to walk all the way around one of the peninsulas (not that the track even went that way - but it sure looked like quite a circuitous route) - there is a relatively recent kiwi sanctuary there. Being day time & all we didn't see a kiwi, but did manage to spy a rather impressive predator fence. For an early lunch we arrived at the brand spanking new Waiharuru Hut (it replaces one that was removed closer to the kiwi sanctuary). It is actually two pretty large buildings - one kitchen & dining, the other thirty odd bunks - a sign of just how popular the track is in the summer; a common remark during trip was how glad we all (all four of us) were to be walking such a beautiful track in the solitude brought on by winter - the place must be teeming in summer. Nice and close to the lake with great views of Panekeri Bluffs & some sunshine by now made for a great lunch stop. We reached our overnight hut (Marauiti) by 2 pm and proceeded to do nothing all afternoon - that's not quite true, I did nothing much, Adele tried to study. Dinner over & done with we gathered around the gas heater (luxury! - when I was a child we used to have to sleep in a lake) & attempted a game of Who Am I? - Twenty Questions. This proved a bit trickier than normal as ze Germans had little idea of NZ celebrities and we ignorant Kiwis had even less idea about famous Europeans (don't mention the war, I did once, but I think I got away with it). Sherlock Holmes proved to be the trickiest of the night & Obama the easiest - although we never quite got over Adele thinking his first name was Frank & the game ended slightly after that & it was off to bed at the late hour of 8 o'clock.
After easing in to the tramp with a nice five hour day first up, the plan was for the second day was slightly more ambitious. It was supposed to be eight hours to Panekerie Hut & we wanted to do an hour detour to a waterfall to have a look. Leaving earlyish (nothing compared to starting work at 5 am though) it was more of the walking close to the lake and going up, over & down the odd ridge. By this stage we were beginning to see just how ravaged the bush had been by recent high winds & high rain fall. Still we managed dry feet & enjoyed the brilliant sunshine that was to be with us for the rest of our walking. Lunch in the sun again at a campsite & it was off to the waterfall. Thankfully it was only about twenty-five minutes up the river to the falls - but there was one good crossing over the swollen river using big slippery boulders as stepping stone, aided by a cable strung across the river. We had to stand in the river a couple of times (still dry feet), but thankfully no embarrassing & chilly falls. Quick look at the small falls & it was back to pick our packs up again & carry on. Beginning to realise it could be quite late & dark by the time we finished, we blitzed the next section to the next hut (another really new one) and from then on it was pretty much (I've got one word for you, Kim) vertical. It wasn't too long before we had climbed long enough to be walking through small patches & then large patches of snow. Round a corner after three hours climbing we were pleasantly surprised to see the hut (we were expecting another hour) & it was packs off & time to admire the wonderful view of the lake & the setting sun. Off to the east the lights of mighty Wairoa started to flicker against the much mightier Pacific. A much quieter night after such a long day - the gas heater was a complete let down; Adele did manage to spend twenty minutes standing outside in the freezing cold balancing on a bench wishing Mum a happy birthday after she found her phone worked up there.
Sun was the order of the day again for our last day - unfortunately, we didn't feel quite as radiant - Adele sick & my knees aching strangely. Away early with more great views & walking along (more up & down really - the down playing havoc on my weak knees) the bluffs we could really admire the amazingly still lake. Not much more of note except beautiful lunch spot perched on a rock on the edge of the bluff & a slow descent - almost forgot, all the snow that was quite fun to walk through. Still we were nicely early for the water taxi & that gave us (more me really) heaps of time to read the displays about the hydro scheme flowing from the lake - strangely, the lake was lowered five metres (I'm not sure I've quite worked that out yet) - and the track - it was built in the '60s & '70s by high school students (it probably wouldn't happen like that nowadays). Back at the motor camp it was straight in to the car for the drive back to Rotorua & then Te Puke. The ninety kilometres of gravel sure made it easy to spot all the ice on the road (c.f. tarmac) - this was despite all the sun; at least icy gravel is not too slippery.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sun, ships & seaside

