It was a sunny Sunday morning with light brisk winds, a perfect day for a family sail after weeks of incessant rain. We climbed aboard, cast off, and motored out of our berth.
Immediately an alarm sounded from the panel in the cockpit. I heard it from the bow where I was keeping lookout, but I had only just replaced the depth sounder and had not calibrated it, so I assumed that it was responding to the shallow bottom under the keel. At any rate, squeezing out between rows of expensive boats on a blustery day is not the time to be focussing on electronic problems.
The alarm cut in and out as we navigated around the pontoons, and as we passed out into deep water through the arms of the breakwater I waited for the it to stop. It didn’t, and I saw Bronwyn duck forward from the helm to look more closely at the panel, and she shouted, “it says Low Press”.
I stuck my head down the hatch and found that our nice clean white bilges were awash with engine oil.
Despite having lost all its oil, the one-cylinder donk was still plugging away, so we used it to get to a nearby mooring buoy. A gust caught us and we missed, and had to go round again, praying that the engine would keep on going. It did, we tied up, and killed the motor.
We were stuck out in the Derwent River, on a mooring of unknown provenance. It looked big and well-kept, but we’d never seen anybody use it before.
We had the dinghy on board, although it temporarily lacked either a drainage bung or rowlocks. Still, it was easily enough to get the family back to the marina with diligent use of kayak paddles. We tied up the dinghy in our berth, and went home.
On Monday, we arranged for the yacht club to give us a tow to the yard, so that we could get her out of the water and have a look. It wasn’t really necessary to get her up on land, but she was overdue for an antifoul anyway, and because we bought her quickly for cash, we’d never seen her bottom, so it seemed like a reasonable opportunity to kill several birds with one stone.
As soon as we were up on the cradle, I pumped the oil out of the bilge and cleaned up the mess. The bilge pump – which had never worked very efficiently – was saturated in oil so I took it home for a clean. The unused piping for the water tanks (I’d removed three large tanks when we set her up for sailing rather than live-aboard) was similarly contaminated, so they went too.
The engine was pristine and clean. There was no sign of any leaks, no trails of oil, nothing. The engine sat on its blocks, and the oil sat beneath, with no indication of how it got out.
The oil filter felt rough to touch underneath, and I wondered if it had developed a pinhole. It was very, very tightly fitted, and there was evidence (in the form of crinkles on the underside) that somebody had cranked it on with a strap wrench. I had to puncture it to get it off, so destroyed any real evidence of pinhole leakage. There were also two metal oil pipes that dipped down into the bilges, where they had likely sat in rainwater for some time while the boat was unattended before we bought it, and these pipes showed a crusting of rust. I dismantled it all and ordered replacement parts.
In the meantime, I got busy with the hull. Once I’d power-washed and chipped off all the shellfish, the fibreglass was down to a previous layer of paint, and the steel keel was practically back to metal. There was a chunk missing from the rudder, where an exposed internal screw head was now visible. I applied two-pack resin where appropriate, and two-pack underwater undercoat wherever I thought I needed it.
I would have preferred to rub the whole keel down and apply a smooth finish to the anti-foul, but time was short, the cradle was needed for racers rubbing down for the start of the season, and I did also have to work at my day job. A couple of top coats applied with a roller would have to suffice, on this occasion. She looked OK though.
While she was out of the water, I replaced the sacrificial anodes. The keel anodes were ready for replacement, but the one on the prop shaft was in relatively pristine condition, most likely because it hadn’t been fitted properly and only sat loosely on the shaft. To be fair, the previous owner had warned me that he had replaced it in the water and he wasn’t certain that he had tightened it enough, so I was glad to see any anode at all. I had a working theory that if the shaft anode wasn’t functioning fully, enough current might have leaked to burn a pinhole in the thinnest mild steel in the engine, which would be the oil filter.
The new set of (very expensive) oil pipes arrived from Yanmar. When the dealer got them out of the box, my first response was, “Gosh, they’re so shiny!”
He gave me a knowing look and said “Aaaah, you’ll have the old ones, then.” Some years back, Yanmar changed the design from steel to copper because of corrosion issues. Not quite a smoking gun, but a useful pointer that I might be on the right track.
I fitted the pipes, and then briefly fired up the engine. It started, didn’t knock, and the oil stayed in. I only let it run for about 15 seconds because there was no seawater coolant in the intakes. The proof would be when we put her back in the water and warmed the engine up, but at least there weren’t fountains of oil everywhere.
Pausing only to give the bilges a final clean, and then pessimistically lining them with puppy pads, we pushed her back into the sea.
We tied her up to the jetty, and fired up the engine. We stared fixedly at the bilges. Neither oil nor water appeared.
We waited, and listened to the rhythmic pop-pop-pop of the single cylinder. There was no oil in the bilges.
We put her into gear and strained the engine against the mooring ropes. There was no oil in the bilges.
We sat around until she was good and warm, and until the waiting rubberneckers had lost interest and got back to work, and then we quietly backed off the pontoon and opened her up. She had far more power than we were used to, and her bow pointed eagerly out into the river. She ran like silk.
Our new boat leaked when it rained. It wasn’t subtle; water poured in around the badly sealed acrylic windows, and through the screw holes, and through the wooden framing.
Given the sheer volume of rain water that we were pumping out of the bilges on every visit, it was clear that this was Item 1 on the agenda.
For the last decade, Cheval de Mer had been sitting in her berth, with the starboard side facing into the prevailing weather. The port side wasn’t too bad, but to starboard the paint had flaked off, and parts of the forty-year-old marine-ply superstructure had degraded to such an extent that they were water-permeable.
My first task was to undo the dozens and dozens of dome-nuts that held the windows on. This was tricky without an assistant, and I didn’t have a mole-grip to hand. I rigged up a spanner hanging from a line on the outside, which provided just enough resistance to undo the screw from the inside. Then return outside to reset the spanner, then back inside. Repeat… it took a while.
The old acrylic windows to starboard then popped out easily in a flurry of weathered wood-flakes.
The port-side windows were fixed with sterner stuff. They had been glued in with a strong sealant, and the only way to get them out was to shatter them with a blunt implement. Eventually I extracted all the shards from the frame, only to find that the sealant itself was still firmly bonded to the paint all down the port side, completely immune to scraping. I got it off by applying a heat-gun, which didn’t affect the sealant but which bubbled up the paint underneath so that I could get the whole mess off with a scraper.
Even though the wood was sodden in places, once covered in a tarpaulin it dried out without warping, although there were significant cracks and dints. Woodwork is not my favourite activity, so I cast around for an easier way to repair the damage. It was then that I discovered the delights of the amazing West System 105 epoxy resin.
This stuff is incredible. You mix it up and slather it onto wood (or fibreglass), and it soaks its way inside the layers, chasing away any water, and then sets to a hard but slightly flexible finish. I spent several days happily painting it onto the exposed wood, and watching it vanish completely inside, before finally it had seeped in everywhere it wanted to go and the final coat stayed on the surface, looking like a thick varnish.
You know how this goes. Sand, fill, sand, fill, sand, fill…
Once I’d done the major work with West System 105, I filled small imperfections with Knead-It, a two-part filler that comes in a handy tube which means that you can just tear off exactly the amount that you need. Eventually there were so many different colours and textures that I couldn’t work out by eye what was flat and what wasn’t, so it was time to add some paint.
I used Norglass Shipshape two-pack primer, which sticks to pretty much everything that my boat is made of. On my first go, I made the mistake of brushing it straight after mixing, when it was still runny and very hard to work with, but I learned to patiently wait the crucial first ten minutes for it to go off. It went on pretty well after that.
Once it was all the same colour, my eye was no longer distracted by all the different textures, and I could properly see the lumps and bumps that needed sanding and filling.
A second coat of primer, a final sand and minor filling, and then a top-coat of two-pack Norglass Norcote. For a short while, at least one part of the boat looked like a million dollars.
I waited a couple of hours for it to dry, but the weather was against me. The temperature was hovering around ten degrees, which is the minimum for curing, and the surface stayed resolutely tacky. Rain was forecast and I had to pick up my daughter from school, so I covered the boat in a tarp.
That night, the wind blew the tarp in so that it stuck to the paint, and I had to peel the whole thing off. Then I had to sand off most of my hard-won polished finish, and deal with some slumping that had occurred in the cold of the night. But at least the surface was now relatively flat and white, and I could move on to the next phase.
Using butcher paper taped to the dock, I made up templates of the new windows that I wanted to fit. They were significantly larger than the originals, because I wanted to completely cover the areas that had been weakened by screw-holes.
Following local advice, I took the templates to Eagle Plastics in Hobart, who gave me a warm welcome and made me some lovely new acrylic windows, 5mm thick with a bevelled edge and a smoky tint.
Scrolling through sailing forums, it soon became clear that the only choice for adhesive was 3M Very High Bond (VHB) tape, which was readily available on the internet from Embossing and Tape Supplies (ETS). This double-sided tape is incredibly easy to use and forms a powerful bond with both the acrylic window and the painted boat.
For the first window, I did make a mistake, in that I didn’t quite butt up the black tape to completely hide the underlying white paint. I had thought that the tint and the shadow would hide the joins, but I was wrong.
In retrospect, I should have used a little black paint either on the window frame or around the inside edges of the window, but such is the power of VHB that you only get the one chance: Once the window was in, I wasn’t going to get it out again without a large hammer.
I did better with the rest of the windows, though. You live and learn.
And finally, to make the whole thing waterproof, I needed to run beading around the outside edges.
Now, according to the forums, there is one and one only solution, and that is to use Cow Dorning’s CowSil 795. In my innocence I had assumed that I would just go and buy some when I needed it, but this American product is not widely available in Tasmania, and I wasn’t going to wait to have it shipped from the US.
I contacted the local Fibreglass Shop who advised that their marine customers have always had good results with an Australian product, FixTech FS200, and moreover they had it waiting for me in stock.
I got out the 3M Scotch blue (in my opinion the only worthwhile masking tape), and carefully taped both the acrylic window and the surrounding painted woodwork.
Like any silicone product, it was quite messy and needed care, but I found that it went on easily enough as long as I didn’t apply it too thickly. The back of a bamboo teaspoon gave a nice finish.
I removed the tape straight away, which gave me the chance to fix up any over-thick portions with my trusty wooden spoon (wetted with soapy water) before it started to cure. No matter what you do, silicone gets everywhere, but I found that dropped spots were easily removed with Goof Off, which also served to clean my spoon and fingers between applications.
I used to play in the surf when I was younger, usually in a kayak, sometimes on wind-surfers and occasionally on long-boards, always in the freezing deep and stormy Atlantic off the coast of Wales. We never had any surf lessons but had a lot of fun.
More recently, in the warmer waters of Australia, and especially now that our daughter is older, we have spent some time on boogie-boards.
I have also started going out on my inflatable stand-up paddle-board, but while I am fine in lagoons and in flat waters, as soon as I hit any surf, I fall off.
Some time ago, we booked surf lessons with Broulee Surf School on the New South Wales coast, but what with COVID-19 and interrupted travel plans, we never got to take them. Roll on to this week, and we were staying at our favourite holiday house in Lilli Pilli, just up the road from Broulee, and so finally we were able to take them up.
We arrived in the morning to a good rolling swell of late-breaking waves. Recent storms had rearranged the bottom to provide an interesting selection of rips and hollows. Three of us met Robert, our instructor, for a couple of hours of personal lessons.
Robert was very relaxed and confident, but must have wondered what he’d let himself in for with three middle-aged suburbanite newbies. Our first exercise was to lie on our boards on the sand, and lift into a push-up and then downward dog… and repeat. In retrospect, I wonder how many people fail that first test?
Since I was in the water, and didn’t feel like breaking out the Go-Pro, I don’t have any photos of us, but I do have pictures of Berrima doing the same course on a different day.
Once we’d mastered the art of correctly placing our feet, it was time to get into the water.
Once again, Robert instilled us with confidence, holding the board as we lay prone, and then gently pushing us onto smaller waves so that we could pop up and practice the standing manoeuvre.
As we got more confident, he pushed us onto bigger and bigger waves. Sometimes we wiped out, but the first time that I pumped the board from side to side to steer all the way to the beach, I was so stoked. A huge grin split my face. I was surfing!
Of course, Robert was doing all the set-up and positioning me perfectly on each wave. When I tried catching my own, it didn’t go nearly so well! But the buzz was amazing. Even with the relatively small waves, it was very tiring to fight back out to where Robert bobbed beyond the break, but every time I struggled straight back out, knowing already that I wanted the next run to be better.
Each time he set me up for a wave, Robert just offered me one quiet piece of advice before letting me go. He didn’t need to do more than that, because it quickly became clear as soon as I was moving whether or not I’d made a mistake, even (as I quickly found out) a recoverable one. Whether it was a complete wipe-out or (whoop! whoop!) a great run all the way to shore, a minute later I was swimming back out shaking my head, determined to do better on the next run.
We were driving from Hobart in Tasmania to Lilli Pilli in New South Wales for a beach holiday, but rather than do the whole thing in one boring drive, we decided to pitch camp a couple of times, and visit the Colquhoun Mountain Bike Trail in Victoria along the way.
On our previous mountain bike adventure we had rented bikes on site, but this was supposed to be a budget trip, so we decided to bring our own bikes with us, particularly as Bronwyn had just bought a perilously expensive e-bike.
This entailed the purchase of a hitch-mounted bike rack that could take the weight of the e-bike. After some research we found that there was only really one make and model available to us in Hobart at short notice, the Yakima Hold-Up, so we went with that one.
When folded, the rack occludes the car’s number plate, and when loaded with bikes, it partially occludes the number plate and also some of the lights. I was concerned about the legality of driving around like this, but after attempting to order a bike rack number-plate from Service Tasmania (sorry, not available for up to six weeks) and an accessory light-bar (sorry, not available at any cost), we took local advice (“just go, nobody cares”) and headed for the ferry terminal.
Since it was a public holiday weekend, we passed a number of police breathalyser and speed checks and so on and indeed discovered that nobody seemed to care.
The Spirit of Tasmania ferry arrived in Melbourne after a calm overnight crossing of the Bass Strait, and as soon as we disembarked, we breakfasted on the beach close by the terminal.
Breakfast done, we headed East through Gippsland, stopping on the way for a gentle cycle around a lake, then moving on to the Colquhoun Mountain Bike Park which really blew us away. It’s a free track inside the State Forest, consisting of a figure-of-eight black diamond track a little over 15km long, amusingly called the Scalectric Loop. Given our amateur status, we decided to tackle just the bottom ring of the 8 on this occasion, although we left open the idea of completing the top ring if we felt up to it.
The ride began on the Start Line Track, which was comprised of gentle rolling turns through beautiful forest before devolving into the Lollipop Track. This second part is hilarious. It follows the line of a muddy creek down hill, sweeping down to cross the creek before turning back to cross it again… and again… and again…
Each crossing had muddy water at the bottom, or a steep muddy descent, or a steep muddy climb out the other side, or some combination of all three. And it crossed, and crossed, and crossed back and forth. I have no idea how many times we splashed through the creek. Bronwyn was OK on her e-bike, and little Berrima was fine with her unlimited low-to-the-ground seven-year-old energy, but my 20-year old Giant hybrid bike with city tyres was in a permanent slide, and at one point I lost focus for a fraction of a second and crashed somewhat spectacularly, thankfully missing most of the trees alongside the muddy descent, but banging my knee pretty hard.
After many, many creek crossings and perhaps 6 kilometres we were starting to feel a bit tired, even though by now the Lollipop Track had turned into the less demanding Log Track. We were quite relieved to find a signposted ‘B-line’ which skipped the last few crossings and allowed us to quit the trail and ride back to the car park, covered in mud and very satisfied.
We’re certainly keen to see what lies beyond, in the top half of the figure-eight, but will need to return with adequate food and water and a whole day to do it.
For the moment, though: Back to the car, back to the tent, then next morning we were on the road again and heading toward our next camp site.
Our new house is within easy striking distance of a handful of “gravity” downhill mountain bike trails. Our daughter Berrima is nearly seven, and we reckoned that she was strong and confident enough on a bicycle for us to all try this new sport as a family.
Finding ourselves with a spare week due to a pandemic-cancelled holiday, we loaded the car with camping gear and set off for the two-hour trip from Hobart to Maydena, billed as “the largest gravity park in the Southern hemisphere”.
We stopped at the Mount Field campground which is convenient to Maydena, inexpensive and very pleasant. It is situated on the banks of the Tyenna River in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. After a comfortable night, we struck camp and headed for Maydena.
Maydena Mountain Bike Park
The town of Maydena, population 200, really only contains the Bike Park and a small cafe. We drove right into the park, rented some lightweight Trek bikes with fat tyres and front suspension, and rolled up to the trail head. This was really a dirt bus stop where you could choose either a minibus with a trailer which took serious riders 820m vertically to the top of the mountain, or a Canam quad with five tow-bar hangers which took beginner and intermediate riders up the steep trail to the top of the ‘green’ runs. We chose the quad. Berrima’s bike was too small for the hangers, but fitted neatly into the luggage tray on the back of the Canam.
As we bounced up the fire trail, the driver helpfully pointed out some landmarks, such as the point where the championship run jumps completely over the access trail. After only five or ten minutes, he left us standing in the middle of a shady rain-forest, pointing us in the direction of a thin track disappearing into the shadows.
The path sloped suspiciously upward, but our guide had warned us that it was only for the first dozen metres or so, and after that it was all gravity, so we shrugged and set off.
He was not wrong. The trail began to descend steeply, and before long we were flying round steeply sloping berms as we zig-zagged wildly down through the forest. The bikes were reliable, the surface smooth granite, the sun was shining, the forest was beautiful.
After some time we dropped out of the tree-line into an area of fox-gloves in full flower, butterflies flitting above as we rocketed down the side of mountain. It was exhilarating for all three of us, but especially Berrima who delighted in hitting the berms at full speed.
Once at the bottom, it was time to catch the Canam back to the top and do it all again.
When it was time for lunch, we briefly considered the onsite canteen – just crisps and sandwiches really – and then stepped outside of the gates to the only other business in Maydena, the Fika Time cafe / petrol station, which advertised great coffee and gluten-free food. Sadly, it was not to be. The ‘small black’ coffee when it came was enormous and bitter, and we waited and waited for our simple three serves of eggs. Eventually, two plates arrived, but one of them was wrong and had to be replaced. When the replacement arrived – but not the third lunch – we were starving, so we shared the two eggs between us. Eventually we asked about the third portion, which set off this whole diatribe about how they were very busy (they weren’t) and COVID and goodness knows what else. Then mysteriously they weren’t able to refund the third meal, so we took a cake in lieu, which wasn’t anywhere near the correct value, and went back to the bike-park cafe for some crisps before continuing our ride.
The Friendly Beaches and the Bay of Fires
From Maydena to the next nearest mountain bike park in St Helens is about a four-hour drive, so we broke the journey along the coastline, taking in some of the famous beaches and enjoying an impromptu steak by the side of the road.
We had booked a couple of nights at an unpowered site at the rather spectacular Tasman Holiday Park on the Bay of Fires in St Helens. It is spectacular not so much for the park itself (although it is a very well appointed caravan park), but for the tremendous Parkside Bar and Kitchen, where we enjoyed some wonderful meals, a great wine list, and impeccable service.
St Helens Mountain Bike Park
While it is theoretically possible to rent mountain bikes from Gravity Isle at the St Helens park itself, their website was being uncooperative, so we had arranged a day’s hire with Vertigo in town, who offered a shuttle up to the trail head as part of the package.
There is a further shuttle that takes you higher to the more advanced runs, but the way that the St Helens green runs are arranged is that they leave from and return to the same trail head. Because the green trails go up and down but start and finish at the same altitude, they involve a lot more pedalling than the downhill runs at Maydena. Thus although the runs are shorter, they are a lot more tiring.
As well as pedalling through pretty forests, the designers had also made the trails interesting, with rocks interspersed with mud, berms, tree-trunks, exposed roots, and the occasional little stump jump.
Half way through the day, we bought lunch at the converted shipping container that served as a cafe at the trailhead. Following our culinary experience at Maydena, we were a little hesitant, and indeed weren’t unduly shocked when we were presented with microwaved burgers and oven chips, with the meat still frozen in the middle.
Everything else about this new sport seems to be high-end; the land areas are huge, access is difficult, staffing levels are high, and the bikes and equipment are eye-wateringly expensive to buy. But in the realms of food preparation, at two out of three of the top gravity venues in Tasmania, we found ourselves underwhelmed by the food. Don’t mountain-bikers eat?
Luckily we had packed some chocolate bars, so we wolfed them down and drank some water and got back on the trails. By the time we’d tried all the green trails several times, we were tired and ready to stop. The exit run is called ‘Downtown’ and is a beautiful ride down the mountain, through the forests to sea level, with fast descents and switch-back berms. It was a lot of fun in itself, and finished with a gentle ride along the St Helens foreshore.
Back at the Parkside Bar in St Helens, over very welcome gourmet food and drinks, we mused that we could get used to this as a family adventure, and are looking forward to the next one.
We have just purchased a pocket cruiser, registered as a 1978 Snook 26. Since there is no record of Michael Snook ever designing a 26-foot version of his famous racing boat, we were curious about her history. Luckily for us, a previous owner had left on board a potted history of the yacht.
She was originally launched as a standard Snook 22 racing yacht, purchased by a Steve Lovell, whose nickname was ‘Shovel’. He raced her as ‘Shovel’ out of Bellerive in southern Tasmania.
A year later, he hauled her out and cut her in half with a chainsaw. Aided and abetted by Michael Snook himself, he spent three weeks inserting a four-foot pre-prepared centre section, increasing the total length to 26 feet (a change from 6.7 to 8 metres). To balance the boat, they moved the keel aft, and increased the draft from 1.3 to 1.7 metres. Arguably just for fun, they also increased the height of the mast to a 9 metre luff, and extended the boom out to 3 metres.
In this new format, Shovel raced very successfully, and – by virtue of the extended cockpit (which was known locally as ‘the beer garden’) – became a popular venue for post-race drinks and, by all accounts, some pretty disreputable parties.
At some point in the nineteen-eighties, Steve sold Shovel and moved to the mainland. The next known report is from a subsequent owner, Dennis, who found her in a dilapidated state in Devonport in Northern Tasmania. Dennis helped the then owners to rebalance the boat – now known as ‘Kermit’ – as a cruiser, and later bought her from them and sailed her back to Hobart. He reported that, even detuned, she was still very fast, with a propensity for surfing on the swell that had to be continually damped by means of trailing drogues.
Now berthed at the marina, Dennis and Fiona fitted her out as a live-aboard cruising boat. To increase the living space, they lifted the coach roof to give 6 feet of headroom while extending the cabin back into the ‘beer garden’ to return it to a more reasonably sized cockpit. They added a larger rudder, a pushpit, an inboard Yanmar engine, and had the interior fitted out with bunks, drawers, sinks, table, chairs and a head.
They wanted to rename her, too, and were keen to retain some reference to the Snook’s long and interesting history. After some thought, ‘Shovel’ became ‘Cheval’, and then by obvious inference, ‘Cheval de Mer’.
Dennis and Fiona lived aboard for some 13 years, and I infer from the charts that I found in a stern locker, that they travelled to the mainland and then up the NSW coast at least as far as Port Stephens.
In around 2004 she was back in Hobart, and was acquired by Tom as a permanent live-aboard. He didn’t sail her much, but made some changes more in keeping with her new function as a stationary home. About five years later, Tom’s work took him to the US, where he remained for two years. Cheval de Mer slowly aged in the marina, starboard side facing into the weather, where the paint abraded away from the coach house and she began to leak.
On his return, Tom found himself in changed circumstances and living on land, and he just wanted to pass the yacht on to somebody who would appreciate her. And that is where we came in.
Despite spending nearly a decade largely stationary, her hull seemed sound, the moving parts were all still moving, and the only issues seemed to be with the ply of the cabin top. In the middle of a pandemic and with the marina’s hard-standing already full of racing yachts getting tuned for the season, taking her out of the water for an inspection was a non-starter, so we took a deep breath and bought her warts and all without either a test sail or a professional survey.
As soon as we took possession, we emptied her out, and took her out on the water. She performed beautifully in the gusty light winds of the day, with a slight tendency to lee helm as she appeared to be massively over-powered. Considering her history, that’s not at all surprising, and we’re happy that we just need to settle in and get comfortable with her.
Some years ago, we sold our live-aboard cruising yacht Elizabeth when we decided that we weren’t brave enough to continue with our world cruising plans in the company of a small baby. In the intervening years, we have often looked in a dreamy way at the yacht listings, but it was never either practical or the right time. Finally, however, the stars aligned in our favour: We found ourselves living by the coast on the island of Tasmania, next to arguably the best cruising ground in Australia, and our daughter turned six and began to show an interest in the world of sailing.
We were monitoring the sales listings for live-aboard cruising yachts around the Southern hemisphere, and looking for something a lot cheaper and older than either of our previous standard production boats Pindimara or Elizabeth. We reckoned that we were now experienced enough to tackle something a little more bespoke and unusual, and there were plenty of interesting candidates out there, many of which had been circumnavigating with families aboard for years.
We had been talking to agents in the US and New Zealand, and although there were plenty of boats for sale, we were prevented from travelling to either destination by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Then a couple of interesting yachts popped up right in our own neighbourhood, and we went to have a look. On the walk back from the marina berth of a particularly interesting steel-hulled Adams 35, we passed a lovely little blue pocket cruiser with a hand-written ‘for sale’ sign tied to the shrouds.
The owner, Tom, was aboard, and showed us around. She was a sound 26-footer that had been used for several decades as a live-aboard at the marina, but all her rigging was in place and she had a newish engine and, we were told, a full sail inventory. Tom had been stuck in the US for the last two years due to work and the pandemic, and so the little boat had sat wallowing unattended for all that time and now sported flaking paint on the coach house and significant rain-water in the bilges. Nevertheless, she appeared to be fundamentally sound, had a recent insurance survey, and was very very cheap as the owner had moved ashore and didn’t need her as a home any more.
As a coastal pocket cruiser, she wasn’t at all the kind of boat that we’d been looking for, but she felt good aboard and the price was very appealing. We slept on the idea, and then realised that this might be exactly the kind of yacht that we needed. Because our 6-year old daughter had just started school, we were unlikely to need an ocean-capable cruising yacht in the near future, and knew from experience that such vessels can be horribly expensive to keep in trim if only sailed at the weekend rather than cruising aboard. We have regular jobs and a couple of building projects on the go, and wouldn’t be sailing on a daily basis. Furthermore, at only 26 feet and steered with a tiller, she might be just the boat to teach an enthusiastic little girl how to sail.
We had thought that whatever boat we finally purchased, we would keep her on our own mooring near to our bush property to the south of the island. However, Tom had already established that the marina would be happy for us to take over the lease on the existing berth, which was only minutes from our newly built house.
We handed over the cash, and are now proud owners of an elderly but cute Snook 26, named Cheval de Mer.
From our house in Kingston, Tasmania we could see snow up on Mt Wellington, so we thought we’d go up and have a closer look. There is a road that leads from Hobart city centre up to the Pinnacle, but it’s sometimes closed to traffic in inclement weather, so we booked a ticket on the Mt Wellington Explorer bus which always has access through the snow gates.
The bus has the advantage of being a hop-on hop-off so you can take advantage of the many trails that lead up and down and around the mountain, and still always get home by flagging down the bus at one of the stops. We hadn’t realised that we would be getting an entertaining guide in the form of the driver, but we did, a wide-ranging history of settlements on and around the mountain.
Up at the top, at 1271 metres, we had snow to play in, and marvellous views of the surrounding islands and bays.
It was frankly freezing in the wintry wind. The temperature at the top of Mt Wellington is usually several degrees colder than Hobart at sea level, and the reason that Hobart is such a comfortable place to live, is that the mountain takes the brunt of all the Antarctic weather.
The bus waits at the top for about half an hour on each trip. We’d spoken to the driver about which walks might be good today, and it was his opinion that the tracks from the Pinnacle were all treacherously icy today, so he recommended dropping us at The Chalet so that we could do the 4km Organ Pipes Track down to The Springs. He also offered to radio the next bus so that they knew to expect us.
The Chalet was an interesting place, a stone hut clearly meant to provide shelter from inclement weather. It had a barbecue outside for sunny days, and a large fireplace and a stack of firewood for those who might be cold and wet.
The Springs is downhill from The Chalet, but the path confusingly sets off upward and back towards The Pinnacle. However, it soon sorts itself out and gently follows the contours down towards the base of the Organ Pipes, the most obvious feature of the mountain when viewed from afar.
First, though, it crosses an enormous boulder field, remnants of the great “Glenorchy landslide” of 1872, Tasmania’s most devastating recorded landslip which destroyed a fair few properties on its way to the sea, thankfully with no loss of life. If the same thing happened today, the consequences on North Hobart would be disastrous.
These days, the boulder fields are well bedded in and are popular with climbers.
The original Organ Pipes track was built, along with much of the mountain’s infrastructure, in the early 1930s as a way to provide work for the huge numbers of unemployed following the Great Depression (the unemployment rate in Tasmania was 27% in 1931). The work was back-breaking but stood the test of time, with the tracks only being reworked in 2017, itself a mammoth task taking two years.
The new path is constructed largely from painstakingly laid natural stones. and is in itself quite beautiful.
After a while, the Organ Pipes themselves came into view on the right hand side, a formation of massive dolerite pipes. Several marked trails led in that direction, bearing the warning, “suitable only for climbers”.
The track then descends into mountain woodlands, with birds flitting about and, on our visit, flowers breaking out to herald the Spring. The purity of the air is demonstrated by the festoons of lichens hanging from the tree branches and clinging to the rocks.
As we descended out of dry sclerophyll and into wet heath forest, we encountered some interesting shrubs endemic to Tasmania, including Richea dracophylla which was just starting to bud.
Shortly after this, the track was crossed by a noticeable scar caused by the passage of an enormous rock, 50 tonnes of dolerite that parted company with the Organ Pipes in 2014 and came to rest on the downhill side of the track. Looking uphill, the boulder’s path is still vivid, all the way to the top.
Down at The Springs, with its cafeteria and car park, we found the bus waiting for us at the bus stop, which took us down to the city for a spot of lunch.
Wellington Park, which at 30km across is one of the largest reserved areas in Tasmania (outside the incredible World Heritage Area), is criss-crossed with interesting trails like this one, and we will be back to do some more.
It all started out so simply. Since we had been forced to put our plans for an off-grid house in the forest on the back burner, and had quickly built a different house on an urban block nearby, we were left with 14 acres of woodland which would provide us with an endless supply of firewood and the odd camping weekend, and… what else?
I could grow vegetables. And perhaps honey. Maybe ducks.
But let’s start with vegetables.
I decided that my preference would be to work in 10m x 5m plots. I find that area easy to handle with manual tools and, let’s face it, the dimensions make the math easy. Having several identically-sized autonomous blocks, rather than a rambling smallholding, also means that if disaster (irrigation failure, possum attack) visits one block then I haven’t lost everything.
The land slopes at around 8-10 degrees, so I needed to choose my sites carefully if I was to avoid repeatedly staggering up and down from the tool shed. Given that our access road leads only to our putative building site, and that the site itself is still largely covered in freshly felled trees, my options were somewhat limited. In the end I chose a slightly undersized area close to the tool shed, near to a line of native cherry and sedge which appear to define an underground seep.
I unlimbered the trusty mattock, and set to work.
With the area cleared of Common Heath, ferns and debris, I set up a 1.8m fence to keep out the wallabies and possums, and dug over to about 10cm. The soil is sandy clay, and pretty easy to manage.
The soil may be easy to work, but it is very poor quality. After some manoeuvring, a helpful fork-lift driver at Horticultural and Landscape Supplies north of Hobart managed to drop a cube-and-a-half bale of SeaGreens kelp compost onto my trailer. I somewhat gingerly towed it to Lymington, and got it up the track.
It took a little while to shovel it out and dig it in, but the plot started to look pretty good.
It was the height of Summer, and the ground was bone-dry. No matter how good my compost, no seeds were going to sprout in these conditions. It was time to install some irrigation.
The irrigation tank
I reckoned that a 2000 litre rainwater tank was probably the biggest I could handle by myself, and should be equal to the needs of my vegetable patch (but read on!).
There are many suppliers of rainwater tanks in Australia, most of whom operate on a just-in-time build-and-deliver business model, which didn’t suit me because access to the property is still problematic, particularly for delivery trucks. However, I happened to be out at Global Poly investigating pumps and cartage when they mentioned that they almost always keep some spare 2000s on the forecourt. I put one on the trailer and took it home.
The builders at our new house in Kingston had finished work, and had left behind a pile of surplus blue-stone from their installation of our household rainwater tanks. Berrima and I shovelled about a tonne into a bulk bag on the trailer, towed it to the forest, and spent a happy afternoon crafting a tank stand.
Now I needed a way to fill up the tank. In the future, I have grand plans to fill all my irrigation tanks from the roof run-off of an oversized shed, but that project is still just a twinkle in my eye. In the meantime, I needed to sort out cartage. There are a number of local water cartage firms who will bring a tanker to your property, but again I was concerned about access for heavy commercial vehicles, so I decided to create my own cartage system.
Originally I looked around for a second-hand Intermediate Bulk Container (IBC). These metal-bound plastic tanks are designed to be handled by a fork-lift and are used all over the world to deliver all kinds of liquid products. They fit neatly onto a trailer or in the back of a ute. It’s usually possible to pick up a food-grade IBC at a reasonable cost, but with COVID playing havoc with the logistics, this was not a good time to try to find one in Tasmania.
Once again, Global Poly came to my rescue. They sell compact ‘Fire Cubes’, designed to be used in conjunction with a generator and a pump in fire-fighting from the back of a ute. At 900 litres, a full tank would exceed the carrying capacity of my trailer, so it would take three partial loads to completely fill up my irrigation tank, which seemed acceptable.
I already had a spare generator that I’d bought for the convenience of the tradesmen working on our Kingston house, and a simple Chinese pump only set me back a hundred dollars or so from my friends at Global Poly, so I was good to go. I pumped water into the cube from my house rainwater tanks, drove to the property, and pumped it back out. And repeat.
I had previously set up small household drip and spray systems running through timers under mains pressure, but I had no real idea how to set up a gravity-fed system on this scale. My gut feel was that, unless I wanted to mess around with tall tank stands, I would need an electric pump to run the system, but I was open to the suggestion of letting it flow out under gravity. There’s a great deal of conflicting and often quite complex advice on the internet, and I wasn’t able to make a firm decision. I did notice that Hobart company Hollander Imports received a lot of local praise. They don’t have a proper web presence, only a Facebook page, so I drove into Hobart and ambled into their office, hoping for some advice.
The gentleman behind the desk listened carefully as I described the size of the tank, the size of the plot, and the slope of the land, and then pronounced the site ideal for a gravity feed system. He loaded me up with coils of piping, constant-pressure drip line, and handfuls of taps, joins and clips. He reckoned that the constant-pressure line would compensate for the change in pressure as the tank emptied, and would provide an even supply of water. He also recommended that I didn’t bother with all the fancy delivery-and-collector patterns published on the internet, but just to run both my plants and my drip lines downhill from a horizontal feed pipe.
The plot is 40 minutes from my house, so I needed a way of automatically turning it on and off as I didn’t want it dripping 24 hours a day (I had nowhere enough water for that!). Hollander Imports sold me a battery-powered mechanical timer, which controlled a simple flow gate.
I took all of it up to the land and, leaving the timer aside for the moment, connected the plumbing components together in their approximate final configuration. I manually opened the tap on the irrigation tank, and it all worked perfectly.
I unplugged the piping from the tank valve, and inserted the timer into the line. It toggled on and off correctly according to its program, but even when “on”, it drastically reduced the flow to a rather pathetic dribble. This needed some more investigation.
The secret is in the timing
There was clearly something not quite right with my choice of timer. Eventually, deep in some technical specifications that I found online, I discovered that the physical valve in the unit requires a minimum head pressure in order to fully open. I scribbled some numbers on the back of an envelope, and clearly the gravity system wasn’t ever going to deliver enough of a head; unless I wanted to raise my 2000 litre tank several metres above the plot, this particular unit required mains pressure to ensure that the valve opened fully.
