Postcard from the Edge of a Lei

It all depends on how you ask the question. When asked if you want to travel 24 hours in a pleb-class set to spend a week on an active volcano near a former leper colony and watch some geriatrics prance on stage you would probably have second thoughts. However, if the question was posed as: “how about an all-in week in luxury hotel in Hawaii with a Neil Diamond concert”, most people would jump at the chance. I jumped.

OK, the journey was long, but the prospect of Maui was just too tempting to pass, so I stole myself for the long trip and headed off to the airport, where I met up with my baby brother (well, he is whole 15 minutes younger than I am) who was also along for the ride.

Arriving at Kahului, I really wanted a flower lei, (the necklaces, seen in films, that everybody seems to get the moment they step foot on the islands) –  but I was told these are for women – men get a lei of shells or nuts (sure there is some symbolism there). I put my foot down though and to accompanying titters and smiles, got what I wanted. It was lovely – although it did clash with my outfit.

Maui is an incredibly diverse island. It is basically land formed around 2 volcanoes, the smaller older Kahalawai and the still active (last erupted in 1790) Haleakala, which rises to more than 3,000 meters  above sea level. Haleakala actually is one of the world’s highest mountains, it is over  5 miles (8.0 km) from base to summit, but its base actually rests on the sea floor.

Our first activity was to explore Haleakala, which necessitated getting up at 2:00 am to drive to the top and watch the “spectacular” sunrise. The sun rise was a little disappointing; the promised “amazing colours” were blocked by clouds, which bought in an icy wind literally freezing the water droplets on your coat. I was wearing 5 layers and was still shivering like crazy. So we jumped on our bikes and, avoiding the ice, cycled down to sea level (well more like coast down actually). lt warmed up on the enjoyable bike ride, which finished at a memorial to the leper colony – a lovely ending.
Sunrise and Island Overview

These volcanoes have a big effect on the local climate, which means there is a huge diversity in topography on the island – lush, rich rain forests on the north side, temperate to the east and dry to the south. Our resort was in the “just perfect” weather area,  warm seas and blue skies but we wanted to see the rest of the island, so our next trip was a circumnavigation of the volcano.

This is not so easy as, technically, there is no proper road to do this. The hippy colonies on the east coast want to prevent a real road being built as it will open up the area to tourists and resorts. Unperturbed, and with another early start (6:00 am), we set off to explore this area.  It was fascinating to see how the flora and fauna changes in just a few short miles. Soon we were in deep rain forest and I know now why they call it RAIN forest. Our goal was to hike to a waterfall for a quick dip, but the swollen rivers hindered our arrival and we had to turn back, but certainly not disappointed as we admired the towering bamboo and banyan trees, and certainly not dry.

Another highlight Maui has to offer are the aquatic animals. From our hotel balcony we could see whales frolicking off-shore, so this naturally had to be explored.  We were told to wait at our hotels reception for the bus. After about 20 minutes, the bus arrived and drove us to the back of our hotel, (which was closer to our room than reception), where our ship was backing on to the hotel’s beach to pick us up.

We started off snorkelling off at Molokini, a crescent-shaped, partially submerged volcanic crater which forms a small inland just off the coast. The clarity of the water and the diversity of the fish was simply astounding – I was gob smacked and was the last one back in the boat. From there we went turtle watching. This is simple as the entire area is used as a turtle swim through shell-wash. The turtles turn up, take a breath and plonk themselves on the sea-bed, where an army of fishes go to work scraping accumulated debris off the shell. Again, I was the last one in the boat as turtle I was shadowing decided to take a breath just as I was leaving. Thanks to an excellent underwater camera I managed to get this footage:

The rest of the time was spent relaxing, eating, hanging out on the beach and snorkelling. The 70 year old Neil Diamond was actually very good in concert, although he did leave out my favourite “Song, song, blue” (perhaps he is going senile).

At the end of the week it was time for LONG trip back to Germany. I spent a day in Honolulu, which did not exactly enthral – a big city with just too many traffic lights and one-way streets to be pleasant. There were a couple of highlights – hiking up Diamond Head, a left over volcanic crater, which afforded spectacular view of Waikiki beach; Waikiki beach itself; Pearl Harbour and the excellent exhibition there which allows you to relived the December 7th 1941 attack – but I was glad to be on my way and in just a short 27 hours later arrived back at home, and start dreaming of the next trip..

Waikiki beach and Diamond Head

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Postcard from the Edge of the North

Some people may question the idea of spending a week’s holiday delivering post from a boat, but if that boat is travelling 2,600 km along the Norwegian coast from deep within the Arctic Circle to Bergen and visits some of the most spectacular scenery around, you may reconsider.

Two things hit you when you arrive in Norway, one is the total lack of architectural flair, and the other is the exorbitant price of everything. Arriving at the airport, we stopped for  a celebratory coffee (€6), before taking the massively clumpy, depressingly somber express in to the center of Oslo (€22, each way).  With only 600,000 inhabitants (in a country of 5 million), Oslo does not really have a great deal to offer. We stopped off at the tiny cathedral (still wreathed in flowers following on from the recent shootings), the national gallery (with its depressing Edvard Munch collection), the harbor (an architectural mess, where 23 architects seem to be battling out who can “do” better urban planning) and finally the very boxy, yet interesting town hall, where the Nobel Peace prize is doled out each year.

Our next stop necessitated taking a tram, which according to the digital display, could travel through time – apparently it would pick us up, after it had reached at our final destination. Impressive stuff.  We took this miraculous contraption to the brilliant Vigeland Sculpture Park in almost no time at all. Here 212 bronze and granite Gustav Vigeland sculptures are, for want of a better word, on display. His work portrays naked men, women and children in various “typically human pursuits” as the catalogue puts it – I leave it up to your imagination.

From Oslo, we were off to Kirkenes, the start of the boat trip, home to 3,300 very cold people and about 12 million lemmings. It necessitated getting up very early and taking the Auschwitz Express back to Oslo Airport. On the surprisingly full plane, breakfast was severed. Now, I am used to mystery meat on planes, but this was the first time I had experienced mystery jam. The package depicted just about every type of fruit you can imagine and tasted, well, fruity.

This culinary delight distracted us from the bigger issue of not actually arriving in Kirkenes. After 2 aborted landings the pilot had to divert to the metropolis of Lakselv (population 2,146) and we ended up on a 5 hour (340 km) bus ride back to the fogged-in Kirkenes airport. With hindsight was not such a bad thing as the tourist attractions in Kirkenes are few and far between and we could play “count the squashed lemmings” on the road – there were a lot.

The next morning it was off to the boat. Well, it would have been, had we not started chatting with some Spaniards and totally disregarded the large canary yellow bus that drove by, pickup about other 20 people and drove off.  Hurried calls to the bus station instigated its return, but it was a bonding moment with the Spaniards who we stuck with on the cruise – we were amongst the youngest on the boat.