From Taunton I returned to pick up Mum & we were off to Portsmouth on a hot (for England) day. A brief stop at Salisbury for lunch (outside yet another cathedral) & we eventually made it to our hotel in Portsmouth. After settling in it was off down to the historic dockyards for a quick look - managed most of the Mary Rose museum. Quite amazing some of the stuff that was preserved for so long down there - all sorts of things: weapons, doctor's supplies, shoes, kitchen equipment & so on. Saw Portsmouth Cathedral (another one), a Nelson monument (another one) before trying to drive around & find somewhere to have dinner. Not without some difficulty finally found a nice Turkish restaurant - concluded apart from the Historic Dockyards, there isn't really much to Portsmouth.
Back to the dockyard the next morning with a great look around the Victory (still can't imagine the chaos it must have been fighting on those ships) , saw the remains of the Mary Rose with the waxy solution being sprayed all over it - when this has penetrated all the way in to the wood they will start drying it out properly (over twenty years since it was raised). Because there was a Royal Navy "Meet Your Navy" few days starting the day after we were there, the hour long cruise around the harbour was very interesting with many naval ships in - highlights were two aircraft carriers, three Japanese frigates & some other mammoth-sized ships (slightly bigger than a mammoth then) that I don't really remember exact descriptions for.
Out of Portsmouth before rush hour (if they have one) & on towards Mum's second (I think) cousins who live in a small village south of Southampton. Another warm welcome - was interesting to see an armchair-bed, I have seen plenty of sofa-beds before, but never a single armchair-bed - still it was comfortable. A brief look around the original Christchurch on Friday morning & then the half hour Lymington-Yarmouth to visit my previous Pukekohe flatmates, Ben & Gina, on the Isle of Wight.

The double-decker bus ride to Newport (where Ben & Gina live) was great, as I was at the front up the top & as we careened down these narrow back country walled lanes we hit a great number of overhanging trees. Dragged my small amount of gear (pleasant to be travelling without a bike some of the time) to the top of Ben & Gina's shared house. As Gina works with maps at the Isle of Wight council she had considerately pinned a map of all the pubs on the island on the wall - we crossed three of the 150-odd off during the day I was there. Also got the big island tour (still can't believe there was a chairlift down to the beach), saw The Needles, lots of pleasure boats (c.f. with most of England), watched a few cruise ships go out at high tide, visited Carisbrooke Castle (at least I will remember it this time - I still have the pencil case from 21 years ago) & generally enjoyed the warm weather. Up much too early to get back to Hordle & pick Mum up for the dash up to Kent for a family reunion of sorts. There I got to meet all Mum's cousins on her father's side - I don't think they had been all together for quite some years. Of course, I didn't remember any of the ones I had met before. That was pretty neat, if a little strange - getting to know all these people that are quite close, but not (no we are not Irish).

Unfortunately, the follow day was my last in the UK. Mum & her cousin Trish headed off to the Imperial War Museum to do some genealogy research in to both of Mum's grandfathers in WWI, while I gave my bike & shoes a thorough cleaning for the inevitable MAF fine tooth comb inspection back home & was entertained with stories of spying in Egypt for the British after WWII by Fred. Managed to get back to Heathrow on the M25 in about an hour - which I thought was ok from Sidcup & Junction 3, the Passat was gone & I embarked on the long trip home & back to work. To borrow from Captain Darling - simply says, "Bugger".

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The longest ride for a while, for me.

The ride John & Richard took me on may have been the biggest that I had been on since N-Duro 1 almost two months ago - but it was nothing compared to what John (crazy guy that he is) completed a few days later. That is, 300 km+ solo during a 24 hour event - and to top it off on a singlespeed. It makes me tired just thinking about it - or perhaps that is just recovering from the first shift set starting the day after I got back. Either way, I can't quite face sorting over a thousand photos from the last six weeks in to some sort of highlight package that some one may be able to view some day with out getting completely bored. I'd much rather think about great rides in far off (& warmer) places...

Arriving in Taunton, it was pleasing to see Anna home & not off at work (almost everytime I visited in Mt Maunganui I was left wondering if John actually did have a wife or was just making it up - as Anna always seemed to be at work). Although that didn't last for long as Anna was soon off for her week of night shifts at the hospital - John & I took off for the a look around the Quantrocks (some hills close by). After following a car with a very flat tyre up the steep road, we discovered our first mistake as three mountain bikers tore past us down a hill - there was still plenty of light at 8.30 & we should have brought our bikes. Instead we wandered around looking across to Wales, finding previously ridden singletrack & John remarking how much faster it was on a bike - oh well, there was always tomorrow. We had to get back home to meet Richard (who I met last year when he came out to visit John in NZ) who was driving down from near Oxford for tomorrow's ride. There we discovered our second mistake, we didn't have house keys - off John went to the hospital while Richard & I unloaded & put our bikes together on the side of the street. To set the mountain-biking tone we watched The Collective's Seasons - great. I think I like mountain biking movies more when there is a small chance I could see myself riding the same trails without certain death being involved somewhere. Obviously, my life is just not all about big air.