I did some scouting around, and found a timer that – according not only to the wording on the box, but also to the detailed technical specifications – was designed specifically for gravity-feed drip-lines, which as a bonus allowed the electronic operation of up to four separate gates. I bought one, with a single gate, and set it up.
Unfortunately, this new valve didn’t perform much better than the first one. Despite its advertised capabilities, it too needed a minimum head pressure if the valve was to fully open.
I went back to my original gut feel; I would need a pumped system.
Oh boy, the internet is full of advice about irrigation pumps.
Eventually, though, I found some bloggers who had set up similar small systems, and the general consensus was that you could get good results by using an inexpensive pump from an ornamental garden fountain. These pumps have the double advantage that they operate on a pressure that is low enough not to overload the drip fittings, and they are cheap to replace if they go wrong.
Of course, these pumps need electricity. I got out a couple of solar panels and a battery box which I use to run my Engel fridge while four-wheel-driving and camping. I set this up in my shed, and bought a simple mechanical timer to control the pump.
I turned it on, and the water flowed gently out of the drip feeder. I set it up to run for half an hour, morning and night, calculating that this would use 1000 litres a week, or a fortnight for the full tank. Contented, I drove home.
Where has all my water gone?
A couple of days later, I returned. The soil had clearly been watered, but the tank was empty. That was nearly a thousand litres in two days. Puzzled, I refilled the tank, re-did the math (same answer), and turned down the flow on the pump.
Despite this glitch, the system appeared to be working in the sense that it was wetting the ground, and time was ticking on and I didn’t want to miss the Autumn planting season. It wasn’t perfect, but I needed to plant some seeds.
Tasmanian soil is fairly consistent across the State, and has a mineral profile that lacks certain essential ingredients for vegetable gardening. I had found an organic fertiliser recipe in the excellent book ‘Tasmanian Food Gardening’ by Steve Solomon, and had for some time been tracking down the ingredients from local suppliers.
I mixed up enough for ten square metres, sprinkled it around, and planted the seeds of some winter vegetables. Apart from the niggle of the water usage, everything seemed to be going smoothly.
A few days later I returned, and the tank was once again empty. I had other things to take care of, but the seeds were sprouting and we were in the middle of a drought, so for the next few weeks I was taking every spare moment to drive back and forth, towing thousands of litres of water and pumping them into the ravening maw of my irrigation system.
At last, after several weeks of this craziness, I was able to put aside a whole day to sit quietly without the distractions of work, of house-building, of firewood, or of small children, and to turn the system on and off and to observe it carefully.
Firstly, the mechanical timer was not keeping time at all. During the past fortnight I had noticed that it would be running anything from one to twelve hours behind (or possibly ahead, who knew?). I had it set to switch the pump on for 30 minutes, twice a day, but if the timer wasn’t reliable, how long was it really pumping for?
I took the timer out of the system, and, sitting quietly in the sunshine, began switching the pump on and off manually. Because it’s a low-pressure drip system, it isn’t immediately obvious from the business end whether it’s on or off. Once the pump stops, the pipes spend an appreciable time slowly draining, and you have to watch the drip nodes very closely to see if any water is coming out, especially as – without pump pressure – only the nodes on the underside, hidden against the soil, are working.
Time and patience eventually won out, and I proved to my satisfaction that, once the pump switched off, the pipe continued to siphon slowly throughout the day, quietly draining the tank until it was empty. There was a satisfying magical moment when I turned the pump off and stabbed an air-hole at the highest point of the hose. The system aspirated loudly, and the flow stopped.
When the pump is on, it now spurts a little fountain out of the cut hose, but the water returns to the tank, the pump and drip line compensate for the pressure loss, and the fountain makes a pleasant tinkling sound that tells me when the irrigation is on.
Remember the problem with the mechanical timer? I replaced it with a digital timer, which keeps perfect time. Later, I tried the mechanical timer at home, on mains power, and it ran perfectly; there must be something about running it on the inverter of the battery box that confuses it.
Catching the rain for irrigation
One day, we’ll build a shed with a large roof which will capture tens of thousands of litres, which will solve all our water supply problems. Right now, though, we have other priorities, but I was not unaware of the craziness of towing thousands of litres across country with a big V8 several times a week.
Our builders in Kingston had ordered a batch of incorrectly coloured roofing panels, which were sitting in the garden of our house, awaiting disposal. I put them in the trailer, added a stack of cheap construction timber and some guttering, and built myself a rain-catcher. It won’t really collect a lot of rain in the dry season, but – bearing in mind that the irrigation system is agnostic to the weather, and pumps rain or shine – it keeps the tank topped up in the wet.
Yes, it would be possible to add a rain sensor. It’s on my ‘nice to have’ list.
From our temporary accommodation in Birchs Bay Tasmania, we look out every day across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel to the shores of neighbouring Bruny Island. The ferry operates from Kettering, a few minutes up the road, so it would have been rude not to go and explore.
The island is 50km long and made up of North and South Bruny Islands which are separated by a narrow isthmus, known as The Neck. The North is largely given over to sheep farming, while the South is mostly National Park that is inaccessible to traffic. The easiest way to explore is by boat, and the best way to do this is through Pennicott Wilderness Journeys.
We caught the Pennicott bus from Kettering, which took us across on the ferry and then through North Bruny Island, across The Neck (stopping to look at the views and penguin rookery), and then boarded one of their iconic yellow RIBs at their base (and seafood restaurant) in Adventure Bay.
Almost as soon as we had left the dock, we were surrounded by bottlenose dolphins.
The dolphins loved the powerful wake of the triple 250hp outboards, and our skipper Mick ran doughnuts so that they could play in the waves. As with whales, dolphins have this remarkable ability to make humans laugh and smile when we see them exuberantly playing in the wild. It was a great start to what was going to be a wonderful cruise.
Leaving the dolphins behind, we began to explore the towering columns of Jurassic dolerite that form South Bruny Island’s Fluted Cape. The flat-bottomed boat could get up close and personal with the rock formations and caves, and had more than enough power to get in an out against the swell.
The cliffs are stupendous, among the tallest dolerite columns in the world. They are perforated by numerous sea caves, one of which is largely underwater and forms a spectacular blow-hole as wet air is pumped out by the swell pushing in. The skipper amused the crowd by poking the boat’s bow into the top of the cave as it spat salty spray all over us.
Nearby was an island colony of black-faced shags, who seemed completely unperturbed by our presence. They’re fairly common on islets off Southern Australia, building their nests from seaweed and driftwood.
Rounding the Cape, we found ourselves out in the Southern Ocean. The skipper opened the throttle, the three 250 horsepower Yamahas on the stern kicked in, and we blew past the aptly named Bridge Island, heading South.
We were headed toward a group of four dolerite islands known collectively as The Friars, home to a male colony of rare Australian Fur Seals. They live here in a somewhat cantankerous group, travelling to the Bass Strait to meet up with females in October, each one potentially servicing up to 50 females before returning home, presumably exhausted and ready to rest for another year.
Around the corner is a colony of animals formerly known as New Zealand Fur Seals, more recently termed Long Nosed Fur Seals. They are closely related to the Australian, but form separate colonies.
On a beach all by itself, we were lucky to see an Elephant Seal. A few years ago, an 800kg female of this species rampaged through the camp site at Adventure Bay, damaging a caravan and demolishing fences and picnic tables. She was eventually lured away by a fish on a piece of string. The one that we saw was pretty placid, though.
Turning back toward South Bruny Island, my breath was taken away by the beauty of the landscape. The sea and the sky matched in shades of vivid blue, and across the towering dolerite peaks of Fluted Cape, the highlands of mainland Tasmania loomed in the distance.
We’re living at the bottom of the world, and we love it!
If, Gentle Surfer, you have been following our blog from the beginning, then you will be wondering what happened to our off-grid house in the forest.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all the State borders, it played merry hell with our logistics and we had to temporarily abandon our plans. I had paid off the landscaping and road-building contractors without ever seeing how far they had got with their work. This was my first opportunity in almost a year to see what the site looks like today.
My first priority was the state of the new road into our property. I had arranged, over the phone, for dozens of tonnes of rock to be spread up the lower reaches of the road after it had been levelled, but had no real idea how far the contractors had got or what it was going to look like.
In the event, too much loose rock had been laid over the load that had previously been compacted, making it hard going even for our rented 4WD, and the top part of the road had no aggregate at all, and was starting to grow ferns.
Evidently I’ve got a bit of work to do on the road, over the Summer!
My second priority was to see just how much levelling had been achieved on the actual building site. The contractor had been working on a cut in which we were to build our 6×12 metre shed-cum-solar-farm, and all I knew was that he had made some progress and then had had to stop when the track motor burned out on his digger, for which he was unable to source spare parts due to lockdown in China.
Now that we’ve shifted our primary residence to our other project, we don’t need so many solar panels in the forest and thus such a big shed, but I wanted to know how much levelling had already been done and whether we could build a smaller structure there. At the very least, perhaps we’d have somewhere flat to camp when we visit…
In the event, Dan had done most of the digging-out and about a third of the levelling. It’s not ideal, but is a good start to work with once we finally get down there.
As for the building site itself, well, it’s still liberally scattered with the timber that I felled on my last visit, now nicely overgrown with ferns. My immediate plan is to clear the timber, split it into firewood, build a solar irrigation system, and plant vegetables.
Once the current house build project has finished and we’ve settled in to our new home, the forest will be waiting just down the road. We certainly haven’t given up on that project and have already started thinking ahead and making plans.
As they used to say in the newspaper trade, watch this space!
Our new house in Kingston is almost finished, but – because of pandemic restrictions to cross-border travel – we had still seen neither the house nor the land that it sits on. The whole project had thus far been conducted entirely over the internet.
The border between ACT and TAS opened in mid-November, and Link Airways laid on an unusual direct service from Canberra to Hobart, so we took the opportunity to fly down and – for the first time – see our project in the flesh.
There was a short delay at Canberra Airport when the ground crew realised that the HF aerial had snapped from the top of the fuselage and was wrapped around the tail fin (you can just about see it at the top of the photo below), but in the end we boarded anyway. I chatted briefly to the captain on the way up the stairs, and he quipped “We don’t use HF anyway”.
Although the builders had been good at posting progress photos on the internet, we’d never seen any of it for real, so it was with some trepidation that we approached the building site for the first time.
We were relieved to find that it all looked exactly as we expected.
This visit also gave us a welcome opportunity to look at the surrounding area. The last time we’d seen pictures of the plot was from our bush-fire assessment, when there was nothing there but empty grass. Today, what a different picture!
The fledgling streets are crammed with tradesmen’s vehicles, skips, back-hoes, pile of earth, stacks of temporary fencing. The houses are springing up like mushrooms along the edge of the creek, which has been planted with native shrubs in plastic tubes.
The neighbouring buildings are quite close, so we are glad that we are in a quiet cul-de-sac to the front, with creek and shrubbery to the rear. It will be interesting to meet our new neighbours; from the state of their buildings, it looks like we’ll all be taking up residence together, early in the New Year.
With the foundation posts installed last week, the builders have been working swiftly at the factory to finish the interior of the house. They only had a week to finish up before moving the house 200 km overnight across Tasmania from Westbury, near Launceston, to its final resting place in Kingston, near Hobart.
Yesterday, the tilers finished up the bathrooms, installed the vanities and hooked up the plumbing.
Meanwhile, the cabinet makers assembled the joinery and plumbing in the kitchen and pantry.
The two wings of the house were then separated and lifted onto two low-loaders, which trundled through the night, through the centre of Hobart in the small wee hours, until they reached our plot in Kingston in the early morning.
Now it was just a matter of lifting the two wings onto the pre-prepared pilings…
You can see from the photo that the front of the house isn’t fully clad. This is because there will be a connecting garage in front, but since that will be on a slab, and needs a driveway and crosswalk, it couldn’t be manufactured off site. We believe that this will be built next.
The water and sewage are already in place, and today we spoke to the electrical company about our new account. After that we just need to install the solar heating, the wood stove, the wooden flooring, the raised decks and stairs…
In the Australian building industry, there is a key milestone where a project is deemed to be “Substantially Commenced”. This phrase occurs throughout the legal, contractual, and financial documentation, as well as in both Federal and local government policies. The term is, however, not explicitly defined, neither as a legal term nor in any building code.
In most jurisdictions, in the context of private housing, it is deemed to be the date at which the foundations have been laid. For most projects, which are built in situ from the ground up, it is the first time that the builder breaks ground and does something physical. In our case, because the house is being built off-site, the building was in fact almost complete before it had been “Substantially Commenced”.
Our “Substantially Commenced” date was Wednesday 28th October. On that day, our concrete piers had to have been installed on the land, otherwise we’d miss a load of contractual and financial milestones and generate a whole heap of extra paperwork and expense.
By Wednesday of the week before, we still didn’t have our Permit to Build. On Thursday, the entire planning department took a day off. On Friday, the planning department were back at work, but the only person authorised to sign our Permit to Build, had gone on holiday. On Monday, despite continual prodding by our builders, we heard no more from the department. On Tuesday, our builders sent a work crew for a site check, and discovered that the builders of the properties on either side of us have been using our property as a work site and dumping ground.
One of the clauses in our contract with the builder was that the site must be completely empty before they start work. We contacted the builders on either side, who both admitted liability, and promised to move their stuff immediately.
Late on Tuesday afternoon, only hours before the deadline, we received our Permit to Build.
On Wednesday, the work crew arrived on the property to put in the foundations, and found that (of course), neither of the neighbouring builders had done anything about their junk on our land. Thankfully, one of the crew took it upon themselves to push everything over the boundaries.
Because our project is a post-and-pier construction, which does not involve any excavation or poured concrete, the actual work of building the foundations went very quickly indeed.
Our foundations are now officially down, and we are Substantially Commenced!
It’s been a month since we received our Planning Permit from Kingborough Council, but sadly this didn’t give us the right to actually do anything. Possession of a Planning Permit merely confers upon us the right to apply for a Permit To Build. Until we receive that second document, we can’t even break ground on our land.
Time is ticking on, and Council is still sitting on our Permit to Build. Without that document, we not only can’t build, but we can’t get a loan. The bank are patiently sitting on our loan application, but we’ve already had to ‘refresh’ our loan paperwork once already, when the bank statements and so on that we’d provided went out of date. It is frustrating because we’re still making substantial payments to Get Things Done, and our cash reserves are dwindling. In addition, part of our contracted agreement is that the foundations must be “substantially completed” by early November, and it’s now late October and we can’t get them started.
If we’d been building in the traditional manner, on concrete foundations at our property, we’d now be up the proverbial creek, with no way of getting the build done in time. We are, after all, moving to Tasmania in December.
Luckily, the house is being built off-site as two separate wings in TasBuilt‘s factory, and we had enough cash to get them started with the framing and windows, so they forged right ahead and started building. The framing was done in a couple of days.
Despite the fact that we can’t pay the builders any more money until our loan goes through, their factory has its own timetable and they were keen to continue; a week later they’d installed the windows, electrics, and made a start on the insulation.
A week later, they’d made a start on the roof and cladding, and made good progress on the dry-walling.
Now that the builders have started, it seems that nothing can stop them. The house is due to be completed and moved to our property (on two low-loaders in the middle of the night) in a fortnight’s time. Before it arrives, the foundation posts need to be in place. These are scheduled to go in next Wednesday… and we’re still waiting for the Permit to Build.
Now that our plans had been submitted to the council, all we needed to do was open some champagne, sit back and wait for the build to start, right? Mmmmm no. Not at all. The builder introduced us to the Decor Sheet, a couple of dozen pages in which we needed to itemise in excruciating detail every inch of the exterior and interior of the house.
This was mind-bending stuff. We’d never before realised just how complex a system a house is. Every design decision influences other aspects of the design in ways that are hard to predict until you have gone down the path, and then wound back to try another route. Almost every evening, for months, we fired up the laptop and launched the current version of the Decor Sheet and talked our way through it, again and again, Googling our way through the unfamiliar terms. Did we want square set apertures, droppers, finials? And if so, why?
The first part of the Decor Sheet deals with the outside of the house; building materials, colours and so on. As time went on and we made firm decisions, we signed off first new version A, then version B of the original plans. We then realised that some of the decisions that we’d made about the exterior affected the interior, leading to version C, which raised questions about the roof, which led to version D, and so on.
The “exterior” part of the Decor Sheet needed to be signed off far ahead of the “interior” part, and although it was a bit stressful, we did manage to get it done. The next step was to deal with the “interior” pages, and at about this time, the wheels seemed to come off the builder’s bus. They were supposed to be helping us through the design process, but suddenly they weren’t responding to emails or answering calls. The only response we could get was that they were “very busy”, but that we still needed to complete the Decor Sheet by a specific date, otherwise we would “lose our place in the queue”.
We have no idea how to choose a colour scheme for a house, or how to design a kitchen or bathroom. I mean, why should we? Like anybody else, we know what we like, but how on earth were we suddenly supposed to become interior (or indeed exterior) designers? The builder had originally promised expert guidance, but that guidance was clearly not forthcoming.
For around a hundred dollars, we engaged a “Colourist” through the local paint shop. She was amazing! We had originally intended to talk to her about interior walls, but she got the bit between her teeth and revamped the exterior as well, with full and frank advice about the whys and wherefores of her decisions. We left the shop with an armful of colour chips and, for the first time, a warm fuzzy feeling that we were getting on top of things.
The Kitchen Designer
That warm fuzzy feeling persisted until we started on the kitchen. We already had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the builder’s joiner, whose response to any request for advice about cabinet making was “We can build anything!”, which was hardly helpful. She had a particular penchant for making drawers and cupboards in unusual widths “to make them fit”, without any thought of how we might use them in real life.
With no practical advise forthcoming from that direction, we downloaded the kitchen design tool from Ikea and messed around with it. It’s a great tool, but we still didn’t feel that we were qualified to make our own decisions, so we made an appointment with an Ikea consultant. He came round to the house and at first was unwilling to provide actual advice beyond recommending products that fitted our specifications, but Bronwyn convinced him to think a bit more laterally and a few hours later, the two of them had thrashed out a rather nice design for both the kitchen and the pantry.
All of the cupboards and drawers were carefully designed to match standard-sized Ikea kitchen products, so that we would have no trouble finding inserts and trays for them. We did want the kitchen to be installed by the builder in their factory, rather than after-market by Ikea or anybody else, so we sent the finished design to the builder, who gave it to the joiner, who copied the basic design into his plan, but stretched all the cupboards out “to make them fit”…
We soon sorted out the joiner’s little game, and got the kitchen cabinet plans changed back to the way we’d designed them. However, the whole experience got us thinking about the limitations of having built-in wardrobes and cabinets. After all, if we wanted a wardrobe, we could get a free-standing one, and if we wanted to change the function of the room in the future, we could just move that wardrobe somewhere else. If everything was built-in, which was the builder’s default option, then we would lose that future flexibility.
OK then, we removed all the built-in wardrobes from the Decor Sheet.
For similar reasons, we decided to “Ikea-ise” the bathroom. We’d already decided on the floor and wall tiles, so now this meant also choosing our own bath, vanity units, sinks, taps, and other paraphernalia for each of the two bathrooms.
Some of the items were available from the builder’s own suppliers, so we let them deal with that. Others, such as some fancy tap ware, we purchased ourselves, and will freight directly to the factory. When it came to the bathroom furniture, Ikea Melbourne will deliver to Tasmania via the ferry, but we didn’t want the goods to arrive either too early (and lie around in the factory, potentially getting wet or damaged) or too late (thus delaying the build), so we rented a storage facility close to the factory and had them delivered there.
When the builder is ready to receive them, we’ll hire a local driver to pick the boxes up from storage and take them to the factory.
The Electrical Plan
There’s a part of the Decor Sheet that says “create an electrical plan”. Eh what? So not only are we required to be colourists and furniture designers, now we need to be electricians, too? Apparently.
We knew this was coming, and for months I had been trying to get a template from the builder, so that we had at least a vague idea of what kind of documentation we were supposed to provide. Eventually, after even more bugging and prodding, we received a snippet of somebody else’s Electrical Plan, and found that it was simply a plan view of the house, with all the lights, sockets, switches, data, and specialist power supplies marked.
Sure, we can do that! The power and data plans were reasonably easy; maximum power and data everywhere, to cater for every possible change of use for a room. No worries.
But when we turned to the lighting plan, we ended up once more going down the Google rabbit hole. How many downlights should we have per square metre? What’s the best way to arrange lights in a bathroom? And then, once I’d started drawing in the switches, I realised that you could easily get into a situation where you couldn’t comfortably turn the lights out on your way to bed, or turn them on if you entered through the back door at night, or what if you came out of the office at night and wanted something from the kitchen…?
It was mind-boggling, but I believe that I thought of everything.
As each change is made to the Decor Sheet, it affects the original quoted build price, which was based around a set of standard inclusions. These changes are supposed to be recorded in a document called a Variation; when we remove items from the plan, the price goes down, and when we add new ones, it goes up. At least, that is the theory, but the builder had stopped talking to us and we had no firm idea of where we stood financially. We knew that some of the early changes that we’d made, such as the Velux skylights, and moving the driveway from one side of the plot to the other, were large-ticket items, but we had still received no quote for them. Without knowing how much the build was going to cost, we were running into problems with financial planning.
It wasn’t just the money; we were trying to make important decisions, many of which required interaction with the builder, and it was as if they had just written us off. One night, after poring over the plans and figures and Decor Sheet once again, I got fed up with the whole thing, and emailed the builder to inform them that we were not moving forward with the build or paying them any more money until all of our outstanding questions were answered.
Early the next morning, the somewhat nervous and apologetic builder arranged a Zoom meeting, and shortly after that all the remaining issues had been addressed, including a properly itemised Variation. We spent a couple more evenings going through the dreaded Decor Sheet, checking it line by line, and then we signed it.
We’ve been forced by the pandemic to put our plans for the forest on the back-burner, and instead to build a completely different house on a completely different plot. We now find ourselves under pressure to get the house finished so that we have somewhere to quarantine when/if we are allowed to relocate to Tasmania at the end of the year. At the time of writing, it isn’t clear how we’ll transit intervening Victoria, which is in a declared State of Disaster…
Putting those worries aside, we do need to crack on with our design. There is a tight deadline if we are to submit the plans in time for the builders to start ordering windows and other materiel, in time to get the prefabricated sections delivered to the site by the end of September. To this end, we have been having daily discussions with the builder and with various suppliers (fireplace, flooring, decking, solar heating) to try to get everybody on the same page before we submit the plans to Council.
Since everything is connected to everything else, we also needed to decide on the flooring and the tiles and various finishes up front, so that we have a good understanding of how they all work together; it would be disappointing, for instance, to find on the day that the top of the floor tiles (7mm thick) don’t line up with the top of the wooden flooring (14mm + underlay) and indeed the hearth of the fireplace. This entailed numerous trips to the tile shop, bathroom shop, kitchen shop…
We had engaged a geotechnical engineer (Ian Newell at EAW Geo Services) to perform a soil survey even before our plot purchase was confirmed. We didn’t want any surprises about our foundation requirements, and thankfully we were graded H1 with stiff clay, which won’t give us any problems with a pier foundation.
Even though this is an urban block and not a bush block, we were also required by Tasmanian regulations to determine our Bush Fire Attack Level. We engaged another surveyor (Rebecca Green and Associates) who determined that we were “low risk”, something that we already knew but which needed to be backed up by a certificate as part of our planning application.
Bear in mind that, because of the current ban on interstate travel, we have never actually seen the block that we bought on the internet. One good thing about the Bush Fire Rating is that the surveyor must provide photographs of the surrounding vegetation in their report. Now we have access to current photographs! This gave us our first good view of the neighbouring blocks. We are a little surprised to find that nobody else had started building yet. Are we going to be the first?
Up on stilts
The plans were converging on a solution that fulfilled our requirements, but which didn’t blow our budget too badly. We were aware from Google Earth that there was a slight slope to the land, but since our house would be built on posts rather than on concrete foundations, we weren’t too bothered about it. Our previous plans for the property in Lymington had to deal with a much steeper slope, where we anticipated a deck standing over 3m above the terrain. For the Kingston house, we figured that there would be a drop of less than a metre from the lounge sliding doors to the garden, but we’d sort out some kind of step or low platform after the house was built. The engineers had made a similar assumption, roughing-in a few wooden steps on the design to make the doors accessible, but otherwise leaving them alone. When the rest of the design was largely complete, TasBuilt Homes sent a surveyor with a Dumpy to get accurate readings, and confirmed a fall of about a metre across the whole 30m length of the site.
At about the same time, we were having interesting discussions about the slope of the garage roof. There is a local ordinance that the house and garage have to be roofed with the same material, but the style of Colorbond that we preferred for the house roof requires at least a 5 degree slope for drainage. The garage had a 3 degree slope, and if we increased that to 5, and extended the roof over the front door as a porch as we intended, it would interfere with the opposite eave.
Our choices were either to cut the garage into the ground (which would result in a garage floor below ground level with all the associated drainage issues, and would necessitate a more in-depth geotechnical survey), or to lift the entire house by about 30cm. That was pretty much a no-brainer, but when the architect plugged the new figures into their drawings, they found that the rear of the building would be well over a metre off the ground, and – under current Tasmanian legislation – we would need some enormous balustraded stairways to conform to health and safety regulations. Our slim and minimalist design suddenly sprouted all kinds of ugly appurtenances which pretty much wiped out the entire garden.
In order to get rid of the stairs on our planning application, we needed to bring in the deck design a bit earlier than we had anticipated. After all, it’s just a budget, hey?
Thankfully, Bronwyn had already been talking to a local deck builder, and he was able to quickly come through with some specifications for the planning application. Our main deck, which was originally going to be a low platform along the side of the house (so low that it didn’t need planning permission), was now up on significant stilts, which meant that we’d also need a privacy screen. We also created a small back deck for our bedroom, so that we’ll be able to drink tea as the sun comes up.
It was time to lay down our first serious payment, tens of thousands of dollars, to the builders. They are now submitting the plans to the Council.
Our off-grid house-build in Tasmania has come to a complete standstill, following the builder’s surprise cancellation of the project, and the closure of State borders during the covid-19 pandemic. Dan’s digger – which has been chugging away all this time, clearing and levelling the site – burnt out a track motor, and importing spare parts has become problematic. We can’t get to the site to complete the clearance ourselves or to oversee any decisions due to quarantine regulations, and anyway the importation of building materials for the house, not to mention electronics for the solar array, has become all but impossible.
Our daughter starts school in Tasmania in 2021, and the contract in our current AirBnB in Canberra expires before Christmas 2020. We really need to sort out a Plan B.
We did some Zoom tours of houses for sale down in Kingston, which is on the outskirts of Hobart and close to the school, but noticed when the property agent panned around the neighbourhood that there were still some empty plots available. That got us thinking.
We had already formed a good working relationship with TasBuilt Homes, who had designed us a nice house which they were going to build in their factory and then bring in pieces to assemble on the land. Unfortunately, their surveyor decided that the approach road was too steep for their low-loaders to negotiate, and we moved on to other plans.
What if we bought a simple urban plot with access to town electricity and gas, and got TasBuilt Homes to put their house there instead? That would tide us over for a few years and enable us to get settled in Tasmania before once more addressing the off-grid build.
And so it came to pass that, three days ago, we became the proud owners of Lot 319 on the Spring Farm Road project in Kingston, Tasmania.
While the conveyancing was going through, we spent several weeks drafting the design of the house that we’ll put on it. This weekend, we’re signing a contract with TasBuilt Homes to start working on the full design.
It probably won’t be finished in time for Christmas, but we do still own our wonderful forest, inside which is an area that has now been at least partially levelled. To that end, we have purchased a new tent in which we can live (and, if necessary, quarantine) until the Kingston build is complete.
Having exhausted the possibilities of round houses and prefabricated houses, it was back to the drawing board once again. We had been trying to make the project easier for ourselves by getting major parts prefabricated and delivered, because we were working interstate and would not have daily oversight of the construction. One obvious solution was to move to Tasmania and personally supervise the build, but we had temporarily lucrative work in faraway Canberra which we still needed if we were to complete the project. Perhaps it was time to stop trying to make things easy, and get somebody to build a bespoke house for us on site?
We initially approached Davies Construction, who were happy to build something that resembled our previous designs, and provided some reasonable-looking cost estimates. We were feeling quietly confident when they backed out at the last minute, saying that they had just completed a build across the river in Franklin, and found that the travel distance of their sub-contractors was too onerous. I suspect that in reality our project was too small to be of interest to them.
Then we started discussions with the amazing David Kapel, a build manager in Launceston. David was excited by our project from the beginning, and took all of my carefully assembled quotes and estimates and agreed that he could meet almost all of them himself. He would handle our entire build, including all sub-contractors, from breaking the ground to the final finish, including electrical and plumbing work, for a reasonable price.
The way that he was able to achieve this was because the main structure of the house would be made from baulks of cedar, imported already cut and shaped to the owner’s specification by the Scandinavian company YZY Kit Homes. YZY had an agent close to our house in Canberra, who was happy to show us around some demonstration houses.
Being made of thick timber, these houses are sturdy with excellent thermal insulation, and the parts are easily transported. We were shown a house like the one above, broken down into components and ready to be packed into a standard shipping container which would easily fit down our road.
Nothing was too much trouble for David, and he even agreed to a fixed-price contract because he was interested in having a show home in the south of Tasmania. We met him on site and discussed access, and we discussed turning circles and trees that needed to be removed, and the levelling of a space on which a 40-foot shipping container could safely be offloaded using a side-crane.
Over the months, we worked out interior decoration, decking materials, and different methods of achieving (and in fact exceeding) our required Bush Fire Rating.
We moved forward with grading our access road, and I got busy with the chainsaw to clear the building site. We put our property in Montevideo up for sale to free up some cash, and got down to the final fiddling details of the placement of light switches and power sockets. We were onto a winner.
Then disaster struck. Due to a family emergency, David had to pull out of the project and shut down his construction company. We were devastated.
YZY were still happy to supply the kit, but did not have any other licensed builders in Tasmania. Still in shock, shattered and not a little depressed, we drew a line under the whole idea of house-building, and went to look at yachts instead.
It took a little while to work it out of our system, and we looked at a lot of yachts. In the end, though, we couldn’t really find what we wanted for the amount of spare cash in our pockets, so we returned home to sulk.
Then we heard once more from David; his son, whom we had already met, was interested in taking up the reins of the family business. We slowly restarted our negotiations, and were just in the process of pricing up a second design option, when COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic. Transport prices from Scandinavia went through the roof, as all the world’s empty shipping containers ended up rusting in China awaiting cargoes that never arrived. The Australian dollar went into free fall, and the supply chains of imported building materials broke down. Tasmania closed its borders to non-essential visitors.
We hope and trust that we will all get through this, but until the crisis is over, that’s the end of our story.
Back in 2012, we asked Matthew, a friend and neighbour who had access to useful machinery, if he would help us with bulldozing a road into our property. We asked him to make it as subtle as possible, just a winding bush-track through the forest to give us initial access, without materially changing the look and feel of the site. Matthew made us just what we wanted, a dirt track just perfect for humping camping gear in and out of the forest.
I had an idea in the back of my mind that some day we’d need to widen it to give access to construction machinery and to serve as our official Rural Fire Service access road, but for now this would do us just fine.
Since the “official” council road, Klynes Road, was merely a dotted line on a map rather than an actual graded thoroughfare, we also got Matthew to clear a line along its path up as far as our track entrance, adding a turning circle for delivery trucks, for when the time finally came to build something. Nobody else uses that end of Klynes Road, as it doesn’t go anywhere, so we felt that nobody would mind.
Then we went travelling abroad for a number of years, and returned with a small child. This re-focussed our minds on the building project, which had heretofore been a nebulous plan that we would think about somewhere in the future.
The first step was to evaluate what had happened to our property in the intervening six years. Was the access track still open? Was the cleared building site still accessible? We hopped on a flight to Hobart and rented a small car with a child seat.
We had no idea what we might find, or even if we’d be able to find the track. Nature can reclaim a lot of land in six years! This video records our arrival.
The track was still there, overgrown with ferns in places, and obstructed by fallen branches and the occasional tree. We cleared it all away, but found that the compacted mud of the track bed had eroded in places to reveal a lumpy surface of loose sand, projecting tree roots and slippery stumps, and there was no chance of getting our two-wheel-drive rental vehicle up there. We did come across a flat hard-standing that had been built by a gate to our nearest neighbours’ property (the farm on the other side of Klynes Road), a gate which hadn’t even been there six years ago. Now that we’d extended Klynes Road as far as our boundary, there was no reason why our neighbours shouldn’t make use of it, and they clearly had. It made a useful place to park the car, while we unloaded.
Our storage shed, now six years old, was still standing on firm foundations, with all of our camping gear refreshingly un-nibbled by the local wildlife. After moving out the bulkiest items, we used the shed as a rain shelter for cooking and eating. Berrima, age 3, instantly fell in love with the forest, and with the whole idea of bush camping.
I had been worried that we would need to have the building site itself cleared again, but in fact it looked much the same as we’d left it six years earlier. I had deliberately left the tall trees standing while clearing away the scrub and litter, and I guess that’s the advantage of dry sclerophyll forest; all of nature’s action is far up in the tree canopy, and nothing much happens on the ground. There was just some Common Heath, a pretty but slightly prickly flowering native, and some bracken under the sheltering native cherry trees.
Having established that everything was fine with our forest, we went back to work. A year went by, while we worked on contracts far away in Queensland and in the Australian Capital Territory. In the evenings, though, we planned and plotted ways to fund and build our final home.
Doing our research and due diligence, I became aware that the Rural Fire Service regulations had changed. When we’d put in our original access track, the requirement had been a maximum slope of 1 in 4; now the legislation had been upgraded to no steeper than 1 in 5.5 and at least 4 metres wide. Before we would be permitted to live in any planned house, we needed to build a new road.
I commissioned a surveyor to provide us with a contour survey of the site and track. This confirmed that not only the track but also the final rise of Klynes Road was too steep, and the surveyor went back to research the slopes further downhill. Once this was done, I plugged his figures into a GIS program, and then spent several months trying to combine the often contradictory information from this and our previous surveys, mud-map sketches, and paper documentation, to form a coherent picture of our site.
Poring over the numbers, I mapped out a potential contour route for an access road that would meet fire regulations, would be strong and wide enough to take heavy construction vehicles, and yet wouldn’t spoil the feeling of arriving at a remote bush block. In the 2019 site plan to the right above, you can see the wide green road skirting the Easterly limit of the contour lines.
The map is, of course, not the territory. For all I knew, there might be stands of important trees that I would not want to see felled, or other surprises that could only be determined on the ground. Since I was still working far away in Canberra, I also needed to find somebody with the necessary equipment and experience to get the job done in my absence. I boarded a flight to Hobart.
As luck would have it, it was pouring with rain that weekend, although this had brought the Common Heath into bloom across the entire 14 acres, which was quite beautiful.
I had intended to camp on the land, but instead elected to stay in a local B&B that had the advantage of heating and the internet. My rental car, a tiny hatchback, was obviously never going to make it up our track, but I figured that I would load it up with surveying equipment, stop short on the final drop of Klynes Road down to our creek, and hump in my gear on foot. I was quite surprised to discover that our neighbours had, in the act of putting in a boundary fence, extended Klynes Road right past our property and up over the next hill.
I had a rare old time stomping around in the mud, translating my mapped intentions onto the ground, and finding that yes indeed there was a slightly better route through the timber, one which avoided felling some of the older trees. I spray-painted and marked the route, while wondering who I was going to find to do the actual work.
Back-tracking to our border with Klynes Road to check my figures against my boundary markers, I came across a large yellow digger parked on the fence-line of the farm on the other side.
Aha! I thought, and rang the neighbour whose fence this was, and before very long was in contact with the Dan, the Cat’s owner, who agreed that it made perfect sense for him to work on my project once he’d finished the fence-line, since his machinery was already on site.