From there the 2,600 km boat ride to deliver post to 30 ports along the Norwegian coast began. Over the next 6 days, we meandered through incredible fjords watching the sites go by and soaking up the Norwegian sun. The first few stops had the common theme of “the most northerly…” – the most northerly point of Norway, the most northerly fort, the most northerly mountain with a hole in it, the most northerly methanol plant etc etc. We were also lucky enough to spot the most northerly cat at one point, but it eluded our cameras. Forget the most northerly lemming, there must be a 1,000 vying for this honor.

At some ports (where it could not be avoided), we took organized excursions with tour guides who explained every fauna, flora and squashed lemming en route. One question was why houses are typically painted a myriad of different colours, apparently, this was a post war phenomenon. As the Nazis retreated, they burnt everything to the ground and during the rebuilding phase the government subsidized only standard houses shapes. People wanted to personalize their “standard” houses and so started painting them different colours – and presto, picturesque villages.

I have never been on a cruise before and don’t ask me where the time went. There always seemed to be a huge backlog of things to do – a quick troll round a local port, drinkies with our Spanish friends, meals, a quick nap on the deck, a chance to get a bit further in that book, a rush to get the best photo of the methanol plant as it glided by.. it was all go.

After six days the cruise irrevocably had to come to an end – we arrived in Bergen and disembarked to the first real rain we had seen. The final day was spent exploring this wet, but vibrant city – unfortunately some main attractions were shut. I really wanted to experience the Leprosy Museum (surprisingly, the most northerly Leprosy museum in the world), where I imagined interactive displays and multimedia exhibits, but it was sadly not to be – it had started its winter hiatus. So we checked out the excellent aquarium and the funicular, where we had some break-taking views of fog and drizzle, before heading back to Frankfurt.

Another excellent trip that I can only heartily recommend – the only disappointment was again not seeing the northern lights. This may become an obsession with me, so watch out for postcards to come..

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Postcard from the Edge of Magic

It has been a couple of years since I was last in Orlando, and so was pleased when it was chosen as the location of an SAP conference, as it gave me the opportunity to present, celebrate my birthday in style and most importantly, visit the newly opened Wizzarding World of Harry Potter at the Islands of Adventure Theme Park.

The first couple of days were a presentation blur, but the big day came and Sting came by and put on a concert for me in the evening, which was nice. I was 10 rows from the front and was seriously gyrating to some of the classics, but went out and got drinks during the boring new-age, tree hugging melodies. He was rushed off stage after the concert, so we did not get a chance to catch up, perhaps next year.

The next day, I only had afternoon meetings, so I got up early and arrived at the park half an hour before the gates opened and immersed myself in the huge crowd at the turnstiles. By the time the gates opened a flood of humanity surged in to the park, with everyone seemingly making their way to the Wizzarding World.

I tried to get to the front, dashing through Headache Land (based on Dr. Seuss’ books, the colours and brightness is nauseating), past The Lost Continent (which to be honest, no one would miss if were to go astray) and ended up at the gates of my target. The first thing you see is an enormous arch announcing you are entering the village of Hogsmeade and a large, red Hogwarts express train gently puffing away at the station. Rounding the corner you are literally immersed in J.K. Rowlings world, as you enter the sumptuously recreated village, with a monolithic back drop of Hogwarts – I was stunned.

The shops of Hogsmeade are true to the books and are crafted to the tiniest detail – both inside and out. The shops themselves are covered in fake snow and are seemingly fighting for space, with asymmetrical frontages, and crooked, seemingly unstable chimneys poking up all over the place. The window decoration are gorgeous, in ”Quality Quiddich Supplies”, bludgers and a snitch fight their containment in a beautiful box. In Zonkos, a display of how puking pastels work dominates the bright awnings. Inside the items are familiar – extendible ears and speakoscopes vie for shelving space with cauldrons, wands and Berty Botts Every Flavour Beans. Olivanders has a fine selection of character wands (made in China, at the extortionate price of $29.99 + tax), the ATM is Gringotts branded, moaning Myrtle laments her demise in the mens’ bathroom, the monster book of monsters snaps at you from its cage as you walk past – the list just goes on and on.

From there I moved on to main attraction, the “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” ride. Just getting to the ride was a pleasure, meandering through Hogwarts corridors, meeting Harry, Ron and Hermione, watching the pictures talk to each other and the entrance to Dumbledore’s office, whilst enjoying the banter of the pictures. Eventually, you get to the ride, where, starting on a 4-seater couch in the Gryffindor common room, Hermione casts a flying spell you are whisked round Hogwarts, chasing dragons, unexpectedly taking part in a Quiddich match, then avoiding the Whomping Willow you finally fight with dementors to save the day. Spectacular. I rode it twice and ended my visit with a celebratory Butterbeer in the Hogs Head Bar, chatting with the animated head as I did so. As I left, as the masses continued to swarm in to Hogsmeade – it was a heaving, but the bar lady cheerfully informed me, “this is nothing, you should see it on a busy day” – I really dread to think.

The rest of the day was spent on roller coasters, including a new one worthy of note, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. This attraction features an individual sound system to provide a personalized soundtrack for the 1.2km ride – I chose Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive” (it was either that or “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees), which seemed appropriate as we were hauled  vertically 51m up to the top of the ride (the tallest in Orlando). It is designed to allow four trains to be on the track at a time and feature “near-miss” encounters and a unique form of vertical loop, in which the track rotates 360° whilst in the loop. Pure adrenalin fun.

Despite all the hullabaloo of the new rides, my favourite still continues to be the Hollywood Tower of Terror in the Disney re-branded Hollywood Studios. We visited here the next day, but our timing was not ideal as about 1 billion Star Wars fans (I counted them) also arrived to celebrate the re-opening of the Star Wars Clone Ride. You could not move in the park for Obi-Wans, Darth Vaders and other things-I-know-not-what running around. We just did the Tower of Terror, a couple of non-Star Wars related rides and got out, passing Donald Duck dressed as a storm trooper – a little surreal.

Following on from a bit (well, a lot) of shopping, it was time to trek back to the airport, stopping off for some buffalo chicken wings en route. I sort of became addicted to these delicious little delicacies during my trip and am now suffering withdrawal from them.

All in all a great birthday week, can’t wait for the next one.

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Postcard from the Edge of Design

Again, the year starts those annual “kick-off” meetings, this time in not-so-warm Barcelona. Registering for the event, my choices were an out-of-the-way hovel or the extremely up-market Ritz-Carlton Arts hotel, which naturally I chose. I was expecting something different and I was not disappointed.

Arriving at the hotel a few days later, I was warmly greeted in the opulent foyer and checked in. Managing to throw off the hordes of employees who wanted to carry my bag, show me my room and even push the lift button for me (really), I went up to the 18th floor, and was flabbergasted – the room was magnificent. I took out my camera to take photos it was so perfect in every detail – polished surfaces, fluffy pillows, Bang & Olufsen stereo, huge bath, the list went on and on – a real designer had been at work here.