A reasonably undisturbed sleep (except waking up at about 5.00 thinking I was at the beach thanks to the loud but geographically challenged seagulls - we were no where near the beach) & another cooked breakfast later, we were off to Minehead & Exmoor National Park. A little bit of road riding through the seaside town took us the quaint little village of Dunster; from there we were on to bridleways (quite steep climb to start with) and then riding along the top of a ridge. As John & Richard pointed out where we were going, I couldn't help thinking that it was an awful long way off & much further than I had ridden for a while. Just as well that the weather was a lot better than what they described last time - consequently, the icebreaker came off fairly early & the jacket stayed firmly (metaphorically speaking, that it could work its way out is never far from my mind) on the Camelbak. It sure is fun riding in different places - contrasting with my normal NZ riding, I could see a lot further, it was generally rockier & more attention was paid to wear the front wheel was going between those rocks.After a bit of ridge riding, it was down to the small village of Wootton Courtenay via a nice long chute that was filled with rocks & at these nice big corners that were naturally bermed. The rocks reminded me a bit of the 6 km downhill I went down in Pokhara, Nepal - only this time I was hoping that I wasn't going to go over the bars & split my chin open near the bottom. While I managed to avoid the endover, I did puncture a hundred metres from the end (it's always strangely satisfying to have a mechanical problem at the end of a sweet bit of track, as opposed to the start). This was a good spot for lunch & the necessary tube replacement.

Crossing through the village it was back to the bridleway, up on top of another ridge, along the ridge & we got to a point where the guys weren't sure which was the best way down. Thankfully, they chose a sweet descent & all smiles, we arrived at the turnaround point - Porlock (although the return was slightly more direct). It was off down some sealed lanes for a while to Bossington Green (nice steep climb here). On the way we had a photo stop as it looked English.After John made us ride through that stream for the photos, I had great delight in riding up behind much too fast & soaking him - of course, I had rather wet socks too, but it was worth it. Especially considering how far behind I was up the next hill. Just as well riding back along the moors towards Minehead there was one nice long fast downhill. And that was about the ride. Back to Taunton, where Andy (who I also met & rode with when he was out visiting & touring NZ last year) turned up for dinner (well cooked by John) & we settled down to watch Seasons again - I think I enjoyed it more that time, possibly because I'd just been out for a great ride.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Much water in the Lake District

From Campbeltown it was off to the Lake District in the north of England. Instead of the road up Argyll, east & then down to Glasgow we opted for a little less driving & two short ferry hops across to just west of Glasgow. From there it was A-roads down until we turned off in to the Lake District. Unbeknown to us, the last part of the journey took us on some ridiculously narrow roads & then what turned out to be the steepest road in England - a mountain (in some sense of the word). Lucky for me, I had my done my driving in the morning & I sat at the back and enjoyed the view as the clouds got closer & closer. Completing the first pass (Wrynose) , we saw an impossibly windy & skinny road snaking up a 30% incline in to the clouds & immediately dismissed this as not the way we were meant to go. Of course the roads signs had other ideas & it was up & around & down many corners where the road in front simply disappeared from view as it was so steep (this was Hardknot pass). Eventually we made it & were off for dinner down the road to the Woolpack Inn - perhaps the worst meal we had our whole trip. Being a hostel dormitory that I ended up staying in, naturally there were at least two snorers, grrrr.
Of course the cloud hadn't lifted by the next morning, but being encouraged by all the mountain bike I had seen on the drive in yesterday I hauled the much travelled & little riden GT out of the boot, put it together & set off for a ride in the rain down a riverside bridal path towards the coast. As the weather was utterly miserable, I was pretty sure that I would be the only insane one out & about down this path. Crossing stone bridges, opening & closing countless gates (I think I perfected the MTB magazine technique there, John) I would see that that was not the case as I came across all number of people kitted out for the rain strolling/rambling/hiking/tramping along. The weather improved slightly as I got down to the coast (with one very big hill to climb along the way - quite a shock after the last few weeks). A spot of lunch at the small Ravenglass station (where my burger actually had salad inside it, not sitting on the plate beside burger consisting of nothing but bread & meat) & I caught one of the few narrow gauge railways left in Britain back to near where I started.It was half way back up the pass (the not-so-steep part) that we returned to look at the remains of one of Hadrian's forts. The sheep seemed to like grazing around the area & dodging their presents & the myriad streams running down the grass we could get a good look at the remains. Why anyone would have built a fort all the way up here close on two thousand years ago eludes me...