Soon enough, the road-building project was under way. Perhaps ironically, the very first thing that Dan did was to widen and re-open the old track, so that he could get his digger up to the site. Now we are the proud owners of not one, but two roads.
Things quietened down a bit until after Christmas, when Berrima and I arrived at the end of a road trip to escape the 2019 bush fires. We had a good laugh “going on an expedition” (looking for and re-marking our boundary markers), setting up a tyre swing, and doing some bush artwork.
I also took the opportunity to finally clear the trees from the building site.
With actual physical labour and a changing skyline, it finally felt that I was achieving something. The site became brighter and sunnier, and the final shape of the view over the d’Entrecasteaux became more obvious. As well as Dan the digger, David the builder and Rodney the quarryman also visited, and we were able to point at things and make real decisions; it felt like we were making actual progress.
There is a bend at the bottom of the new road that is slightly too steep to drive up if the mud is wet. Even the Land Cruiser couldn’t get up in the rain.
Between Dan and Rodney and I, we formulated a plan. Dan would do some more levelling to straighten out the bend as much as possible, and then Rodney would drop a 1.5 tonnes of 60-100mm aggregate next to the creek. Dan would level it, and then Rodney would drop a second load. Once this had been bedded in up to the top of the bend, Rodney reckoned that the gravel trucks could negotiate the bend by themselves, and lay the rest of the 13 tonne loads themselves using the tipper and dragged chains.
Today, the first load went down, and the creek crossing looks marvellous.
The smoke from this year’s early and severe bush fire season had been closing in on Canberra for the past month. Official figures showed that breathing the air was equivalent to smoking several packs of cigarettes every day, with the city regularly topping the index of “world’s most polluted cities”. The ongoing bush fires, which were showing no sides of abating, where being fanned by high winds and extreme temperatures.
Smoke masks were either unavailable or in limited supply, and in any case didn’t come in non-adult sizes, so it was definitely time to get the children out. Some families headed to the coast, others to Melbourne in the south. We’d already escaped to Vanuatu for a week, but were now back in town and conditions were getting worse. We decided to go and camp on our property in Southern Tasmania.
Bronwyn needed to stay in town to work, but Berrima and I were free to go. It would be an interesting experiment, because at four and a half years old, Berrima had finally given up a nightly slurp of mother’s milk, and we thought that she was ready for an extended trip with Papa alone. We loaded up the Land Cruiser with camping gear, and hit the road.
On previous family road trips, Berrima had needed constant attention and frequent breaks at roadside playgrounds. This time, she entertained herself by chatting about the scenery, embroidering, drawing, and using road signs to teach herself to read. It was all quite charming.
To make it more fun, we stopped every 1.5 hours or so, selecting highway exits at random and driving around to see if there was a playground or something else of interest. It turned every 3 hour segment into an enjoyable 5 hour exploration.
Stopping for hot chocolate and curry at the Dog and Tuckerbox in Gundagai, we stepped out into 40 degrees of heat, passing trucks trailing rooster-tails of choking dust. We’d taken as wide a circuit as we could around the Snowy Mountain fires, but there was still a heavy smoke haze, with temporary signs along the Hume Highway warned of impending closures, and local fire signs set to Extreme.
One of our rest stops was in the typical rural town of Juglong, which had the advantage of a playground, but with the temperature still up in the forties, even Berrima couldn’t face playing in it for long. There was however a cute memorial sculpture to a policeman who was shot by a bush ranger (ie highwayman) in the late 1800s.
We weren’t out of the smoke yet, though, by far. The plume from the bush fires burning all down the East coast and across Kosciuzco had reached South America and New Zealand, so our little detour inland to Yass and down the Hume Highway didn’t make a great deal of difference to the air quality. Passing Tarcutta, my eyes were streaming so badly that I could barely see to drive. Goodness only knows what it was like for the folks out defending their properties.
On our first night, we set up on the banks of Lake Hume. Usually we bush-camp, but most if not all of the national parks were closed because of the fire danger, so we ended up at the Great Aussie Holiday Park in Bowna. This did have the advantage of a children’s water park and a very welcome pool, but the disadvantage of being far from any grocery shops. It was late in the day, so we we braved the cafe.
It took the chef 40 minutes to cook a steak and nachos, during which time Berrima and I covered an increasingly eclectic range of conversational topics as we tried to ward off hungry crankiness, one of which was trying to guess why the table had so many cut marks in the surface. I could only hypothesise that somebody had cut pizza on it, which didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Then, when our food finally came, it arrived with metal cutlery but no crockery, just a soggy paper bag which decayed instantly, so that cutting into the steak swiftly revealed… the table surface. Hopefully it was fairly clean.
Back at the car, we’d set up the awning to provide maximum shielding from the dozens of overly bright lights that seem to be de rigueur at every Australian camp site, and to take advantage of the wind coming off the lake.
This latter seemed like a good idea at the time, but the wind soon built up into 40kph gusts bringing with them searing convection-oven heat from the Kosciusco bush fires.
As the night drew on, a Southerly change brought a welcome freezing gale, followed by a thunderstorm and rain. We were awoken by an ecstatic dawn chorus, and the sight of clear blue skies for the first time in weeks.
Shuddering at the thought of breakfast at the cafe, we hit the road and continued South until we found a decent coffee shop in a sleepy roadside town.
As we crossed the border from New South Wales into Victoria, we drove out of the smoke from the out-of-control bush fires in Kosciuzco, and into the smoke from the out-of-control bush fires in Gippsland. We weren’t that surprised, as we had been hearing from friends who had escaped with their children to Melbourne, that the smoke there was little better than in Canberra.
Because we had a ferry to catch, we could only fit in a couple of stops along the way, but they did include the site of Ned Kelly’s last stand in Glenrowan (but no playground), and shark and chips in Benalla (ditto).
Without too much more ado, we arrived in Melbourne (not too smoky, as it transpired) and were efficiently embarked upon the Spirit of Tasmania II. We were early enough to enjoy an uncrowded dinner in the excellent restaurant, which is set up to showcase the best of Tasmanian produce, and then stood on deck to wave goodbye to the mainland before retiring to our cabin for the night.
The swell in the Bass Strait was a relatively reasonable 3-4 metres which rocked us gently to sleep.
Early in the morning, we were decanted into Devonport under clear smoke-free blue skies, and headed to Launceston for a well-deserved breakfast. The chair-lift at Cateract Gorge beckoned, followed by a dip in the pool, and then of course a straight five hours at the playground.
We’re leaving Vanuatu, we’re all packed, and we’ve pre-arranged for our driver Marius to pick us up from the dock. We weren’t staying on Vanuatu’s central island of Efate, site of the international airport, but on the neighbouring island of Erakor. At the end of our lovely holiday there, we took our leave of the staff and boarded the little outboard tinny to take us back across the lagoon.
Oddly, Marius wasn’t waiting at the dock, and he wasn’t responding to text messages. Ten, fifteen minutes passed by, and still no Marius. Our time margin to the airport, originally quite relaxed for the short journey, was now looking a bit slim.
One of the resort employees pointed out a bus driver lounging on the dock, an islander who had rather comically bleached a ring of beard- and head-hair in a complete circle around his face. He agreed to take us to the airport (a Vanuatu bus is not unlike a taxi, except that anybody can hail it in transit and the route changes to suit). Just as we were loaded on, a boatload of Japanese tourists arrived at the dock from their lunch on Erakor, eager to return to their cruise ship. Our driver wandered down to the dock to see if they needed a lift, assuring us that it would only take a minute, but immediately became involved in a long and animated discussion as the minutes ticked by and we got later and later for our check-in. It looked like the tourists were only asking for directions, but it was at least another five minutes before they set off walking in the indicated direction and our driver returned to our bus.
He didn’t make it far before they hailed him once more and he was embroiled in another arm-waving discussion, until finally they all climbed on board and, with a screech of tyres, we set off in a now fully loaded bus.
“We’re late for our flight!” we pointed out. “Their stop is on the way”, he soothed.
Of course, the cruise terminal was on the other side of the bay, and the clock ticked on as he decanted the Japanese ladies onto their gangplank, then burned rubber back up the road to the airport.
We had originally intended to stop for cash to pay him, but now we were so late that the driver agreed to wait while we used the ATM at the airport instead.
Leaving Bronwyn and Berrima to unload the luggage, I ran inside to find the ATMs. There were two of them. I put my card into the ANZ machine and it slowly began to ask it’s innumerable questions. What language, Bislama, French or English? Will you need a receipt? And then that stupid question that makes no sense at all, Which account do you want? The one attached to the card, you stupid machine. Eventually it got around to asking how much money I needed, and then rejected 2500 (the taxi fare) because it didn’t have 500 notes. Good grief. 3000. Whirr whirr connecting connecting… rejected.
The tannoy started announcing, “Will Berrima Reading please report to the check-in desk?” Pretty impressive, her first tannoy announcement and only four years old.
I moved to the second machine, a local one which ground even more slowly though the same questions, before it too smugly announced… card rejected. Back to the first machine, with a different card. “Last and final call for Berrima Reading, Bronwyn Reading…” Whirr… connecting… connecting… please take your cash!
I sprinted back to the taxi, pushed the notes into the window, abandoned my 500 change and ran for the check-in desk.
Thankfully there was nobody else in the queue, and after pointing frantically up at the increasingly urgent tannoy speakers, we swiftly received our boarding cards, but then there was an intricate Vanuatu exit card to fill in for each of us… then customs… and then finally into the crowded departure lounge.
There was only room for two planes on the tarmac. A much-delayed Auckland flight was announced, many people cheered, and the hall emptied. The few remaining travellers peered uncertainly at each other and at the sweating late arrivals; the plane was clearly going to be half empty. It was going to be an easy flight home.
Stepping onto the Erakor Island jetty from the little outboard-powered ferry which we’d boarded on the main administrative island of Efate, we were greeted by a smiling islander in traditional dress blowing a conch shell. A somewhat cheesy start, perhaps, but our minimal luggage was whisked away to our cabin and only minutes later our four-year-old was swept up by a group of giggling children, and without further ado, they all vanished down the beach to catch starfish.
Bronwyn looked at each other over the fruity drinks that had materialised in our hands, squinted out across the blue of the reef lagoon, and relaxed.
Erakor Island is less than a kilometre long and shaped like a lamb cutlet. It is unpopulated apart from the managers of the perhaps 30 cabins dotted around the perimeter, one of which was to be our home for the week.
The island is surrounded by a shallow lagoon packed with living coral. There is a large rack of kayaks and paddle-boards available for use, as well as an ample supply of snorkelling gear in all sizes, and almost every day we paddled out to see what was happening on the reef. Berrima took to snorkelling right away, and spent ages just gently paddling to and fro over the coral heads, watching the fish.
The reason that we were on Vanuatu at all is down to the 2019 Australian bush fires. We had intended to have a quiet Christmas at our apartment in Canberra, but the city was smothered in thick choking smoke, so we caught the next plane out. Most of the guests in Vanuatu seemed to be Australian, and many of those that we met were unable to get home for Christmas because their home flights to Sydney were cancelled due to the bush fires. Most of them didn’t seem too distressed by their dilemma, and in any case, Santa noticed our predicament, and came to Erakor.
Apart from the resort buildings on Erakor Island, there are a few interesting historical artefacts. In one corner is a typical Samoan family grave, with a plaque stating that the first Samoan missionaries are there interred. There is also a ruined mission building from a later, British minister, and an adjoining open-air chapel (still in use for the occasional wedding). Next to the chapel are a couple of gravestones.
Three successive children had died before their 2nd year, followed five years later by their mother, but there was no grave for the missionary himself. We asked a local, and he shook his head and said that the children all died of malaria; it was prevalent then, although it has now been eradicated from Vanuatu following an extensive vaccination program by the Aussies and the Kiwis. “But what about the Reverend Mackenzie? Why doesn’t he have a gravestone?” I asked. Our Melanesian interlocutor chuckled broadly, “He was eaten”.
Next to the resort’s rack of modern plastic kayaks, sat a traditional dug-out outrigger canoe. I’ve always wanted to try one, and we’d seen a number of others in daily use around the lagoon, so I asked if I could borrow it. There was a certain amount of humming and hawing, and it emerged that while it was technically possible, we had to wait for the slack of the tide in case we had trouble controlling it, and they also needed to round up at least three husky gardeners to lift it down off the beach. I tentatively hefted one end of the hull, and couldn’t even lift it, so we settled down to wait.
Realising that we weren’t about to give up, a group of strong men hefted the craft down to the water, and Bronwyn and I climbed aboard to give it a spin around the lagoon.
For something that was so unwieldy on land, it was light enough in the water, and we paddled out to where Berrima was snorkelling and then up and down the reef, until we realised that quite a lot of water was seeping in through the trunk and we headed back to the shore.
Only two large men were available to lift it out of the water, and they fumbled it and smashed the outrigger. I suspect that none of the staff were too distressed that the vessel was now out of commission.
Our driver, Marius, quickly and simply explained how to get about on Éfaté, the central and capital island of Vanuatu. Any vehicle whose number plate starts with a T is a taxi. Any vehicle, however small, whose number plate starts with a B is a bus. Buses can be flagged down anywhere and will take you wherever you want to go, subject only to the interim destinations of anybody else who gets on.
Through our hotel on Erakor Island, we had engaged Marius and his bus as part of a half-day package of tourist attractions, but he ended up driving us around all day once he discovered that we preferred slow travel to ticking tourist boxes.
One stop was the Rarru waterfall on the Rentapao River, a small and rather pretty cascade of limestone falls deep inside cool rain forest. The highlight is the deep plunge pool at the top, with a series of platforms and rope swings from which you can dive or plummet into the fresh water below.
Spotting our four-year-old, the staff watched us carefully at first, then relaxed as she hurled herself off the highest platform, plunged to the bottom of the rock pool, and surfaced laughing.
Marius knew the standard itinerary of the cruise ship operations, and since there was a ship in port, he had carefully arranged the timing so that we had the place to ourselves. We dawdled, we swam, we chatted to the staff, we leapt from platforms and plummeted from swinging ropes.
At one point, Bronwyn realised that her carved wooden wrist-band, a much-loved memento from Ngong Ping, was no longer on her wrist. Although the water was clear, we were looking for a carved dark brown wooden bracelet on a river-bed strewn with dark brown wood and leaves. Noticing our preoccupation, the staff rapidly came to our aid and had a fine time diving around and checking the numerous underwater nooks and crevices. We didn’t find it, but had a great time looking, and we were treated to a seriously expert display of underwater swimming.
Marius had recommended that we leave the turtle sanctuary til later, but we were hungry and it boasted a lunch barbecue. This site was more of a full-on tourist experience, with a bustling queue for the barbecue buffet and guests milling around feeding fruit to the hawksbill turtles in the lagoon.
It was all a bit crowded, but Marius gently suggested that we let the current gaggle of cruise ship tourists finish the rapidly depleting bucket of paw-paw, and let them disperse back to their coach, after which a new bucket of fruit would come out just for us. We amused ourselves by watching the turtles from a distance, and looking at the hatchlings in a couple of large stone tanks. Most of the turtles at the sanctuary are hatched on site from eggs dug up from the beach in order to improve their survival rate, and then released back into the wild when adult.
When it had all quieted down a little and the promised bucket of paw-paw had arrived, we had a nice quiet time feeding the hawksbills and scrubbing the algae off their backs with sand. They were very gentle and calm, not at all like the green turtle that chomped out a piece of my thumb in Samoa.
After a while, one of the guides gave Berrima a hunk of fruit, took her by the hand, and led her out into lagoon. Before long, they had located ‘Big Mama’, allegedly over 100 years old, and larger and considerably heavier than our daughter. The two oldest turtles have been with the sanctuary for some year, because however often they are released, they just keep coming back and are now a permanent feature.
After a token amount of paw-paw bribery, Big Mama consented to allow Berrima to ride around the lagoon on her shell.
After the excitement of being towed, Marius suggested that we move up to a private-looking fale at the top of the hill, which had views over the reef, a hammock for the site’s owner, and – amazingly – a child’s metal slide which had been uprooted and cemented into the sea wall.
The slide was a little sluggish at first, but then the owner of the sanctuary came down from the fale and started throwing buckets of water to speed it up. Good fun.
The Blue Lagoon is a great attraction for visitors and locals alike. It’s a sandy-bottomed gully that grades from fresh to salt water along its length, making for an interesting snorkel through many kinds of fish. Up on the surface, there are a myriad jumping platforms and swinging ropes; the locals were pulling off some amazing stunts, spinning off the ropes into perfectly executed dives, while we tourists had to make do with Tarzan yells and ungainly splashes.
I snorkelled far up the channel, floating seed-pods rattling on my mask until I reached the sea, revelling in the calm and peace as the reef fish went about their quiet business, ignoring the antics of the lumbering primates above. It was a great end to the day, and a good round-up of the main active attractions of the island of Éfaté.
After considering some lovely (but ultimately impractical and over-expensive) round house options, we have realised that we need to pay less attention to the fluffy design tasks, and more attention to supply chain logistics and to the post-lock-up finishing and decorating. To this end, we decided to investigate a prefabricated house.
We started out looking at “tiny houses”, which are a bit of a fad at the moment. Technically a caravan in that they possess a wheeled chassis and are thus immune to building regulations, they are not meant to be towed around on a regular basis and are commonly installed as a granny flat in a suburban garden. A tiny house can be a marvel of interior design, and we found that we were familiar with many of the principles because it is similar to that found in yachts, where space is also at a premium.
Although tiny houses are very interesting, and a good way to create some extra living space in a confined area, they are relatively expensive per square metre because of the necessity to cram everything into a small footprint, and anyway we have plenty of space to spread out and no need to unnecessarily limit ourselves.
There are other styles of prefabricated house, that can give you a larger footprint. Around Australia, there are a number of businesses which will build a house for you in their factory, all the way to completely decorated with all utilities and appliances installed. The house is then cut into pre-defined segments and delivered to the site on a low-loader for re-assembly. The advantage is that the builder has complete control over all aspects of the build using their own staff, and can thus deliver significant economies of scale as well as an agreed price and timeline.
We chose to move forward with TasBuilt Homes after visiting their rather amazing factory in Launceston.
The way it works is that you take one of their standard designs, and then move around the internal walls and fittings until you have the result that you want. The guys at TasBuilt were very friendly and obliging, and we had an excellent set of discussions with them, specifying all the finishes and adding a North-facing deck. Since the price was all-in, there were going to be no surprises, and we were pretty happy with the plan.
All was going swimmingly well, until TasBuilt sent their surveyor down to look at our access road, which was then under construction. They approved of the road that we were building across our property, but were less happy about access down Klynes Road itself. TasBuilt’s surveyor judged that it was too narrow and too steep to negotiate with a 6 metre wide trailer.
Although this is officially a council road, we are not averse to running a bulldozer down it or cutting back some trees if we need to, because we are the last property on the road and it doesn’t go anywhere else. However, there were places where we would have had to double the width, which would entail substantial earthworks and the loss of some beautiful well-established trees, so we regretfully decided to return once again to the drawing board.
We had long been interested in the idea of building a yurt or round house in the woods, even travelling to Mongolia to stay in an original felt-walled ger.
These gers are designed to be stripped down, packed up and moved at regular intervals, stemming from the traditional nomadic lifestyle on the Steppes. With the breakdown of the USSR and their enforced “westernisation” of Mongolians, there is a resurgence in their use, particularly noticeable today in construction sites as the workers move from site to site.
There is quite a movement around the world to take the same easy-to-erect construction concept but with the view to building a more permanent structure. Some companies used modern fabrics, others made the walls from wood. In all cases, the result is a polygonal structure with a large open space inside.
The team were enthusiastic about prefabricating the structural elements in New South Wales and driving them to Tasmania on a low-loader to erect them for us. We had an entertaining time discussing various options and layouts; the polygonal plan provides a fantastic airy openness inside, but does present problems when most of our modern furniture is designed to fit inside a square box. Still, everything seemed to be going pretty well with an 8-metre central round house surrounded by a ring of “annexes” to give extra space. The central roof cupola would provide natural light, and the full-height windows and raised exterior deck would give us unrivalled views across the d’Entrecasteaux Channel.
We edged ever closer to an agreement, and the builders got ever more excited about their upcoming Tasmanian “holiday”. Then we realised that we might have a problem with the 49 foundation posts on which the structure would stand. They would add appreciably to the weight of the trailer which needed to cross to Tasmania on the ferry, so I agreed to look into sourcing them locally. Since the site is sloping, with a drop of a few inches to the South and about 3 metres to the North, a half to a third of the posts would need to be longer than the standard length in which such poles usually come. The longer ones, up to perhaps 4 or 5 metres, would all be “special order” and priced accordingly…
And then we started factoring in all the extras that we would need once the main structure had been constructed. Dry-walling, plumbing, electrical, waste, all would have to be added after the builders had gone home. Even the rough estimates started to blow our budget. We needed to reconsider.
Perhaps we could get away with a smaller round house for our living area, and combine it with a more traditional structure for the services? We looked into a company called Neat House who prefabricate buildings in Tasmania using local materials.
This would use fewer long foundation posts underneath the yurt, but now we would be dealing with house components from two separate suppliers, plus additional labour to glass-in the connecting corridor between them. It was all starting to get a bit complicated, so we went back to the drawing board.
We had chosen a build site in the middle of our forest, and had at least made a start on putting in an access road and clearing some space. But what next? What kind of house did we want to live in, and who could we get to build it? Would it make sense to do it myself as an Owner Builder?
We knew that whatever we built, it would be off the grid and self-sufficient. Even though such structures are increasingly common in Tasmania, it seemed to us that it would be sufficiently non-standard that we wouldn’t find something off the shelf, and perhaps we would be best off managing the project ourselves. To this end, I began investigating the requirements to attain my “Owner Builder” qualifications, which would give me the legal ability to build my own house in Tasmania.
It turned out that there were two components to this; the “White Card” which is an industry standard health-and-safety qualification that is essential for working on any building site in Australia, and the “Owner Builder Certificate”, which is a specific course to prepare you for the job in hand.
An Australian White Card is a pre-requisite for any construction activity, and the terms and conditions vary between Australian States. Whichever card you get, though, it is valid in all other Australian States… and some States don’t allow online training… and you don’t need to reside in a State to apply for their card… and the Western Australia card is available online and differs from some others in that it does not have an expiry date. I couldn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t get the open-ended WA card, so I registered with EOT online training and got one.
The course was inexpensive and interesting, with a face-to-face component which involved videoing yourself giving answers to some of the longer questions which are reviewed by the trainers. There was also a slightly bizarre requirement to film yourself correctly wearing your Personal Protection Equipment, so I took the opportunity to kit my daughter out as well.
The Owner-Builder qualification is a bit more involved, but is also available inexpensively online. I took my course with ABE, and began a fascinating journey into the intricacies of controlling a building project. One theme that continued throughout the various modules was to think carefully about whether you were up for it; are you capable of managing your time, managing people, managing a budget? Is your family prepared to support you throughout the inevitable stress? Are you really prepared to give up so much of your time?
It really is a very good course, and at the end I felt a little nervous but at least mentally prepared for the challenges to come.
We rented a driver to take us from Ubud to Seminyak, which was supposedly more of a beach resort kind of place. The drive took us through Kerobokan, a kind of overcrowded crossroads for the neighbouring cities, and then down into the snails-pace gridlock of cars and scooters that is Seminyak.
Our residence for the next few days is a couple of rooms off a walled courtyard tucked down a secluded alleyway off the main street. The bedrooms reeked of moth-balls, which was not surprising when we discovered that both en-suite bathroom floors were liberally scattered with the toxic chemical. We swept them out into a bin and blew a fan through to get rid of the head-thumping fumes, and then realised that the door of the bedroom that we had intended to give to Berrima opened out directly onto the sunken pool (and I mean directly, a single step would have you in the water), so we had to scratch the idea of a quiet night in a bed of our own.
The pool itself is a bit of a curiosity. It would make an excellent and relaxing koi pond, perhaps the centrepiece of a miniature Balinese garden, but instead it is supposed to be a swimming pool a little over two metres long and far less than that across. It was at first hard to fathom who it might be intended for (apart from precocious 3-year olds), but on the other hand the house’s interior decoration of whisky adverts and old spirits bottles might suggest the life-style of the usual clientele.
The ‘full kitchen’, rather charmingly situated outdoors, consists of the tiniest microwave ever made, a stove top and a couple of battered pans, but certainly enough to make coffee in the morning, so we’re all set there.
We headed up the lane to see the delights of Seminyak, passing between the friendly tat salesman and the shyly smiling young girl with the withered arm who was peddling vodka-bottles full of moped fuel at the entrance to the alley.
Perhaps I was jaded by the Bali-Belly that I picked up in Ubud, but I found nothing at all to like about downtown Seminyak. It was just a row of tourist shops selling the same tat that they were selling in Ubud, and presumably for higher prices, because we had already driven past all the artisanal streets in Ubud where the stuff seems to be made.
Feeling distinctly out of sorts, I had a lie down in the apartment, and my magical wife arranged for a scooter-borne Balinese masseuse to arrive on the doorstep. This is one tourist attraction that Bali does really well, and I felt much more cheerful afterward.
On the next morning, we were up with the neighbour’s rooster, hence off to an early breakfast at a local eatery for a really quite lovely meal. The food is noticeably better in Seminyak than in Ubud. Over Balinese coffee, we planned a walking route down the high street, across to the famous Seminyak beach, along the strand to 66 Beach, returning back to the high street from the other end of town.
Trying to locate the beach access track, we found ourselves in a hotel bar with no obvious route down to the sand. We initially sat at a sort of circular sun lounger, but were told that there was a minimum 1 million rupiah cover charge. This seemed over the top for a cup of coffee, so we moved to a smaller, less pretentious table. We waited for somebody to come and serve us but to no avail, so we got up and left and, having secured directions from one of the many security guards, found our way onto the sand.
This is supposed to be one of the main attractions of the town, and we had picked our second stay in Bali to give Berrima some beach time. However, when we arrived, the tide was in and both the surf and the “do not swim” flags were up.
The thin strip of gritty volcanic sand was packed with bar tables, sun loungers, umbrellas, and litter. Walking along the small strip of tide-wracked rubbish, the occasional wave washed up over our feet and then attempted to rip us out to sea into the crashing breakers.
It really wasn’t very pleasant at all, and we were glad to find an alley between stacks of beer coolers which led back into town.
As travellers go, we can be pretty stubborn in our pursuit of the ‘real world’. Finally, though, we had to accept the obvious; that the whole island of Bali is given over to a particular kind of spend-by-day, party-by-night tourism, and that the tourist industry is the centre of the culture.
Admitting defeat, we spent our final day at the Waterbom fun park, riding the flumes. The experience was surprisingly inexpensive and very enjoyable for all. The queues were short, the rides fun for adults and children alike, the staff delightful, and the food excellent.
At the end of the day, tired and happy, we were attempting to negotiate a return fare with a taxi driver in the street outside. We had reached an impasse where our highest offer had been rebuffed, when a passer-by suddenly leaned in and said that he would take us for that price. He turned out to be a Waterbom employee on his way home, and in short order we found ourselves cocooned in his tricked-up hot-hatch with lurid orange leather trim and violet highlights.
After a quick change of clothes, we went straight to the acclaimed tourist restaurant Jackson Lily’s for an incomparable steak dinner, easily the most enjoyable eating experience of the whole trip. If you can’t beat them, join them.
Although we enjoyed our cottage hotel in Ubud, with its idyllic setting and friendly staff, we were quite disappointed with the restaurant. Whatever we ordered, it was overcooked and flavourless, and after a while I realised that there was a correlation between eating at the restaurant and feeling ill for the rest of the day or night.
It wasn’t just the hotel restaurant; in general, we found the food in Ubud to be insipid and uninspired, which was curious considering that tourism is their only industry.
One of the local delicacies is suckling pig, which involves slow-roasting an unweaned piglet over a wood fire, a dish that we were really looking forward to. In the days before we became disenchanted with our hotel restaurant, we gave them the required 24 hours notice for preparation, and hurried back in the evening to enjoy the experience.
Unfortunately, it was very disappointing. We surmise that the 24 hour preparation time was for the chef to defrost the pre-cooked pig meat and then boil it to within an inch of its life. It was almost inedible, and came with a kind of warm floppy coleslaw. We didn’t even have the heart to insist that Berrima try it, as she pushed it around her plate and ate bread, rice and fruit instead.
One of the other gustatory attractions of Bali is supposed to be its coffee; after all, it’s grown locally and ‘Civet cat poop’ is a big tourist draw. It was curious, then, that initially we struggled to get a decent cup. Eventually we came to realise that you can order ‘Balinese Coffee’ anywhere, even though it is rarely on the menu, which is made by simply pouring boiling water over very finely ground beans to produce a fine, strong-tasting brew. We were even happier when we found that the baristas at the local speciality coffee house The Black Eye, which does not offer Balinese Coffee on their menu, were more than happy to mill some of their espresso beans to the correct grind so that we could have a morning cup from the comfort of our four-poster bed.
One morning, after a couple of cups of Balinese Coffee over which we watched the staff collecting flowers for the hotel’s shrines, we got our driver to drop us off in downtown Ubud to see if we could find something decent to eat. He dropped us off at a place that he recommended, but it was really just an expat burger and pizza joint. After a short walk we found a more traditional restaurant, the Warung d’Ubud, that promised Balinese crispy duck and a variety of local soups.
It was all rather good, with a lovely selection of delicate flavours and some excellent crispy duck. In fact, we were so replete after lunch that we decided to draw a line under any further tourist activities, and spent the rest of the day lazing at the pool.
Curry at the Indus
After a cocktail at the hotel, we headed across the road to the pretty Indus Restaurant, where we ate an acceptable but bland meal of mixed curry dishes overlooking the rain-forest of Tjampuhan ridge, a steep ravine that leads down toward central Ubud. We suffered a bit from the ants and flies that swarmed over, under and on the table, and were somewhat surprised when the bill was about the same as for an equivalent meal in Australia. It’s supposed to be the second best restaurant in Ubud, but we didn’t go back.
One afternoon we found an unlicensed taxi-driver sitting in the street outside the hotel, who cheerfully accepted our offer of 50k rupiahs (about $5) to take us wherever we wanted to go. Our destination was the Gluten Free Kitchen, formerly known as the ‘House of Schnitzel’ and thus a perhaps unique blend of grain-free cuisine and Austrian (and Australian!) fast food.
When we got there, we found that there was no power to the street, so we could only pick items on the menu that were made without electricity. This became a bit of a game, but after a while we established that there was no coffee or smoothies, no pan-fried items such as meat and burgers, nor any boiled food such as vegetables. In fact the only appliance that was running was the gas-fired deep-fryer, so we had what turned out to be a rather nice lunch of pork and chicken schnitzels, accompanied by empanadas and onion rings.
Canting Bali Cooking Class
A few years ago, we’d greatly enjoyed a local cooking class in Penang, so we’d booked what we hoped would be a similarly enjoyable and illuminating Balinese cooking lesson.
A small group of us met up at the local market, where we were introduced to the raw ingredients that we were going to use. Then we moved to a paddy which was almost ready for harvest for a discussion about the life and times of rice workers, then on to the school where we joined up with about 30 people to prepare a feast.
We had a fine time pounding spices, extracting coconut oil, and chopping (and chopping. and chopping) vegetables and roots, initially preparing a basic sauce and then expanding it into a number of different dishes.
We ground up tuna and barbecued it on skewers over coconut-shell charcoal, curried tempeh with vegetables, put together a soup of chicken and enormous oyster mushrooms, and steamed fish inside packets of banana-leaf. The resulting meal was very pleasant, and we were certainly all ready for it after a morning of preparation.
About half way through the holiday, my guts turned to water and I spent a considerable amount of time napping between doses of pills while the girls went swimming. At length, feeling a little better, I reckoned I could face dinner if it was going to be simple fare, and we planned to go into Ubud to find something special. However, we’d waited too late in the day and our little treasure grumpily insisted that she wanted to eat in the awful hotel restaurant, largely I suspect because she enjoyed feeding the fish in the Balinese garden.
But if I just chose a salad, how bad could it be? The headline ‘green salad’ was off today (which should have rung alarm bells!), so I ordered the ‘grilled vegetable salad’ instead.
There are no other words; it was truly disgusting. As far as I could tell, the chef had taken a jar of pickled vegetables, poured it into a saucepan, and boiled it until soggy. I gave up and went to bed, and suffered the most horrible symptoms and fevers, over which I shall draw a respectful veil.
Still weak the next morning, I had a bit of a lie-in, and then we all trundled out of the door and a few buildings down the road to the Elephant Restaurant where I nearly cried with pleasure over a perfect green salad, with a root juice on the side, on a peaceful veranda overlooking the Tjampuhan ridge.
Afterward we sat over perfect Balinese coffee, watching squirrels climbing inside the tree-top mango fruit and nibbling out the soft centres, and wished that we had discovered this gem a little sooner.
The idea of an Elephant Sanctuary on Bali is a bit odd on the face of it, because they have no elephants there. However, you can do pretty much anything you like if you are a foreigner with money, so a local businessman set about “rescuing” work elephants from Sumatra and setting them to work pleasing the tourists in Ubud. We went to visit them at the Mason Elephant Park.
The elephants – over fifty of them – seemed happy enough with the deal, and some of them were breeding with the ornery old bull that they kept chained up in a corner of the large and very pleasant grounds.
Bronwyn and I have ridden and swum with elephants before (most notably in India), but this was a first for our little daughter so we purchased the “wash, feed and ride” option.
We gave our elephant a good hose-down and scrub, which she endured stoically until I found a nice bit to brush behind her ears.
At the feeding station, you can purchase baskets of cut fruit for a line-up of ever-interested animals. The large ones were a bit daunting for children, so Berrima got to feed a baby elephant.
Then it was time to saddle up for a ride. Bronwyn and Berrima went on one elephant, and I went on a much larger one. Ensconced on a hard wooden howdah only thinly disguised by blankets, we ambled slowly around the extensive grounds, pausing to look (at eye level!) at coconuts and jack fruit hanging from the trees.
The ride of an elephant is not jarring but there is a fair amount of side-to-side sway. Occasionally both mahouts would stop for a photo opportunity, posing each animal in the obligatory tourist pose that we have seen the world over, with the trunk curled and raised.
At the end of the ride, we found ourselves by the rather thick green waters of the bathing pool. We have swum with elephants before, and knew to some extent what to expect, so we had declined that particular package. However, we stopped to watch a number of brave souls get submerged on top of their elephant. It was very noticeable how the mahouts tried very hard not to get fully immersed in the water, from which full-time staff were continuously fishing large floating turds.
We landed at Denpasar airport with the intention of spending a few days in Ubud on the Indonesian island of Bali. After an easy and friendly Customs clearance, we emerged into the main building, an interesting construction of what appear to be modern glass-and-metal tubes running through the decoratively carved red stone gates and walls of an old temple, although in fact the entire structure was recently built as a whole, due to a local bylaw that states that all buildings must have at least some elements of traditional architecture.
Our driver arrived and loaded us into his car. The capital city around the airport is scattered with extremely impressive and flamboyant sculptures of heroic scenes from Hindu mythology, sometimes the size of buildings. The traffic reminded us of downtown Kuala Lumpur, if not India, with families of three and four on little scooters passing us on either side, the ladies often riding side-saddle.
As we reached the outskirts of Ubud, we started to see mopeds carrying entire pop-up food stalls, and in one memorable case, the pillion was steadfastly carrying at full vertical arm’s length not one, but two intact car windscreens.
Out here, there appeared to be at least one temple every few hundred metres, all intricately carved towers and gates. It wasn’t until much later that we realised that these were not temples but regular houses, because every house has at least one “home shrine”, and it is not unusual to have many more.
The roadside was packed with artisans, not only a bewildering number of stone-masons who seemed largely to have the same repertoire of metre-high Hindu gods, but also quarry stonemasons with enormous piles of hand-cut volcanic rock, and wood merchants with sections of hard-wood tree wider than the spread of your arms.