But then reality kicked in. Initially, I wanted to turn on the lights – no problem with that I thought – and went searching for the light switch, correction light switches. I finally located a draw next to the bed, which had to be pulled out to reveal the “control panel”. The panel had barrage of buttons, beautiful buttons, but the descriptive text for each had been smudged through use, so I had the heater on, the curtains drawn, room service knocking and the TV blaring before I managed to find one of the bathroom light settings – it turned out to be the “romantic setting”. Confused I waddled over and stubbed my toe in the semi-darkness on the step, a beautiful step, up.

From there it just got worse, although everything looked stunning it was totally impractical. The elegant taps disgorged water in to the basin, a beautiful basin, which seemed be specifically designed to channel any fluids directly to your crotch. None of the plethora of knobs in the shower, bath or sink had any helpful markings on them like “hot” or “cold” and the time delay in the shower of knob-adjustment to water temperature-change meant you were either scalded or frozen for the first 5 minutes. But it was a beautiful shower, it even had its own seat.

Back in the room, I wanted to iron my shirt, I got the iron out, but heaven forbid that an ugly electrical socket would disturb the elegance of a wall. I eventually found one and then got out the ironing board, a beautiful ironing board, but it had half a leg missing. I gave up on beauty and ironed on the bed.

The room was an absolute triumph of design over anything practical or usable. The shiny counter tops showed up dust immediately and looked horrible after you touched them or put a cup, a beautiful cup,  down (only €4 to use the in-room coffee machine). The Bang & Olufsen remote was unfathomable with the buttons arranged differently to every other remote I have ever seen. Other design touches included three ridiculous, impractically sized pillows, there was nowhere in the bathroom to put your sponge bag or stuff, you almost needed a grappling hook to get in and out of the bath and once in you scraped yourself on the vastly protruding soap dish – the list went on and on. But all it looked stunning. I decided I needed some inspiration and so found the door knob, a beautiful door knob, and stepped out in to the real world again.

I must have been in Barcelona about 10 times over the past 25 years and each time I have made a pilgrimage to the Sacrada Familia, the amazing Gaudi masterpiece – this is not for any religious reasons – it is just that it too is remarkable to miss. On my first visit, it was basically a façade and a half with some crumbly bits between them. Subsequent visits have been like walking through a building site with no real appreciation for what was being planned, but it was interesting watching the activities of craftsmen chiseling out organic shapes and giant cranes trying to fit the pieces together all shrouded in scaffolding. I was expecting the building-site look again this year, but how wrong can you be.

After paying the €15 entrance fee, I walked in and literally stopped dead in my tracks, flabbergasted for the 2nd time in this trip. The main body, nave and apse have been mostly competed and for the first time, you could get an idea of how magnificent the Basilica is going to be. Gaudi’s aim was to give it an organic feel, and this has been beautifully achieved, with various tree shaped columns sprouting up to the finely detailed roof. Colourful sunlight poured through the stained glass windows, dancing on the pillars and reflected in the marble flooring. I was entranced. I took the lift to the top of the towers, as most of the work is now on the outside with several new towers being constructed, each along the curves and parabolic arches design favoured by this master architect.

I could only spend an hour there, but I have time to go back as the building will only be complete in 2026. It was a wrench to leave, but the memories of Barcelona design, beautiful design, will be with me for a long time to come.

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Postcard from the Edge of a Thrill

Getting to the Thrill – Ushuaia to Bariloche
After the chill of Antarctica, the next part of this South American extravaganza was the thrill of Patagonia. We had pre-booked an 11-day tour and now had 3 days to travel the 1,500 km from Ushuaia to Bariloche, the tour starting point and more importantly Argentina’s chocolate capital. I decided to take some time to see more of the country and after a short flight and a hike in the beautiful (and windy) mountains around El Chalten, took a 2 day bus ride to experience about 1,000kms (about one fifth) of the infamous Route 40.
Ruta 40, as it is known, is not really a road, more like a gravel track that runs parallel to the Andes along the spine of Argentina – it is currently being paved, but it really gives you an insight as to how vast and how empty the country is – 13 people per km², compared to Germany and UK with about 250. Huge expanses of land stretched to the hills and we maneuvered and bumped past llamas and flamingos en-route.
Arriving in Barlioche, we met up with 3 European friends and we fell on the chocolate shops that litter the high street, and I got a terrible hair cut that had to be corrected later in the trip. There we also met up with our guides and the rest of the party, 2 sporty US couples who started chatting about marathons run, epic hikes hiked, and bicycling holidays cycled. We were slightly intimated as we sheepishly tucked in to another mound of chocolate, but over the next 10 days we bonded as they turned out to be most agreeable and we managed to keep up (and sometimes better them) in our sporting exploits.

“Multi-Sport” – Argentina

The 11 day tour was billed as a “multi-sport” (level 3) holiday including hiking, rafting, cycling and something called “non-technical” climbing. After a bit of relaxation around the lake of our superb hotel, we started off by jumping on our bikes and off we went (with our guide). Somehow I showed a penchant for up-hill biking and overtook all, even the guide, but going downhill was a different kettle of fish. However, we all made it with minimal pushing in the gorgeous, mountainous Patagonian countryside.
Cycling alternated with hiking as we trekked for up to 25 km per day through forests and national parks, admiring the mountains, lakes, glaciers, and wildlife. One point we were lucky to emerge on gully where condors majestically swooped and dived on the thermals. These, however, were not my favorite bird – this accolade went to a much smaller example that lived next to one of our hotels, it was called an alarm bird and rightly so. Anytime you got anywhere near it, it shrieked warnings which caused its accompanying chicks to freeze, almost perfectly blending in to the undergrowth, and attacking anything or anyone that came close, as a photographer in our party discovered, much to our chagrin.
The exhaustion felt at the culmination of an excursion was nicely tempered by tables groaning with an assortment of drinks, breads and tasty snacks. Victor, our main guide, was a welcome sight as he cheerfully opened a bottle of wine as we emerged, hot and dusty, from our activities.
After 8 days of “warming up” in perfect weather conditions, we crossed the Argentinean border and stopped for a lovely picnic lunch in a forest of monkey puzzle trees, before experiencing the cavity search and passport-stamping frenzy at the Chilean border. We later found out, lunch had to be served before we reached the Chilean border, as you are not allowed to import anything edible –  I not sure the Argentineans like the Chileans very much (and vice versa).