The following day we took the easier coastal route to Arnside where we stayed for Dad's final night in the UK. From Arnside we drove down, dropped Dad off at the coach stop in Birmingham (coach to Heathrow) & continued on to visit second cousins of Mum, drop Mum off at another second cousin's place & then made my way to Taunton to stay with English friends that I had met randomly mountain-biking in Rotorua about a year ago. That was some three hundred miles & unfortunately we lost the second driver when Dad left us.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A great-great-great-great-great time in Campbeltown

The next two nights was to be the start of intermittent visiting of relatives - in this case quite distant. The drive down from Oban was punctuated by a short stop at a preserved Scottish village from a time when the land farmed was communal. A split second decision saw us turn off the A83 to Campbeltown (our destination that day) for the B842 down the east side of the peninsula - it was more of the typical single track roads that we were used to: sealed, tight, twisty, bordered by large stone walls & only room to pass at the occasional passing bay. A great look at the countryside and a view across the water, through the cloud to the Isle of Arran. Campbeltown, for some reason or another, was once the home of almost thirty distilleries in its heyday - now there are only two; this seemed quite odd as it was pretty isolated.

We were set to meet two brothers who I think were Dad's third cousins. Anyway, when we found their house, met them & managed to decipher about three-quarters of what they were saying (wonderfully thick Scottish accents punctuated with a lot of 'ayes') we found we shared a common great-great-great-great grandfather (I think - it got all very confusing with multiple family trees coming out & a lot of people helpfully having the same name). From what I remember, with a family of ten children there was not enough work on the family farm or employment close by to support them all. So some time in the 1800s five of the sons up & left to Australia & then pretty soon after to NZ. Of the five left in Scotland, the family name (Wallace) has only carried on down one line - this is obviously the line that we were meeting. I'm not sure how many related Wallaces are left in NZ (this is my paternal grandmother's side of the family), but there are some.

James & William had only just sold the family farm last year & retired as there was no one else in the family to take it over. But we still got the big tour around the farms (a change from Dad's tour of dairy farms around Oamaru & the district (spied some of Sir Paul McCartney's farms - we were very close to Mull of Kintyre); the land was a lot more fertile & developed in this part of the country than most we had already seen in Scotland. It was great to see the land that some of my ancestors left all those years ago & also my great-great-great-great-great grandfather's headstone. And the sun even came out briefly & every one was very excited & telling us what a nice day it was!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ode to a Passat

Well back home now after the nice thirty-odd hour trip from Sidcup to Pukekohe. Unfortunately, I had to return the trusty Passat to Hertz before I left. Considering I was expecting to pick up a Mondeo three weeks ago, it was pleasing to see the Passat sitting in the lot waiting for me (although my only other experience of one was my Uncle's '70s estate version that he had for years). For a 1.9L sedan I was somewhat astounded to see that the boot positively swallowed Mum & Dad's two large suitcases, my grab, backpack, Dad's wheeled cabin bag, a full-suspension mountain bike & all sorts of other bike paraphernalia. What's more, this was the Bluemotion edition - apparently VW's most eco-friendly & economical diesels. With a claimed combined consumption of 46 mpg (5.1 L / 100 km) it was always going to be easy on the fuel (my Galant runs at about 29 mpg & I think that is pretty good for an aging two litre sedan); but after more than 2000 miles of British motorways, congested cities, high mountain passes, skinny one way roads it came back with a staggering combined consumption of 57 mpg (4.1 L / 100 km)! Which was just as well as it cost about $200 to fill up. I sure will miss the cruise control - now to go outside & see if the trusty Galant will start after six weeks of sitting on the lawn & get itself to 300000 km.
(Back to work tonight, but should find some time somewhere to update last two weeks travels).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Iona, Staffa & puffins.

By now I was glad that amongst the suit, bike, summer clothes & bike clothes I had found some room for the trusty icebreakers - they were in full use now in the middle of the Scottish summer. Dad finally decided it was time to buy a jacket during our first afternoon in Oban - just as well there was a well stocked outdoor shop (these seem to pop up in the strangest little towns in Britain). Another cosy room in a pleasant guesthouse on the waterfront & it was up early for a day of ferries & bus rides. We were off to visit Iona & Staffa - as Mum & Dad had set this up I had little idea what was planned - but it was nice not to be driving for a change.

