Ethiopia’s Southern Tribes: A step back in time

Friday 3 August 2018: Roger

Up at 5.45am for a cold shower and breakfast, with Christmas music playing in the background, we were ready for our flight south. The Kuriftu Resort is probably the flashest place we have stayed at so far but hot water for a shower was not working today. The breakfast was great though and by 7.30am we were at the airport and through the first set of security. Despite being on a charter flight we still had to go through the full double security process.

At 8.30am we took off in the Cessna Caravan heading south to Addis Ababa. This country has to be the food bowl of Africa as every available bit of ground we flew over for the next 500kms seemed to be cultivated. A quick refuel at Addis, with a couple of dilapidated old DC3s in the background, and we were back in the air.

Heading south toward the intersection of the Kenya, Southern Sudan and Ethiopian borders the land stayed much the same with vast expanses of agriculture even as it got steeper with huge cliffs and ravines. It was not until we were around 400kms south that the hilly land became arid and scrubby. It eventually flattened out and we spotted the village of Murule not far from a large cotton field, irrigated from the Omo river. It looks somewhat out of place here. We flew over a clear patch of dirt, circled and soon were on the ground to be greeted by Lale, the camp owner and manager, who was surrounded by kids carrying AK assault rifles. They were there for a chat while looking after their goat and sheep herds.

We headed to the river in a land cruiser and boarded a boat. Hundreds of cows, goats and sheep we gathered on the beach having being driven there by their minders for their daily drink. As we headed up river people looked on from the east bank and Nile crocs from the west. The Cessna climbed out above us on its way back to Addis.

Over the next 40 minutes we spotted more crocs, baboons, colobus monkeys, a de Brazzas monkey, Goliath herons, African fish eagles, people washing, walking or just laying around on the river bank, and lots more mobs of stock drinking on the beaches. Areas of bush on the riverbank were being cleared to plant sorghum grain.

On arrival at Lale’s camp we were escorted to our tent, stowed our kit and adjourned to the dining tent for lunch and a briefing. Unfortunately the visit to the Mursi tribe (the one where woman have plates in their lips) is off the agenda; since the Gebe Dam was finished three years ago the river no longer floods, which used to fertilise the land for the next crop and as a result the Mursi have had to move into the hills some distance from here in order to find enough food.

Time is an interesting thing in Ethiopia. A few days ago in Lalibella we needed to go to the bank to get some money changed. Asking at the hotel reception the guy said the bank is open from 6 to 11. As it was around 3pm we trotted off thinking we could get money the next morning. Then suddenly we realised he may have been talking local time. And as it turned out he was. This is how it works here: 6am (daybreak) is 1am their time. They have 13 months in a year; 12 have 30 days and the 13th has 5, or 6 in a leap year. But down here they just point to the sky saying I will meet you when the sun is here.

At around 5pm, or in local time when the “day cools off”, we met with Lale to join the local Karo people. Twice a week groups of villagers gather away from the village to get dolled up, then head back and parade around the village. We strolled among them as both men and woman applied their, not war paint, but beauty paint, derived from various clays and plants, often with very intricate designs. They were rapt as I took photos then showed them on the camera screen.

Men sat gathered in one group, married woman in another, the single woman in a third group, while kids, boys mostly naked and girls with a cloth around their waist, roamed amongst them all. AK assault rifles lay around leaning on trees and logs. Interestingly talking to Lale later he explained that these have brought peace to the local tribes and villages.

During lunch Lale was telling us it had been a couple of years since a crocodile had eaten one of the local kids, but lots of goats get eaten. Just then a shot rang out close by. Apparently a croc was having a crack at a goat. Lale went on to explain that prior to the AKs (sourced from both Somalia and Southern Sudan) when people stole stock they would be hunted down and killed with spears. Since the guns arrived no-one steals anymore.

Saturday 4 August: Sylvia

We woke early this morning to the sound of colobus monkeys calling, punctuated by the rooster crowing in the nearby village and starlings in the trees around us. After another cold shower (I am even getting used to them now) and a quick coffee, we headed off upstream at about 7am, motoring for about 30 minutes to a very dusty and barren area on the far bank where we stopped to visit the Nyangatom tribe. These people arrived in the area some 25 years ago from Southern Sudan. Originally in small groups, the Karo tribe were happy to allow them to farm alongside them on their land but as more and more of them arrived things got very tense and they eventually took over all the land on the west side of the river. Nowadays the elders have come to a peaceful settlement but tensions were clearly fraught for many years.