“Multi-Sport” – Chile
Once in Chile we jumped on our bikes to cycle about 35km in to the city of Pucon, where the first night started well, one of the best steak I have probably eaten in my life and more chocolate. At one point I was prompted to make conversation, my response was simply “can’t talk, eating”.
Just near Pucon is the most active volcano in Chile, the Villarrica Volcano, which last erupted in 1971. Here we participated in the most strenuous activity of the trip – the “non-technical” snow covered climb to the crater – 5 kms in length and 1,400 meters elevation gain. Equipped with crampons, ice axe and a plastic mat we started the grueling ascent at about 7:30 am. We had perfect weather, no wind and bright sunshine and we traipsed up and up, over the ice fields and glaciers for what seemed like hours (we actually did it in a relatively fast 3 hours). Reaching the top, I had tears in my eyes, not from the superheated, noxious sulphur gasses, but from relief and joy. Due to the still conditions, these gasses shot up vertically from the main vent meaning we could circumnavigate the entire, massive crater, an uncommon experience our guide informed us as we meditatively chewed down on our packed lunches.
In comparison with the trip up, the descent took less than an hour as we stowed our crampons and got out the plastic mats to literally slide down the side of the volcano. Using the ice axe acting as a break, we barreled down the seemingly almost vertical slopes – brilliant fun. At the bottom, rather a lot of snow had collected under my backpack – removing it, I was accused of pulling a snowman out of my arse – I concurred and am now working on reproducing a scale model of the Titanic, rather than a simple snowman.
But for me, the absolute highlight of the trip was the white water rafting the next day. The class III+ rapids were exhilarating and the competition between our two 6-man inflatables was intense. Our boat, the Bumblebee, was invaded by Victor from his boat, the El Crapo, and he started to forcefully eject people in to the river. He managed to dunk one Bumblebeer, and then advanced towards me but seriously underestimated my obstinacy and, after a bit of a skirmish, ended up himself in the water, with me still sitting pretty. Our skipper was delighted and high-fived me, apparently Victor had not been dunked before. Revenge was short lived though; at the end of the tour, the entire crew of the El Crapo were waiting to get me.. let’s just say, they got me in eventually, but they also suffered a series of knuckle injuries thanks to my trusty paddle as they tried to board.

Buenos Aires
From the joys of Chile, it was back to Buenos Aires, and, flushed with the success of the Patagonia tour, we took a 12 km bike ride round the city to see some of the highlights of “the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere”:

  • The first stop, rather insensitively I thought, was the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) Monument which I naturally ignored, pending requested apologies from the Argentinean government.
  • La Boca, famed for its multi-coloured houses, a remnant of the original immigrants who used small (non-matching) pots of left-over paint from the harbor to paint their homes. This tradition has morphed in to an art form now and the area is crowded with tourist buses and tango displays.
  • The Teatro Colon, the opera house – a beautiful building, whose claim to fame are its world-class acoustics and that it was the biggest in the southern hemisphere, prior to Sydney. Now call me old fashioned, but if I were to name an opera house after a body part, I would probably have chosen something a little more hip, such as “The Elbow” or more suitable “The Cochlear” – but there it is. I mentioned this to the staff and was respectfully informed it was named after Columbus. Who knew?
  • The Casa Rosada, the famous pink building with the balcony where Eva Peron sung “Don’t cry for me Argentina” to the crowds – or something like that, my memory is a little vague. It still houses the office of the Argentinian president, who Hilary Clinton thinks should be psychologically tested, according to Wikileaks. This was the top news story during the whole of our stay.
  • Plaza de Mayo, a large plaza next to the Casa Rosada and a central starting point for all demonstrations in the capital. Now believe me there are lots of noisy demonstrations in Buenos Aires, so the area was very busy. In fact, they are a little like buses, if you missed the 2:30 demonstration, there was no need to worry as there was typically another one along a few minutes later and sometimes 2 or 3 came along at once.

Our final port of call was a 50 km boat trip away, across the Rio de La Plata or River of Silver, to the World Heritage Site of Colonia de Sacramento in Uruguay. If I thought the number of passport stamps from Argentina to Chile was excessive, entering Uruguay necessitated a positive orgy of stamping, but it was well worth the effort. The day we left it was really hot about 31°c (about 88°f), but Colonia de Sacramento has hundreds of mature sycamore trees lining every street making walking a shady joy.

We ate and drunk and passed many a happy hour perusing the shops and enjoying the laid back atmosphere. We discovered a wonderful bakery that gave us sustenance through the long return stamping process, the boat ride back to Buenos Aires and from there back Germany, where it was colder than Antarctica. Five weeks of being blissed off my chonk, now back to the grindstone and dream of the next Postcard from the Edge.

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Postcard from the Edge of a Chill

It has long been a dream of mine to visit all seven continents. Six had fallen to my flat feet and it was high time the 7th (Antarctica) received a Kimbell footprint or two.

Getting there – the Ship
My chosen vessel had the promising name of the Antarctic Dream. A sturdy workhorse built in 1958 and, after toiling for the Chilean army, has now taken on the role of cruise liner (it has been spruced up though). It could take a maximum of 82 passengers, but as this was the first tour of the season, it only had 74. Knowing there were a couple of empty cabins, I decided to ditch my assigned room-mate and fenangle a single cabin, so turned up the charm and, using the excuse of a aforesaid room-mate being ill, scored.
The ship had a lot to offer, including a much heralded lecture theatre and spa, both of which turned out to be not quite what was expected. The theatre was home to many interesting lectures on the flora, fauna and wildlife, but due to its position in the bowels of this ship, it had a peculiar, unsettling motion. As a result, when a lecture started, it was a race to get to one of the comfy, hugely padded chairs at the back, but then in the darkness, motion and stuffy atmosphere made keeping your eyes open a bit of a challenge. As for the spa, all I can say is that is wasn’t one.
On the plus side, my single cabin was excellent, the library was delightful and the main dining/common room was extremely comfy and many a happy hour was spent watching breath-taking scenery glide past, whilst playing backgammon or chatting over drinks and snacks. Interestingly all the chairs in this room were subtly chained to floor, this was our first hint of what was in store for us.
Food on the ship was pretty good, although the chef was new and had not quite the hang of all aspects. One meal was noteworthy for temperature and texture mix: hot steaks, tepid potatoes and cold mushrooms made for an interesting assortment. The Argentinean diet tends to be rather heavy on protein, so the desire for fresh fruit and vegetables increased exponentially over the course of the cruise, culminating in the destruction of a decorative display to promote Chilean wines in order to release a lurking kiwi-fruit spotted therein. This was a real team effort, with look outs and people to distract the barman and was a good example of camaraderie on the ship.