First it was a ferry ride over to Mull (an island off the west coast - not to be confused with Mull of Kintyre, as some have done), a forty minute bus ride to the south west corner of Mull & then we boarded a much smaller boat (saw some bottlenose dolphins jumping around the boat) to Staffa - an small uninhabited island north of Iona. We had an hour there to explore parts of the island. Much of it is basalt & the rocks near where we handed were huge basalt columns - some of which were so long, thin, regular in shape & close together they looked like giant pieces of hexagonal spaghetti that had been forced through one of those spaghetti makers (I'm reminded of the old Play-doh ad - "making spaghetti"). The other highlight of the island was seeing the crazy little puffins flying off from the cliffs to go fishing then returning to their nests - they are so small & quick.

Off to Iona in time for lunch, the Atlantic swell had increased somewhat to make a more interesting ride - at least all the French who got suitably soaked thought so (Dad & I managed to find the correct side of the deck, more by chance than anything & Mum retreated inside, where it was bumpier). Got a good look around the abbey at Iona - much more austere than any of the previous religious buildings I had seen in the preceding weeks. Back on more ferries & boats - where we promptly fell asleep - probably just preparing ourselves for the great dinner that night at some random restaurant that foiled us in our previous bid to eat there - being closed doesn't usually help matters.

A decent ride, finally.

Have finally found some decent internet time to update this not very exhaustive account. As it was nearly two weeks since the last happenings were posted I'll try my best to remember some of the many things we have been up to. Our full day in Edinburgh was much better weather wise & there was even some hope that we wouldn't get wet on our ride.

Dad & I started off our day (Mum was off doing family history stuff) walking up to the top of Calton Hill & checking out the view - could just make out the bridges over the Firth. Then a bit of an explore around New Town - found a very shut Oxford bar (Rebus ties), it was Sunday morning after all. After our walking tiki tour found us at the bottom of the castle (even if we were on the wrong side to enter), we figured there was just enough time to squeeze in a rush tour before lunch. I remember quite enjoying Edinburgh Castle for the view & some of the history (unfortunately after two weeks it's joined the historic-building-haze in my mind). Big rush back to the hostel to change for MTBing & meet Jamie (a uni friend).

Managed to meet up ok, but the first problem was the bike Jamie had borrowed off his wife, Rachel, had not met quick-release & neither of us had the cumbersome tools required to remove the wheels. Nevermind, eventually by turning the handlebars on the stem the trusty Passat saloon (which deserves a posting of its own) swallowed the bike whole & mine fitted on top it & the boot even closed. The drive south to Peebles was uneventful, except for my introduction to Tescos for a lunch on the run - actually, that doesn't really qualify as an event. By now the sun was even out & shining. (I should have savoured that moment for much longer.)

Arriving at Glentress, it was a record time for assembling my bike from its travel bag & we were off in to the forest. A better description would be off up in to the forest - as we pretty much rode up hill for an hour (I hadn't done any exercise of the sort since the first N-Duro in Rotorua some four weeks ago - at least it felt like it). It must be said that the climb was punctuated by a neat little downhill skills section where I perfected my backflip (have watched too much of the Collective's Seasons this week) and also a nice little bit of singletrack. Having made it to the top (Jamie having told me on the way up he used to race nationals) it was time to rip in to some strangely varied singletrack. The first big difference to my normal riding was due to the Scottish rainfall - all the tracks were hard packed gravel so that they are still rideable after big rain. This made for a lot more tyre noise than I was used to. There were some sweet berms & lots of decent sized rocks placed in nice places in the track to keep me on my toes. I was just glad that I didn't have the pogo-forks that Jamie had... A great ride, thanks to the guide.

Back in to the city to meet up with Rachel & Nicola (yet another uni mate over here working) for dinner. They had been up north half way to Aberdeen meeting Dan (you guessed it - uni) & got stuck half way back when the train developed some fault. Never mind, it was great to catch up eventually, get some tips for what to see & have a good meal - haggis wasn't even too bad.