Our hotel comprises a number of thatched chalets scattered amongst rice paddies, coconut palms, and endless statues and flowering trees. It was very picturesque. Our chalet boasted a family-size kidney-shaped stone tub, and an enormous solid wood four-poster bed with thick cotton mosquito-netting.
The staff were very friendly, very relaxed, yet very focussed on making the place look beautiful. Hinduism is the major religion here, and so there is a continual whirl of colour as small baskets of flowers and food are placed thrice daily before each of the ubiquitous shrines, and every day new flowers are tucked into crevices on the myriad stone statues.
Every morning, we were woken to the sound of sweeping, as the staff combed the site for fallen frangipani and other tree flowers, gathering them for use during the day.
We had hired a driver for the week, Komang from Abracadabra Tours. He had planned a thorough itinerary from which we cherry-picked the more toddler-friendly options.
One day, he took us to see the volcano. This was not Mt Agung, which is famously still erupting and out-gassing, but Mt Batur which hasn’t done anything much since the sixties, although it is still classed as active. We understand that the trek to the top to see the sunrise is a popular pastime, and in the past we would have done that ourselves, but on this occasion we took the child-friendly option and planned to view the peak and the caldera from a ridge-top restaurant.
From the moment that we left Ubud, the road climbed steadily. It was a striking drive, because the flags were still flying from the recent Independence Day celebrations.
The road up from Ubud took us from the sea-level rice-paddies and banana palms, to the higher altitude orange plantations. We stopped at a roadside shack to buy some small sweet tangerines, and also a handful of hard-skinned purple fruit that we ate by sucking out the pith, not completely unlike a pomegranate in flavour. Possibly they were a kind of passion fruit, but nobody we asked seemed to know what they were called. One great hit, though, was the snake fruit, so-called because of its scaly skin, which had lovely firm white flesh reminiscent of a lychee.
We were glad that we’d stopped at the roadside vendor to enjoy the fruit, because when we got to the viewpoint (roadside entry fee applies), there was only a dodgy buffet to eat in the supposed restaurant, on wobbly chairs overlooking a cloud-shrouded peak in the far distance.
Somewhat underwhelmed both intellectually and gustatorily, we drove back down the mountain to visit another tourist destination, the Kellalalang terraced rice-paddy fields, which seemed like an odd idea because we’d been driving through and walking around terraced paddy fields for the whole day.
Nevertheless, it was one of the region’s attractions, so we drove up to the village (an inevitable roadside entry fee applied) and entered the village. It consisted of a single road lined with wall-to-wall retail outlets all selling exactly the same tat, looking down on what obviously used to be rice paddies but were now an exceedingly well-worn set of concrete steps interspersed with over-priced cafes, children selling postcards, and what seemed to be a recent craze of rope swings slung between palm trees. We handed over our ‘donation’ and clambered down the track, past more child card-sellers and photo-opportunity “rice farmers”, and then, confronted by another donation booth, clambered back up to the retail outlets.
We’d arranged to meet Komang at the driver’s car park a little out of town, and when we arrived we were confronted with a large government sign which warned against the locals soliciting donations, and strongly recommended not descending into the paddies as it “destroyed the unique heritage site”. It would have been nice to have known that ahead of time.
One morning, we booked ‘breakfast with the orang-utans’ at Bali zoo. On our arrival, we were ushered into an outdoor area filled with trestle tables, with a couple of ropes looped overhead for a young orang-utan, and a couple of elephants leaning in over a low fence.
It was quite fun. As well as the usual buffet food, there were short-order chefs sorting out omelettes and so on, and the opportunity to get up from the table and hang out with the orang-utan, elephants, parrots, and even a somewhat nervous pangolin.
Later we toured the zoo itself, which tended heavily to Sumatran and Benghal Tigers, and a wide selection of gibbons. It was quite pretty and the animals seemed in good shape. One nice touch was that all the enclosures were decorated with rock-carvings and the ubiquitous pillar shrines of the rice paddies.
One great aspect of Bali was the ready availability of seriously good massage. Wherever we went, there was always somebody who could come to your room, or drive you to their spa, and then for a handful of notes subject you to a wonderful 90 minutes of pounding and squeezing.
Another facet of the culture is that if you have a car, then you are a driver for hire. Haggling with an official taxi driver outside a water-park one day, we were interrupted by a worker at the park who was going home in his tangerine-and-purple hot-hatch, and offered to drop us off at our hotel for whatever price we cared to pay.
There was no benefit in taking a “proper” taxi anyway. On another day, it started to rain while we were in downtown Ubud. Suddenly all the previously ubiquitous kerbside taxi-touts dissolved out of sight, but we stopped a passing official cab. Once we’d agreed on a price, the driver set off firmly in the wrong direction. It turned out that not only did he not know our hotel, but he didn’t even know the road it was on (ie the main street past Ubud museum), and in any case he didn’t seem to know which way his taxi was pointing.
He had two GPS units but one wasn’t working, and he didn’t seem to be able to use the other one. Finally Bronwyn fired up her own GPS and gave him directions, but at every turn he shook his head and demurred “one way” although it clearly wasn’t, until he smiled in shocked amazement when we popped out on the main street, facing in the correct direction.
Having moved all of our gear from our previous yacht Pindimara to our new yacht Elizabeth, it was time to beef up her systems to get her ready for the long trip from England to Australia. We unpacked everything and put it all away, finding that, because of the ducting for the heating system, 39′ Elizabeth had much less storage space than 34′ Pindimara.
Still, we got it all in, removed the TV and sound system to make space for food and tools, upgraded the elderly batteries, and checked all the subsystems to ensure that they were fit for purpose.
I spent a relaxed sunny afternoon threading child-friendly safety nets, and an inordinate amount of time in my shipping-container workshop, expanding the ridiculously small Euro-sized fibreglass gas cupboard to fit a standard LPG canister.
…and sometimes, we even went sailing!
We took Elizabeth to Cowes to repair a dent where somebody had rudely rammed her in the marina, and took the opportunity to get my expanded gas cabinet properly installed, and to do the antifouling. We also discovered that the occasional alarming prop shudder that we’d experienced was down to, uh, the propeller being so fractured that is wasn’t really attached to the boat at all. It’s a mystery how it had stayed on the shaft all this time.
Meanwhile, in the real world, my gardening business had reached a point where I needed to take on occasional staff in order to grow. Some tasks, such as my favourite job of fencing, really benefit from a second set of hands. Unfortunately, England was going through a backlash against the perceived threats of the “gig economy” and “zero hours contracts”, and there was all kinds of legislation coming in against what normal people would call piece-work. Since gardening is not only seasonal but weather-dependent, it makes no sense to pay an employee on days when neither of us are working, but that was the direction in which the legislation was heading.
The other option would be to take on a proper permanent employee or apprentice, but in order to make that financially viable, I would then need to buy a second van and a second set of equipment, which in turn would necessitate a bank loan. My financials supported such a plan, but then I would be looking at settling down for another few years to double my customer base and provide my staff with a stable working environment, with a view to leaving them to run the business when we finally took Elizabeth cruising to Australia… but in reality this approach was fraught with issues. Where would I find this mysteriously unemployed paragon of expertise and virtue? Once trained up, would they want to take on the responsibility, or would I need to start again with somebody else? How long, seriously, would it take to pay off the loan while simultaneously paying a full-time wage?
We also needed to consider that we were currently living in inexpensive student accommodation while Bronwyn studied Archaeology; this was not a permanent arrangement, and could we afford to rent a regular house in this area, and bring up a child, while simultaneously reducing our business income?
And then there was the health question. I had originally switched from computer work to gardening in an attempt to curb increasingly painful carpal tunnel and upper body pain caused by endless hours hunched over a desk, and in that sense, the career move had proven to be a winning combination. My nerve sheaths were no longer inflamed, my posture had greatly improved, and my core strength had increased dramatically. I felt really great.
Now as I entered my 52nd year and my third Winter as a gardener, I found myself running into new difficulties. Much of my work involved holding heavy vibrating machinery extended at waist- or shoulder-level. New nerve damage flared up all across my shoulders, neck and arms, swiftly turning to permanent chronic pain. I began eating Codeine tablets like sweets, and screaming loudly to drown out the pain as I tackled simple jobs like hedging. I started to take a rest-day in the middle of the week, but that wasn’t going to support any kind of business expansion. The pain spread, and became the permanent and debilitating misery of fibromyalgia.
And finally, although Berrima loved living on the boat and sailing, we had never been out with her in a blow, or in any situation where one or the other of us was not able to take care of her. We know a number of cruising families, and have read a lot of cruising books, but had so far not found the answer to the simple question: What do you do with a small child when the situation necessitates “all adult hands on deck”?
We sat down with some families that had done it, and pinned them down to the answer that we had always suspected, but never acknowledged to ourselves. You tie the child to the bunk below, go up on deck, and try to ignore the screaming.
Now we’ve met quite a number of kids that have grown up afloat, and without exception they have been marvellous, well-adjusted people. The benefits of cruising the world clearly far outweigh the unhappiness of being forced to wait below while your parents deal with Important Stuff that, frankly, shouldn’t happen too often on a well-run voyage. But still, we found ourselves unable to countenance it.
So there it was. Reality check. I was getting too old for physical labour, political and economic realities were getting in the way of growing our UK business, we wanted our daughter to grow up in Australia, and we found (somewhat to our surprise) that we had deep misgivings about sailing there with a child so young.
It was a big decision, but we made it. Bronwyn gave up her degree, we closed the business, sold Elizabeth, and moved to an IT contract on the other side of the world.
We were happily living on our yacht Elizabeth at our berth on the Hamble, running a local gardening business and bringing up our four-month-old daughter Berrima aboard. It was a lovely marina, and the staff were great; when Bronwyn was pregnant, they even used to get up early and sweep the snow from the pontoons. There was a nice bar at the marina, and good shops and pubs within an easy walk across the fields.
Then Bronwyn was given the opportunity to study Archaeology in Winchester, and we were offered family accommodation on campus. I could run the gardening business equally well from there, and Bronwyn could take advantage of the campus day-care and walk to lectures, so we moved off the boat and on to dry land. Elizabeth was still just down the road, though, and we still got the opportunity to sail on the Solent at weekends.
As the winter months drew in, gardening work tailed off and I was offered a short IT contract in the UK Midlands. I commuted up and down the country, staying in hotels in the week, and returning at weekends. Then Bronwyn also got offered a short contract at the same site. There began a complicated dance of baby-sitting, with several kind people weighing in to help us out at our hotel in Telford; thanks to Gisela, Julia, Phil and Di for all your efforts!
In the meantime, it didn’t make any financial sense to keep Elizabeth on her powered berth on the Hamble, so we moved her onto a pontoon at Shamrock Quay on the River Itchen in Southampton, where she could sit quietly while we worked in the Midlands and took time off to finish decorating our property in Uruguay.
When we returned to her in early 2016, poor Elizabeth was looking very shabby indeed. A winter sitting in the damp of the river near to some overhanging trees had encouraged a great deal of unwelcome growth on the decks.
Thankfully, as part of my gardening business I had a powerful jet-wash, and after a couple of day’s work I got her presentable again. And then it was time to go sailing.
The pontoon in central Southampton was inconvenient for Winchester, and we weren’t too impressed with the algal growth from the river, so we looked around for somewhere else to keep Elizabeth. Eventually we settled on Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight, just a short ferry journey from Hythe which was accessible by train. There was also a car ferry if we needed it, and most importantly, it was wonderfully inexpensive.
We installed Elizabeth on a free-floating pontoon close to the ferry terminal, and started moving our cruising gear aboard. It was time to set her up for ocean cruising.
While fitting out our previous boat, Pindimara, for cruising, we always had to keep in mind that we would have to sell her when we ran out of money at the end of the voyage. This restricted the modifications that we could make, and every change to her structure had to be reversible. It worked out well for us; once we’d removed all of her cruising gear, Pindimara looked pretty much like any standard weekend cruiser, albeit with rather over-specified running gear. The agent was delighted to handle a yacht in such pristine condition.
With Elizabeth, we’re not constrained to keeping her ‘standard’. She’s already over ten years old, and by the time we think about selling her – if we ever do – she’ll be old and hoary enough that nobody will expect her to look like the catalogue.
But that’s all in the future. To begin with, it’s time to get rid of all the equipment that really isn’t us, and which in our opinion is just taking up valuable space. The two previous owners have already made some thoughtful and well-executed changes, but some of them are more suitable for a marina-based caravan than for an ocean cruiser. For instance, one entire shelf was taken up with a flat screen TV and associate aerial paraphernalia, and another locker was filled with video and amplification equipment. We like music as well as the next person, but a five-speaker sound-surround takes up a lot of valuable storage space…
We also discarded a loudly ticking brass clock which was keeping me awake, and some expensive gimballed paraffin lamps which looked great, but made us nervous as we couldn’t ever foresee a scenario where we might want to have naked flames at sea.
In idle moments, I have been sketching designs for the conversion of the forepeak into a more practical seagoing cabin with ample storage, and of the ‘sofa-like’ lounge furniture into something that can work as a sea-berth. We also need to install a proper fridge suitable for 12 volt operation in the tropics, because the standard cavernous Frigiboat is only really useful under shore power.
Out on deck, we are more than happy with the existing modifications, such as extra cleats and cars, a sunshade and a cockpit cover, an extending wooden cockpit table, and some rather neat glass doors at the top of the companionway.
The gas locker, though, is set up for a single 2.72kg camping canister. Even though there’s ample space under the bulkhead, Bavaria have explicitly moulded the inside of the locker so that the more standard large bottles won’t fit, and we are forced to use the more expensive tiny camping variety. Our local chandler is of the opinion that there’s a conspiracy between the European yacht manufacturers and the gas company Calor… be that as it may, that’s one job that needs sorting.
The voyages of our previous boat, Pindimara, were at least partly a test to see if this was a lifestyle that we might want to embrace later in life. Regular readers of this blog will know that we found that it agreed with us rather well, and even though the practicalities of our post-cruise finances meant that we had to temporarily return to the corporate world, we began to plan ahead for our permanent retirement from the rat race.
It took a few years to arrange affairs to our satisfaction, and family matters meant that we were constrained to stay for a while in the UK. However, we finally quit our jobs in the city, and slowly segued into a different pace of life. Bronwyn started a new degree course which should enable her to find outdoor maritime work as we cruise, and I began a local gardening company which brings in just enough cash for us to eat and to pay the marina fees, while getting me fit and out into the sunshine. At the same time, our daughter Berrima was born, and for a while we dropped out of public ken, overwintering on Elizabeth and concentrating on bringing up a child and building the new business.
Both our daughter and our business are now nearly five months old. One is starting to show intelligent interest in the world, and the other has for the first time turned a profit. I finally took a day off to do nothing but lounge on deck and play with Berrima, and felt the muse take me to update our blog.
We have been understandably busy and haven’t really spent much time working on the boat, but on the other hand we are taking a long view. We can’t set sail for good until Bronwyn finishes her degree, and in any case we want Berrima to be old enough to be comfortable on her sea-legs. This gives us a three-year window to get everything ready, and then the plan is to spend a year or two cruising around the Mediterranean, cross over to the Caribbean, and then finally cross the pond to Australia.
In the meantime, one of the downsides of living with a pre-toddler is that despite our best intentions, the interior of our yacht resembles an embarrassingly un-seamanlike cross between a caravan and a laundry. On the few occasions that visitors have prompted us to take the time to go for a sail, it took a full morning to prepare the boat for sea (i.e. to shove half the stuff into lockers, and to hide the other half ashore) and even then we were essentially sailing single-handed as Bronwyn needs all her faculties to concentrate on feeding our ever-hungry passenger. This has tested the limits of our adaptability and we have temporarily declared the boat a visitor-free zone until our new crew-member is able to cope a little more independently.
Our furniture is still in a bonded warehouse just down the street, Despite the fact that they’ve had the inventory for months, Customs keep coming up with new and interesting reasons to delay signing off the paperwork. The most recent one required a description of the precise chemical composition of the insulation foam in the freezer (how would we ever know that?), and a signed letter stating that we wanted our domestic freezer for, er, domestic use. In the meantime, we are camping in the apartment in sleeping bags with one plate, two mugs and a coffee machine.
Christmas is round the corner, and so it doesn’t look like they’re going to deliver our stuff before we leave at the end of the year. This is quite frustrating as it means that we’re going to have to fly back here in the new year, but as a Brazilian lady said to us in the hardware store the other day, the only way to deal with South America is to stay tranquillo.
We stopped worrying about it and took a two-hour bus ride to the resort town of Punta Del Este. Unfortunately an enormous storm rolled in and battered the town with 40-knot winds, so we didn’t get to spend much time on the beach, but we amused ourselves by trying out different restaurants and bars and thoroughly enjoying the experience of a room with real furniture.
Eventually we dragged ourselves away and back home to Montevideo. The search continues for a carpenter to help fix our weathered windows and to install some shelves and cupboards. Carpenters are mysteriously hard to track down, and although we did finally get one to come to the house, in the end he decided that he didn’t want to do the job. Today we had a visit from a second carpenter, a friend of the electrician who helped install the air conditioning. Hopefully he’ll come back to us with a proper quote.
Plumbers are much more relaxed than carpenters. The gas and central heating specialist turned up today and moved a radiator for us, because it had originally been installed smack in the middle of the bedroom wall, right where we wanted to put the bed. While he was bleeding the radiators, he checked the whole system and also decommissioned our old electric boiler, and all for just a handful of dollars.
We were just about to catch the bus into town, and Bronwyn had popped up onto the terraza to hang a towel on the washing line. A sanitation engineer hailed her from the neighbour’s roof. It turns out that each apartment has a grease trap under the sink, and once a month somebody is supposed to come round to clean it out. I doubt that ours has been done for years, as it smells pretty bad, particularly since we’ve dismantled all the kitchen units and exposed the drain cover.
It didn’t take the engineer long to vacuum and deodorise our grease trap, and lift and clean all the drain covers. Since he had been engaged to stay on site all day, and since we were practically the only people home on this working weekday, he was going to have to hang out on the stairs on the off-chance that somebody else came home. Instead he went round our whole apartment, turning on taps and flushing toilets and making sure that all the drainage pipes ran smoothly, removing several years worth of hair in the process. He tut-tutted at the slow drainage in the upstairs sink, disassembled the pedestal, removed a good handful of old builder’s putty, and then reassembled it all with fresh sealant. Since he’d accidentally spilled about a teaspoon of water onto our already filthy tiles (we’re currently cleaning all our tools in there), he took it upon himself to scrub the floor, toilet, bidet and basin sparkly clean, and then repeated the process in the downstairs bathroom. Amazing.
After five years of long-term tenants, we finally got to stay in our now unfurnished apartment in Uruguay for the first time. We arrived equipped with decorating tools and building supplies, because we intend to redecorate and move in our own furniture and offer the apartment for fully-furnished short-term lets when we’re not here, giving us the opportunity to use it ourselves once a year or so. The furniture is currently snarled up in red tape at Customs, so it is lucky that we also brought camping gear.
We were pretty glad that we came prepared to do some work. Although we easily fell in love with our apartment all over again, the previous tenant had left under a bit of a cloud, and it soon emerged that our previous letting agent has utterly failed to do any proper maintenance over the preceding years. The paint is peeling from the windows, there’s no cold water supply upstairs (including to the toilet) and no hot water supply downstairs. The chimney has obviously never been swept, the shower trays are leaking, and the very expensive US$1500 painters engaged by our agent had simply splattered white paint everywhere, including over the woodwork, radiators and electrics.
In theory I suppose we could go back and argue with our previous agent, but we’d much rather just draw a line under the experience, roll our sleeves up, and get on with a renovation.
Some information has been lost during the shuffle between tenants. For instance, we were a bit puzzled about why we had been left with both a gas boiler and an electric boiler, apparently simultaneously making hot water in the same system. We brought in a gas engineer who established that the gas boiler was all that we needed, so we disconnected the electric one. A friendly plumber soon discovered that our tenant had randomly turned off and disconnected some of the pipework, which was another easy fix, and while he was there he replaced our leaky toilet cisterns.
While a couple of the light fittings have been upgraded by tenants, most of them are still the temporary single-bulb mountings put in by the original builders, so after five years it’s really time to sort that out. Shopping for lights is no hardship here. Montevideo glories in lighting shops; there are hundreds of them in our area alone, often side-by-side. It is a mystery to us how they all co-exist, but it certainly provides for a lot of choice.
One of our tenants had fitted some kitchen units, which were fine in themselves but had been arranged in a curious way so that it is impossible to fit standard-sized appliances. We talked through a few options, and then simply ripped the whole thing out.
In the new year, kitchen fitters will install something a bit more impressive to our own design. One bonus of removing the old kitchen is that we ended up with two rather expensive pieces of granite, complete with double sinks and plumbing, which we are planning to install on the rooftop terraza.
Summer is in full swing, the temperature is climbing into the thirties, so we ordered an air-conditioner. A couple of lively lads came to install it, which was a lot of work that took all day, but it works wonderfully and will be a good selling point when we rent.
We had the air-conditioning fan installed in the light-well of the building. The trouble with looking out over a shared light-well is that your lounge and bedroom look directly into your neighbours’. Many locals get around this by installing wooden panels over their windows, or keeping the curtains permanently closed (as in the photo below left), but we had thought of a sexier solution and had (not without some difficulty) imported some rolls of plastic film from England, which we used to make our windows translucent. It worked out rather well, giving us privacy while letting through the sunlight.
And finally, we have always thought that our 4.75 metre ceiling deserved a chandelier, so after a lot of entertaining window-shopping and many changes of plan, we finally had one installed. We think it looks rather nice.
We were late for the airport, thanks to an idiot pre-booked taxi driver who hadn’t bothered to research his pick-up address. However, we weren’t too concerned because we’d already checked in online and just had to drop off our luggage.
We’d deliberately flown American Airlines because their allowance is two 32kg pieces each, and we had a lot of tools and decorating equipment to take with us to Uruguay, including a roll of specialised frosting film that we intended to use on our windows. At first, the check-in ladies reckoned that we could only take a single piece each, but that misunderstanding was swiftly cleared up because Bronwyn knows her small print. Then, just as our luggage stickers were being printed, the lady said “Isn’t there a box embargo on this flight?”
We were beginning to suspect a conspiracy. The US government had already done its level best to prevent us from paying for our container shipment (see previous blog), and now they were randomly instituting a rule against our box of window film.
This “embargo” wasn’t mentioned anywhere even in the very small print of our tickets, which we had read very thoroughly because our box was only one centimetre short of the maximum length for American Airlines luggage. We encouraged the flight staff to check in more detail. Eventually it emerged that while there was indeed a “box embargo” on American Airlines flights out of our stopover destination Miami, the rule did not apply to flights into Miami. Our bemused but helpful assistant agreed to check in our box for the first leg, as long as we promised to repack the box into a bag in Miami, as apparently this would satisfy the regulations.
We had a pleasant flight, and no trouble with Miami Customs, especially as we got to bypass the enormous queues of US citizens’ waiting to use their “streamlined” automated gates. Instead we ambled up to the “foreigners” exit where a cheerful young man stamped us through without any delay. Our box was even waiting for us on the baggage carousel.
There was a dicey moment at the airport Left Luggage office when the rude attendant demanded to see our boarding card before he accepted our luggage. Who keeps their boarding card after getting on a long-haul flight? Luckily Bronwyn found hers screwed up amongst the empty food wrappers in her bag. We dropped our other three bags of tools and made our way to the Miami metro system with two small carry-on bags and a one-and-a-half metre box over my shoulder.
We found ourselves unable to decipher the metro map, but were helped by a friendly transit cop who showed us where we needed to go. He then accompanied us to the ticket machine, which didn’t accept notes larger than $20, something of a problem because all of our currency was in a paper bag full of hundreds (see previous blog). The machine supposedly accepted credit cards, but not without a numeric US ZIP code, so we couldn’t get it to accept our foreign cards. The nice guard spent a lot of time trying to find a US postal code that would work with our cards, or to get it to accept a truncated foreign post code, but in the end he reasoned that if the system was too stupid to let us buy a ticket then we might as well ride for free, and waved us through the barrier.
After delivering the box to our hotel room, we took a long bus ride to the waterfront and enjoyed a stroll, a paddle and a nap on Miami Beach.
We had pre-booked a late dinner at the excellent River Oyster Bar, reasoning that if we ate really late after lying in the sunshine we would reset our body clocks. The food and the ambience were wonderful, and we whiled away the hours over salt-encrusted bronzino, grilled mahi-mahi and excellent local wines, before returning to the hotel and sinking into a deep and satisfying sleep.
On Sunday we woke with a whole day to tackle the problem of finding a bag for our oversize box. The tourist shops only held expensive regular-sized rolling luggage, but while exploring some of the poorer Spanish-speaking quarters of the city, we eventually came across a little shop that carried simple nylon bags. The helpful lady located her largest bag, technically 50 inches, for just 20 dollars.
With that job out of the way, we returned to the River Oyster Bar for a happy-hour feast of oysters, locally caught cobia, and wine.
We headed back to the hotel, and found that even though the roll would probably almost fit inside, there was no way of getting it through the mouth of the bag. We knew from our original architectural plans that our film was oversized for the windows that we were going to fit it to, so we borrowed a pair of scissors from the bemused receptionist and shortened the roll until it fit.
Finally we grabbed a taxi to the airport, had no trouble checking in our box-in-a-bag, and enjoyed a relatively comfortable red-eye flight to Montevideo.
On our arrival in Uruguay, we quickly made our way through Customs and down to the baggage hall. We found our new bag patiently circling on the carousel, and to our complete lack of surprise, noted that it was sitting amidst a plethora of cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes. “Box embargo”, indeed.
We were shipping a container full of furniture from the UK to Uruguay, without any clear idea of the import charges that would be levied at the other end. The wheels of South American bureaucracy grind but slowly, so although we had already forwarded a full inventory of our intended shipment complete with individual photos and descriptions of every item, the deadline for our own flight to Montevideo was looming and so we just had to let the container go, otherwise there would be no chance of it being there when we arrived.
Fast-forward to several weeks later, and we finally heard back from Uruguayan Customs when our container was already steaming past Brazil and just days from docking in Montevideo. At this point, of course, they could have imposed their 60% tax on whatever valuation they chose and we’d just have had to pay it, so we were pleasantly surprised when they gave us a figure which, although still in the thousands of dollars, was about 25% less than our own valuation.
We took a deep breath and set out to pay the bill. International bank transfers into Uruguay are problematic at the best of times. Uruguay’s banking laws are very strict and secrecy is paramount; for instance our simple monthly statement cannot be trusted to the postal system and must be couriered to us once a month. Since the peso, although currently well-behaved, has a slightly dicey past, most medium to large transactions are denominated in American dollars. Unfortunately Uruguay’s privacy laws offend US authorities, so getting any money through the international banking system is always interesting.
We had previously paid our Uruguayan shipping agent via Western Union, which had gone reasonably smoothly after we had supplied sufficient documentary evidence to prove that we weren’t international terrorists. Sadly, the US had changed the rules overnight, and our attempt at sending the balance of our account was refused. We were informed that we had infringed some international terrorism criterion somewhere, but were not permitted to know which one, so there was no way that we could fix it. To add insult to injury, having rejected our transfer, Western Union now get to keep our money for several weeks, presumably so that Homeland Security can wipe their bottoms with it or something.
Luckily we still have enough remaining funds to cover the bill, so we’re going to put used hundred-dollar bills in a paper bag and take them overseas in our underpants. It’s perfectly legal, but isn’t it the kind of thing that American money-laundering regulations were put in place to prevent in the first place?
Our apartment in Montevideo sits empty. We don’t mind that it isn’t generating income, but we do worry that nobody is collecting the mail, cleaning the windows, or paying the bills. To address the problem, we contacted Reynolds, one of the agents that we used when we were originally house-hunting, because we know that they manage short-term lets for tourists and business people. One thing swiftly led to another, and they agreed to take over the maintenance of the flat while we were away.
The idea now is to rent the apartment fully furnished to short-term visitors, giving us the opportunity to use it for ourselves whenever we are in Uruguay. Since the previous tenant took everything with him, the property is completely empty of fixtures, so we decided to fly over this coming December to decorate and to furnish. Bettina, our contact at Reynolds, warned us that it would cost about US$10,000 to furnish an apartment of that size, and that the workmanship was liable to be far inferior to what we were used to. Her advice was to import the furniture from abroad, and just accept the massive 60% import tax that would be levied by Uruguayan Customs. The price would end up about the same, but the fittings would be far superior.
This set us thinking. During a lifetime of travelling, we have acquired a lot of stuff. Flitting as we do from job to job and city to city, we are always moving into new houses. Unfortunately there is rarely time to move the existing furniture from our previous residence to our new one, because usually at the end of a contract we throw our locally acquired junk into some local storage and go travelling. When news of a new contract comes in, we’re usually far away from our furniture and in order to make an immediate start, we have to set up a new place from scratch. We are pretty good now at completely furnishing a new property within a day or so of arrival.
We had thus accumulated a succession of storage units, each containing a full household’s worth of stuff. In addition, when we sold our yacht Pindimara, we filled yet another storage unit with five years’ worth of liveaboard and cruising gear.
Over the past couple of years, we have been slowly consolidating all our stored items into a facility in Canberra, Australia. Once we were pretty sure that we had everything in one place, we had the whole lot shipped here to the UK, where we happen to be working.
When the container arrived last month, we had no real idea what was in it. Certainly there would be a number of tables and chairs, some washing machines, a handful of fridges and freezers, and boxes and boxes of books. That much we knew. But there was another 10 cubic metres of mystery, stuff that we’d forgotten about, stuff that we thought we’d destroyed, stuff that we thought we’d lost, even some boxes that had been travelling around unopened for over fifteen years. It was time to have a shakedown.
We were renting a three-bedroom cottage in South Wales, and spent a lot of time shuttling van-loads of boxes back and forth between our large lounge and our storage unit. Whenever we had some spare time, we would open a box or two and itemise its contents. Some of the boxes were beautifully packed but contained nothing of any use. Others were a jumble of really expensive and useful stuff obviously thrown in at the last minute. We assembled a collection of over a dozen travel adaptors, innumerable bottles of skin and suntan lotion, and piles of crockery and cutlery.
We were glad to discover that the few remaining bottles of wine from our wedding (gifts from our friends) arrived intact, along with a surprise half-empty bottle of rare whisky and, mysteriously, tucked here and there amongst towels and sheets, a handful of small bottles of cider. Since these latter have no value at all, we could only assume that we couldn’t bear throwing them out at the time and had quietly tucked them away for later, not realising that they would not be unpacked again for years.
Slowly we separated our stash into three piles, representing the three forks of our future plans. One huge pile contained all the stuff that we needed to move onto our new yacht, Elizabeth. One small pile contained sentimental stuff that we couldn’t bear to part with, and which one day would find its way all the way back to Australia and into our building project in Tasmania. And finally, a much larger pile comprised of furniture and fittings which we wanted to ship to our apartment in Uruguay.
On the face of it, it may seem insane to ship several apartments’ worth of furniture from Australia to Britain, and then to ship a large proportion of it on to South America. However, if you factor in the savings of closing all those storage spaces and the time and flights that would have been necessary to sort things out ourselves, and also the fact that we already own all this stuff and so don’t need to purchase it again, it was much easier to pay somebody to load everything into a shipping container and then deal with it here. It’s also surprisingly difficult to freight things directly from eastern Australia to Uruguay, because most of the shipping is travelling in the opposite direction.
There is a great deal of paperwork involved in importing goods into Uruguay. Just for starters, every individual item needs to be photographed and valued, and that valuation must be agreed by Uruguayan Customs, who will then levy 60% import duty against it. Because we envisage that any problems will occur at the Montevideo end, we chose to arrange the freight using a Uruguayan shipping agent, rather than a UK one. This has the advantage that they know how the import duty system works, but the disadvantage that the UK packers and movers are contracting for a foreign company, and calmly inflate their prices to suit.
In order to minimise our costs, we chose to pack our goods ourselves. Generally this just meant unpacking everything, photographing it, and then shoving it back into boxes (and after our clear-out we had plenty of boxes!), but for a few of the larger items, we had to construct crates from rough timber. Luckily there happened to be a power outlet in our storage, presumably for the cleaners, so we’d sneak in at night with a power saw, and then try to sweep up all the sawdust before anybody noticed.
After a good many sweaty nights in the storage, and quite a bit of rethinking and repackaging, we were all finished and ready for the removal men. The next day, the storage facility was hit by lightning, which didn’t damage our goods but took out the freight elevator, leaving us with the prospect of carrying twenty square metres of gear down a small metal staircase. By the time the truck arrived, we had established that the hydraulics were fine, it was just the safety interlock that was broken, and the owners had the good grace to allow us to use it even though the safety doors weren’t functioning. In a world gone mad with health and safety, thank goodness for some common sense.
We heard today that our container has been loaded on board a vessel. Our stuff is en route… but we still haven’t heard whether Montevideo Customs have agreed with our valuation. Still, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Forward to Montevideo!
The grape vines that we helped to prune last year were now due for harvest (vindimia), so we flew back to Extremadura in Spain to see if our efforts had been successful. It was a long drive from Madrid and we didn’t arrive at John’s finca until the small wee hours, but there was still time for a nice glass of wine before bed. In the morning we met the rest of the crew and headed out onto the slopes.
We’d heard that the vines had had a bad year, and at first we were a bit nervous that this was down to our pruning efforts, but it soon emerged that it wasn’t just “our” vines that had suffered, and indeed all the other local vineyards had also been hit by the dry growing season.
Last time we’d seen these vines, they were little more than gnarled stumps dotting the hillside. It was fascinating to see how they had responded to our pruning, with two leafy stems springing a metre or more from each carefully selected nub. Some stems were bare of fruit, many held only a bunch or two, but some were weighed down with grapes.
A few of the bunches had been attacked by fungus, and could not be harvested. A badly timed frost had wiped out many of the tempranillo buds, while leaving the other varietals intact. Up on one slope, a surprising quantity of fruit had sustained some kind of physical damage despite being protected by nets, so we cut out the bad ones before tossing the good fruit into the basket.
Soon our hands, clothes and tools were dripping in sticky juice under the hot autumn sun. Pausing occasionally to snack on fresh figs or swig water from bottles, we laboured on until the tractor trailer was crammed with sacks of fruit.
Friends arrived from a neighbouring finca, bringing still more friends, and we tucked in to a table groaning with food, washed down with cold beer.
Then we needed all hands on deck to unload the grapes from the sacks into buckets, pour them into the crusher, tote away the buckets of stalks, ensure that each grape made several passes through the machine, and finally convey the buckets of sweet juice to the wine vat.
Everything depends on getting this right, and so it is intense and focussed, but also great fun. In the short breaks between unloading each sack of fruit, I looked around the sunny courtyard filled with busy smiling people, and it seemed that I could feel the presence of generation after generation of winemakers, all meeting in this place at this time of year to begin the magic.
Five hundred litres of grape must later, it was time to make up a batch of yeast and start the fermentation process. The vats would now need to be stirred every two hours for the next couple of days, so John wouldn’t get much sleep but it’s worth it to get decent quality wine.
WIth the main tasks completed, it was time to take the children on a tractor ride while we started to tidy up and hose down. When the kids returned, they took over the clean-up, although possibly the dogs and children may have ended up wetter than the equipment.
Later that evening, the neighbours threw a party which went well into the night, drinking wine and chatting under the stars. We didn’t emerge from our beds until the following afternoon, briefly considered clearing up the nets from the vineyard, and then put that off ’til tomorrow in favour of a hike up to the old Roman dam. On the way back down, we collected blackberries to make jam, and set them boiling while we settled down to yet another sumptuous meal. There isn’t anything quite as relaxing as a lazy evening at the finca.
2014 is a year not only of Bronwyn and my significant round-number birthdays, but also of our tenth wedding anniversary. This is a year that we have been planning for since before we were married; this is the year that everything changes.