The Journey
The cruise started at Ushuaia, self-proclaimed “end of the world” on the tip of southern Argentina, a 3 hour flight from Buenos Aires. From there it was just about 800 kilometers by boat to the peninsular – but there is one major problem – the roughness of Drakes Passage, the sea between Argentina and the Antarctic Peninsula. Named after Sir Frances, it is home to some of the most violent maritime conditions on the planet as the Pacific and Atlantic Oceanic swells clash and seemingly fight for supremacy around Cape Horn. To be honest, the two 2 day / 3 night crossings were pretty grueling.
The ships’ doctor distributed sea-sickness tablets like candy at Halloween, and it quickly became apparent why. Five meter waves crashed over boat and the huge swells meant the pitch and yaw left most people with a nauseous feeling.  During this time, only about half the passengers made it to the dining room, but those who did were treated to the amazing spectacle of twinkle-toed waiters performing death-defying balancing acts whilst bringing plates and drinks, mostly unscathed, to the table. There were several crash, bang, tinkle-tinkles from the kitchen, but only once did an entire tray go down, but it was only cake, which is a shame as I like cake.
Taking a shower was an adventure as you careened uncontrollably across the shower stall on to the scalding hot tap, jerking back, you hit the icy cold support railing and then spasmed in to the all-enveloping, clammy shower curtain before finally coming to rest, panting in a corner, wondering where on earth the soap had ended up.
Sleeping too posed it challenges – now call me old fashioned, but after 45-odd years of practice, I thought I was pretty good at it, not so in the Drakes Passage. Sleeping on your side was impossible as the pitching and yawing of the boat catapults you in to anything else that happens to be flying round cabin. In my case this included bags, water bottles, washing, life vests and, most painfully, the air conditioning unit that detached itself from the wall and went for a nightly meander. The only way to sleep was lying on your front or back combined with tightly fitted sheets (something I abhor under normal circumstances). Once we arrived things calmed down and a plethora of, as yet unseen, passengers appeared – normal sleep positions also resumed.

The Expeditions
But all the perils of the sea and any unpleasant memories faded as we sailed in to calmer waters and got our first glimpses of land and icebergs. Due to some technical, scientifical explanation, icebergs reflect a beautiful, almost eerie, blue light in the sunshine. These glowing, fantastically shaped icebergs joined with huge glaciers, mountainous snow covered peaks to form amazing vistas.
The ship weighed anchor at a place called Half Moon Bay, and the passengers were assigned to different groups to get in the smaller zodiacs to be ferried ashore. I told I was a foca – no, not what you are thinking – it is Spanish for seal, which we concluded was by far the best group as we bumped over the waves to make our first, snowy, footfall.
It was a mixed bag of landings and zodiac cruises over the 5 next days. One phrase we consistently heard is that “conditions can change quickly” and boy, did we experience that. Sometimes we were bathed in glorious sunshine, with crystal clear waters lapping at the base of an ice mountain, sometimes we landed during heavy snow and sometimes a whole excursion had to be canceled due to the conditions. Moral was never low as the crew then substituted alternative activities and lectures.
Whenever we landed, practically the first thing that happened was that a load of inquisitive penguins came down to check us out (unless they were having sex; we arrived in the middle of the breeding season). We stood in lines, them gawping at us, we doing the same, but we had cameras and were not wearing any tuxedos. We saw mostly Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins (yes, you can tell them apart), whose nest-building exploits and subsequent use of them we never got tired of watching (although I did feel a bit like a voyeur). On one zodiac cruise a real highlight happened, our resident ornithologist got very excited and pointed to a huge iceberg, where a single emperor penguin had taken residence. He looked down majestically at us before disappearing in to the blue.
We saw many other animals thanks to our sharp eyed “El Capitain” who could seemingly spot whales at 37 miles out, along with seals, albatrosses, petrels and gulls. We found out later his nickname was “el ojo” (the eye) and he missed nothing; a zodiac illegally driving though an iceberg hole, a misdemeanor at an old whaling station, someone turning off their radio at an inappropriate time, all was noted and subsequently commented on.
Temperatures were surprisingly moderate, on land it was just under freezing point and a nice warm parker and some thermals took care of the cold. After being pretty sedate for almost two weeks, it was not now time to turn the heat and the activity meters up to high, with the second installment of this little break, Postcard from the Edge of a Thrill

(C) Ian Kimbell 2010

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Postcard from the Edge of an Island

So we decided for a few days off, but where to do for a week? Too short to fly anywhere exotic, but beach was on the agenda, so we decided on the island of Ruegen, located on the north-east coast of Germany in the Baltic Sea. Getting to the island was a 900km drive, and to be honest, it is a bit “out of the way”. The “Around Me” app that tells you all the things worth seeing in your immediate vicinity beeped and helpfully informed me the closest Apple store was 689kms away.

However, the island was lovely and not as desolate as we first expected. The tree lined lanes, which almost formed a tunnel, were picturesque, but I imagine could be deathtraps if you swerve more than a few degrees off true. We left these behind and in our first town we did see some shops, the local steam train and signs for all manner of touristic crap. We drove through and arrived at our hotel in the delightful city of Goehren which was hosting a music festival. Hungry, we decided to try the fish the island is famous for. The scampi we chose fresh of the barbecue looked lovely, but it was half cooked and tasted of lighter fuel – we went for the traditional German sausage after that. The hotel was lovely with beach chairs, pool and a great restaurant – which we only discovered post sausage.

We hired bikes on the first day and cycled down to the southern most point of the island and stopped off to sun bathe on the way back. The beaches were lovely, warm sand, gently sloping to lapping waves (although the water was tepid to say the least). Now, being British, I am used to the rigmarole and procedures of being a on a beach. The farce of getting the deck chair up and the towel wrap to protect from prying eyes whilst trying extract the underwear and get the swimming stuff on. These beaches had a different class of people – the FKK brigade (aka free bodily culture aka nudists). As we sat our newly arrived neighbors simply stripped off and with everything hanging out plunged in to the water, returning wet, with everything still hanging out. I sort of lost my appetite for a while and thought back to my sausage.

The other thing that Ruegen is famous for are Nazis. As the beaches are spectacular and the Graf of Ruegen was seriously in debt to the Nazis – so a deal was closed – a vast swathe of land was purloined to be house the first part of the “Kraft durch Freude” (strength through joy) initiative. The idea was to control every aspect of party-faithful lives and this included their holidays – so a Butlins-type campus was planned and partially erected. The magnitude of the construction is breathtaking. The brief was for a not too tall (less than 5 stories high) resort that could house 20,000 people all with a guaranteed a sea-view and (secretly) could be converted to a military hospital at a moment’s notice. Every detailed of a trip was panned. Arriving you were assigned a number which was your room, assigned beach chair (no arguments and  getting up at 6:00 to put a towel down), lounger and restaurant seat.  The architect Clemens Klotz was up to the challenge and designed the main 4.5km long building, railway station, garage for 3000 cars, 2 sea-water fed swimming pools (100 x 40 meters), a tower restaurant, theater, festival hall to seat everyone and a huge pier to allow passenger ships to dock. Construction began in 1938 and finished prematurely in 1939 years with the outbreak of the war. The shell of the theater and 8 housing blocks were completed and 6 of them are still standing. There is also an impressive collection of memorabilia and information about the 4 other similar holiday camps that were planned. The camp was sadly plundered during the war and fell in to neglect during DDR times. Several of the blocks have recently been sold to investors, but their plans are still pretty nebulous. A definite highlight of the trip.