The next morning before leaving, I dragged Mum & Dad up Arthur's Seat for the view (mind you, we could see most of the cloud from sea level) - well worth it. Then off to Oban for two nights; we managed to drive past T in the Park without too many traffic worries - although I was disappointed to learn I had missed R.E.M playing there during the weekend. Once over the Firth, the weather closed in nicely & we would get used to the sight of low cloud.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Yorkshire Dales

Up early again on Wednesday for the drive up to Gainsborough to meet Mum & Dad staying at Mum's cousin's place.  Managed the 200-odd miles by nine o'clock & was pleasantly surprised to see Mum's elderly Uncle & Aunt had made the trip up to see up (I haven't seen them since I was four).  Great to catch up with every one & get out of the city.  After lunch it was off to York (270 doesn't sound far to drive when you are used to kilometres, but miles is a different story) for a look around the Jorvik Viking museum - it was under ground on the site where they had a big archaeological dig in the '80s & found all sorts of Viking artefacts from over 1200 years ago.  Quite interesting (Mum of course found it very interesting).  York was really nice - especially with its large pedestrian precinct & cobbled streets & lovely old buildings (I'm not quite over old buildings yet - which is just as well as we are in Edinburgh now). 
 
Driving north we found Thirsk (James Herriot country in North Yorkshire) & Mardeby Hall down a nice winding lane to Felixkirk (there are some great English place names).  We were staying with some farming contacts/investors of Dad's on their farm.  The farmhouse was probably young at 400 years old & had a heap of character & interesting curios - also so good NZ scenes on the wall thanks to their yearly trips to NZ. Best of all I could even understand the Yorkshire accents.  A tour around the (cropping) farm revealed all sorts wheat, potatoes, rapeseed & most disturbingly a lot of pheasants that had been released for the next hunting season.
 
By now weather was quite the contrast to Italy - close cloud if not raining & only in the mid teens; this made our time back in York a bit of a mad dash between the minster, the Castle Museum the very large National Railway Museum & the buses.  Dad even managed a round of golf (& didn't lose) before we had a dinner party back at the house - altogether a bit unusual for me, but very enjoyable & I was quite impressed when one of the couples turned up in a new soft-top Bentley Continental.  I managed a drive up through Suttonunderwhitestonecliff (apparently longest village name in England) to have a look at the moors - unfortunately ran out of time to get right out amongst them & the weather wasn't good enough to persuade me to put my bike together & check out some of the local MTB tracks (of which there appear to be plenty).
 
Have driven north to Edinburgh & after reading so many Rebus novels, I'm loving it - I can see why people would live here, except it's the middle of summer & I think there will be better weather at home when I get back to winter.  Should manage a ride tomorrow at a big MTB park a bit south of the city.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Out of Italy...

Train strike worked out ok & I made it back to Empoli. Up early for another train to Florence & to airport for flight to airport. Strangely a couple of flights were delayed due to bad weather in Florence - I couldn't work this out as the sun was shining (admittedly it was only low-twenties, but that is hardly bad weather) & no wind to speak of. Thankfully my flight was ok, but late leaving - giving me only a 25 minute transfer in Munich. Ze Germans managed to get me on the plane in time - unfortunately my bike got left behind. After a 2 hour wait at Heathrow for the next Munich flight with my bike on it, it was time battle rush hour traffic back to Andrew & Shelley's - great to be somewhere familiar after a couple of roundabout misadventures. At this point I had better mention (as possibly the only person to read this so far - Andrew - was not so pleased to not be mentioned in such an illustrious publication) the fantastic hospitality from the Patricks that I had for my week in London - great place to stay, very helpful travel & sightseeing advice & just great to stay with friends - even young Vittoria (6 or 7 months) didn't always cry in my presence (incidentally, the Italians seem to know of this charming youngun - her name is plastered all around the place). Considering it was 7 pm this time, I've saved the 4 hour drive north to meet Mum & Dad until tomorrow night.

From the Italy files - don't ever buy a Lancia, they have the consistently ugliest cars right across their range & if you want to present the weather on breakfast television, it seems you have to be a very high ranking air force general in full dress uniform. Friends dubbed in to Italian actually leaves Ross sounding a lot cooler than normal & Pheobe like a large Italian grandmother. Also, The Full Monty in Italian is still quite strange.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Tuscan touring

Wednesday was much quieter with another big sleep in, followed by a short drive to markets at Certaldo. I finally found some jandals for a steal (€4) & my feet could breath again. For a change, we didn't get lost on the scenic route home. Dinner at the trattoria across the road & no great gelatos this day.