During our wild and wonderful travels around the world, we have been seizing opportunities and laying ideas like duck eggs. A very few of them hatched and wandered off or were eaten by pike, but most of them hung around and slowly grew to adulthood. Some even turned into swans. All of them come into their full plumage in 2014. This is the year that we get all our ducks in a row. Quack, quack, quack.
We never expected this particular duck to be the first. In fact, its basic features are less duck and more cuckoo. Decades ago in a different life I made an investment decision that, for most of its long and sometimes expensive life, was a lemon. It bounced along through recessions and financial crises, being bought and re-sold by commercial players in the sub-prime market, but the policy itself was locked in to mature in 2014. I had always assumed that when I received the pitiful payout, I would then invest it in some other (hopefully more profitable) venture.
So here we are. The investment matures next month, and mysteriously has picked up a bit of value in recent years, despite the global recession. But what to do with the payout, in a world of minimal interest rates and austerity?
At about the same time, we realised that if we were going to stay in the UK, we really really didn’t want to keep haemorrhaging rent payments, and we were already feeling over-exposed in the property market, so we didn’t want to buy another house. So where would we live?
After the dramatic success of our life on our first yacht Pindimara, we have always planned to buy The Next Boat and sail her home to Australia from wherever we happened to be. This wasn’t due to happen until about 2019, but we suddenly realised that we could kill three birds with one stone by buying The Next Boat, and living on her until we were ready to leave.
One of the best things that I did when purchasing our first yacht, Pindimara, was to accompany the surveyor on his inspection. Over the course of a morning I had learned far more from him than he later put in his report, and was still benefiting from his advice years later.
In our search for a surveyor for Elizabeth, then, we used three simple criteria: The surveyor had to have good qualifications, respond quickly to email, and welcome the buyer’s involvement in the survey. We chose Ian Anderson and booked a day off work.
Ian was really, really thorough, and together we spent almost a day going over the vessel with a fine tooth-comb. We could find absolutely nothing amiss.
Ian flew off to Nigeria to survey a warship, and Bronwyn and I agreed to pay Derrick the full asking price, as long as he had her anti-fouled (after all, she was already out of the water for the survey) and would sail her back to Southampton for us. He readily agreed, and also offered to take us sailing so that we could get used to her before delivery.
We had a great sail with the Derrick and Audrey on Elizabeth. We all got along very well and had a lot of laughs, and the trip highlighted a number of design improvements that Bavaria have implemented since building Pindimara. Elizabeth has an updated rig with in-mast furling, which make single-handed sailing much easier. Purists argue that a furling main sacrifices performance, but it quickly became clear that Elizabeth was much, much faster than Pindimara, and that the battenless rig was much simpler to reef single-handed. The electronics were also better integrated, particularly the autopilot which worked effortlessly.
A couple of weeks later, we all met up again in Southampton. Derrick shed a quiet tear as he gently patted Elizabeth goodbye, and The Next Boat became our new home.
For a number of years now, we have been renting out our apartment in Montevideo. Once the building was complete and we realised that we were going to have to go and earn a crust somewhere else for a few years, we had a choice of either short-term letting to tourists (for US dollars), or long-term letting to locals (for Uruguayan pesos). Having very little wish to earn dollars, and with a vague feeling that we should be giving something back to the community, we engaged a local rental agent to find us a local tenant.
Uruguayan tenancy law is interesting. Before moving in, the tenant needs to provide an initial deposit to cover six months of rent. Since most people don’t have this kind of cash, they typically achieve this by using the title deeds of their parents’ house as collateral. On the flip side, the contract is unbreakable and the landlord is obliged by law to extend any year’s tenancy for a second year on request, and almost certainly for a third year, provided that the rent has been paid.
One of our early discoveries was that the concept of ‘being up to date with rent’ is marvellously flexible. It’s perfectly normal for the tenant to be months behind, or to make a part payment because they happen to be short of cash. We had one tenant who continued to pay back-rent long after he moved out.
Another aspect of tenancy is that you really do rent just the walls. A tenant will typically bring all their own furniture, white goods, light fittings, and even (and especially) their own hot-water boiler. The tenant can thus choose whether they want to use gas or electricity to heat their water.
Here are some agency pictures of our apartment, taken during an inspection.
In general, we have had a positive experience of long-term renting to local people. However, our relationship with our latest tenant, and with our agent, has become rather disgruntled of late. Out of the blue, the agent reported that the tenant was upset because the gas company wouldn’t turn on the gas supply due to a fault. This came as something of a surprise to us, because although we do have a gas supply, neither he nor any of the previous tenants had shown any interest in using gas, so it had never been connected and we’d never known that there was a problem.
It took a little while to organise a repair because the fault was located inside a neighbour’s apartment, and we had to knock down part of their wall to fix it. In the meantime, our tenant started withholding rent to compensate his loss, even though he hadn’t been using the gas supply at all throughout his tenancy. He then started angling for a decrease in rent. Instead of fighting in our corner, our agent began backing off from the whole affair and wouldn’t deal with either the tenant or us.
To cut a long story short, we got fed up with the whole thing, but we were far from the action and the agent was not providing us with any support. Then suddenly the tenant announced that he wanted to break the contract from his side. Officially he should have bought his way out of the contract, but we jumped at the chance and told him we’d call it quits if he cleared out, while simultaneously informing our spineless agent that we didn’t require his services any longer, and we were going to leave the apartment empty.
The upside is that finally, after five years, we now have the opportunity to use the property ourselves. Even though we have visited Montevideo on several occasions, we haven’t been able to spend even a single night in our own apartment, and we’re really looking forward to it. But first, there’s the little matter of redecorating and refurnishing…
Everybody who has ever owned a yacht is continually, even if only in the background, thinking about The Next Boat. With some years in the UK ahead of us, we had idly been putting some thought into one day buying a new yacht and sailing her home to Australia. There was no real urgency, but we had some investments maturing and no real idea what to do with them, so we had been keeping half an eye on the ‘yachts for sale’ pages of the internet.
There was one lovely world-cruiser in Florida, and another nice example in the UK’s west country. We put in some quiet requests for more information, and discovered that the Florida boat was already under offer, and that the UK yacht’s owner had suddenly changed his mind and didn’t want to sell after all.
A third likely candidate showed up near Southampton. She was a ten-year old Bavaria 37, slightly larger than our previous yacht Pindimara but to the same familiar and proven design. In addition she was the roomier “Master’s” version, with the advantage of a two-cabin layout and only a single head. Because she was a private sale, she was considerably cheaper than other similar boats from dealers, and yet she looked to be in remarkably good condition with most of the extras that we wanted.
We discovered that the owner, Derrick, had just spent a week sailing her east from Southampton and then north up the coast to East Anglia, but England isn’t very big and nothing is really very far away by road, so we drove over to see her.
We were quietly impressed. Derrick, who has been sailing her for almost ten years, is an excellent hobbyist electrician and woodworker, and has kept her in great shape. Every repair and change was an improvement on the original without materially affecting her design. We immediately commissioned a marine survey.
The reason that Iceland exists at all is due to the mid-Atlantic ridge, the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates which runs pretty much north-south down the centre of the Atlantic Ocean. The two plates are moving apart at a rate of several centimetres a year, being pushed apart by molten lava welling up between them. Some of this new material gets pushed up above sea level and forms Iceland, which is why the country is so geothermally active – hence the geysers and hot springs.
One of the items on my bucket list has always been to visit the mid-Atlantic ridge. I had always vaguely assumed that I would have to get there using some kind of submarine, but I hadn’t realised that the ridge is visible as an identifiable geological construct at Þingvellir in Iceland.
The site is so obviously unique that when, a thousand years ago, the newly formed alliance of Icelandic farmers needed a central place to meet, they chose Þingvellir. For hundreds of years, the Law Rock which sits on the ridge was the site of Iceland’s legal deliberations. In time, wrong-doers were also punished here, usually by being outlawed from society for a fixed period of time, or to duel on an island in the Öxará River. When the country converted from the Norse to the Christian religion – an event which also took place here at Þingvellir – the punishments got more severe, for instance in the case of incest, the man would be beheaded and the woman drowned by being dragged across the lake in a sack. Although the modern parliament now meets elsewhere, important national events are still celebrated here.
Even though I’d now seen and touched the edges of two neighbouring continental plates, it still didn’t really feel as if I’d properly ticked off the Ridge from my bucket list. I had been thinking about a submarine and instead found myself ambling along a tarmac path with bus-loads of tour groups. Yes it was picturesque and fascinating, but something was missing.
Luckily Bronwyn had already thought of this, and had booked us a scuba dive to the bottom of the Ridge. We were met by the incomparable Nina and Wouter of Scuba Iceland. It’s so nice to occasionally meet up with other travellers who are such kindred spirits. They were taking us down into Silfra Fissure, known to be one of the best fresh-water dive sites in the world, and the closest thing possible to diving between the two continental plates.
Silfra is part of a river system that drains melt-water into Lake þingvellir, so it’s only a couple of degrees above zero. For this dive we donned thermal underwear, then a fleece under-suit, then a thick neoprene dry-suit. Because of all this additional buoyancy, we also had to carry a lot of extra lead weights, plus big tanks, so getting dressed was quite the process and definitely not a solo affair. Eventually, though, we were ready and staggered down to the start of the fissure.
The dive is in three phases. The first part is prosaically named ‘the toilet’ and is a narrow channel along the Ridge. Then there’s The Cathedral, and enormous open space littered with tumbled lava which has fallen from the walls rearing on either side, and finally the Blue Lagoon, which has a deep sandy bottom scattered with freshwater springs. Visibility is crystal clear at 120 metres, and the glacial melt water shades everything a beautiful shade of blue.
Silfra is a shallow dive, rarely deeper than ten metres. Buoyancy control is always a little hair-trigger on shallow dives. This was my first dry-suit dive, and my first dive in fresh water, so there were a lot of new variables to deal with and I struggled to equalise my buoyancy and ran into a few rocks along the way. Nevertheless I had plenty of time to appreciate the ethereal beauty of the place, as well as occasionally just hanging out in the fissure and thinking, “I’m inside the mid-Atlantic Ridge!”
The journey from the north west to the south west of Iceland takes a couple of days and passes through a number of areas containing waterfalls and geothermal activity. We had intended to make an early start, but got chatting to the nice people at the HestaSport activity centre in Varmahlíð and it was after ten when we finally hit the road.
The initial climb over the pass to Blönduós was beautiful in the sunlight, with fresh powdery snow being blown in ever-moving snake-like patterns across the road and down the frozen river alongside.
We stopped off at Deildartunguhver, the largest hot spring in Europe and probably the most voluminous hot spring in the world. The flow is now piped off to serve the hot water needs of the neighbouring towns, but there is a long strip of scalded land where boiling water bubbles and spits to the surface.
Our next stop was at the twin waterfalls Barnafoss and Hraunfossar. The first (‘child falls’) is a narrow ravine which used to flow through stone arches. The story goes that the mother of two children who died there broke the arches to make it safer. The second (‘lava falls’) is quite interesting. It’s not really a waterfall as such, but a line of spring water pouring out from between two strati of lava rock, resulting in a long line of small falls dropping into the river below.
Our room for the night was at an out-of-season golf hotel, the Icelandair Hamar in Borgarnes. It was operating with a skeleton staff, but fortunately one of those was the excellent chef and we once again dined in perfect Icelandic style. This country is a foodie heaven.
We kept the curtains open that night, and were once again treated to a spectacular display of northern lights. It was brief – only about five minutes long – but enormous, with green-tinged arms spreading right up into the sky in a shimmering triangle.
Dawn (10 am!) saw us already on the road, because we needed to put some miles under our belt if we were to tackle the standard Reykjavik tourist trail, the Golden Circle. Passing through Laugarvatn on the way to Geysir we found ourselves feeling a bit peckish. We by-passed several ‘coffee cup’ traffic signs and then found the ‘knife and fork’ which meant a proper restaurant. At the door of Lindin, we were greeted by the owner and head chef, who seated us and presented us with a simple menu of extravagant dishes. We had scored again.
As a starter I had four different carpaccios of game; goose, reindeer, horse and whale, accompanied by a rather excellent goose liver pate. Bronwyn had been hankering for a salad, and although there wasn’t one on the menu, the chef knocked one up from the contents of his greenhouse. For mains, Bronwyn had another of those stunning Icelandic lamb dishes; the lamb here is to die for. I went for an almond-encrusted fillet of arctic char. All wonderful. We left fat and happy.
The eponymous water spout at Geysir no longer performs on a day to day basis, it is only active during earthquakes. Fortunately the nearby Strokkur still runs every eight minutes or so. We watched quite a few cycles, varying from quick bursts to big jets, or even double jets. The thing that surprised me was the short duration of each blow, only a second or so. We entertained ourselves watching other tourists trying to catch the eruptions on film.
The final waterfall on the Golden Circle tour is Gullfoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. It was by now close to sunset, and the wind chill was seriously bitter, so we scuttled around the falls mummified in layers of fleece and feathers. Gullfoss itself is pretty impressive, with a wide upper fall followed by a second at ninety degrees down into a transverse gorge, all hung about with snow and ice. There is a path down to the waterside, but it was encased in ice and closed for the winter season, so we peered down at the falls from above.
Shivering but content, we hit the road and headed for Reykjavik, where we needed to drop the car off at the rental office. As I pulled out onto the highway, I felt a moment of melancholy that our road trip was nearly over. Then the setting sun peeked out from the clouds and illuminated the snow-covered slopes beside us, and the sadness was lost in a gorgeous pink haze of beauty.
It was time to leave Akureyri and return to the west, but this time we decided to go over the top of the pass rather than back around the coast. It had been snowing quite heavily for several days, so we were a little relieved to wake to blue skies. The snow-ploughs had done a good job, and we got over without any trouble.
A few days ago, we tried to get to the geothermal pool at Grettislaug, where legend has it that the outlaw Grettir the Strong warmed up after swimming seven Arctic Ocean kilometres from the island of Drangey. On that occasion our map was incorrect and we ended up on the wrong side of the peninsula.
This time we had better directions. The last section is a minor road which was described as ‘icy but passable’. The road was indeed thick sheet ice, but the spiked tyres held their own. About two kilometres from the pool, there was a farm gate. We got out to open it, and discovered that even though the car was doing tolerably well, we could barely stand on the slippery surface.
Another half kilometre, and we could see the end of the road down by the sea shore. However, the ice was now stacked in transverse ridges and the car was starting to slide. I was confident that I could safely take us down to the shore, but less sure that I’d be able to get us back up the hill afterwards. For one of the very few times in my life, I chose the risk-averse option, and spun the car round to face back the way we’d come. The only way that we could go further was on foot.
That was far easier said than done. It was impossible to even stand on the road without crampons, which we had neglected to pack. The fields on either side were also iced up, but occasional tufts of yellow hay projected through, and it was possible to very gingerly make progress. After a few hundred metres, we admitted that we’d never make it, certainly not without risking a certain bruising or worse. We turned round and carefully picked our way back to the car.
A question of gait
Emma from HestaSport had saddled up some horses for us in nearby Varmahlíð. The Icelandic horse, which resembles a Shetland pony, is the only breed of horse allowed in Iceland, having been introduced here around the 1000 years ago and kept pure ever since. The reason that the rules are so strict is that it is now the only breed of horse that naturally possesses five separate gaits. Elsewhere in the world, two have been lost, modern breeds being only able to trot, canter or gallop. Icelandic horses also have the tölt and the pace. The tölt is fast and yet comfortable because, since only one hoof is on the ground at any one time, there is virtually no up-and-down motion in the saddle. The pace is a very fast sprinting motion where the horse rocks from side to side with both left feet on the ground, then both right.
The ground was icy here, too, but the horses had spiked winter shoes which made them sure-footed even on sheet ice. Emma told us that they are so good on ice that new riders often forget when they dismount, and end up sliding underneath the horse because they can’t stand up. Certainly these horses had no problem negotiating the icy, snowy, tussocky ground.
On the way back to the stables, Emma showed us how to tölt, and we had some fun changing the pace up and down. It’s a really versatile gait, and you can genuinely just sit in the saddle and let it happen, it’s like floating on a cloud. Why can’t all horses do this?
Heat and Light HestaSport also have some lovely little cottages on top of a nearby hill, and we had rented one for the night. Our little cabin has 360 degree views and is one of five clustered around a geothermal hot tub. After preparing dinner in our kitchen, we lazed under the stars in the 40 degree water and watched as the first slight haze of the northern lights appeared. There was a clear cold sky so we were hopeful of an auroral display later in the night, but it was too early yet for anything to happen.
Much later, as I was penning this blog with all the lights off and the curtains open, a glimmer of movement caught the corner of my eye. At exactly eleven, a shimmering band of light spread out across half the sky. Streamers shifted abruptly back and forth, searchlights shone brightly into the heavens, and mysterious black bars of anti-light danced back and forth along the shining arc. Half an hour later, the lights went out and it was all over, but we felt privileged to have witnessed the display in this amazing place.
A tale of two waterfalls
Half way from Akureyri and Myvatn is Goðafoss (God’s waterfall), so named because when the region converted to Christianity, the chief threw all the old Viking religious icons over the edge. The snow-storm was blowing a gale, but we arrived just as the sun rose over the mountains and the mist began to clear. Walking tentatively out to the falls, it wasn’t immediately clear which parts of the snowfield were safely laid upon volcanic rock, and which spanned minor tributaries of the river, but we got close enough to have a good look.
To complete the set, we also wanted to visit Dettifoss, the highest-volume waterfall in Europe, nominally two hours away by car. The route passed Lake Myvatn and then climbed higher, and ever higher. The road surface vanished beneath drifting snow.
About 40 minutes shy of the route indicated by our hire car’s GPS, I suddenly hit the brakes. There was a signpost to what was clearly a shorter, better way to the waterfall. I reversed, turned off the highway, and almost immediately came up against a chain slung across the road and a sign, ‘Impassable in winter’. Obviously the computer knew something that we didn’t.
I reversed back onto the highway, and we continued on. The tarmac ran out and we were technically on gravel, but it made little difference because the road was anyway covered in sheet ice. We crossed a tiny little suspension bridge, turned a corner, and piled into a deep snow drift. Another chain. Road closed. We now knew something that the computer didn’t.
Reversing our tracks, we headed back toward Lake Myvatn. The nearby volcano of Krafla has erupted 29 times in recorded history, so the area is full of geothermal features. We stopped off to look at the volcanic fields of Námafjall, a colourful area of steaming rock, bubbling mud pots, and smoking fumaroles. The thermometer claimed 1 degree centigrade, but the wind chill was bitter, and we were glad to warm ourselves by the bubbling vents.
Across the road is a geothermal power station. We discovered that the visitor centre was closed in winter, so we decided to drive up to the volcanic fields of Krafla but the road was blocked by snow and anyway, even if we’d got through, any kind of hiking would have been precluded by the blizzard which was now coming in horizontally.
The only sensible thing to do was to go swimming, so we headed for Myvatn Nature Baths, a geothermal hot swimming pool. We were warned that because of the strong easterly wind, the western end of the pool was off limits because all the boiling water tends to congregate downwind. We ventured tentatively in that direction, and it was indeed blistering. The rest of the pool, though, was lovely, and the wind was continually churning the water so that there were pockets of warm interspersed with pockets of really hot. There was also a cold swimming lake and a pair of steam rooms. Bliss.
Eventually dusk started to fall, and along with it, more snow. It was an interesting drive back to Akureyri, but we made it down to sea level with only minimal sliding, and were soon tucking in to a good warm fish dinner at the hotel.
It was a long drive up to Siglufjördur, Iceland’s northernmost town, but the snow-covered volcanic scenery was beautiful. For several hundred kilometres we had the company of a couple of French hitch-hikers, who were heading to Akureyri to work for their lodgings on a sheep farm. The weather was fine when we picked them up, but the roads became icy as the temperature dropped to zero and I was glad of the studded tyres. We dropped the hikers off as close as we good, but I don’t envy them farm work in this weather.
We were booked in to a little house near to the docks, with clear views of the sky above the fjord. The overnight aurora forecast was good, with high activity and clear skies, but in the end there was no display. The morning, however, brought gale-force winds and freezing rain. We cooked a quick breakfast and then slithered down the road to the Herring Museum. Everything was dark, and more to gain shelter from the sleet than in any real hope, Bronwyn pushed at the door and it opened. Inside we found a hand-bell, which summoned a cheerful man who explained as he unlocked the rest of the museum that they didn’t keep opening hours in winter, they just opened up if anybody showed up.
The museum is a masterpiece, and has already won several awards. It spans three buildings that document the sixty-five years of Iceland’s ‘Herring Adventure’. In the early 1900s, Iceland was the poorest country in Europe. One day, Norwegian fishing trawlers arrived, chasing the herring shoals. Finding good catches, they bought property along the Icelandic coast and began processing their catches there. The locals soon caught on, and sleepy Siglufjördur became a thriving industrial centre, the ‘Atlantic Klondyke’, attracting workers and investors from far and wide. Fortunes were made as the Icelanders took over all of the fishing fleets and built processing plants up and down the coast. The herring industry soon represented at least 25% of the country’s GDP, and post-war Europe became heavily dependent on Icelandic herring meal as animal fodder.
Then in the early 1960s, the herring catch began to decrease. Scientists warned of an impending crash, but ‘herring fever’ was in full swing and everybody started building bigger and better trawlers and faster and more mechanised processing plants. This kept supply in line with demand until 1969, when the herring failed to show up. The boom was over, and the herring towns just melted away.
Nevertheless, the entire episode is credited with turning Iceland into a modern industrial nation. Those who had made money in the Herring Adventure employed the newly mobile and motivated work-force and moved into cod and other industries, and the nation prospered. In the early 21st century, the herring even came back.
The Herring Museum consists of three restored warehouse-style buildings. One showcases the offices of a typical herring company, and the accommodation given to the itinerant workers who showed up each year for the herring sorting season. It also houses a couple of very interesting films of the herring catch coming in, one dating back to the early 1930s and the other which was produced for the 1939 New York Expo, which gives you an idea of just how important it was.
The second building contains a complete herring processing plant. Any herring that weren’t good enough to be stored whole in barrels, were fed into a factory, where the oil was boiled out and bottled, and the remainder crushed into animal feed.
The third building is the real jewel in the crown. It contains the most incredible collection of, well, stuff. It’s all contemporary with the Herring Adventure, and includes a fleet of genuine fishing vessels of all sizes, moored up against a simulated dock as if they it’s the middle of the night and they’re waiting for their crews. The superb thing is that it is not organised like a museum, it’s intended to be a complete reconstruction of daily life. You can go anywhere, climb everything, open all the doors, pick things up and look at them. Inside cupboards you’ll find boxes and tins of food, if you lift a bilge hatch you can climb down into the hold and find all the tools and parts that you would expect if you were aboard a 1960s fishing vessel. Scattered around the dock are little workshops and nets being mended, chandleries packed with all sorts of exciting goods. It’s hard to describe what a wonderful treasure trove it is; we had it all to ourselves and spent the entire morning exploring.
The only thing that finally dragged us back to the car was the building gale outside. Somehow the wind sleeting over the roofs of the warehouses was chilling the buildings far below the nominal 2 degrees on the thermometer, and our extremities were starting to freeze as we poked about in one more ‘just let me look in here…’
Somewhat reluctantly we got into the car, and headed out into the blizzard toward Akureyri, which will be our home for the next few days while we explore Lake Myvatn. After a couple of indifferent drinks in our hotel bar, we headed across the street to the incomparable Rub 23 restaurant, where I had minke sashimi followed by five different fish fillets, each flavoured with a different ‘rub’, and Bronwyn had three kinds of fish sashimi (including a beautiful fresh cod) followed by a wonderful slab of ‘sous vide’ beef. To mark the occasion, we splashed out on a bottle of my favourite Meursault wine. A perfect end to a perfect day.
There’s a toll tunnel out of Reykjavik, which was thick with smog from traffic fumes. We emerged coughing into the sunrise, which is less impressive than it sounds because sunrise at this time of year is at 10 am. We were heading around Iceland’s ring road for the western peninsula of Snæfellsnes. The GPS in our hired 4WD kept saying “Please take the second exit from the roundabout onto One”, until we turned her off, because there is broadly speaking only one highway of any length on Iceland, which is the One that we were on.
The landscape near the city was rugged with gnarled volcanic rocks dusted with snow, but as we climbed higher we began to see enough forage for the ubiquitous Icelandic ponies.
Once we arrived at the peninsula, we decided to circumnavigate it anticlockwise, taking in the Snæfellsjökull (glacier) on the way, if the pass happened to be open.
The northern coastline is dotted with little fishing harbours, and we stopped in one for lunch. We ate the local cod, which was fresh and beautifully prepared. The bartender was an ex-fisherman, and I asked him about the depleted cod stocks that had been on the UK news for much of the late 1980s, but he said that as far as they were concerned, there had never been a noticeable cod shortage, and there had always been plenty to be found.
We had noticed a number of tasteful roadside sculptures along the way, and were rather impressed by some of the modern churches. The one on the hillside above the restaurant had a lovely sweeping modern exterior and a simple Lutheran interior, complete with a beautiful stainless-steel organ and a simple oil painting instead of an altar piece.
Further along the road is the little mount of Helgafell, surmounted by a ruined chapel. The local legend goes that if you climb to the top without either speaking or looking back, then you should stand in the ruin, face East and make three wishes. We parked at the bottom and duly began to climb. Presumably it is much easier in the summer! I don’t think that many people attempt this in an icy wind when the ground is frozen and icy, but we did finally make it to the top. Bronwyn did vocalise a little on some of the dicier sections, and I’m not sure if leaning down to lend her my hand counts as ‘looking back’, but we made some wishes anyway. Possibly one of the wishes should have been that there was an easier way down…
Our next intended stop was down a track which we judged too icy even with our studded tyres, so we continued on to the turn-off to the glacier. We quickly encountered a sign which stated in English ‘Impassable’. We checked with a local who was working on his truck, and he said laconically, “Closed. There is snow”. As we drove off, the glacier dumped a blizzard across our windscreen.
The change of route gave us the opportunity to drive on to Djüpaloénssandur and walk down to the black sand beach, which is littered with the remains of a trawler which went ashore in 1948. The wreckage has been left as a monument to those who died, and touchingly it does not seem to have been disturbed except by the sea.
On this beach are the ‘lifting stones of Dritvik’. These are four large boulders of varying weights alongside a flat waist-high platform. The story goes that if you could pick up the 25kg ‘weakling’ and put it on the platform, then you could work onboard a Dritvik fishing boat in a junior capacity. In order to work as an oarsman, you needed to lift the 54kg ‘half strong’. Bronwyn managed the weakling, I managed the half-strong, but neither of us attempted the 100kg or 154kg weights.
As dusk was falling, we started to look for restaurants along the way, because we had gained the impression that there wasn’t a restaurant at our next hotel. The few that we found were either closed for the season or not yet open for the evening. In the end, Bronwyn phoned ahead to ask if we could get anything to eat close to the hotel, and they rather tentatively suggested that we should book into their restaurant. Thank goodness that we did! Both the hotel (Hotel Búðir) and the restaurant were stunning. Fine dining overlooking the fjord, with the mountains glowing in the background. The food – an untranslatable local fish – was gorgeous. Afterward we whiled away the evening with locally brewed porters and that typical Icelandic duo of birch-bark liqueurs, Björk and Birkir.
We needed to find a hotel somewhere between Seville and Malaga, and stopped off half way at a town called Antequera. This was an almost random choice, but we liked it so much that we stayed on. It’s a lovely town, founded by the Romans as Antikara, we infer as a midway garrison between the olive groves of the centre and the trading ports of the coast. There are few Roman remains there now, but there are a plethora of city walls, churches and cathedrals, all clambering picturesquely up the steep hillside to the castle.
The hotel were keen to direct us toward a nearby restaurant, but we were put off by the coach parking and English menus. Instead we located a couple of nice little bars, cafes, and a superb Michelin recommended restaurant, the Restaurante Reine. This latter is part of a Hospitality School, and when we arrived early and off season there was only one waitress on duty. As far as we could tell, the three of us were the only people in the restaurant, and yet she not only cooked seven impeccable courses but also appeared with the decanter at perfect intervals, and by the time we’d finished our coffees, the kitchen had already been scrubbed clean.
The most popular tourist destination in the area is El Torcal, a wide area of Jurassic limestone that has been eroded into classic and picturesque karst formations. There are two circular hiking routes through the system, and we took the longer 4.5 km one. The sign said that it would take two hours to complete the circuit, and – perhaps uniquely in the history of national parks – it actually did. This is because there is no real path, just markers sticking up as you scramble from rock to rock, and there are innumerable side tracks, tunnels, caves, and high points to be explored.
I understand that it is often too hot to visit in summer, but in January the temperature was only just above freezing. We soon warmed up, and made it round just as dusk was falling and the clouds were moving in.
Just down the road from El Torcal is Lobo Park, which is a collection of wolves from around the world. All of them are captive-bred, often cubs taken from zoos that don’t have enough room for them. The owners then bottle-feed them so that they become accustomed to humans, although not domesticated. Once released into one of the many large enclosures, the wolves range freely in packs. Our guide explained that they had already fed this week, but she brought a bucket of meat scraps with her and – although wild – they were happy to come close to the fence for a snack.
When we were about half way around the park, all of the wolves in the entire valley suddenly started howling, an explosion of joyous sound to which it was impossible not to grin in response. It reminded me of the excitement of sled dogs when they realise that they’re about to go for a run, but what were these wolves so interested in? Our guide, also grinning, explained that the park’s owner, Daniel, had just entered the property. Because he has bottle-fed every one of them almost from birth, he has a very special place in their psyche.
A chance meeting at a party, and we found ourselves driving to the Extremadura region of Spain to help prune grape vines. Extremadura lies to the centre of the country, butting up against Portugal. It is effectively a desert, with high summer temperatures and frequent droughts. These conditions are excellent for the production of wine, particularly dark reds from tempranillo and garnacha grapes, and our friend John needed a hand pruning his vines ahead of the spring growing season.
John has thousands of vines, and a competent person can prune about ten an hour, so there was a lot to do, especially as Bronwyn and I were complete beginners. However, John was a patient tutor and we soon got the hang of it.
There is a lot more to vine pruning than just hacking off the old growth. You have to evaluate the state of the vine, try to figure out what the last pruner was trying to achieve, make your own decision about what you want to achieve in terms of the number of branches and the direction that you’d like them to grow in, and then cut away everything that gets in the way of your chosen result. This includes cutting away useless suckers and last year’s stumps, sawing off failed branches, stacking stones under the trunks so that they don’t sit in ground water, and judiciously knocking off any tiny buds that will ruin the final shape. It’s not physically hard, but mentally more taxing than you would think, and sometimes we found ourselves sitting down next to a plant and talking to it while we tried to figure out the best way of encouraging it to grow a good crop.
The days quickly formed a pattern which went: Drink wine from the vat and laugh until the small wee hours; sleep til midday; prune vines til dusk; repeat.
John also makes some excellent olive oil, but some of the eating olives had been sitting in brine for too long, so Bronwyn spent a pleasant afternoon rinsing and re-packing them.
We did also find time for some long tramps around the countryside, and for foraging trips to the local markets. On one rainy day when pruning would have been a chore, we climbed up to a Roman dam that had been built at the top of a local creek. Despite the soaking wet foliage, we attempted a cross-country route which took us hiking through ancient olive groves and clambering over fallen rocks, discovering on the way an old embankment which might just have been the Romans’ original construction road. After some laughs and spills, we did finally make it to the dam, which is in remarkable condition considering its age. There is a slot that obviously used to contain a sluice, which has been slightly widened out at the bottom by thousands of years of erosion.
Deep in the heart of the Extremadura desert, the little town of Trujillo is famous as the birthplace of Pizarro and other conquistadores. Far from being the cream of Spain’s military forces, the invaders of the Inca and Maya nations were often penniless Extremaduran farmers who had been suffering from years of drought. Although a few were poor gentry or at least soldiers, many had no experience of either sailing or war, and few either survived or made their fortunes. Those that did return, spent their gold prodigiously, building castles and palaces on the hill above Trujillo, with fountains and pleasure gardens. Sadly those that returned were also ignorant of the ways of wealth and investment, and after a very few years the gold ran out, and they moved out of their palaces and back down into their farms.
The result of this curious historical legacy is that the little town is architecturally much grander than it might otherwise have been. The last time that I was here, most of the palaces were still in ruins, but since then Trujillo has been visited by relative prosperity, and many of them have been restored.
Despite my many perambulations across the length and breadth of Spain, I have always avoided visiting Seville. This was not because I didn’t want to go there, which I emphatically did, particularly because I wanted to see the site of the 1992 Expo. I wanted to do the city more justice than a day trip while on my way to somewhere else. Serendipity tossed in a few days to kill while driving from Trujillo to Malaga, so we thought that we might as well spend them in Seville.
On our arrival by car, we got thoroughly lost in the tiny alleys of the old town, a warren of one-way systems and dead ends. As we reversed out of yet another pedestrian walkway, We swiftly realised that if we indulged our usual plan to take a hop-on hop-off bus, we would miss all the interesting old parts of the city, because there was no way a bus would fit down them. Once we eventually ditched the car in a car park that was more expensive than our city-centre hotel, we decided instead to rent a bicycle tour guide.
We arrived at the bike store to discover that we were the only clients that morning. Because of this, and because “you are young and can cycle”, our guide Antonio decided that instead of simply doing the normal city tour, we would also tour some of the lesser known sights and take in the 1992 Expo. This would mean stepping up the pace a bit, but he thought that it was probably do-able.
The 1992 Expo
The Expo was pivotal in the formation of modern Seville. Until then, the city was a bit of a nowhere place, with no particular crop or market to distinguish it from its neighbours. In fact, through its long and chequered history, there have been periods of hundreds of years when the city didn’t exist at all, particularly after the river port silted up and all the excise business moved to Cadiz.
Then Seville hosted the Expo. The government co-opted the rather beautiful premises of the local ceramics factory and issued invitations. Hundreds of countries built pavilions to showcase their wares. The French brought an Ariane rocket, the Japanese built the largest wooden structure in the world, and the Australians opened a bar. The Expo was an immense success, and kick-started Seville’s tourist industry in such a way that it never looked back.
Although many of the pavilions were taken home after the festivities were over, some were left behind. One notable case was the Australian pavilion, a bar with one month’s licence which had been such a success that the owner skipped town with all the proceeds, leaving behind all his staff with no wages or tickets home. They petitioned the government, and received permission to continue operating the bar for a full year, so that they could recoup their losses.
There are also some buildings dating back to the 1929 Expo, which was a showcase of all the Spanish nations, plus a couple of extra invitees such as Israel (which did not then yet exist as a country). Plaza de España is a tremendous edifice built in a mixture of styles including Mudéjar, which is a beautiful faux-Moorish architecture popular in the city. The Plaza is now largely used as government offices but the canal is a popular spot for rowing. Antonio told us that, when he was growing up, this was a good first date where you could attempt to splash water on your girl’s top to make it more transparent.
Everybody we met told us that a visit to Seville was not complete without a visit to the Alcázar (Royal Palace), so we spent an afternoon poking around in it. Originally a Moorish fort, the Alcázar consists of many Arab courtyards with water features and mosaic tiling, surrounded by extensive gardens. Even in winter it is quite a lovely space.
Sevillians have an interesting theory about the history of their city. They maintain that it was founded by Hercules, who was a refugee from Atlantis (Tharsis) which had been flooded with sand by a tidal wave. The story goes that Hercules set up twelve trading centres around the Mediterranean, which became entangled in the Twelve Labours of legend, with the founding of Seville somehow related to cleaning out the Augean Stables. Sevillians also recognise that much of their infrastructure was implemented by Julius Caesar, and there are statues to both of these founders at one end of the Alameda de Hercules.
The cathedral is sometimes touted as the largest gothic cathedral in the world. However, it was pointed out to us that (a) only a small part of the cathedral is gothic, and (b) since the Vatican is by definition the largest cathedral in the world, Seville was not allowed to consecrate the whole building. Still, it’s an impressive pile with a great tower.