The next couple of days were spent relaxing and exploring the island – the white cliffs (not a patch on Dover), the dual lighthouses (the 2nd built as the 1st proved to be a bit too short) and long hikes in the forest coming upon follies like the hunting castle with its stupendous staircase and horns everywhere. We also finally managed to get some really good fish, thanks to the now working “Around Me” app – it pointed us to a tiny restaurant just down the road from our hotel with an excellent rating – fresh local fare that rounded off the trip nicely. There was only the drive back, but with such nice memories the trip flew by.

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Postcard from the Edge of a Breath – Part 2

… continued from part 1

I was very nervous about spending a 7 day on a boat in the Galapagos. I mean, couple of tortoises, few shacks and iguana or two.. what more is there (apart from sea-level air you can breathe)? I packed travel backgammon, bought water proof playing cards, downloaded some books and movies to stave off the boredom and set off. The first impressions we got from the Galapagos totally lived up to my expectations. Arriving in Baltra, the ex-military base that serves the archipelago, we were herded along the runway to a open sided shack (aka terminal), which has a superfluous “re-” in the “please excuse the inconvenience whilst re-building” sign. Hot, tired after the flight from Quito, we queued to pay $100 (not really sure why), queued for cursory hand baggage check, and then queued to collect baggage.


We then drove on a dilapidated bus to the harbour. Things sort of looked up for a minute, with some huge sleek, elegant white, luxury yachts bobbing gently – but our guide pointed past these delights to a small blue converted fishing vessel (our boat the Samba) which paled into insignificance next to the magnificence of the other opulent liners. To be honest my heart sank a bit more, but boy, how wrong can you be – luck was really on our side for this one.

The Boat – The Samba
The negative first impressions of our boat were dismissed the moment we set (bare) food on it. It was charming. OK; it was a bit on the small side but it was cozy, with every nook and cranny crammed with essential supplies from table cloths and napkins to snorkeling gear and reference books. The main boudoir had a huge polished wooden table and two dispensers that provided a constant supply of tea and coffee. The decks had many comfy seating areas with easy access to the bridge and 2 smaller zodiac boats for ferrying us to and from shore were stowed neatly on the sides. It was lovely. And more was to come, the food served there was excellent, 3 meals a day and snacks were magiced from the small kitchen.


The People – Guests, Crew and Guide, my Guide
But what really made the cruise special, were the people – it would have been cramped on the boat with 14 guests, 6 crew and our guide, but a misfit Swiss couple were quickly jettisoned after the wife, who spent all her time either puking or lying down looking ghastly, found out she was pregnant and they left the cruise. The remaining 12 guests (5 Brits, 2 Swiss, 1 US, 1 Australian, 1 German and 2 locals) bonded dazzlingly with each other, our brilliant guide, Silvia (Swiss who became affectionately known as “guide, my guide”), and the crew. The days were literally fun-filled and informative. Silvia was a fountain of knowledge not only on everything animal, vegetable and minerals on the Islands, but also on weather conditions. “This next stretch will be calm sailing”, she confidently predicted, as the boat rolled and Jennifer spun off her chain in to the conveniently located drinks fridge. Luckily, the fridge was undamaged, Jennifer was OK too.


The Itinerary
The daily itinerary looked something like this:
07:00 – Breakfast bell and like Pavlovian dogs we swarmed in to the lounge
08:00 – First activity – normally hike or walk on an island
10:00 – Back on the boat for a glass of juice and a snack
10:30 – Second activity – normally snorkeling
11:30 – Back on the boat to shower
12:00 – Bell rings for lunch
13:00 – Rest period avoiding the mid-day heat
15:00 – Third activity – hike or boat trip
17:00 – Back on the boat for a glass of juice and a snack
Chat and laugh, watch the sun set
19:00 – Bell rings for Din-dins
20:00 – Briefing for next day
20:15 – Laugh, chat, drink, laugh, star gaze, laugh, dance until bed time
Occasionally there was a special event, such as cocktails on the bridge when crossing the equator at sunset, an improvised disco on the bow or an early morning start to see a turtle orgy – but Silvia kept us on track and on time.

The Islands – More and Bigger than Expected
The islands are clustered around the equator about 970 km west of Ecuador, cover an area of about 8,000 square kms and are home to about 23,000 – expanded by about 3,500 tourists per week. Of the 15 main islands, some are millions of years only, some are still being formed. As a result each island has a really unique look and feel, the older ones having been fully colonized by unique fauna and flora, the newer ones almost barren, with new growth fighting to survive. But regardless of age, sea lions bask and lounge on all beaches.
This topographical difference of the islands really hit home on Santa Cruz, the first of the 6 we visited – it looked like something out of a science fiction movie – a vista of red moss with candelabra cacti spread in front of us, dotted by wildlife. Compare that with the stark contrast of the much younger Isla Santa Maria – where the results of relatively recent lava eruptions have cooled and the resultant flow patterns can be clearly seen. Brittle, black pumice, heavy with iron either clanked underfoot or cracked as small plants try to establish themselves and the occasional iguana scampered over the rock. Other wildlife, such as the flamingos have made themselves at home however, their beautiful pinkness contrasting strongly against the black of the rock.

The Wildlife – Afraid of Nothing
As there no predators on the islands, the wildlife there have no fight or flight response. They simply sit there looking at you curiously as you approach and some have adapted unique traits. The cormorants for example have become flightless due to the abundance of food and totally unnecessary need to fly away from anything. Other animals that we encountered in real close up, whilst wondering down the paths included land iguanas (known as Christmas iguanas due to their red/green colouring), sea iguanas (both swimming and drying out on land), sea lions, turtles, tortoises, brilliant orange sally-lightfoot crabs, and a plethora of indigenous birds including penguins, blue-footed boobies, albatrosses, hawks, doves, gulls (including the unique nocturnal gulls), frigate birds, lava herons and beautiful flamingos.
The bird’s behavior has adapted to humans. We anchored one night, light spilling off the deck attracting fish to the brightness. A pelican arrived, landed and paddled around the boat in the shadows occasionally lashing out to get a fish. Each lap took 2.8 minutes and we gave up counting after a while.
We spent one day at the Charles Darwin Institute, which is trying to repopulate the native tortoises, before visiting them in the wild. Originally there were an estimated 200,000 tortoises and 15 sub-species but most of them were eaten – for a while, the Galapagos were treated like a “float-through” McDonalds, boats would arrive, collect a few tortoises “to go” for the rest of the journey – now there are an estimated 15,000 and 11 sub-species left, one of which has a single survivor – lonesome George. He has a lovely pen and 2 harlots to keep him company, but he seems to be immune to their seductive charms. I suggested tortoise porn, which has actually been tried, but it looks like George will be the last of his line – a story that is threatening much of the Galapagos as the commercial tourism and global warming encroaches on the wildlife.