Thursday was a bit more adventurous - a drive out west to the Mediterranean & then south with the idea of getting a ferry to Elba (where Napoleon was exiled for a while before he returned for the so-called one hundred days). Unfortunately an unplanned detour, the ferry schedule & the hour long trip meant we flagged the idea of crossing to the island & just poked around various towns. Mum was pleased to find Etruscan ruins & artefacts - the little castle (compared to some - I still wouldn't have been able to conquer it with my Swiss Army card). Cocktail party back at the estate - this was to be the welcome party earlier in the week, but the wedding was then.

Siena was the plan for Friday - lunching with my Uncle & Aunty. I must have eaten some thing not too agreeable the night before as stomach cramps lessened my enjoyment of the day all round. Still, Siena was beautiful & the cathedral quite spectacular. Spent quite a while trying to find where we were to meet for lunch (this seems to be a common theme) & eventually settled on the edge of the Piazza del Campo. We were glad to have missed the crowds of people two days previous - it was one of the twice-annual runnings of Il Palio. Il Palio is a centuries old horse race around the piazza (square) between representatives of the different neighbourhoods & it is very popular. Considering it was well over 30 °C much of the week & the crowd of 50,000+ is locked in the middle of the piazza for the four hours before the race - I didn't really miss the three lap, one minute race.

Farewells for all over Friday night & Saturday morning. We drove north about half an hour to Empoli - a much less touristy town that is on the railway route between Pisa & Florence. After we eventually found the hotel, it was off in to Florence to have a look around. After the previous weeks in the heart of Tuscany, I wasn't particularly impressed by Florence (Philistines - I know) & its crowds of people & lots of artwork (although I did keep saying ''stat you bro?'' every so often). Our general apathy for Florence & Mum's tiredness led to a day off around Empoli on Sunday - Dad & I did manage to venture to Vinci (not to difficult to guess who the most famous son of the town is - there were an awful lot of models of various mechanical devices).

Today en route to dropping Mum & Dad at Pisa airport & dropping the rental off, we made a rather circuitous route to seeing the tower - which is a rather remarkable stuff up. People/tourist watching there was quite fun - I think I have more photos of people standing waving their arms around in the air for others' cameras than I do of the tower. The excitement (although I quickly grew bored of it) of today is trying to get back to Empoli tonight - for some unexplained reason, all the workers on the regional trains & buses have been on strike since last night & that is due to finish at 2100 tonight - it could be a late trip back. Tomorrow (regional transport dependent) I'm back to Heathrow to pick up another rental & then drive north to meet Mum & Dad again for our tour of bits of Britain visiting various friends & family.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Tuscan sun...

I arrived in Florence a week ago to a somewhat sweltering 38 degrees Celsius (a slight change from London) - to find that Mum & Dad were not there to meet me. The highlight of the transfer at Frankfurt was the long bus ride from the terminal to our plane - beside a taxiing A340, which we almost stacked in to which the bus driver somehow didn't quite see (!) when it turned right in front of us. My baggage receipt performance improved to being the first bag out on the carousel (that's two seconds & a first from my last three flights). Eventually they turned up & we much more successfully navigated our way to Il Castagno (not that I had anything to do with that). My cousin (who I have not seen in over ten years) came out to meet us & we ensconced ourselves in our apartment (Il Forno - named after the rather large clay oven in the corner of the apartment). After sorting ourselves out (Mum & Dad had come from an equally hot Beijing) it was off to catch up with Dad's brother & his family and meet the fifty odd wedding party & guests that had come from all over the world for the week of sun, celebrations, sightseeing, eating & drinking. The views from the estate were quite what I expected of Tuscany (hills, olives, grapevines, big old houses), except there was a lot of forest/bush & a strange haze off in the distance that we never really identified.Monday dawned another scorching day & we had plenty of time to sleep in, learn to drive on the right, drive in to Montignoso, find supplies before siesta time & have a nice relaxed lunch before the wedding. Mercifully the weather cooled enough for the 5 pm service that a suit was bearable (just). The service on the lawn next to the main house was very nice indeed & the nine course meal stretched well in to the night - but of course not as far as the celebrations (being the party animal that I am, I was tucked up by the relatively modest hour of 2 am - although tucked up is a pretty poor description given the heat).