But what about the oranges? Seville’s name is inseparable from the orange fruit, and the trees are everywhere. However, none of them are edible. It is alleged that they were introduced during a period of Arab rule, when the pith of the sour oranges was used to provide acid for the production of gunpowder.
There are plenty of tourist-trap restaurants in Seville, but by ignoring any place that was on a main street or advertised an English menu, we managed several respectable crawls of lovely little bars. We drank copious copas of good Rioja, and ate innumerable tapas of (usually) Iberian ham and cheese. The locals were always welcoming, and obviously proud of their place in their blossoming city.
One of the delights of travelling in southern Spain is the architectural contrast caused by repeated waves of Arab and Christian colonisation. For instance, the Arabs might hold sway for a few hundred years, incorporating pre-existing Roman stones into their mosque. Then the Christians might arrive, knock down the mosque, and use not only the pre-dressed stone but also enslaved Arabic stone masons to rebuild a cathedral. Of course, the Arab stone masons only know how to build in their own style, they know nothing of Gothic architecture, and so inevitably the cathedral gains an Arabic flavour. A few hundred years later, the Arabs might return, knock down the cathedral, enslave all the Christian stone masons, and build a mosque, with the same result. Some of the most wonderful examples of Spanish architecture, such as the Alhambra in Granada, are the product of this kind of history.
The history of the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba is probably unique. When Christians invaded the currently Arabic city, they appreciated the beauty of the current mosque, and instead of demolishing it wholesale, they decided to incorporate much of the original building into their new cathedral. They kept the outer orange gardens, and also the inner courtyard. The courtyard was open to the outside world in the Arabic style, so they filled in the external arches with chapels in the Catholic style. Finding that they were unable to conduct Christian worship with all the sight-lines blocked by arches, they knocked out the centre and added a cathedral-style tower, dome and choir. The result is a gorgeous blend of the two architectural styles.
The most obvious feature of the Mezquita is the outer courtyard of double arches. The 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite (constructed using pieces of the pre-existing Roman temple, plus others from the nearby Mérida amphitheatre) are connected with red and white striped arches. Much of the striping derives from the use of differently coloured of bricks, but in some of the outlying areas, where money was tighter, the stone has been painted instead. Either way, the result is stunning.
The original mosque had a really beautiful mihrab or prayer niche, which has been retained in the current cathedral.
In the middle of the mosque, the Christian invaders then built the heart of a cathedral, retaining many of the original mosque’s features.
Photographs don’t really do this place justice. You have to visit and soak up the ambience. A beautiful corner of the world, one of those true architectural delights.
The January weather in England was typically dire, and neither of us were working, so we rented a flat in Malaga. The idea was to spend a relaxing few weeks just hanging out in the sun and learning Spanish. We got a cheap flight and before we knew it we were ensconced in a nice little apartment in the centre of the city.
Although we’d only recently been in Malaga on another jaunt and still remembered our way around, we thought that we’d take a guided bicycle tour of the city with Malaga Bike Tours, which proved to be a lot of fun. Coincidentally it was also a bank holiday, el Dia de los Reyes, which is the day that Spanish children open their Christmas presents, and so the town was empty and quiet. Our guide, Izzy, was very relaxed and more than happy to sit around waiting in the sun while we nipped off to examine the inside of churches or explored the botanical gardens.
Malaga and indeed much of southern Spain was Moorish territory for hundreds of years before the Christians pushed this far south, and so the architecture is often a blend of the two architectural styles. When Mosques in particular were captured, they were often simply re-purposed as churches with little amendment. The result is that the churches are often a lot more colourful and intricately carved than is usual even in Catholic Europe.
On the other hand, Malaga’s cathedral was built from the ground up, the project taking long enough that it embraces the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, until finally the project ran out of money when building the second of the planned two towers. The cathedral quickly gained the affectionate nickname La Manquita (the cripple), and when much later the authorities planned to finish the tower, there was an outcry and she was left alone to this day.
The city is bisected by the Guadelmedina river, which in common with most of the watercourses that descend from the mountains of Malaga is really a dry wadi, particularly since it has been dammed to form a water supply. An attempt has been made to turn the dry river bed into a recreational area with grass and fountains, but unlike the rather splendid linear park in Valencia, the architects haven’t really pulled it off. All that remains is a beaten-up and graffiti-strewn strip of rubble that is largely used by dog-walkers and skateboarders.
Of course two of the wonders of Spain are the meat and seafood. Pictured below is a meat platter that we ordered in a little roadside bar, and a squid platter that we ordered in a cabana on the beach.
High above the city are two castles or palaces, the Alcazaba and the Gibralfaro, joined by a slender double-wall that snakes up the ridge between them, a little reminiscent of the Great Wall of China. Originally built by the Arabs, they have been repaired and rebuilt many times across the centuries, resulting in an interesting mish-mash of styles. Even the original builders incorporated pillars and dressed stone from an earlier Roman amphitheatre.
The palace, now only a shell, must have been stunning in its day. Even now, little fountains play in the courtyards, and tiny artificial streams run in channels down the centre of every mosaic path. It is a very beautiful and relaxing place.
Although originally you could walk along the defensive wall between the two castles, that path (Le Coracha) is now closed to visitors. However, a switchback of marble tiles takes you along the south side of the wall, with views out over the port and bull ring.
There isn’t too much left of the palace itself, but a walkway along the fringing wall is worth it for the views.
Jardin Botánico-Histórico La Concepción Out beyond the northern suburbs of Malaga lies La Concepción, the world-famous botanical gardens created back in 1855. Climbing up the side of a steep hill, the gardens comprise a network of little paths and streams crammed with biological specimens from all over the world, all luxuriating in the balmy Malaguese climate.
It took us a while to get out there, because rather than take either of the direct buses, we inadvertently chose the slow stopping bus which eventually dropped us in a nearby suburb, but local buses are always an adventure, and we happened to get off outside a farmer’s market which allowed us to buy cherries for lunch.
We spent the whole afternoon wandering around the gardens, enjoying the different collections and relaxing in shaded corners to enjoy the views.
Hammam al Andalus
And finally, what better way to recover from a hard day’s tourism than to relax in an Arab bath house? We visited the Hammam al Andalus several times. There are hot, warm and cold pools, hot stone slabs, and a steam room. The interior is just beautiful and there’s nothing quite as relaxing as lying floating in a hot pool while gazing up at the intricately carved domed ceilings.
We also indulged in a few kessa massages, which involve a series of gentle and relaxing sensations. First hot water is gently poured over you body, then you are covered in an enormous lather bubble which pops gently against your skin, before finally being scoured by an exfoliating glove… and repeat. It is superbly relaxing. If we lived here, we would go every week.
We were up and out at half past five in the morning for the short drive to the Taj Mahal. Although they were clearly geared up for large numbers of tourists, there were only a few dozen people in sight, and no queues.
Touts for rickshaws, tuk-tuks and tongas clustered around, insisting that the entrance to the Taj was over a kilometre away, which of course it wasn’t. We took a tonga anyway, a carriage drawn by an old and skinny horse with an uneven gait,and were relieved to find that the journey was only a few bone-jarring hundreds of metres around the next corner.
After being frisked and scanned through yet another security check, we ran a small gauntlet of prospective guides and photographers. In the end we allowed a particularly persistent photographer to attach himself to our group on the grounds that he didn’t want any money unless we chose to buy his photographs.
It was first light, very humid and sticky. The Taj loomed mysteriously from the mist. It is obvious why it’s regarded as one of the Wonders of the World. It really is quite beautiful.
The Taj Mahal (Crown Palace) is a mausoleum, built in the early 17th Century as Emperor Shah Jahan’s monument to his late wife. It stands in an elaborate garden containing four reflecting pools, and is flanked by a mosque and a guest house. It has a beautiful dream-like presence that can only be hinted at in photographs.
Our own photographer had us posing here, posing there, with madam, without madam, standing up here, sitting down there, hands in front, hands behind… Until both Ankur and I cracked at the same moment and cried “Enough!”
After we’d got rid of the photographer, we had a pleasant and uninterrupted wander around the grounds. As we approached the Taj itself, we realised that it is much bigger than its ethereal looks convey.
The interior, while encrusted like everything else with inlaid semi-precious stones, is a simple dark open space containing the sarcophagi of the king and his wife. It has an amazing echo, and although there were only a handful of us moving quietly and respectfully around the tombs, the dome amplified the sound to a multitude of hundreds. It must be really loud in there during the peak tourist season.
As the sun started to beat down and the tourists began to flood in, we took our leave. On the way out, we dropped into the photographer’s stall and discovered to our surprise that his pictures were rather good, so we bought them. Then we ran the gauntlet of marble trinket salesmen and, avoiding the clamouring tonga touts, made our way back to the hotel for a pre-breakfast nap.
We planned to do a circular tour around Northern India, and our Punjabi friends Ankur and Tanu wanted to come too, because they’d never had a chance to be tourists in their home country. In true hospitable Indian fashion, Ankur instantly arranged a car and driver to take us all on a huge arc through Rajisthan and Punjab.
After a full day of exploring Old Delhi, we woke refreshed at our hotel. I was keen to have dosa for breakfast, a traditional South Indian pancake, but the chef, aware that I am a coeliac, warned me that his version contained wheat flour. Then he cheerfully made up a new batch from pure gram flour, and served it with spicy potatoes and a fiery sambar soup.
After this most excellent start to the day, we caught a taxi to meet our driver, Happy, who would be doing all the hard work for the next few days.
Together with Tanu, Ankur and five-month-old Amaira, we piled into Happy’s people-carrier and hit the road for Agra.
Actually it wasn’t quite that simple. There are few road signs in India, and the accepted method of navigation is to shout questions out of the window. Even then, it seems to be part of the Indian psyche to make something up or to tell you what you might want to hear, rather than to admit that you don’t know. We therefore took a straw poll of half a dozen rickshaw drivers before finding two answers that matched.
Eventually we found the toll road, and apart from the regular police checkpoints (security fencing across the road that constrict the traffic into a slalom but which are otherwise ignored), we seemed to be the only vehicle moving, something of a shock after navigating the crowded streets of Delhi.
On either side of the highway, boggy land was being drained and the clay dug out and fired into bricks in the hundreds and hundreds of little kilns spread out across the landscape.
The clay was being dug to a depth of about a metre, with walls left standing around every square acre or so. It looked as if water (and perhaps night soil) was then being pumped into each rectangular plot, which was then being planted with crops. The produce was later stored in thatched and mud huts.
Eventually we arrived in Agra, where the traffic was just as chaotic as in Delhi. All we had was the postal address of the hotel, so Happy navigated by asking people every few miles if they’d heard of it.
The randomness of the answers intimated that nobody had, but we passed many miles of shack hostels leaning up against local shops, before passing through an area of impressive government offices, which opened out into a sprawling confection of turrets and crenellations which turned out to be our hotel, The Grand Agra.
As well as the now familiar check for car bombs (a mirror on a stick under the chassis, and a poke around under the bonnet), we also had to pass through a metal detector in the foyer, and watch as our luggage was unloaded through an airport X-Ray machine, before being allowed to check in. Once Inside, the hotel was impressively palatial, and indeed at one end they were building a ‘presidential suite’ with its own helipad and views over the Taj Mahal.
We had originally intended to visit the Taj at sunset, but we would have had to rush to get to the ticket office before it closed, so we decided to go at dawn the following day, giving us the excuse to relax with some pleasant beers in the bar as the sun went down.
Later we ate a splendid meal at the restaurant, which we had to ourselves apart from a legion of waiters and a sitar player. Very very stuffed, we waddled out into the darkness and through the water garden to our rooms, surprising a trio of men with rifles who are presumably the night watch.
What can I say about driving in old Delhi? There are cars and trucks and rickshaws everywhere, all mixed up with pedestrians and bicycles and porters. There are no valid road markings and few signs. Horns sound continuously, but not in anger, just to alert other drivers that you are inches behind them, because nobody uses mirrors.
Bronwyn and I had just emerged from Red Fort with our friends Ankur and Shalu, who had engaged a couple of rickshaws to take us all on a sight-seeing tour of the old town. Our driver was brilliant, pedalling us up and down the tiniest of soukh alleyways, panting and puffing under what I imagined to be the unexpected weight of two tall westerners. However, while waiting at the top of a particularly steep hill, our driver laughed good-naturedly at his colleague labouring along behind us, because neither Ankhur nor Shalu are particularly tiny either.
We visited a thousand-year old temple with hundred-year old mosaics, belonging to a strict Hindu sect that didn’t allow any leather inside. Shalu volunteered to stay outside with our shoes, belts and bags while an elderly toothless monk showed us around. We couldn’t take any photos inside either, but it was an old space filled with kitchen cupboards and old chairs, with occasional rather spectacular mosaics and sculptures. Overall it was a very nice little temple.
We had a good time at the spice soukh, chatting to the merchants who were more than happy to allow us to taste their wares and let us take photos of their produce. We stocked up on chai tea and some really good quality spices.
Our rickshaw drivers then took us up some rickety stairs above the market, past tatty-looking legal offices and stepping over sleeping people (there are sleeping people everywhere) to the rooftops where we had an unrivaled view of the old city. Locals were having a good laugh flying kites from the roof, it was a relatively cool and breezy place to hang out.
We were starting to feel more than a little hungry, so Ankur asked the drivers to drop us at Karim’s, a famous restaurant catering for “non-vegetarians”. Karim’s consists of an open-air triangle bounded by tiny cafes on each side. We were led up a wooden staircase to a balcony above the kitchen, where we were served some of the best Indian food that I have ever tasted. Mutton Queerma (Korma), an incomparable Butter Paneer, and an awesome and apparently nameless rice dish.
As evening drew in, Tanu arrived in her car with six-month-old Amaira, and drove us out to New Delhi to see the nightly water show at the temple of Akshardham. It took us some time to make sense of the mass of milling and excited bodies by the ticket office, being herded here and there by whistling and shouting security guards, before we realised that we didn’t need a ticket at all if we didn’t want to visit the temple building, which anyway was just closing. There was however an enormous list of banned articles, including cameras and phones, food and drink, any kind of bag, and some odd things such as USB drives and, amusingly, ‘drunkards’.
This meant in turn that there was another immense jostling crowd for the cloakroom, with lots of pushing and shoving and shouting as people tried to store their bags. Instead we dropped all our prohibited items back at the car and joined the queue for the queue for the security check. There was still lots of pushing and shouting and attempts at queue-jumping, but in an amiable kind of way with lots of laughter. Every ten to fifteen minutes, the security guards at the head of the queue lifted a rope and everybody surged forward, sprinting to join the back of the next queue.
Here people were separated by whistling guards into separate lines, who maintained order by solidly body-checking anybody who tried to change queues. Eventually we made our way through the scanners and into the temple gardens, which were very serene and scattered with water features and sculptures of mythological figures.
As dusk fell, we were herded gently out of the gardens into the main courtyard of the temple itself, an incredibly impressive recent building built mainly by volunteers from pink stone and white marble.
The courtyard consisted of a wide area of pools and fountains, and we found a place to sit amongst the families perched around the low retaining walls. As darkness fell, the ceremony began with blessings accompanied by a large swinging brazier of flame. Then the music began, synchronised with playing fountains underlit by dancing coloured lights and lasers. The crowd stilled, and we all stared in awe. It was beautiful, haunting and mesmeric, a gorgeous spectacle. There is a short promotional video here which doesn’t do it justice.
After the half-hour show, the main temple opened to non-ticket holders, so we left our shoes at the front desk and wandered in. It is very impressive, and to my Western eyes reminiscent of walking into a large cathedral but with the statues of saints replaced by swamis. The temple was built by the richest sect in India, and it shows. Every surface is intricately carved and gilded, and instead of a golden Buddha, there is a statue of the man himself. Around the walls, colourful mosaics depict scenes from the Swami’s life, revealing a pleasant man doing a lifetime of nice things before dying peacefully of old age. Compared to other religions, his is certainly a pleasant and refreshing story.
There was a very long queue for tickets at the Red Fort in Delhi, but we noticed that there was a sign above the desk that read ‘Gentlemen’. It turned out that there was another queue designated ‘Ladies’ with only two people in it, so Bronwyn nipped over to get our tickets.
Although the fort is essentially a series of ruins containing a small museum and some tourist shops, it is guarded by soldiers in sand-bagged machine-gun nests. Once we were past the security check at the Lahari Gate, we found ourselves in a covered courtyard which once housed a silk and jewellery bazaar for the royal household of the Mughal era, but which now holds somewhat more prosaic emporia.
An impressively scalloped audience hall led us out into the main body of the fort, and through another gate under the Drum House, an impressively sculpted building – now a museum – where musicians used to play. Only royalty are allowed to ride through the gate, but luckily we had neglected to bring our horses with us.
Inside the main fort complex are a scattering of harem and palace buildings, all beautifully decorated with carved marble, along with numerous ponds, fountains and channels, one of which runs right through the harem. Although these are currently dry (and now provide seating for security guards), it must have been quite a paradise in its day. In fact a pair of archways to the Hall of Private Audience are inscribed “If heaven can be on the face of the earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”
The centre of the fort is taken up by the ‘Life-Bestowing Garden’, originally 200 square feet of gardens, but these were destroyed during the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion. All that is left is a dry reservoir with a marble pavilion at each end and a red sandstone building, the Zafar Mahal, in the middle.
We were beginning to gasp in the unrelenting dry heat surrounded by all these memories of cool running water, so we retraced our steps through the bazaar, and headed out into Old Delhi for lunch.
The Queen Elizabeth pulled in to Malaga dock, and we hopped off to explore the city. Most of the passengers jumped into the line of waiting taxis and buses, but we chose instead to stroll along the sea defences to the old lighthouse that marks the beginning of the town.
Underneath the lighthouse, a cheerful man had lit a fire in an old rowing boat – a tradition along this coast – and was cooking fish for sale in the neighbouring cafe.
I had vague childhood memories of tower blocks and traffic, so I was prepared to be unimpressed, but in fact we both instantly felt at home in this happy, vibrant town. The visitor from the sea instantly finds himself in the exotic gardens of Malaga Park. This was built at the end of the nineteenth century when it was realised that most of the citizens of the city could not afford to visit the wonderful Botanical Gardens that are situated to the north of the town. To this end, the local ship owner instructed his captains to bring back trees from whatever part of the world they found themselves in, as they shipped their cargoes across the seas. The result is a lovely strip of very exotic trees, scattered with mosaics, fountains and sculptures.
The most obvious building in town is the cathedral, known locally as ‘The Cripple’ because it was never finished and is missing a tower. Built over such a long period that each facade is from a different architectural era, the interior of the cathedral is awe-inspiring. There are dozens of altars and chapels, and an incredible ceiling that just makes you want to lie on the ground and stare.
We didn’t really have time to visit the Alcazabar (castle) on this occasion, but we did nose around in the Roman amphitheatre below it, and the recent archaeological discovery of enormous stone vats that were used for brewing a famous fish sauce, the recipe for which has since been lost to antiquity.
With only a day to spend in Malaga, we finished our trip by visiting the striking group of buildings known as the ‘ABC’, for ‘Ayuntamiento, Banco, Correos‘ (Town Hall, Bank, Post Office).
Then, as was normal for this whistle-stop voyage, it was back to the ship for dinner.
Although there seems to be little obvious crime in Montevideo, it is noticeable that many ground-floor windows are protected by wrought iron grilles. We had always assumed that this was a throwback to the bad old days, but when our rental agent asked for a cage over the glass hallway to the rooftop garden, we were happy to oblige because although it is our own private terrazza, it is at least theoretically accessible from neighbouring rooftops.
We were a little surprised when, a couple of years later, a tenant asked for a grille to be put over the lounge window. Bear in mind that this window is indoors, looking out over the building’s main marble stairway. The panes are tall and slender, an attractive feature of the stairwell, and the first thing that a visitor to any of the apartments sees when they enter from the street.
The tenant sent us a photo of the sort of thing he was expecting, even worse than our rooftop bars, like the security on a basement window, a thickly barred affair reminiscent of a Dickensian workhouse.
The subsequent conversation got quite heated. It was his contention that it was his right to demand that the landlord turn his home into a fortress on request, and that he intended to withhold rent until it was done. I was equally adamant that I had chosen the apartment for its Italian colonial styling and the last thing that I was going to do was turn it into a prison, particularly since he had presumably chosen to rent it for exactly the same reason.
If we had been on site or in the same time zone, the situation may well have been resolved amicably, but the increasingly acerbic conversation was filtered by email through the weak translation skills of our increasingly ineffectual agent, who in the end gave up and just forwarded our emails back and forth in whatever language they happened to be written.
Getting rid of a tenant in Uruguay is practically impossible. Officially they must pay their rent or get evicted, but in reality this is more of a promise that one day, the rent might be paid, eventually, if things go the tenant’s way, and until then it seems that they can just sit and argue and make small token payments until the situation is resolved to their satisfaction. Even in the normal run of things, when there were no arguments and everybody was happy, it was perfectly normal for our tenants to be months behind in their rent, which the agent regarded as nothing to be concerned about.
Something had to give, and it seemed that both the tenant and the agent thought that we were being unreasonable in quibbling about paying for pointless structural alterations to our property. Thankfully we had already had experience with the iron-workers who had built the rooftop cage, who had done quite a large job at reasonable cost. We sent them a series of photos of nice ironwork that we’d found on the internet, and asked if they could make something more in keeping with the style of our property.
Luckily they were able to oblige, and if we have to have a grille at the front of our apartment, then at least this one is pleasant to the eye.
Now that we had purchased our forest in Tasmania, we had a great camping destination (albeit one where all our gear needed to be packed in over the creek on foot), but where should we build our house?
With 14 acres of dry sclerophyll forest to choose from, we spent several visits stomping about, clambering over fallen trees and poking at the ground, we slowly formed a more detailed mental picture of the terrain. The high Southern slopes are steep and rocky, and the low Northern slopes are steep and boggy. To the East, the land falls away steeply to one side. To the West lies the official route of Klynes Road, although in reality there is little more than a rough logging track which terminates at the creek crossing on our border. Still, it is the closest thing that we have to a demarcated border with the farm on that side, so we didn’t want to build in sight of it in case something changes there in the future.
In the end, we decided to put the house on a shelf of less steeply sloping land, more or less in the middle of the forest. After a lot of scrambling around and climbing trees, we ascertained that a raised deck would give us fine views across the d’Entrecasteaux estuary, over the tops of our lower forest. The higher wooded slopes to the South would protect us from storms rolling in from the Southern Ocean. Bravely, we hammered some stakes into the ground.
It was still only coloured sticks in a forest, with no access except on foot by crossing the creek at the bottom of the property. However, a neighbour who had built a house further down Klynes Road had access to a bulldozer, so we commissioned him to run a causeway over the creek, push through an access track, and clear the brush from the building site.
We’d asked him to leave the larger trees for the moment, but to clear anything that had fallen down. This had the unexpected benefit of providing us with chest-high stacks of drying fire wood which will probably last us for years.
We have no immediate plans to start the house build; all that is far in the future. But now that we can get a four-wheel drive in to our cleared building site, we have a perfect camp retreat at the bottom of the world.
For several years, all of our camping gear had been stored under a bush, wrapped in a tarpaulin. On every visit, we found more holes in our tarp, and sometimes nibble-marks on the tools themselves. We decided to construct a more permanent shelter for our gear, and to this end bought a prefabricated garden shed and some railway sleepers.
We were hanging out at The Andaman, our favourite luxury hotel on the island of Langkawi off northern Malaysia, and we needed to get to Kuala Lumpur in the south. Since we we had just come off the Trans-Siberian through Russia, Mongolia and China, we decided to continue by surface transport instead of flying.
But first, several days of luxury at the wonderful Andaman, always our home from home when we pass through this region.
Our friend Kim had flown in from Thailand, and we whiled away the time swimming in the balmy sea, paddling kayaks around Datai island, eating perfectly prepared cuisine and drinking far too many cocktails and bottles of wine. Bliss.
One interesting feature of Datai Bay is the remains of the fringing reef, which was smashed in a storm some years ago. The broken pieces all washed up in the shallows near to the beach, and each piece settled down to become a mini-reef of its own. There are staff whose job it is to wade out into the debris every day, collecting specimens and putting them in an artificial reef behind the hotel. This acts as a breeding ground and hatchery, with the ultimate intention of rebuilding the original fringing reef. In the meantime, if you are careful you can wade out at low tide and see reef life that you would normally not see without diving gear.
Eventually we had to to return to real life, so we dropped Kim at the airport and headed down to the quay for the first leg of our journey, the ferry to Georgetown on the island of Penang. We waited in the terminal and watched the approaching front of a gathering rain storm. As the heavens opened, our gate opened, and the terminal degenerated into semi-organised mayhem. The 300 or so of us who were lucky enough to have boarding passes pushed down the cramped gangway, stacking our luggage in a pile at the front of the cabin, and crammed into our plastic-clad seats.
Outside in the fog we could see a queue of other ferries being pummelled by the waves as they waited for us to clear the dock. The crew hurled more and more packages aboard as still more passengers arrived, screaming into their mobile phones. Even as we cast off and pulled away, a steady stream of new arrivals were still leaping aboard, stevedores flinging their luggage unceremoniously onto the roof of the cabin.
We’d noticed previously that the forward end of both passenger decks were protected by rows of welded steel plates, and we soon found out why. As we hit the rolling swell, the bow buried itself deep into the quartering sea. The pilot did a great job of zig-zagging to try to give us a more pleasant ride, but inevitably on each turn we were pushed back under water.
After three and a half hours of corkscrew progress, we disembarked into warm rain and humped our packs up to our favourite Georgetown hotel, the Yeng Keng. Since our last visit they’d built a cafe on one side of the courtyard, and – damp and hungry – we snuck in five minutes before closing and scoffed a very satisfying Malaysian meal washed down with white wine.
After a good sleep and an enormous breakfast (two complete servings of Nasi Lemak, and why not?), we headed out into the stunning heat and humidity for the short walk back to Georgetown jetty. We were had been on the car ferry to Butterworth before, and it is pleasant to stand in the open structure of the car deck and feel the warm wind on your face as it makes the short and scenic journey across to the Malay Peninsula. It’s even nicer because, in this direction, travel is free.
We had already purchased first class rail tickets from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur, so we ambled unhurriedly in the direction of the rail terminal. The station turned out to be closed for redevelopment, and we were redirected to a temporary structure which was largely closed. After a little searching, we found a small courtyard bar, which was also closed. However, the ceiling fans were running over the battered trestle tables, and there was a snack stall so we settled in to wait with some cans of soft drink.
There were a couple of cafes fronting the courtyard, both firmly closed with rolling shutters. While we sat there, the owner of one of them arrived and cracked open his shutter, pouring a tray of food in front of the gap. A whole family of cats and kittens emerged and began to eat, presumably this was his answer to any possible rodent problem in his stores.
Some local kids came and sat nearby, complaining to each other about their parents’ backward attitudes, and how they wouldn’t allow their children to get ahead. It was intriguing, but we never found out what they were talking about because it was time to head back to the temporary station, which had just opened. It was full of disgruntled passengers who had been told that the daily train to Bangkok had been cancelled and had been replaced by a bus service. Frankly I wouldn’t have complained, as we gathered that the reason that the service had been cancelled was that it had been derailed.
Boarding our own train, we found ourselves in one of those rather tired and battered carriages which are typical in Malaysia. Travelling first class just means that you get an assigned seat, and a pretty girl who brings you water and a piece of cake when you board. However, our seats were at the front of the carriage with copious leg room, and thankfully the flat screen TV did not seem to be working. This was fantastic news because usually they run a loud and endless loop of irritating advertising jingles.
We settled back to enjoy the ride as we travelled the entire length of the Malay peninsula. The windows were actually too dirty to see through, but by scrunching down in doorways I could get a reasonable view of this beautiful, fertile, and above all jungle country.
Arriving finally in Kuala Lumpur, we immediately headed out for food, and were once again stunned by the Malaysian attention to cuisine. A simple bowl of chips is a thing of beauty, and once you settle down to a good fish dish, you’ll never come up for air.
Suitably refreshed, we finished our trip at our favourite KL bar, the Hap Seng Belgian Beer Cafe. It’s not overwhelmingly beautiful and there isn’t much to see apart from passing traffic, but the stools are comfortable, the staff are attentive and the beer is perfect. What more could you ask for?
Boarding the Trans-Manchurian Express in Ulaanbaatar, we immediately noticed a marked improvement from the elderly Mongolian rolling stock in which we had trundled across Siberia. This time, we had been allocated a proper first class carriage with two beds, an armchair, and even a semi-private toilet shared with the next compartment. The friendly conductress kept popping in with hot water, tea and coffee (these latter came in sachets described as “3 in 1”, which apparently means that they consist of 50% sugar, 50% powdered milk, and a hint of tea or coffee).
We dozed off the excesses of our final night in Ulaanbaatar as the train climbed up onto the steppe. Waking up hungry, we made our way to the restaurant car. In contrast with the pleasantly homey but food-free Russian restaurant car which had accompanied the train across Siberia, this Mongolian car was quite plain. In place of the two elderly Russian ladies providing plates of potatoes and pickles, were uniformed waiters and chefs, and an extraordinarily expensive menu denominated in US dollars. We ordered one lunch and one breakfast between us, and it came to an astonishing $40, and that was with many of the key ingredients missing. When we first sat down, we explained that we couldn’t eat wheat, and the waiter leapt to the conclusion that we were vegetarians and no amount of argument could get him to change his mind, so we picked at our salad and watched in salivating horror as everybody else tucked into their bacon and chops. Still, at least we got to eat a lot of eggs.
The steppe ambled past our window under an enormous sky. A few mines, occasional herds of horses and camels, men with big sticks herding goats, sparse handfuls of yurts, and the odd truck.
We whiled away the time reading the train’s magazine, which is hilarious. One long and rambling folk tale seems to have been randomly generated by an online translating engine. It goes on for pages and is completely impenetrable, but peculiarly beguiling as we try to fathom what the original text might have said.
And then there’s the section on Mongolian cuisine, which goes on to list six pages of two-line recipes for cooking heart. It starts with “heart with carrot”, before moving on to “heart with carrot and turnip”, and then “heart with carrot and turnip and potato”…
At seven in the evening we stopped at the Chinese border, and everything got complicated. Most trains in Eurasia use a standard track width, which allows the interchangeable rolling stock to be mixed and matched along international train routes. However, Russia and Mongolia use a narrower track to everybody else, so it is not possible for the Trans-Siberian to proceed across the border onto Chinese rails. The rather exciting solution to this problem is to jack up the entire train with everybody aboard, remove the Russian bogies, and replace them with standard ones.
Our train was shunted into a large shed and lined up with a series of hydraulic jacks. As the train lifted, men ran around underneath hitting things with hammers until the bogies came free. We understand that in earlier times it was not permitted to watch the process, but on this occasion we were all glued in fascination to the grimy and mud-smeared windows. Once the Russian bogies had come free, they were pushed away, and a new set of Chinese bogies came rushing in, pulled by an underground cable.
The whole process took a couple of hours, followed by another hour of banging and shunting as they put the train back together. Immigration was a formality, merely involving glancing at passports and checking the toilets for stowaways, and so we drifted off into a comfortable sleep.
Since the restaurant car changes at every border, we were interested to compare the new Chinese restaurant with the Russian and Mongolian ones, particularly as our last meal had been almost protein-free and we were starving. However, when we arrived for breakfast soon after opening, it was packed and we were told to come back at 10am for lunch. There were no platform vendors at the stations, so we quietly hugged our grumbling stomachs and chewed on our last remaining pieces of dry biltong before rushing to the restaurant car precisely on time.
The car was empty, and we gorged on two lunches each, crispy chicken and diced breast and peppers and rice and salad and eggs… we were so happy to eat. The price was only 80 yuan (about 8 pounds) including beer. Bronwyn offered to pay the bill using our Mongolian currency which we had forgotten to change at the border, and the price was 80,000 which was somewhat suspiciously exactly the amount that Bronwyn was holding in her hand, and which incidentally was about 80 pounds! We turned down the kind offer and paid in yuan.
Our somewhat unreliable guide book had insisted that we get up early if we were not to miss the best of the scenery, but it wasn’t until we had finished lunch that the landscape started to change. The train was running alongside the Guanting Reservoir, a large lake in a deep gorge that seemed to have been lined by white marble terraces, in part to prevent the valley from crumbling into the fields of sweetcorn and sunflowers below.
The gorge was scattered with major engineering works, dams and power stations and bridges, all against a backdrop of spectacular mountain peaks, especially as we chugged up through the Badaling and Huyu national parks.
Finally after some eight days rolling across Siberia, Mongolia and China on the Trans-Siberian railway, we arrived at our final destination in Beijing.
Together with fellow travellers Gar and Tony, we stumbled blinking into the smog-laden sunshine, to find that the queue for taxis stretched clear across the square. The line of overheated and overladen shoppers and tourists snaked obliviously around a tented area of plastic tables, presided over by a smiling man with a portable freezer full of ice and beer. We looked at each other. It seemed rude not to.
We had been keen to get some first hand experience of Mongolian yurts, because we’ve been toying with the idea of building one on our property in Tasmania. Since we were already in Ulaanbaatar, we headed 50km out onto the steppe to spend a few days at Elstei Ger Lodge. That was our first lesson; in Mongolia, yurts are called gers.
Our home for the next few days consisted of about a dozen yurts spread out across the flat grassy steppe. Each yurt contained three brightly painted wooden beds inset with drawers, a few small pieces of painted wooden furniture, and a central wood-burning stove.
The sun shone and the steppe was beautiful and so very quiet and peaceful. It is very fertile from horse dung, and far from being simply grass, the flora is a vibrant mix of green plants and fungi. Insects abound, particularly a cricket that makes a clicking sound as it flies. One of my favourite pastimes was to walk about a quarter of a mile out of the camp, in any direction, and to simply stand still and absorb the silence.
The Ger Lodge had attracted an interesting and eclectic bunch of travellers, and one night, after the bar closed, the hard core of us carried all the remaining beer and a considerable quantity of vodka back to our yurt for an after-party. I don’t think that anybody really remembers the whole night, but there was some wild dancing to our portable ipod speaker, a certain amount of lying-in-the-grass-and-staring-at-the-stars, and at least one lengthy who-can-think-of-the-best-toast competition.
We mainly missed breakfast but brushed up OK for lunch, which comprised of mutton accompanied by vegetables from the Lodge’s garden and greenhouse. The meals were cooked and served by enthusiastic local students, and it was impressive the number of ways they found to prepare different and tasty dishes from a limited range of ingredients.
The days were spent in a happy haze of sitting in the sun, playing with balls and bows and arrows, and just wandering off and standing staring into the distance, admiring the views and the horses running free across the landscape. In the evenings, the bar had a selection of traditional Mongolian board games, including the intense “Pentagon” which is played on four rotating boards.
One afternoon, Oggi our guide took us riding out to meet some friends of hers who live in a ger out on the plains, with their children and horses. They welcomed us into their home, which was not dissimilar to the yurts that we were staying in, and introduced us to fermented mare’s milk (a bit like scrumpy. Yum!), mare’s curd (not unlike clotted cream), and a curious biscuit made entirely of mare’s cheese that had been dried in the sun (not unlike a parmesan-flavoured cracker).
The Mongolian saddle looks a bit like a Western saddle, and the reins are held one-handed. To move off or accelerate, you say “Choo!”, and to canter you simply stand up in your stirrups. On the way out I had a bit of a stubborn horse which was moodily intent on following the tail directly ahead of it, but on the way back I had nice feisty one which was happy to go exploring, bounding over tussocks and sandy dunes. Out in front, I was able to briefly fancy that my steed and I were riding at the head of a vast Mongol horde, thundering across the steppe. But possibly my horse was just keen on getting home for dinner.
Having arrived in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar, we met Oggi, our guide for the next few days, who took us out on an orientation walk. We began at the grand Sukhbaatar Square, named in honour of the founding member of the Mongolian People’s Party who was largely responsible for the switch from Chinese to Soviet rule, and whose statue stands in the centre.
Some visiting dignitaries were expected, which explained the red carpets and the honour guard outside the parliament building.