The Snorkeling
Originally we wanted to do some diving, but the sites are few and snorkeling is just as, if not more so, rewarding. The Samba had a good supply of gear; we donned wet suits and took one of the zodiacs out to an approved site. The first sojourn gave a taste of things to come – as we entered the water, 2 sea lion pups came to investigate and swam with and around us with considerably more dexterity than we could muster.
Tropical fish with resplendent colours glistened in the shallow, clear waters. Shoals of yellow-tailed surgeon fish, always encompassing one black king angel fish, drifted past. These were interspersed with occasional sharks, penguins, manta rays and huge turtles. We followed these for ages watching the elegant, efficient propulsion in the blue water.
We also swam off the side of the boat.. but there were dangers, I got a nasty jelly-fish sting, which was alleviated by urinating on it – not much fun, but it was a good excuse for being late for diner – “I am so sorry I am late, but I was peeing on my wrist”.
The Summary
People say a Galapagos holiday is holiday of a lifetime, a thought to which I certainly subscribe. It will be interesting to see how the archipelago is managed over the next few years, environmentalists dream vs. money making tourist destination is a recipe for change. I only hope it is not a change for the worse.

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Postcard from the Edge of a Breath – Part 1

Journey to Peru
So I finally make it, arriving at midnight (after a 23 hours of traveling) in Lima, Peru – my first footfall in South America and the luggage carousal had jammed and my bag was still in the USA. The first night at the really upmarket airport hotel was rather lonely and uncomfortable as my pajamas and toothbrush were partying in Houston. However, it was only about 5 hours of discomfort, as we had a 6:00 am flight to the ex-Inca capital of Cusco, so I put back on my rank clothes, hoping my fellow passengers had colds and walked back to the airport. This was a rather atypical flight – normally, you take off, climb, fly a bit and then descend to land. This was more of a climb, fly, land – the whole descending bit was missing as Cusco is at 3,300 meters up in the rather thin air.
This was our first taste of rarefied air that was to be with us for the next weeks. In this low oxygen environment your body instantly tries to adapt – the first noticeable sign is you panting. Every physical and mental action is unfocused, blurry, you are out of breath walking up or down a few steps, and you are constantly peeing as your body frenziedly tries to discharge liquids to thicken the blood. You cannot sleep; you nose cannot physically accommodate the amount of air your need, so your mouth is constantly dry as you to pant massive amounts of air to compensate. You have a craving for liquids and high iron foods as your body ramps up new red-blood cell production – even liver smelt appetizing – first time that has ever happened to me.

The Sacred Valley – Inca heartland
Leaving the airport, we staggered up the 4 steps in to the bus, flopped in the seat for a tour of the Sacred Valley, so called by the Incas due to its unique weather (it has one of the many micro-climates in Peru), geological and agricultural qualities – it also has seams of precious metals running through it. We sampled some delicious corn that is still grown there as we trekked (and puffed) through our first point of call, a market in Chinchero. It was full of llama-themed objects, but sadly no llama underwear – at this stage, over 40 hours since departure, I would have gladly slipped on a pair if they had had any. The highlight of the tour was at end of the valley, in Ollantaytambo, which served as the last pocket of Inca resistance against the Spanish – the highlight for me was not the Inca ruins, but the availability of undies in my size (which shrunk after the first wash). The ruins were spectacular, with tiers of crop growing terraces, amazing masonry and a predisposition for placing things inconveniently up very steep valley walls (why put the grain store next to where you live, surely it would be better on the other side of a valley!?). We spent the night at a hotel which was described itself as “Hotel Sauce, ruins view”, which we were glad to discover looked over the ruins as opposed to being an eyesore spoiling it.
Sacred Valley

On to Machu Picchu
From Ollantaytambo we were off to our first real highlight – Machu Picchu. There are several options for getting there, hiking, a yucky local flea-ridden train or the luxury Vistadrome Pullman, with great views and a snack. We opted for the easy option and arrived in comfort at the town of Aguas Calientes (now cut off by mud slides) and transferred to a bus up 15 hair-pin bends to the entrance of this amazing Inca town. It was built around 1430 but was abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquest 100 years later. It was rediscovered by in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American historian and is absolutely stunning.
We were all breath taken by the site (both literally and figuratively) we just gazed in awe at the ruins, perched on a peak, surrounded by the terraces descending down to the massive bend of the Urubamba River. Taking stacks of pictures an immediate reflex, but nothing on film can capture the majesty of the site. Despite this being the low, rainy season, the sun shone down on us as we were guided through the complex, with its palaces, observatories, farms, houses and fortifications.
We returned to Aguas Calientes that night, hungry and happy. We chose to eat something special and went for guinea pig – we picked Fluffy out of the pen and enjoyed this delicacy of the region (although not much meat and tastes like smoked chicken). We slept well for the first time and the next morning meandered back up to the site, hiked some of the trail and then simply sat, ogling the view for a few hours. The clouds and light constantly played on the ruins, and we watched in peace as rampant llamas (the local lawn mowers) ploughed past knocking other tourists over the edge of the terraces.
Machu Picchu

Back to Cusco and Catholic Propaganda
We dragged ourselves away, to return to Cusco. Here we saw how the Catholic Church used the “embrace and extend” strategy to ingratiate themselves with the Incas after obliterating their culture (resentment about this is still deep-seated). The Spanish basically moved in, demolishing any Inca temple and building a church on top. However, to make Catholicism more palatable, they incorporated elements of the Inca beliefs. For example, a large fresco of the last supper depicts Jesus and disciples enjoying one of Fluffy’s ancestors and many altars were covered in mirrors as homage to the Inca sun god – things you do not see anywhere else.

Lake Titicaca (Peru and Bolivian Side)
From Cusco we visited Lake Titicaca (at 3,800 meters above sea level, the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest in South America) both on the Peruvian and Bolivian sides. We started in Puno (Peru), in a nice hotel, where the international furniture scraping on parquet floor championships going on all night on the floor above us. The lake was astounding, people speak of the deep blue of the water, but until you see it, it is difficult to comprehend. The standard tour incorporates the primitive, man-made floating islands, where the inhabitants proudly showed off their newly acquired solar cell, light and TV.
From Puno, we drove to the other side of the lake (and Bolivia), as all boat crossings have been banned due to drug smuggling, and fought our way through the border crossing, with ridiculous amounts of red tape. We drove to the (original) town of Copacabana and on to Sun Island.” Sun” is a bit of a misnomer, I would expect heat and light from such a place, but it was cloudy and the “eco-lodge” we stayed at, forwent any such ecologically unfriendly devices such as heating. It was freezing, but the clear night gave some breathtaking views of the night sky and the milky way, not normally seen in the northern hemisphere. It was raining the following morning and going down to the harbor via the “Inca steps”, I slipped and got a HUGE bruise on my cheek (not face), which glowed for the rest of the holiday.