After a big sleep in (although not compared to some), it was off to explore San Gimignano & some of its towers. Parking outside the ancient walls gave ample opportunity for exploring the tight, narrow & steep streets as we meandered our way towards the centre of town. The seventeen or so remaining towers from centuries ago provide much of the tourist attraction to the town - the view from the tallest one showed much more of the countryside & an interesting take on the narrow streets. After wandering round some more it was time for our first Italian gelato. These were from what has been judged the world's best gelateria for most of the last ten years & they were divine - I managed to stuff up ordering three seperate gelatos so mine came out with three different flavours; the only problem with such gelatos first up, was that ever since then each gelato has been somewhat disappointing.For dinner that night, we managed to escape the trattoria across the rode from the estate & hightailed it (a rather enthusiatic embellishment of my at-this-stage-tentative driving on the narrow, winding & steep Tuscan roads) to Volterra. In the calm & coolness of the early evening, it was great to wander the much less crowded (than San Gimignano) & have a very relaxed meal on the edge of the main Piazza & check out the castle & watch people go by. Also caught a look at a ruined Roman ampitheatre before the drive home.

TBC.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Days of London sights

The last & next three days have & will be spent seeing a few of the many sights that London has to offer (with the help of my trusty London Pass saving me many, many pounds - londonpass.com). I'm not sure when the holiday part starts - after the busy weekend in Basel, it hasn't really let up with many hours spent walking, reading placards, sitting/standing on the tube - still it beats shift work.

With walking around London being stangely familiar & a case of happening on landmarks, it's been quite enjoyable. Highlights from the last three days have been Windsor, especially St George's Chapel & the State apartments with all the portraits; Eton (seeing students' names carved in the stone from five hundred years ago is a little strange when your own country isn't anywhere near that old); Tower Bridge & the old steam mechanisms that raised the deck; and HMS Belfast - one of the only surviving big gun ships from WWII.

Hampton Court Palace, Kew Gardens, St Paul's, Greenwich, Imperial War & many other museums to sneak a look at.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Masses of Orange

After a day of looking around Harrow & Pinner & generally not doing too much it was off to Switzerland with a uni. friend, Josh. Some months ago we had chosen Basel at random for a weekend in Europe. It turned out that Euro 2008 was in town & it was quarter-finals weekend - consequently the city was pretty much alive & teeming with football fans.

Having negotiated Terminal 5 & Josh doing a great impression of someone losing his boarding pass at the counter, we arrived in what turned out to be three countries at once. The Euro airport services respective French, German & Swiss cities - once landing you can choose which country you want to go to. In Basel itself (pronounced Bar-zil), we were eager to have a look around so after wandering through the crowds, over the Rhine, up the cobbled streets & down again it was back to the hostel for a horrible two hours of sleep.

Saturday dawned wonderfully sunny & the bike was quickly assembled & we headed off down to the station for a train ride in to Germany for a spot of riding in the Black Forest. Somehow we managed to make it through the station - as the Netherlands were due to play their Euro quarter that night against Russia, every train coming in to the (large) station disgorged hundred of orange clad fans.
After a missed connection, a high speed train & then a small diesel up in to Stauffen - we were out in the baking sun trying to find somewhere for Josh to hire a mountain-bike. This proved rather frustrating, & in the end, unfruitful - never mind, we had a good look around the small time & rode/ran up a hill above the town to a ruined castle affording great views over the surrounding plains.

Back in Basel after, this time, successfully changing trains it was in to town to join the 150-200,000 odd Dutch fans that had invaded the city (there may have been a few thousand Russians around too). All the orange shirts were a bit hard on the eyes...
Eventually we found a pub that had big screens on the outside, so we could stand with the masses & soak up the game & the atmosphere. It was a great game to watch, with the Dutch drawing level in the last few minutes of regulation time & then two Russian goals in extra time to take them in to the semis. We wandered our way back to the hostel listening to cheers of "Rush-e-a!".

A big sleep after yesterday's big day in the heat & we were well prepared for our epic ride to France, then on to Germany & finally back to Switzerland - ok maybe not so epic, maybe only twenty to thirty kilometres in total. But it was hot - well in to the thirties, a nice change to the weather left behind at home. Managed to find a bike for Josh to hire underneath the main station - & also happened across the largest collection of bicycles I have ever seen. It was a full-on bike park where you had to get a ticket out of the machine before the gates would open automatically for you to push your bike in - fantastic.

We managed our ride quite easily & border crossings were a cmplete disappointment - no machine gun fire, flashing lights or even a stamp in the passport. Back to London & frustration with Terminal 5 - you would think they would sign post it from the major roads & the pick-up points, but that seems to escaped someone's attention.