Away from the pomp of Sukhbaatar Square, it is obvious that the city is quite poor, with rotting buildings and rutted roads, unsurprising given its recent history of economic occupation by first the Chinese and then the Russians. Looking around, it’s obvious that the main industry is anglophone tourism from the Trans-Siberian railway. Many shop signs are in English, and it seems that every corner has its karaoke, ‘Irish’ or ‘London’ pub. Mind you, we did try an ‘Irish’ bar and it had none of the usual fake tat, in fact it was really just a high-end Mongolian bar with a Western name, and therefore much more pleasant than we expected.
The next stop on our little tour was the Gandantegchinlen monastery, destroyed (along with most Mongolian Buddhist sites) by the communists in the 1930s but rebuilt when the Russians left in 1990. The original copper and gold buddha was taken to Russia and melted down, but it has been replaced by a 26.5 metre gilt copper statue, the Migjid Janraisig, which stands inside an impressive purpose-built temple.
Photography is not allowed inside the temple, but once through the door, we found ourselves in a huge space held up by four gaily painted tree trunks, surrounding the enormous buddha. Wooden terraces cling to the inside of the walls on several levels. As we circled the statue in the approved pilgrim’s direction (clockwise), hundreds of statuettes of Yush, the buddha of longevity, stared at us from stacks of shelves to our left. Each carving is different, and each is dressed in a different coloured cloak, representing the inevitability of ageing.
On our right, between us and the great buddha, stood a great many brass prayer wheels, constantly in motion as visitors give them a boost as they go past. Some are quite elaborate with projecting handles, but most are simple cylinders which are spun with the flat of the hand.
Outside the temple are the impressive golden feet that are all that remain of the original buddha statue.
On the outskirts of the city stands the Soviet-era Zaisan Monument, which we climbed for great views of the city. It was built to honour the Russian casualties of World War 2, but also has friezes commemorating peace-time comradeship between the USSR and Mongolia.
Looking down on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar from this viewpoint, it is clear that major construction is going on, which Oggi told us was all new housing.
As soon as we left the monument, our bus got mired in traffic. I’ve seen a lot of traffic jams all over the world, but I’ve never seen quite so many cars packed into such a small space, inching along with only millimetres between them. Incredibly, there were people trying to hitch lifts and even hailing taxis from the side of the road, but the traffic wasn’t going anywhere and it would have been much faster to walk the short distance into town.
Eventually our driver fought free of the gridlock and turned onto one of Mongolia’s few graded roads. This is a bit of a misnomer, as it must be decades since it was last surfaced, and it has now decayed beyond any reasonable use. Traffic streams in both directions, but across the full two-lane width of the road there is often only space to get one vehicle between the pot-holes at a time, so the traffic consists of a wildly zig-zagging single line of cars and trucks heading in opposite directions. In places the road is so bad that the line snakes off into the increasingly boggy grassland before returning to the highway.
We were out here to visit the Chinggiskhan (Ghengis Khan) Monument, an amazing 40 metre stainless steel statue on top of a 10 metre museum complex dedicated to the Mongolian Empire and the Khans who ruled it.
At its height, the Empire spanned most of Eastern Europe and almost all of Asia including China and Japan. The museums contain artefacts from over 100 years of turbulent history, most of them bronze weapons and tools, along with fascinating descriptions and maps. While we were examining the contents of the second museum, deep inside the main structure, there was a power cut and everything went dark. The staff all had torches and were unsurprised and well organised, but our visit to the museums was over.
However, the building was still full of visitors who had not yet climbed up to the viewing platform on the horse’s head. The lift had obviously stopped, and the stairs that run up inside the stainless steel statue were in complete darkness. Nevertheless, we formed an international human chain, and with the help of cigarette lighters and mobile phones and not a little humour, we all made it to the top for great views of the statue and of the surrounding countryside.
The longest arm of the sprawling entity know as the Trans-Siberian railway was built to connect Moscow to Japan via the port of Vladivostok on the eastern coast. However, we had chosen to head south from the major junction at Ulan-Ude, boarding the Trans-Mongolian Express which travels down into Mongolia and then on to China.
We had been travelling through Siberia for almost a week. The restaurant car had run out of food, but we had been buying supplies from platform vendors along the way. This had worked just fine for the first part of the trip, but as we approached the Mongolian border the vendors had completely dried up. For some days we had been living on ice cream, beer, and some biltong that was left over in our luggage. By the time we reached the border at Naushki our stomachs were complaining loudly.
We knew that 215 minutes had been set aside for customs formalities on the train, so we sat quietly waiting for the customs officers to arrive in our compartment, wondering if there was possibly any nourishment to be had from the curtains, or perhaps from our boots. When the Russian emigration officials arrived, we glumly handed over our passports, to be cheerily told that because we didn’t have any documentation, we were now free to leave not only the train, but the station.
Not pausing to argue with this perhaps unique official viewpoint, we ran for the door and joined the stream of hungry travellers barrelling down the platform. A farmer’s market had been cleverly set up just outside the gates, and we descended on it like locusts. We then spotted a little café where I laid into a very satisfying meat borscht followed by a stack of pork chops and onions. Fantastic.
After a couple of hours we got back on to the train and were handed our passports. The train moved about fifty metres and stopped. A phalanx of Mongolian immigration officers boarded and began to take the train apart, lifting the floors, pulling down the ceiling panels, and checking under the seats and on the luggage racks. Presumably they were looking for stowaways. Only afterwards did they pay any attention to the passengers and their documents.
I was quite relieved about this, because due to some apparently needless intransigence at the Chinese embassy I had my Russian visa in one passport and my Mongolian and Chinese visas in another one. I had not been looking forward to explaining why I had two passports, because dual nationality is not widely understood in many otherwise civilised countries, but now that I had already retrieved my Australian passport I simply handed over my English one and nobody knew the difference.
Mongolian immigration kept us up well past midnight, but finally the carriage settled down to sleep. For the most part, anyway: the two conductresses who run our carriage spent much of the night running up and down the corridor shouting and laughing and randomly opening and then slamming our compartment doors. I can only think that this was some kind of payback for us keeping them awake during our night-time parties (see my previous blog entry).
We had set our alarm for breakfast and woke very confused because although the train was under way, nobody else was stirring. We eventually realised that the train had switched from Moscow time to Ulaanbaatar time. Because the Russian section ignores all the intervening time zone changes, we magically jumped five hours at the Mongolian border, and we had inadvertently set our alarm for 03:00 train time. Back to bed.
At 06:00 we woke to cloudy skies above fields of fenced corrals, each containing a white canvas yurts (known as gers in Mongolia), interspersed with what seems to be stalled Soviet-style construction. We had heard that, since self-determination from Russian rule, 70% of the Mongolian population have abandoned their enforced ‘western’ life-styles and have returned to their traditional nomadic living. There was plenty of evidence of that from the train.
Mongolia’s recent history is not a particularly happy one. The country was ruled from China for some years until it gained a spurious sort of independence by allying itself with the USSR. Unfortunately the only difference in the new regime was that Mongolia’s vast mineral wealth began to head north on the Trans-Siberian railway instead of south. Neither the Chinese nor the Russians wanted to build processing plants on what was effectively occupied territory, preferring instead to transport the cheap raw material back home, where local industries would benefit from processing the low-value ore into high-value commodities.
On gaining true independence in the nineties, Mongolia continued to use the Trans-Siberian to ship unprocessed ore because it didn’t have the cash to invest in its own processing plants. However, we hear that they are making a deal with Australian mining giant Rio Tinto who, in exchange for copper and gold mining rights, have agreed to building processing capacity on site. Hopefully this will start a renaissance in Mongolian fortunes.
We disembarked hungry and dirty in Ulaanbaatar. Our first stop was – blissfully – a local spa where we showered and I had a chance to shave my increasingly unruly beard, before demolishing a buffet breakfast of rice and fruit and eggs. Only then were did we feel ready to go out and sample the delights of the big city.
We only need to board our pre-booked compartment on the Trans-Siberian Express, but our driver insisted on coming into Moscow train station with us and waiting until our platform had been announced. This took a while, so we hung around outside the station bar and sank a few Lowenbrau beers and tried to make conversation with him in pidgin Russian and French. By the time the Trans-Siberian rolled in, we were rolling a bit ourselves.
As we walked the length of the train, looking for our assigned carriage, we noticed that standing in each doorway was a pair of Mongolian conductresses, each smartly dressed in a white shirt and a blue skirt, sometimes a very short blue skirt.
We found our compartment, which was officially a four-berth but, because we’d paid for first class, there will only be two of us in it. It’s a tiny little space but our home for the next week or so. The train shook itself and then moved slowly out of Moscow station, destination Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and then Beijing in China, six thousand kilometres on the longest railway line in the world. I stuck my head out of the window and howled; I am on the Trans-Siberian Express!
Our carriage is full of travellers, we have Chileans and French on either side. As night fell, all six of us got amazingly sloshed on canned Tuborg from the restaurant car which is an arduous nine carriages away.
The next morning, we started to learn a few of the features of this train. Each carriage has a ladies’ and a gents’ toilet, but the gents’ on our carriage isn’t working. I tried to use the gents’ in the next carriage, but was firmly turned away by the conductress there, so our carriage’s toilet is now effectively unisex. Either way, it has no toilet paper, but luckily we brought some with us.
At the end of each carriage is a wood-fired samovar, tended by the conductress, which provides hot water for drinks. Although we did bring coffee and a press, there is no crockery or cutlery, and we didn’t think to bring any with us. However, with the aid of a pair of nail-scissors, we managed to fashion a flimsy coffee cup out of the base of a water bottle.
Along each corridor is a red woollen carpet, nailed to the wooden floor with long brass tacks that keep popping out. The conductress endlessly patrols this carpet, either sweeping it or hammering the tacks back in. I’ve already trodden on one of those tacks, which leaked blood everywhere, but worse than that the carpet sheds little pieces of red wool which get into every crevice of your luggage and which pile up in little drifts on the floor of each compartment.
On our first morning, we made the long trip to the restaurant car for breakfast. We gathered that although this particular train consists of Mongolian rolling stock (and therefore Mongolian staff), the restaurant car gets changed when we cross borders. Since we are still in Siberia, the restaurant car is Russian, but will be exchanged for a Mongolian one at the border town of Naushki. We sat down to a pleasant dish of potatoes fried with dill and garlic, with a side of pickled cucumbers, plus our own pressed coffee in a borrowed water glass.
At about lunchtime, the train pulled in to a station. It looked pretty quiet and desolate, but we got out anyway to stretch our legs. Suddenly there was an explosion of elderly ladies, sprinting across the tracks and ducking under trains, carrying trays of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, smoked fish, bread, and even cling-filmed plates of fresh hot food. I bought some freshly roasted chicken with boiled potatoes, and Bronwyn scored a couple of salted gherkins from a plastic bucket. We also managed to buy some sturdier soft drink bottles so that we could make better coffee cups. Just about everything cost 100 roubles (about two English pounds) per item. The chicken tasted superb, far less bland than the stuff sold in Western supermarkets, and the potatoes were wonderful.
All this time, we had been chugging across a rather monotonous flat Siberian landscape of birch, pine, and the occasional open field. At the base of the Urals, our old engine was exchanged for a new one. We started to climb, but slowly. Were the birches looking a little thinner?
The trees thinned out into grasslands. Occasionally we passed a rock-crushing plant or train repair yard, and now and again a village of wooden houses. There were no signs of crops apart from some extensive market gardens behind some of the houses, and – very occasionally – some hay ricks, although it wasn’t clear what the hay was for, as we didn’t see any farm animals.
The Trans-Siberian isn’t really about the outside world, it’s all about the microcosm that is the train, and it didn’t take long for us to fall into its rhythm. In the morning, after sweeping out the night’s accumulation of red dust-balls, we’d hang out in our compartment and catch up on our reading. During the day, we’d hang out of the window and watch the world go by. Occasionally a freight train would trundle past on the other track. We’d snack on yesterday’s left-overs and wait patiently for the next stop, where we would leap out and grab meat, beer, ice cream, whatever was being sold by the ladies on the platform. In the afternoon, we would entertain visitors (our largely empty carriage was always popular with people travelling second class). In the evenings, we would party.
And then, one night, near the tail end of an exceptionally good party, our compartment suddenly filled with armed police who confiscated our passports and made Bronwyn pour all our glasses down a sink. Then they took away our few remaining bottles of booze, including a rather expensive bottle of French wine that I had in my luggage for a special occasion. It was all a bit of a surprise, and since we didn’t have any languages in common, somewhat mysterious.
A few days later, they returned with an interpreter, who attempted to explain. It seems that each train has a contingent of police who live in one of the rear carriages. They told some story about us keeping other guests awake, but since the party had extended the full length of our carriage and included not only everyone in every compartment but also some people from other carriages, we could only infer that we were keeping our conductress awake and that she had made a complaint. At any rate, they gave us our passports back, suggested that we should party in the restaurant car instead of our carriage, and said that my special wine bottle would be returned to me when we arrived in Ulan Bator.
That night, we all went to the restaurant car and drank them out of beer. The two elderly Russian ladies who ran the restaurant shuffled calmly to their supply fridge and re-stocked. These ladies were great, they were everybody’s great-grandmother, fussing around the tables in their flowered dresses and permed hair. In the day, they liked to sit in the corner and snooze, and by night they slept on the floor of the restaurant. Before long we were clearing up the glasses for them, and when we’d finished the second cabinet-full of beer, we waved them to stay seated and just helped ourselves directly from the supply fridge while they smiled and waved their gratitude. We’d been drinking some fairly boring lager up until now, but I found a whole cache of more interesting beers in a back corner of the supply fridge, which was nice.
One peculiar thing about the train is that it always keeps Moscow time regardless of the fact that it traverses seven time zones. This means that the concepts of ‘breakfast’ and ‘dinner’ drift considerably from the day outside; midday outside now corresponds to about six in the morning train time, which introduces a certain amount of jet-lag (train-lag?) in the staff. After a while, we realised that the two ladies were nodding off, so we bought some more beers and left them to make up their beds on the floor. We didn’t want to have a repeat of the police fiasco, so rather than returning to our carriages, we decided to party in the tiny space between the restaurant carriage and the rest of the train. That worked too.
One of the few real towns was Omsk, which seemed large and prosperous, and had actual kiosks on the platform instead of mobile vendors. We bought hot chicken and bananas and thought we’d have a quick look around the town, but there were armed police everywhere who were preventing passengers from leaving the platform. In fact it was here and at another station close to Irkutsk that we realised that many of the platform vendors weren’t locals at all, they were actually travelling on our train with us, and hopping off at the stations to sell goods to the locals. In the stations with a heavy police presence, they simply sold clothing and plastic goods out of the train windows.
Suddenly a lot of things fell into place. I had wondered at the purpose of all these tiny little communities in the wilds of Siberia. What were these people doing out here? But now I realised that it is the train that is their raison d’être, without the train there would be no people. It is a nine thousand kilometre linear village, which has sprung up alongside the necessity to ship ore from one side of this enormous country to the other.
Many of our fellow travellers disembarked at Lake Baikal, but we had some deadlines to stick to so we stayed on board. We’ll see the world’s deepest freshwater lake on another occasion.
We likewise passed through Ulan Ude, which seemed to be a pleasant and prosperous city. Scattered amongst the Soviet-era apartment blocks were smart new houses, and closer to the tracks were the same kind of wooden home that we have seen all the way across Siberia, each with its own market garden packed with vegetables and fruit.
The railway here is also lined with lock-up garages. Some of them appear to be derelict, but others have been fitted with chimneys and new roofs. Do people live in them, or do the owners keep a fire burning to keep the cars from freezing in winter? We could not tell.
Brightly coloured paintwork was common on private houses. I was amused to see that the most common colours were pale blue and pale green, both of a shade usually to be found only on railway stations, signal boxes and signal poles.
We got a new engine for the final run down into Ulan Bator, this time a smoky diesel. Close now to the Mongolian border, the terrain changed completely. The railway lifted up onto an embankment as it followed a small river that wound its way through an old flood-plain, with a small range of hills rising up on either side. The flat plain was purple with heads of wild garlic, but it was the scent of a badly tuned diesel that drifted in through the window. It wasn’t long before my hands and face were black with grease. Never mind, Mongolia is just around the corner.
Moscow’s Red Square is enormous. Everybody tells you that, and they are all correct. Everybody also says that it’s too big to photograph, and they are right too. It is bounded on one long side by the red outer wall of the Kremlin, and on the other by the enormous and expensive GUM shopping mall.
In the Soviet era, GUM carried the same products at the same prices as any other store in the USSR, but because of its proximity to the Kremlin, it tended to actually have items in stock, so enormous queues used to build up outside. During Perestroika, the GUM morphed into a collection of expensive boutiques and jewellery shops, and now no Muscovite shops there, because it is cheaper for them to fly to Italy to buy those same products. Indeed, every shop that we passed, with its expensive wares and guarded by impeccably dressed and very bored staff, was completely empty of customers.
At one of the short ends of the square is the Resurrection Gate, rebuilt like much else in this area after it was torn down by the Soviet regime so that tanks could roll unobstructed into Red Square for parades. At the other end is of course St Basil’s, which is exactly as beautiful as you hoped it will be, and which somehow managed to survive the communist era because it was used as an armoury.
On our visit, the central part of the square was fenced off while workers removed a temporary ice rink and put in stands for an upcoming display of military marching. We made our way down the fourth long side, past the long queue of people waiting to file past Lenin’s tomb, to see the changing of the guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The Kremlin We’d been told that obtaining tickets to The Kremlin was a complicated process, and indeed it was. Initially we queued at the entrance, and when we reached the front, we were told that we should have pre-bought tickets in the Alexander Gardens below. We left and found a little row of ticket cabins. Each one displays a poster showing different “technical break” times of half an hour, twice a day, at which time that cabin will suddenly close and leave the queue hanging until they open again. The game is to judge which of the cabin queues will allow you to get to the front before that queue has a technical break.
An additional complication is that tickets for the Armoury only come on sale at certain times, and go off sale when that ‘sceance’ is full. If you happen to reach the cashier after the end of one ‘sceance’ and before the start of another, then you are out of luck, which presumably explains why we were told that tickets for both the Nikolas tower and the Armoury were ‘impossible’. The nice lady did, however, allow us to buy a general admission ticket.
We queued up at the Kremlin entrance again, and on reaching the front, I was turned away because I was wearing a small backpack, much smaller than the hand bags being carried by the women who were being admitted in front of me. Perhaps I should have asked Bronwyn to carry it, but now I had to go back down to the gardens and check it in to a cloakroom. On my return, I was finally allowed in.
The Kremlin (fortress) contains five cathedrals and a palace, along with numerous political buildings which appeared to be undergoing major reconstruction. Our ticket entitled us to visit each cathedral and palace, and also the surrounding gardens. At each doorway, and elderly lady solemnly signed our tickets so that we could not pass that way again.
Inside, each cathedral was painted from floor to ceiling with saints in the usual Orthodox style. Each painting forms an icon, which church-goers pray to as an intermediary because they aren’t worthy to pray directly to their god. Instead of an altar, there are more icons, but these are individually painted on wood panels which are stacked in five or six rows up the wall. As individual icons get refurbished or gain popularity they are moved around between churches, and the upshot is that all the best and most powerful icons end up in the best and most powerful churches. Those churches are in the Kremlin, and many of their icons date back to the 14th century. This is all very interesting, but after five cathedrals full of them, we were quite tired of looking at icons.
We did try to get into the Armoury even without a ticket, but were politely turned away, so after a snack and a drink in the rather lovely gardens, we headed back out into the big city. We needed to buy some supplies before boarding the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Waiting at the Aeroflot terminal in Riga, Latvia, we were becoming increasingly amused by the antics of a backpacker at the next gate. Two pretty girls were waiting to board the plane to Tashkent in Kazakhstan. It seemed that the young man had befriended them, and had suddenly bought a ticket to join them on their plane. It is technically possible to travel without a visa in the Baltic states if you have a letter of invitation from a local hotel or tour operator, but clearly he didn’t have one. I imagine that it would be possible to sort this out, perhaps by quietly greasing the wheels of commerce, but he wasn’t getting very far by declaiming wildly, “I don’t need a visa, because I am French!”
We had both visas and letters, so we left him to it and boarded our plane to Moscow. On our arrival, we emerged into the scrum of sign-wielding drivers and suddenly realised that we couldn’t be sure to recognise our name in Cyrillic. Eventually we established that none of them were waiting for us, but then a late arrival came hurrying up with a board carrying our names in Latin script.
Our transport wasn’t exactly a limo, in fact we climbed up into the front of a delivery van full of crates of vegetables. Several things immediately became clear. Firstly, there was something seriously wrong with the transmission, resulting in a serious rumbling vibration at speed. Secondly, we heard the rumble all the time because our driver went completely flat-out, treating all other traffic like obstacles in a video game, passing on one side or the other and using all of the available road, including both hard shoulders, exit ramps and lane dividers. We looked in vain for seat belts as the driver squeezed the big truck into spaces that wouldn’t accommodate a motorcycle.
The other drivers apparently regarded this behaviour with complete equanimity, without a hint of squealing tyres or honking horns. However, I only saw one other vehicle driving in a similar manner, and that was a taxi that incredibly managed to weave in front of us on one of the hard shoulders.
Eventually we arrived at a securely guarded gate and were decanted, shaken but not stirred, into the guarded lobby of our hotel, complete with security turn-styles. Our room was pleasant enough, though, with views out over Moscow’s iconic red and white chimneys.
It was clearly time for a beer. The hotel’s barman seemed a bit surly at first, but thawed a little when we all had a laugh at a 10-year old Chinese boy who came in to try to buy beer ‘for his brother’. Later in the evening, we discovered that the barman works 12 hour shifts every night from 9pm, so he was just a bit tired.
We were feeling a little jet-lagged ourselves next morning, but soon perked up after a pleasant breakfast before meeting our guide, Diane. She showed us how to use the metro (28 roubles to anywhere), and the three of us descended to the Green line, which was built during Moscow’s second wave of metro building, when Stalin declared that money was no object and that it had to be the best subway in the world. He got what he wanted; stations from this era are an amazing confection of echoing marble halls with high vaulted ceilings.
Three stops later, we were in the heart of the theatre district, with its impressive collection of building in styles ranging from Classical to Romantic, and Soviet in the form of the former KGB headquarters.
As we walked, Diane talked about growing up in Soviet communal housing, with three to five families sharing a kitchen and bathroom. She was ambivalent about perestroika, when each family was assigned a new flat just for themselves, which was theirs to own and do what they want with. Although she could see that this put Russians on the same footing as other Europeans, she mourned the loss of the social aspect of shared housing, where everybody looked after one another. This concept of universal flat ownership kick-started the fledgling capitalist economy, and the city has a feeling of general wealth and integration. The city is clean and well-kept, and the populace seemed dynamic and well-off, particularly the women wearing expensive and sexy European fashions. We looked for echoes of the Soviet era but only noticed the security guards in booths on every escalator, and the very large number of workers that seemed to be necessary to perform the more menial jobs.
Some of the buildings that we’ve see, such as the lovely little pink and white cathedral on Red Square, are recent copies of historic buildings that were blown up in the Soviet era to make way for more suitable projects. There is a heart-breaking photograph of the fabulous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour being demolished to make way for a half-kilometre high brutalist memorial topped by an eighty-metre statue of Stalin. While the deep foundations were being dug, war broke out and work was halted. The hole was used as a swimming pool until finally a copy of the original cathedral was built by public subscription.
The monument’s foundations were so deep that the architects added a second underground cathedral beneath the first, and then Moscow’s first underground car park beneath that.
Both cathedrals are liberally gilded inside and intricately decorated. Being Orthodox, there are no pews or seats inside, and the walls are ringed with icons. These are paintings of saints that are venerated, prostrated before, and kissed in the hope that the saint will mediate between you and god. Quite a few shawled elderly women were energetically throwing themselves at the feet of, and kissing, every saint in the enormous space. Cleaning these paintings must be a long job.
We said goodbye to Diane, ate a great lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, and then went in search of the cheap river ferry that plies up and down the Moskva as part of the cheap Metro network. We couldn’t find the ferry, but instead a man in a naval uniform sold us a ticket on a tourist boat that cost ten times as much. We had no idea where the boat went, but it turned out to be a great way to see Moscow, and as a bonus it also had a small bar.
Once past the astonishing memorial to Peter the Great’s inauguration of the Russian navy, we passed blocks and blocks of Soviet-era communal housing, including one ‘luxury’ building (only one family per apartment) that had been built specifically to house artists and writers, who could then easily be spirited away in the night by the KGB. Diane had told us that if you saw your neighbours’ lights on after midnight, then you knew that you would never see them again.
We still didn’t know where we were going, but all the other passengers disembarked at Kiev Metro station so we did the same and had an easy ride back to the hotel.
After a short nap, we headed out to a nearby Lebanese restaurant and dined on charcoal-grilled meat with pickled vegetables, washed down with Armenian wine, finishing up with a nice fruity shisha.
As everywhere in Moscow, the service was friendly and attentive and we had a great time, eventually stumbling back to the hotel in the small wee hours, ready for the next day’s sight-seeing. Tomorrow we were heading for the Kremlin.
Having recently purchased a pair of Brompton folding bicycles, we thought that we’d take them to Bordeaux, so we fairly randomly booked in to a guesthouse, 123 Chemin du Bord de l’Eau in Macau, just down the road from St Emilion and Margaux. The owners were away when we arrived, although their gardener let us in and made us comfortable, so we set off in the evening to find something to eat. It is the off season, so every business in Macau is closed, apart from the pizza shop.
Stephan the pastry chef had a good laugh when we told him about my wheat allergy, because he only cooks pizza and bread. However, he worked out a neat compromise by baking a pizza with a cream sauce instead of tomato. That way I could pick off the correctly cooked toppings without getting them contaminated with the bread crust. Brilliant! And naturally, we washed it down with a nice bottle of Bordeaux.
The next morning we cycled out to nearby Margaux in search of an open vineyard.
Most vineyards were closed for the off season, but we did come across Chateau Dauzac, where the wonderfully welcoming staff were dumbfounded to see tourists so far out of season, but gave us a great tour and wine tasting.
On our return, the owner was back, the incomparable Serge: Ex-restaurateur, ex-wine maker, now hotelier, chef and artist. We all got on well and Serge announced that he would cook dinner for us, producing awesome quantities of foie gras both au naturel and lightly fried in duck fat, also figs grilled with goat’s cheese, and endless superb rich dishes washed down with lashings of wine. He even invited us to share a bottle of his very own St Emilion wine, which is no longer in production but quite lovely. We had not initially intended to stay another night, but changed our minds and agreed to return after visiting St Emilion.
The town of St Emilion is beautiful. We did bring our bicycles with us, but after one look at the steep cobbled streets, we decided to explore on foot. Previously a fortified town, St Emilion stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking its vineyards. I would imagine that it is probably crammed with tourists in the summer, but on this January weekend it is empty.
The fifth century church is a marvel, with its domed ceilings and extensive gothic extensions.
From a local shop, Bronwyn obtained the key to the clock tower (Closter), to give us unrivalled views of the town.
Before leaving St Emilion, Serge had arranged for us to visit another vineyard, Chateau Figeac, where we and some visiting Italians were given a good-humoured tour by an impressively multilingual guide.
Back at the house, Serge excelled himself, and co-opting Bronwyn as a willing sous-chef, produced a marvellous tuna savichi, followed by langoustines and a stupendous magret du canard. To top it all off, Serge produced his own creation Framboise Tchekhov, a marvellous dish of strawberries in a caramelised sauce.
On the next morning, resisting the temptation to stay for the rest of the year, we packed up the bikes, and – promising to return – headed for the Pyrenees.
The train from Oslo to Bergen is famed for being one of the most picturesque journeys in the world. The train stops often on its way up into the mountains, picking up passengers from the outlying regions of Oslo, and then settles in for the long and beautiful haul along the granite spine to the coast. I have done the trip before, and wanted to show it to Bronwyn, as it seemed like a great way to celebrate our wedding anniversary. However, this is the electronic age, and half the passengers in our carriage closed their window shades to concentrate on their laptops instead of looking out of the window. The two guys closest to us carefully occluded half of our view by closing their blind, and then packed up their computers and went to the buffet car, possibly to drink beer and watch the scenery go by, leaving the rest of us in the dark. It took some judicious seat-hopping, and a certain amount of hanging out of the door windows, to appreciate our journey.
On the lower slopes, hay fields scattered with occasional wooden cabins were punctuated by tiny villages and towns clustered along rivers, each community widely separated from the others but always painted bright colours, usually red or yellow.
After several hours of climbing, we attained the snow-line. Here again there were scattered cabins, but between and among them was nothing but scattered and shattered rocks, with only the occasional bowl of summer snow. Presumably these places are unusable outside of the winter months. The few towns are given over to skiing, but in November they were not yet open for business, although the pistes were being mown in preparation.
Impressive melt-water waterfalls sprang from the dark granite as the train plunged through tunnel after tunnel, some bored through solid rock and others constructed from sturdy timber as a defence against avalanches. Melt-water lakes, some already re-frozen, sat amid a lunar landscape. Very beautiful.
Finally we arrived at our destination, Myrdal, at the top of the world, where the famous Flåmsbana train waited to take us down to sea level. Privately run, this is the steepest non-cog train in the world, dropping 864 metres in 20 kilometres of beautiful switchbacks.
The genial conductor pointed out some of the finer views, and suggested that if we moved to the disabled compartment, there was a window that could be opened for a better view without exposing the other passengers to the 6 degrees outside. As we dropped into the first incline, we caught a glimpse of the Rallarvega, the mountain trail from Myrdal to Flåm which we intended to walk later in the week. About half way down the valley, the train stopped for a few minutes so that we could get out and admire the thundering Kjosfossen waterfall.
As the track flattened out into the valley above the fjord, we descended into cloud, and when we emerged from the bottom it was dusk. The tiny but beautifully formed town of Flåm spread out before us, and we stepped out of the train onto the quayside.
Eating in Flåm
We moved into a lovely little apartment overlooking the fjord. We’d felt lucky to get the apartment at all because both of Flåm’s hotels had said that they were full, only their most expensive suites were available, but in the event it turned out that they were actually empty and running on skeleton staff for the off-season. It was the same story with the restaurants. The receptionist at the Fretheim needed to see our reservation, so we tried the other restaurant in town. There was nobody there until we tried the kitchen where we found a surprised waiter chatting to his girlfriend, but we dined very pleasantly on catfish in black butter sauce. On another evening we made a reservation at the Fretheim, to find of course that we were the only diners, although the salmon tartare and venison in red wine were delicious. Both restaurants were operating on a two-dish menu which would not change for the off-season, so we were doubly glad that we had a fully equipped kitchen in the apartment.
A cruise down Naeroyfjord
One morning, we took the local bus to Gudvangen, involving a 5km tunnel to the top of the pass and then an 11km tunnel back down to sea level, in order to catch the ferry back to Flåm. The point of this was to see the Naeroyfjord, designated a World Heritage Site because of the unspoiled beauty of its fjord terrain. We were very lucky that the sun had boiled off the cloud layer and although it was very cold, we sailed under a clear blue sky. The scenery was breathtaking, not least because of the crystal clear reflections of the mountains in the water, disturbed into surreal shapes by the waves of our passage.
Hiking from Myrdal to Flåm
One morning we took the Flåmsbana back up to Myrdal, so that we could walk back down again. There is a trail, the Rallarvega, which was originally built by the navvies who were building the railway, but which is now mainly used as a precipitous mountain-bike trail. Years ago, while back-packing in this area, I had hiked down this trail and still remembered the experience with fondness and awe, so I was keen to introduce Bronwyn to the experience.
The views are fantastic, and the sheer scale of the vertical cliff faces that tower above is enough to make you feel utterly insignificant and so very privileged to be there, crawling like an ant down the face of the glacial valley.
At the bottom of the gravel track, the Rallarvega becomes a formed road and winds along the valley floor. Occasional farms dot the landscape, but at all times the heart-breakingly sheer mountains tower above, punctuated by endless waterfalls. By each fall, some early settler has evidently built a house to take advantage not only of the water, but also of the view.
After almost 20 kilometres, we came abreast of Old Flåm, where we paused to admire the neat little church and its gravestones with their tale of a few families with familiar names (Flåm, Fretheim) spread over hundreds of years. Like the landscape, the social scene changes only slowly.
There is a brew pub in Flåm, but for most of our stay it had remained firmly closed. Over our stay I had managed to drink several of their products at different restaurants and hotels, particularly their stunning Imperial Stout. Norwegian alcohol prices are notoriously savage due to heavy taxation, but at NOK 185 (about GBP 18) for a bottle, I reckoned that this was probably the most expensive beer that I had ever drunk.
And then one day, the brewery doors were open, to reveal a bar modelled on a Viking longhouse, with carved wood and reindeer pelts and a large fire.
After a few pints of the excellent stout, I got chatting to the brewer, Evan. It turned out that he had taken a batch of the stout that I was drinking, and then matured it in oak whisky barrels to make what he called ‘Lynchburg’. This was so good that, in an attempt to prevent it from being all drunk at once, he had almost doubled the price to NOK 340, or GBP 34 a bottle. This did not prevent a visiting American from buying the entire stock. Luckily for me, Evan had kept a case back for himself, and I was able to buy one, now definitely and without doubt the most expensive beer that I have ever drunk. It was worth every Krøne.
Travelling light as usual, we arrived at Oslo airport with only cabin baggage, booked an express train from an automated ticket machine, and after a clean and fast trip emerged blinking into the Autumn sunlight. The friendly Hotel Thon was easy to find, and we were given a room on the second floor with a balcony fully fifty feet long and twenty feet wide.
Close to the station is the Aker Brugge, an area packed with restaurants, all with busy outside areas, everybody chatting and drinking and eating. Many of the seats were draped with sheep fleeces, and at other restaurants the waiters handed out blankets as you arrived, so that despite the ten degree chill, short sleeves and mini-skirts were not uncommon.
We chose to eat inside a cosy Italian restaurant, where the drinks were the typical Scandinavian triple the English price, but the service was friendly and the food was excellent. Eventually we ambled out into the last hours of light, intending to get a quick nap at the hotel before going out on the town.
On the way back, we passed an enormous brick building that looked like a power station but which turned out to be the Radhuis or town hall. We stopped to admire some friezes along the outside walls, carved wooden scenes from Viking mythology, and then suddenly realised that the building was still open to visitors.
We went inside and found ourselves in an enormous space, not dissimilar to the turbine hall at the Tate Modern in London, but painted throughout with allegorical wall friezes not only there, but also in a chain of spectacular rooms that led around the second storey.
The paintings were in the style of 50s communism, all square jaws and bold colours, with heavy emphasis on agriculture and industry. However, each frieze told a story, and that story was often a complex mixture of mythology and the recent German occupation, mythical figures juxtaposed with prisoners in concentration camps. The bear of Norway baring its teeth at uniformed trolls as they tear the clothes from the newly released princess. Very stark and very effective.
It was evening when we finally tore ourselves away, and continued to our hotel for that nap. Our alarm went off later that night, but we were happy to ignore it and sleep through for the next twelve hours. After all, we were on holiday.
Frogner Park (Vigeland Park)
The following morning, after a breakfast of coffee and herrings, we headed out to the glorious Frogner Park, which has long been one of my favourite places in Europe. This entire green space is given over to the works of Gustav Vigeland, who designed and built the whole thing over a ten year period. The weather had been a bit glooomy, but the sun came out and glowed from the carpet of yellow maple leaves underfoot, as we joined the hundreds of tourists enjoying several hundred works of art spread over almost a kilometre.
The Oslo Museum is situated in Frogner park. We watched a very clever and entertaining film called “1000 years of Oslo”, which was put together in an amusing way from shots of museum exhibits and paintings. It covered exciting periods of boom and bust, wealth and poverty, and then skipped suddenly from the 1920s to the present day, missing the occupation and holocaust. The actual museum did much the same thing, with a display for every period of settlement since the Vikings except for the World Wars. The Norwegians had an ugly war.