Bolivia and La Paz, Highest Capital and Ecuador, and Quito, 2nd Highest
From there it was a 3 hour drive (with a ferry) to La Paz, capital of Bolivia. Driving in, the view of the city, nestled in a natural bowl, was breathtaking (figuratively this time). Our hotel was dead in the center – it was supposed to be a 5-star hotel, but 5-star Bolivian style is about 3 in Europe. The first thing that got me was the sign in the bathroom that any stain on a towel would mean you had to cough up for a new one. As I showered, I admired my pre-stained towel and wondered if I would have to pay.
The next day a walking tour of La Paz was in order – a gasping experience as the streets are very steep in every direction. The guide books say the witches market is impressive, so we wheezed our way up the street to this area, but was a real disappointment. However, we then stumbled on the most amazing “real” market I have ever seen in my life. This is where the real Bolivians do their shopping, it went on for about 2 miles and every side street had a theme; fruit row, pasta market, toys road, fish avenue, bicycle mews – interestingly all the financial transactions were handled by women – not a man to be seen, except as customers.
The last point of call in this stretch was a flight away – Quito in Ecuador, the 2nd highest capital in South America. The 3 hour flight put us in a country that was a highlight, friendly, non-pushy people, with breath taking views of the volcanoes surrounding the city. The city is also close to the equator and we visited the line standing in the northern and southern hemisphere and watching the sleight of hand as the guides demonstrated how the water vortex in a sink rotated different ways on each side of the line.

But this was not the main highlight of Ecuador, which was to come

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Postcard from the Edge of Nature

Nature is a curious thing. In my experience it either comes as the Disney tra-la-la everything’s perfect, humming bird and butterfly option or as the nasty, bitey, itchy, cold and smoky option. My first US vacation (my, how I slip in to the vernacular) had elements of both.

Disney Nature – Route 1
Our first sojourn started 250 miles south of San Francisco at Hearst Castle testament to what can be accomplished by the seriously, seriously wealthy. Built and owned by the newspaper magnet William Randolph Hearst, it was his honey pot to attract the famous and beautiful in the 1930s and 40s. The visitors list reads like a Who’s Who of the Hollywood A-list at the time, Chaplin, Weissmuller, Fairbanks, Joan Crawford, the list is endless.

The 165 room mansion is sumptuously decorated and has two of the most fabulous swimming pools I have ever seen, the Neptune pool was used in the movie Troy it is so close to an authentic roman baths and the indoor pool was described by Clark Gable as one of the most romantic places on earth. The 2 hour tour did it scant justice, but gave a taste for more.

From there Disney nature kicked in as we trolled down the famous Route 1 through San Simeon through Big Sur, the 17-mile drive to Monterey. This stretch of coastline must be one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, each twisty turn bringing in new sweeping vistas that seemed to try to out-do each other.  Big Sur and the 17-mile drive though an enclave for the moderately wealthy were also good in the own rights, but could not hold a candle to the splendour of Route 1.

We spent the night in Monterey and set off the next morning to see its one big attraction the Monterey Aquarium. I did not think you could spend a whole day in an aquarium, but I was proved wrong, with each exhibit topping the next. Three highlights for were:
•    The 10m (33 foot) tank for viewing California coastal marine life. In this tank, the aquarium was the first in the world to grow live California Giant Kelp with a specially designed wave machine
•    The 1.3 million gallon tank in the features one of the world’s largest single-paned windows where the “large fish” roam, feeding time was a frenzy as literally schools of fish battled it out
•    Finally, the sea otters were just fun. Were arrived at opening times where these playful creatures took their ice coated foot and knocked it against the outside wall to crack it.

All in all, Disney nature at its finest.

Edge of nature 1

Smokey Nature – Route 876b
The second trip was to the Yosemite National Park, and encompassed bitey nature but thankfully Disney nature towards the end, otherwise it would have been a disappointing trip.

The first thing you notice about Yosemite was how inconveniently it is located. I mean, this is America, I am sure they could have put it next to a big town, built a monorail or at least paved a major highway, but no, it has to be in the middle of nowhere necessitating hours of driving. The route is made longer if all the semi-convenient entrances to the park are out of service due to huge fires blazing across the landscape. Land of convenience? I say no.

We arrived, eventually, though the south gate, furthest from fires and went on a little trek to visit some impressive, gigantic sequoia trees. We parked next to a fat guy enjoying nature, fast asleep in his car with all the windows shut, a neck pillow, a McDonalds bag next to him, and the motor running to keep the air conditioning running. We left him and trekked up the 2 mile path to see these awesome trees (largest trees in the world, some over 1,000 years old) and enjoy their vibrant colours and even walk through one hollowed out trunks. The protection of these trees outstanding natural beauty was one of the original reasons Yosemite became a State park. We returned over an hour later, and left the guy sleeping, engine still running – doing his part for mother nature.

The other area of outstanding natural beauty that John Muir sought to protect when he suggested creating the 3,081 km² park was the Yosemite valley, the most visited part of the park – an incredible gorge caved out of the surrounding mountains by a massive glacier. As we drove towards it, we stopped at the view points to see the “incredible sights”, which for us consisted mostly of forest fire smoke accompanied by swarms of bugs – very disappointing.

The second disappointment was the hotel. I had decided to push the boat out on this trip, and had splashed out big-time for 2 nights at the “Yosemite Lodge at the Falls” at the base of the highest waterfall in North America, the 739m high Yosemite Falls. However, due to the water shortage and fires, the waterfall was off and we were staying at the “Yosemite Lodge at the dried-out-crevice”.

The theme of no water continued in to the next day. We hired bikes to transverse the valley and admire the smoke banks drifting through. Fed up of a uniform mistiness, we stopped off at the sign “Mirror Lake” and hiked for a while. After trekking for what seemed too long, we met up with a ranger who pointed us back the way we came, and told us that the lake was dry due to lack of water. It should be renamed “Mirror Meadow” he quipped. How we did laughed. NOT.

So the day drew to an end, and probably the most exciting thing we had seen was incredible inventiveness to produce the ultimate bear-proof rubbish bin.

But the next morning the wind had changed direction and what a difference a day makes. Bright sunshine greeted us as we got up early for a hike – and this time I was going to see working waterfalls come hell or high-water (pun intended). The guidebook classifies the hike up the to the Vernal and Nevada falls as a 5-6 hour “demanding” hike with an elevation change of 570m (1,900 ft). Demanding it may have been, but the truly extravagant scenery, seen clearly for the first time, distracted us from aching calves and throbbing thighs. The falls too were pretty magnificent, even with reduced water flow. We didn’t fancy continuing up another 800m to the top of the half dome, so after a great photo opportunity we started the long hike down.

So after a bit of a ropey start, the trip had ended Disney well. We saw no bears, got fleeced at the hotel and the park restaurants, but the final day made it all worthwhile. Yosemite is definitely worth visiting, but probably in spring when there is more water. And less smoke.

Edge of Nature 2

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