On our final evening, we headed up to the Grünerløkke district, which is famous for its local bars and cafes. We were not disappointed, there were establishments of every style and ethnicity. We stopped at a few for glasses of wine and snacks, and were pleased to find that – presumably because of the vastly over-taxed prices – each small glass of wine was checked and re-checked and treated with a great deal of respect.
At one bar the owner suggested that we try a soup made from lamb, cabbage and potatoes. It was very good, and we were told that in traditional bars it is made available as a cheap dish for the benefit of heavy drinkers. I did have trouble getting my head around the idea that anybody who can afford to be a heavy drinker in Scandinavia might need cheap food, but the concept is still admirable. At another bar I scored a beautiful lightly poached whole trout with leeks and a cauliflower sauce. They certainly know how to keep their patrons happy in Oslo.
In order to break up yet another long-haul flight, we decided to hang out in Hong Kong for a few days. After a shaky start (I dropped my laptop in the arrivals hall, completely smashing the screen), we found a hotel shuttle bus and headed out into the city. My first impression was that it felt a bit like Hawaii, which puzzled me until I realised that the similarity lay in the combination of the familiar – the road signs, the cars, the engineering – with the exotic – the Hanzi characters, the huge towers of tiny apartments, the great luxury of the transfer bus that we were in.
Our hotel, the Cosmo in Kow Loon, was a tower of some 20+ storeys crammed with tiny little glass-walled boxes. There is room for a small but comfy bed and a little shower/sink/toilet area walled off with glass. Every surface is mirrored to give the illusion of space, and the outside wall is entirely glass, giving a stunning vista across Mong Kok, the most densely populated area in the world.
Given that Mong Kok is also famous for its shopping, we dropped in to a dealer to buy a new laptop, and then left them transferring my files while we headed off to explore.
Hong Kong trams are lovely, like skinny London buses with open windows, nice and breezy when they’re not crowded. We took trams all the way down to Causeway Bay, and then all the way back across town to the Peak, content to just sit and watch the world scurry by.
We grabbed lunch at a local Chinese eatery, where the waiter was very obliging after he got over his fear that we didn’t know what we were doing. Then we began the long climb up to the cable car station for The Peak.
The last time Bronwyn had been here, there was a viewing platform at the top, but now there was an enormous mall and even a Madame Tussauds, with escalators leading up to restaurants and to the new ‘Sky Tower’. The views from the top were very impressive.
To complete our view of the city, we randomly chose a ferry in the harbour to find out what it looked like at sea-level.
Nathan Lane is Kow Loon’s major shopping strip. We went out looking for shoe shops and tailors, but after a couple of hours of fighting off tailor-pimps and wristwatch-pimps in the street, we took refuge in a bar and drank margaritas instead. When we emerged, the bright lights were shining, and we decided that the best vantage point to enjoy them would be across the river in a steak house on the roof of a hotel, where we could order a ‘side dish’ of an Alaskan crab leg to go with our steak.
Following a particularly stressful work contract, we felt in dire need of a rest. There are few better places to regain your soul than an island in the South Pacific, so we rented a beach hut in Fiji.
Yatule Beach Resort
Our little hut (bure) did not come cheap, but on our first morning we lay in bed and listened to the surf thundering outside, and began to feel the first vestiges of peace. Our window looked out across the bay to the fringing reef. As far as we could tell, we were the only guests in this little cluster of huts, but staff were already sweeping the famous Natadola Beach of flotsam from the night’s tide, ready for our first dip of the day.
Apart from a handful of bure, the Yatule Beach Resort has a simple bar and an even simpler restaurant, really just a cafe. After trying out a few of the local beers in the bar, I decided to try the local rum, Bounty, which had been recommended by our taxi driver as the best cure for my persistent cough. The suggested mixer was coke, but that just makes all rum taste the same, so I asked if they had any sugar cane syrup, a traditional mixer in many rum-producing countries. They didn’t, so Bronwyn suggested that coconut juice might be a nice compromise, but this threw the staff into consternation and they went into a huddle behind the bar. Finally after some close deliberation the waiter returned, all smiles, to say that rum and coconut juice was available, and would only be a moment.
Seconds later, the barman left the building at a run and returned, panga in hand, with a freshly dressed coconut the size of my head containing not only coconut juice but also ice, a straw, and enough rum to fell a camel.
A few hundred metres along Natadola beach is the Intercontinental, which bills itself as “seven star”. We weren’t sure what that was supposed to mean, so we resolved to find out. On our first foray there one evening, we discovered that all the bars and restaurants had already closed. On the following evening we popped over a bit earlier to find both “cocktail happy hour” and “local cultural entertainment” in full swing. As usual, you’re never really certain how much genuine culture goes into these shows, but the participants were certainly having fun and were keeping the Intercontinental guests enthralled.
For my part, I was more fascinated by the onlookers themselves. The Intercontinental has exorbitant room rates, and we were curious to see what kind of people stayed there. We’d dressed up a bit in case we needed to fit in with ball-gowns and tiaras, but instead found ourselves surrounded by English families in sports clothes and sun-dresses. Innumerable face-painted children were being chased around by cheerful hotel nannies, and seven-year old kids were running around recording the chaos laden with high-end camera equipment.
The staff were reasonably attentive but the cocktails were poorly thought out, and the wine menu was very interesting. At one end of the range they had Veuve Cliquot, and at the other they had Gossips, which is infamous in Australia for being the absolute cheapest red plonk that you can buy in a bottle, retailing for about $3. It is all but undrinkable, and was available at the Intercontinental for $30.
When the guests all vanished into the dining room, we briefly considered joining them, and then slipped back down the beach to our quiet little bar instead. We did however return on another occasion to try out the Intercontinental’s “fine dining” restaurant, which was quite the experience. All the ingredients were on spectacular display on a mound of ice, including some amazing striped rock-lobsters that we just had to sample, preceded by sashimi, sushi and bouillabaisse. The service was exemplary, the food wonderful, and the bill enormous, coming in at around $700 for the two of us.
In marked contrast, on another occasion we wandered over to a small hotel complex called The Natadole, comprising a small network of rooms interconnected by a series of walls and openings which promoted a gentle cooling breeze. We ate several excellent meals of similar quality to the Intercontinental but much cheaper and friendlier. The Natadole only has a handful of bure and they don’t accept guests under the age of 16, so it has a completely different ambience. In Fiji the food portion sizes are always rather small and the drink measures rather large, so the manager Tonga always sent us away reeling and happy.
Island Time Slowly we began to unwind. It doesn’t take long in the South Pacific. Sitting in our bure after a gentle swim in the ocean and a leisurely breakfast of fried eggs, rice and papaya, washed down with coffee, we idly watched people work outside our verandah.
The hotel staff had dug an enormous hole in the sand above the tide line, and were emptying into it wheelbarrow-loads of littoral debris that had washed in overnight. Some really big stuff came in each day on the tide, and out in the water we also found ourselves sharing our swim with very large fish, possibly even some kind of tuna, as well as the occasional log or fallen tree.
Away from the beach
Obviously the whole Natadola beach area, while on the face of it beautiful and idyllic, is a managed environment for tourists. Chatting to the staff at various resorts, we’d found that they all live in a village at the end of the beach, so we set out to have a look. This entailed following an old railway line through the woods and over into the next bay, accompanied by cheerful staff commuting between shifts, and a large number of goats.
We finally arrived at the village, which consisted of simple buildings built largely from corrugated iron, most with a single fluorescent tube lighting the doorway. Kids and chickens played in the dust, and adults on well-groomed horses peddled optimistically for rides while elders sat in the shade, selling piles of oranges.
At first we couldn’t understand why, even here, there was a fledgling tourist industry. Surely not too many tourists came through this way? All became clear when we emerged from the other side of the village and onto the Natadola Bay golf course, the local attraction which the Intercontinental was built to service. We had passed an old sugar-cane train parked on the tracks, perhaps in other seasons it runs to the village and guests can then walk or ride to the golf course.
Out on the first tee, a smart security guard in a booth politely but firmly asked where we were going and where we were staying. He then waved us cheerfully through, but we ran into these guards everywhere, apparently ringing the entire beach and golf course. Ostensibly they were there to protect the guests from theft, but I suspect that they were really intended to prevent locals from using the facilities (perhaps unless they looked sufficiently colourful). At any rate, nobody was playing golf that day, so we had the place to ourselves.
On a random motorcycle camping perambulation around the Australian state of Victoria, we noticed the town of St Arnaud on the map. Years before, we used to drink a very nice wheat beer called St Cloud from the St Arnou Brewery, so on a whim and on the barest similarity of names we decided to make that our next stop.
On arrival, the town showed great promise, with sturdy gold-rush era buildings lining a prosperous-looking high street, including three large hotels. Wonder of wonders, there was even a camp site in the centre of town nestled up against the race track.
The camp site managers didn’t know of any brewery, which didn’t greatly surprise us as there was no real reason to think that St Arnaud was any relation to St Arnou, but they vaguely suggested that we might try the sports club up the hill. Sports clubs are not renowned for their real ale, so after quickly pitching camp we ignored their advice and headed for the town centre.
The town was strangely quiet, in fact we seemed to be the only living things apart from the locusts. Maybe everybody was already at the pub? We headed for the nearest one, which proved to be not only closed, but apparently closed down. Still, with the impressive Commonwealth Hotel only a few metres away, competition was presumably fierce. Arriving at the door of the Commonwealth, we found a sign saying ‘premises for lease’. We back-tracked to the third pub, but this too was closed and boarded up from the inside. We looked up and down the empty street. Where was everybody?
We ambled back to the camp site, and recalled the sports bar ‘up the hill’. The indicated trail took us to a harness-racing track, nicely maintained with a central cricket oval, but devoid of life apart from a couple of kids in the distance playing in the nets. On the other side of the track was a building that looked very much like a bar, but it was still as a grave. Nevertheless, we thought that we could see the edge of a parked car sticking out from behind it, so we began to make our way around the race course. The air was full of locusts, and snakes slithered into the undergrowth from the rotting advertising panels underfoot.
We made it round unscathed, and were heartened to find an open door with a registration book for out-of-state visitors, a sight familiar in any of the innumerable gambling-funded drinking clubs across the continent. Signing ourselves in, we made our way past the usual sad array of motionless relicts that are always to be found slumped in front of the slot machines, and found the bar. It was, predictably, empty, and did not serve any ale. There was however a barman and a wine list, so we ordered a bottle and sat by the window. We felt that the sun had already well and truly set on St Arnou, but we sat and watched it go down once again.
Since we were the only customers, we got a fair bit of attention from the barman. Can I get you some food? Some more wine? Some more water? A toasted sandwich? However, he didn’t know anything about a town brewery.
When, suitably sozzled, we finally left to stroll back to the camp site, the barman rather bizarrely warned us not to cross the oval or we’d get “attacked by kangaroos”, and could he call us a taxi? When we reminded him that we were naturalised Australians and that killer kangaroos were quite low on our worry list, he meekly led us to the steps down to the oval and bade us good night.
(For the record, the real St Arnou is 1000 km away in the Hunter Valley)
We were in Kuala Lumpur and were talking about staying on a resort for the last few days of our round-the-world trip, not a type of holiday that we would usually choose, but we were exhausted from the daily changes and felt the need to sit still for a while.
We recalled that a friend had once mentioned the luxury Malaysian island of Langkawi, so without more ado we found ourselves aboard Firefly, a budget airline with a cabin baggage limit so tiny that even our little day sacks had to go in the hold.
Following a quick straw poll of online reviews, we chose the Andaman Resort for pure hedonistic luxury. We did initially plan to visit some other parts of the island, but since the resort was set in acres of thick rainforest in a beautiful sandy bay, we never got up the enthusiasm to leave. We happily spent twelve hours of each night in blissful sleep and the other twelve ambling around on the beach, relaxing by the pool with a book, or enjoying the restaurants and bars scattered throughout the grounds.
It was monsoon season, bringing daily rain without affecting the steady tropical warmth. Generally we ignored it, but one night as we sat in the beach bar the staff began setting up for a beach wedding. It seemed a curious choice by the Australian couple because regular squalls were rolling in from the Malacca Strait, and although the wedding was clearly timed to coincide with sunset, the darkening sky was already obscured by scudding clouds.
Together with the other bar patrons, we sat with our feet in the warm sand, drinks in hand and protected by a wide-brimmed thatched roof, as we watched the hotel staff struggling to decorate chairs with wind-whipped pandanus leaves. The sound crew were attempting to wrap their gear in plastic bags to protect it from the driving rain, and we wondered why the wedding didn’t simply move to the beautiful little-used marble staircase at one side of the hotel’s immense lobby, which had ample seating and breathtaking views of the storm across the bay.
Nevertheless, the group stubbornly stuck to the program: A wedding on the beach is what they were determined to have.
About an hour after a cloud-enshrouded sunset, after a monsoon squall had drenched the assembled guests despite the hastily dispersed sun umbrellas, the bride and bridesmaids finally made their entrance from where they had been sheltering under a tree. The photographer was having a hard time with the premature dark of the looming thunder clouds, and all the bridesmaids got bunched up while he snapped them, leaving the bride stuck at the back of the queue and standing rather uncomfortably among the amused patrons of the beach bar.
The maid of honour came tearing up the path, shouting for the music to start. The sound crew twiddled knobs and pressed switches, but the soaking equipment produced nothing apart from a little scratchy feedback.
The bridal party finally made it to the front, where the celebrant discovered that his microphone wasn’t working. He put it down and began the ceremony without it, his words and the couples’ responses blown away by the incoming squall and drowned out by the crashing surf only metres from their feet.
The groom looked stunned. The bride looked furious. The maid-of-honour looked incandescent. The squall hit full force, all the umbrellas turned inside out, and night cast a blessed shroud on the proceedings.
Warm and dry in our reed-roofed bar, we all turned back to our drinks.
Our train pulled in to Butterworth station. Having done no research at all, we vaguely hoped that there might be a hotel nearby, but there didn’t seem to be anything close apart from a dental college. However, we did see a sign pointing to a ferry to Georgetown, so we strolled down to the quay and soon found ourselves in possession of two tickets for the grand price of R1.20, or about forty cents. There was no boat and no obvious timetable, but there were local people sitting about so we settled down to wait.
After not more than twenty minutes, a ferry arrived, so we boarded and sailed off across the calm waters of the Penang Strait. In the distance we could see a cruise ship pulling out of Georgetown. Small dhows behind us on Butterworth beach were festooned with red flashing LED lights in addition to their regular navigation lights, and this combined with a plethora of shore lights must make the otherwise dark Strait quite tricky to navigate. However our little ferry made it to Georgetown in just over quarter of an hour without any problems, and we disembarked. Randomly choosing a road to walk up, we skipped a number of rather dodgy looking hostels until we found a pretty little hotel set back from the street. It was absolutely beautiful inside, and only $75 a night, a little pricey for Malaysia but dirt cheap for us.
It was late at night, but we’d seen many hawker food stalls on the way up, and the receptionist recommended The Red Garden around the corner. This turned out to be a large courtyard ringed by hawker food stalls, very busy with locals and tourists alike. In the centre was a dance floor and locals salsas, two-stepped and square-danced to a couple singing rock and roll and country tunes. Everybody was having a grand time.
We chose an eclectic selection of foods including smoked mackerel, tuna sashimi, and some really excellent succulent tempura fish sticks which were described as ‘white tuna’. The only slight irritation were the beer vendors who turned up endlessly as soon as you’d taken a sip from your glass to top it up from the bottle on the table.
Some time after midnight the party was still in full swing, but – unusually – we exercised restraint and headed to bed.
The next morning, we enjoyed ourselves doing tourist stuff in Georgetown. It’s an old colonial town with somewhat faded buildings, but the covered walkways bustle with vibrant activity. We enjoyed just strolling around and poking around, deciding that it reminded us a bit of Montevideo. We hunted down a particular bakery that makes only straight finger-like doughnuts, a local delicacy.
Pausing to photograph a mosque, we were invited inside by a man who had been charged with spreading the word to non-muslims. Inside the mosque, we donned black cloaks to cover our western nakedness and had an interesting tour, not something that you get to see every day, particularly because Bronwyn was visiting the men’s section. Our guide grumbled a bit through his one remaining tooth, because he didn’t really approve of what he was doing, but since the government had declared his mosque to be a heritage site, he had a mandate to invite tourists.
We also checked out the unapologetically colonial area around Penang Station, now a Customs house but locally famous as the only station never to have a railway pass through it.
The monsoon started and we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel, where after a refreshing nap we discovered that the bar was doing a buy-five get-two-free deal. We polished off the requisite number of drinks just as the rain stopped, by which time we were not only a bit squiffy but ravenously hungry. I wanted to try the Old House Restaurant which we had seen on our morning perambulations, and I was ever so glad that we did because every dish was divine, especially my ‘Hong Kong steamed fish’ which was some kind of coral angel fish and was as sweet and tender as anything I’ve eaten.
The following morning we had booked several hours at a Malaysian cooking class in the Tropical Spice Garden, a botanical gardens devoted to the spice trade. We knew that we could catch the 101 bus from Georgetown and that our stop would arrive in about three quarters of an hour, but we had no idea about the geographical location of the gardens. Penang is not a very big island so we soon found ourselves on a road that twisted and climbed up and around the shoreline, past endless beaches, fishing dhows, and turtles. In the end, our stop was obvious and well signposted, but of course the friendly driver gave us a wave when we got there anyway.
After a guided tour through some of the species that we would be using, we were introduced to our teacher, Nazlina, who soon had us grinding spices and emptying coconuts using ancient traditional methods. Our aim was to make Nasi Goreng, which involves coconut rice, fried anchovies, boiled egg, sambal and cucumber wrapped up into a pyramid of banana leaf.
It was great fun, and the four of us in the group took turns to take the meat out of the coconut, smoke the banana leaves to make them flexible, and grind the sambal paste from garlic, galangal, ginger, onion, lemon grass, red chilis and fish meal.
Eventually we put all the parts together, with some accidents, into neat pyramidal parcels before settling down to lunch with some beef sambal that we’d knocked up on the side. The perfect end to a perfect morning.
We arrived at Malaysia’s LCCT airport late on a Sunday evening with no luggage, no hotel reservations, and a pocket full of Ringits. Uncharacteristically we had done no research and were just going to play the next two weeks by ear.
The lady at the airport information desk suggested that we catch the No. 6 bus to a nearby station, where we could catch a train into Kuala Lumpur. This proved to be an inexpensive and excellent idea, but on our arrival at KL Sentral we were a bit puzzled to find that the only hotels in the neighbourhood were the Hilton and the Meridien, both well over R600 a night where our budget was a sixth of that. The concierge at the Hilton cleared up the mystery, as KL Sentral station is not central at all, and we needed to catch another train to get to the real main station in the city proper. Bronwyn remembered hearing about a restored Heritage hotel above the main train station, so in the absence of any other plans, we hopped the local Komuter train to see if they had any rooms there.
The hotel was built on the station platform as promised, but the windows were suspiciously dark, and when we eventually found the front door, we discovered that it had chains wrapped around the handles.
A little nonplussed, and aware that all the cafes and coffee shops that we had seen were closing, we stopped at a small street cafe to get something to eat. I picked some hawker food at random from the display of semi-congealed dishes (this place also seemed to be closing down for the night), and found myself with a very hot liver curry and some kind of hot-and-sour smoked fish. Bronwyn ordered some fresh chicken noodles from the counter, and we washed it all down with fresh young coconut juice from the shell.
Halfway through our meal, the power went out and amid some cheers everybody stayed very still in the darkness until one of the chefs found and reset the main fuse.
I asked the waiter what had happened to the Heritage Hotel, and he laughed and said that there were labour problems and that the government had shut it down. He also gave us directions to another suburb where we might find a hotel, but when we climbed into a taxi, the driver poo-pooed the idea and drove us to a hotel in the centre where obviously he got a kick-back, but it seemed clean enough and the driver was content to wait for us to check the room before being paid, so – after running the hot water and air conditioning – we booked in for a couple of days.
After a long and much-needed sleep to beat the jet lag we emerged blinking into the sunlight. We ambled around the busy streets of KL, mopeds weaving in and out of the traffic. Everybody was cheerful, the women were often beautifully dressed in vibrant colours. Although the city are at least superficially similar to Bangkok, the streets and buildings are clean and nobody pestered us to buy anything. In fact, whenever somebody approached us in the street it was usually to offer helpful advice.
Without much of a plan, we strolled over to the Petronas towers (very impressively shiny) and mooched about in the shopping mall beneath it. The mall was shiny and clean and full of high-end shops, but it is difficult to see why foreigners get so excited by the shopping here because the mall prices are much the same as back home. Food, drink and groceries, on the other hand, are very cheap indeed.
Aware that the daily monsoon was due to start in a few minutes, we popped in to a Belgian bar to wait it out. The rain persisted for an unusually long time, but the Formula 1 was showing on TV, one thing led to another, and it wasn’t until twenty-two beers later that we staggered back out into the night.
Events from then on became blurry, but we do remember playing pool in a nightclub and being propositioned by a prostitute.
We vaguely remember the taxi that eventually decanted us into our hotel, where we slept like the dead until checkout time.
Emerging blinking from our Kuala Lumpur hotel, we broke our fast at a nearby cafe. Nasi Lemak is the perfect morning-after food. A big pile of rice, hot sauce, dried fish, boiled egg, nuts and some meat on the side, washed down with ‘Coffee O’ which turned out to be hot, black and sweet.
Feeling much refreshed, we bought some essential supplies – sun tan lotion, insect repellent – and headed for KL Sentral station to see if we could get aboard a train to Penang. We had previously managed to register at the train station website, but Internet bookings were only accepted three days in advance and, having already checked out of our hotel, we were hoping to leave that same day.
Locating a meter taxi – the other kind were working out far too expensive because we don’t know enough about the local area to haggle effectively – we bought a prepaid token, which worked OK except that the driver was convinced that the only reason that a foreigner might want to go to the station was to catch the airport train, and kept trying to convince us that it would be cheaper to travel by taxi.
Nevertheless, he did get us to the station in time to purchase a first class ticket half an hour before the afternoon’s departure, which all worked out rather well.
Our first class seats were nice, wide aircraft-style with loads of leg room, just as well because the trip takes over six hours. Every now and then a pretty girl came past handing out complementary cake, sweets and water. The only irritating thing was dreadful music being piped over the PA, sounding a bit like a five year old playing with a mobile phone. Thankfully it eventually also irritated the conductors who were trying to get some sleep in the empty seats behind us, so they turned it down.
For the first hour, the countryside was lush with banana palms interspersed with dwellings ranging from mansions to shacks, often with a backdrop of mine spoil heaps.
During the second hour, the landscape became largely agricultural with occasional paddy fields. Enormous and unlikely-looking hills project steeply upwards here and there, some being whittled down by mining machinery. We passed at least one processing plant, which I gather is for tin.
Three hours in, we were once more treated to the inane electronic music as the train’s infomercial played out on the TV screen at the far end of the carriage. On its fourth loop I had just decided to go and ask the conductors to turn it off when thankfully it started to show a cooking program instead.
Four hours in, and as the sun set pinkly over the distant and misty mountains, we climbed steeply up into the highlands to Tai Ping, passing more mines and refineries on the way.
Five hours in, full dark, and everybody was dozing off. Then the bloody music started up again.
We had been warned about the dragonflies, and here they were, swarms of them coming out of the desert, big fat and very very hard. Every time we stopped, enormous black crows would descend and pluck the mangled and juicy bodies from the motorbike.
We were riding across the Nullarbor Plain, the world’s largest single piece of limestone, comprising about 200,000 square kilometres of desert separating Western Australia from Southern Australia. There is only one road across, and the thousand-kilometre Eyre Highway has become a long-distance traveller’s icon. The story goes that, far from being the aboriginal name that you might expect, the word Nullarbor was coined by early explorers from the schoolboy Latin for ‘no trees’. This is something of a misnomer, because in fact this area forms part of the largest temperate forest in the world. It is a land of stark contrasts; red earth, bright green low-lying shrubs, and impressive glossy red gum trees, all stretching out forever beneath a vivid blue sky.
The logistics of living in such an arid environment preclude any kind of town on the Plain itself. There are a few hardy cattle stations out there, but along the road civilisation is represented by roadhouses strung out at intervals of 200 kilometres. Largely owned and operated by the major oil companies, they provide fuel for traffic and road trains and offer varying degrees of accommodation, food and camping.
Some are prosperous and well-appointed, others run down and a little squalid, but since 200 kilometres represents the maximum distance that the XJR 1300 can go on a single tank of fuel, we were obliged to stop at each and every one.
Although it was winter and there was a fresh wind blowing in from the Southern Ocean, there was still an appreciable heat haze on the road. Mirages and inversion layers were common, and it was often quite a few miles before you could figure out what it was that was coming towards you, or even if it was coming towards you at all. The prettiest mirage turned the whole of the road ahead into a perfect reflection of the blue sky overhead, so that it seemed that at any moment you might drop off the edge of the world.
All trailers are restricted by law to 100 km/h, and since just about everything from the road trains down to the smallest car and even some of the motorbikes are towing trailers, this means that the traffic, if you can call it that, moves at that same speed like discrete beads along a wire. Horizon to horizon, you might see one bead up ahead, and possibly one far behind, but that’s as congested as it gets. Going a little faster than this, we would slowly catch and pass each road train, but it was sometimes a long battle through the vortex of turbulence that could extend hundreds of metres behind each rig.
It is a point of pride for every Australian town, municipality or region to claim to be home to the largest, longest or oldest feature of Australia or, preferably, the world. If a particular region lacks any suitable natural features, then the locals will build something. Typical examples are The Big Trout, The Big Merino and The Big Banana. We have personally drunk beers in at least half a dozen Oldest Continually Licensed Premises In Australia.
The Nullarbor boasts not only The Longest Stretch of Straight Road in Australia (146.6 km) but also The Longest Golf Course in the World, which puzzled us a bit at first. All became clear when we realised that there was a tee and a hole at every roadhouse. The whole thing could be said to stretch out over more than 1100 km, but you have to drive for several hours down the highway to get to each tee. Of course there isn’t much in the way of green; the terrain is described as ‘natural ground’.
Along the road, the landscape remained largely flat but the flora changed regularly, presumably reflecting changes in the underlying hydrology. The underbrush remained hummocky and rarely exceeded a couple of feet in height, but the amount of bare earth between the bushes varied, and trees came and went above. In several places we passed entire forests of dead trees where presumably the water table had dropped temporarily out of reach. In most of these, new growth was now springing up from the bases of the trunks, so presumably the aquifer had since recovered.
The lack of water was a constant theme. With only a few inches of rainfall a year, most water is trucked in to the roadhouses at great expense. Showers are available at a price, but unless you rent a cabin you are expected to bring your own washing and drinking water with you.
A couple of days into the Nullarbor, we came across a road train parked in the bush and a hired motor home lying on its side. We stopped to see if we could help, but the road train driver, who had seen the accident and was now watching over the wreck, said that the occupants were fine and had got a lift out to the next roadhouse. On our arrival we heard that they had encountered a road train coming in the opposite direction on the wrong side of the road, and had lost control in their panic. We still don’t know how the roadhouse manager got it back on its four wheels, but evidently he did because it later drove in to the roadhouse car park with surprisingly little damage beyond some chamfered bodywork and busted windows.
They were lucky. You definitely don’t want to run into a fifty-metre road train.
There are warning signs along the road for all manner of creatures, from camels to cows and kangaroos to ostriches. I suspect that many of these signs are just there to please the tourists, because for the most part the wildlife sticks to the safety of the scrub, but we did encounter a pair of emus that had come up to scrape dew from the tarmac. Seeing them in their native habitat, we realised that their hummocky bodies blended perfectly with the scrub, and it was perfectly possible to miss seeing a couple of metre-high birds if they were standing still.
On another stretch of road, I noticed a fallen log and pulled out to avoid it, and then had to swerve again because it was in fact a very large snake crossing the road and spanning almost the entire lane. I managed to avoid it, and I hope it got across before the next road train came through.
Large black crows picked up bugs that had been squashed by passing traffic, or clustered around the occasional road kill. Where there was a fallen roo, the feasting birds would usually see us coming from miles away and would take to the air well in advance, but on one occasion the birds seemed reluctant to leave. As we got closer, we realised that this time they weren’t crows, but instead a whole family of wedge-tailed eagles. As they struggled to get airborne, one of them revealed a wingspan wider than the fully loaded bike. We later heard tell of a motorcyclist who was showing off a long scar in the top of his helmet from the claws of an eagle that hadn’t quite got enough altitude in time.
As we travelled further into the region, the cost of a room for the night rose dramatically. At Caiguna they wanted over $100 for a bed, but only $15 to use their camp ground (aka the open desert behind the rainwater tanks) so we set up the tent instead. We didn’t have sleeping bags, just a sheet and some felt blankets, and as luck would have it a cold front came through and the temperature dropped to three degrees, so it was bit chilly. Mind you, the stars were incredible.
After a few days, the roadhouses tended to blend together in our minds. Each had a pretty decent menu made up of frozen ingredients, jokey signs about tourists’ stupid questions, an endless supply of ‘I crossed the Nullarbor’ mugs, stickers and tea-towels, and – importantly – a well-stocked bar.
The cabins and camp sites were popular but we never had problems finding space. Once we’d watched the sunset there wasn’t much to do in the evening apart from go to the bar, and although we attended religiously every evening we were often surprised to find ourselves the only patrons. Most of the other travellers (road train drivers, grey nomads, the occasional motorcyclist) preferred to keep themselves to themselves.
We did get to talk to a few fellow-travellers. The road train drivers were working in shifts and trying to stay awake, moving goods and produce westwards and, usually, empty trailers eastwards. Sometimes they stacked the empty trailers up one on top of the other to save on tyre wear, and one driver explained how it was done. Apparently they back the first trailer up to a ramp, then reverse the second trailer up the ramp and on to first. Since they’re backing up a ramp, they can’t really see what they’re doing, and since all the trailers are the same size, there is zero tolerance for mistakes. Sometimes they miss and it falls off. We also heard about the fun they have moving mining machinery, because these stupendous machines are usually much wider than the low-loader trailer, with half of each tyre or track overhanging each side. Often the machine operator refuses to risk driving onto such a thin platform, and then it is up to the rig driver to fire up the unfamiliar million-dollar machine and ease it onto the trailer himself. Sometimes these fall off too.
The grey nomads were typically towing their caravans to warmer latitudes for the winter, and everybody else seemed to be driving Perth to Sydney as a sort of endurance feat; it is after all the complete width of the continent, passing through some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. We had passed a couple of lads on the road who were towing hand-carts on foot, but unfortunately there was no safe place to pull over for a chat. We did get to speak to a young student on a bicycle who said that he’d met them on the road and was a little jealous about how much food they were carrying, although apparently they were on a very tight budget and weren’t sure if they could afford to continue all the way to Sydney. The cyclist, a very pleasant chap, had decided to cycle across the continent on a whim.
The eastern stretch of the Eyre Highway runs along the cliff tops overlooking the Great Australian Bight. It was dusk when we passed the famous Bunda Cliffs, and the caravans were starting to circle and to jostle for prime sea-views. They always do this, but we could never figure out why, because they then seem to spend the rest of the night watching satellite television. We have considered doing a Grey Nomad trip ourselves (sort of a Brunette Nomad), and have even gone so far as to go to van shows and talk to caravan dealers. It had seemed to us that a caravan was very much like a yacht, and since we’d had such a ball sailing and meeting travelling yachties, we were keen to try the same thing on land. One of the great things about sailing in remote parts is that no matter how eccentric your fellow traveller, and whatever their walk or stage of life, they are almost always intelligent and interesting and, even if only for one evening, good company. Having attempted to similarly engage the caravanners on our travels, we had to admit that, by and large and with occasional exceptions, they were largely… not.
For the last day of our trip across the desert, incredibly, it rained. The roadhouses were full of celebrating station hands,
“How much did you get up at Kickatinalong?”
“Almost an inch!”
“Ah, good on yer mate. We had nearly half an inch at Dustbowlcreek.”
The road trains kicked up a heck of a spray, which made it essential to get past them but impossible to see if anything was coming the other way. Luckily the road train drivers are very aware of bikes – many are bikers themselves – and were very good about signalling when the road ahead was clear. We just kept the throttle open until we arrived at the quarantine checkpoint at Ceduna, officially the end of the Nullarbor and the start of the Eyre Peninsula.
The quarantine officer eyed our luggage and bright waterproofs with a jaundiced eye.
“Got any fruit?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, “no food at all”.
He stared broodily at Bronwyn, as if he suspected her of smuggling grapefruit under her jacket, then grudgingly nodded.
“Right, move along.”
We had crossed the Nullarbor.
The bush toward Kambalda is starkly beautiful, with the bright red of the soil contrasting with the luxurious and brilliant greens of the gum trees, low-growing scrub, and ground-hugging succulents. Whatever its size, each plant is surrounded by a circle of bare earth representing the area from which it is sucking precious water. No competing plant can gain a foothold inside this zone.
The land is largely flat and often salty, broken only by the small hummocks of laterite gossans, interesting geological features that form after iron is leached from the soil, forming a hard protective cap that prevents the underlying rock from being eroded away over the millennia.
A little out of Kambalda there must have been a recent major change in the underlying hydrology, because for miles and miles all the trees had been reduced to bone-white sticks. I wondered if one of the many mines in this area had redirected some underground waterway into its workings, or if perhaps there had been a series of particularly dry seasons. Whatever the underlying cause, the water source seemed to have now returned, because a new layer of lush growth was springing from the base of each apparently dead tree trunk.
The road trains are longer out here; over fifty metres. If they’re coming toward you with a following wind, their bow wave can get quite uncomfortable.
We saw our first bit of road kill, but it was thoroughly tenderised and it wasn’t obvious what it had been. Certainly not a marsupial; maybe some kind of deer? Then we realised that there were feral goats grazing In the bush, some with horns as long as my arm. We also startled an escaped sheep, definitely of domestic vintage, but unusual in that it had retained a full tail, a very impressive sweeping arm with a fluffy pom-pom on the end.
The road went on, the earth became lighter in colour, but the signs to distant mines remained as prevalent as ever. We started to see what were apparently vast flats of soft mud, which ultimately joined together to form a feature called Cowan Lake which is mined for gypsum. I didn’t quite dare try to ride the motorcycle across the inviting flat surface, but clearly a number of cars had already been doing circle work and they hadn’t made much of a dent in the hard-baked clay pan.
Suddenly we were in Norseman, where a sign warned that it was 198 km to the next fuel stop (one full tank of fuel for us), and that water was scarce from now on so that we must be sure to fill up before continuing. I wanted to investigate an intermittent knocking from the bikes drive chain and there seemed to be plenty of motels to choose from, so we stopped for the night.
I quickly traced the knocking sound to the chain adjusters which had come loose. Fixing the problem meant loosening the rear wheel nut, and unfortunately some lazy mechanic seemed to have thrashed it on with a windy-gun instead of tightening it by hand. I hate it when they do that, as it makes roadside adjustments really difficult. Still, there were plenty of heavy rocks lying around, and by hitting it repeatedly I finally got it undone. We had booked in to the motel restaurant for dinner, and it was made quite clear that if we booked for seven, then weren’t expected to show up until seven. With an hour to kill we took a stroll around the town, which consisted mainly of a scattering of hundreds of small houses in various states of disrepair, all apparently servicing the Norseman gold mine.
The mine – and the town – have an interesting history, in that they were named after, and discovered by, a horse. The story goes that a prospector tied the horse to a tree by his brother’s tent for the night, and when he woke up he found that the horse was lame. Investigation revealed a large chunk of gold-bearing quartz lodged in Norseman’s hoof. The prospector and some friends got together and purchased the claim, and the town came into being on the site.
We wandered deeper into town, admiring the famous collection of galvanised iron camels built on the roundabout in the centre.
After a little more searching we finally located what seemed to be Norseman’s only pub, and met the locals. Both of them. One sat and drooled quietly onto the bar top, while another attempted repeatedly to engage us in conversation, which might have been interesting except that he