We walked about 700 meters to the village passing numerous cactus bushes and surprisingly beautiful desert roses. We also saw many locusts clinging to the branches on the scrubby trees.

We passed a large thorn enclosure, with many cattle inside tended by a few young men, then arrived at the village itself. The Nyangatom are nomadic and had only arrived in this location in the last few days. The women have built about 13 grass huts and the compound has been encircled by thorn bushes for protection. Some young kids came running to welcome us, removing the large thorn bush that passes as a gate for us to enter.

Inside the compound the huts were scattered about, other thorn-encircled enclosures held goats, sheep, donkeys and more cattle. There would have been well over 1,000 animals in total. Women tended their fires, brewing the local coffee, which is made with the husks from the coffee beans rather than the beans themselves. The men sat on their little stools drinking the coffee from large calabashes. As usual Roger was mobbed by children, who love looking at their photos on the screen of the camera. 

The Nyangatom practice scarification as a form of beautification. Many of the women had scars carved into their stomachs and some of the men had them on their arms. The elder of the tribe had large scars all over his torso, apparently a sign that he has killed one or more of his enemies. 

The women mainly wear goat skins, shorter in the front and long in the back. The men tend to wear a piece of cloth wrapped around their middle although some have shorts and/or t’shirts. Many of the kids wear raggedy clothes but the younger buys are generally naked. The women and girls all have many beads around their necks and even the males wear single strands around their necks and sometimes arms too.

We felt extremely privileged to be invited into the village while they went about their preparations for the day ahead.

We headed back to camp for breakfast, sitting in the dining tent and being served like royalty while the local women wandered past carting water from the river. I wonder what they think of us? 

We then headed back upriver. If I had any concerns about whether the villages were set up purely for tourism they were completely dispelled as we motored past numerous people going about their daily routine: women worked the ground in their skins, saggy breasts banging against their chests ( I was reminded of an article I read recently that women should not wear bras as if they don’t their breasts will naturally tighten up – obviously whoever wrote that had never seen these fit, healthy women with their “spaniel-ear” breasts – Roger’s term!); men and boys tended their stock, some even stripping off naked to wash in the river, showing no signs of embarrassment or concern as we motored past. 

After about 90 minutes we arrived at another Karo village further upstream. Some NGO  spent a lot of money about 8 years ago putting in a solar powered pumping and filtering station so the women didn’t need to carry water from the river. They left it in the hands of the government to maintain but it hasn’t worked for at least the last two years.

Because it was the middle of the day only a few people were about, mostly women and children sitting under a shade in the centre of the village. The huts here are primarily wood with thatch roofs. There are small circular storage buildings dotted about where they keep their grain. They spread out a clean goatskin for us to sit on and brought us coffee in calabashes. One little boy had been stung by a bee and was sporting a large swollen lip.

After an hour or so we headed back to camp for lunch and to rest out the heat of the day. 

Just after 5pm we met Lale and took the short drive to the Karo village nearest the camp where the tribes people from all three Karo villages meet once or twice a week for a dance. The men have again painted their bodies and the women their faces although this time in one colour only without the additional decoration. The men stand around one side of the circle with their little sitting stools on their shoulders, the elders at one end and the young men at the other; the women stand on the other side – there is lots of chatter and laughing. Kids run around the outside, rolling in the dust, playing together and laughing. The dancing consists first of groups of men jumping as high as they can while others clap, the women doing a different jumping motion. Later on individual men take turns jumping, showing off their strength. Then men and women dance together, but not with their wives/husbands. The dancing finishes about 6:30pm and they take a break until 9ish. Apparently when they start again only the unmarried women are allowed to join.

Behind the dancing area is a large meeting hall where the married adult men (those who have jumped the bulls and had the top of their left ear cut) meet to make important decisions for the tribe. It has ten different areas staring with the elders all the way to the newest members but when decisions are being made all voices can be heard equally.

Sunday 5 August 2018: Roger

Coffee was served at 6.30 after which we mounted the Land Cruser and headed northeast on a dirt track to visit a small family from the Hamer Tribe. As we bounced along we spotted a number of dikdiks, one stopping to look back as it sped away.

After crossing a dry creek bed we arrived at a couple of huts to be greeted by a couple of engaged sisters who were about to set off with their donkey to get water, about a five hour task from here. Red hair is quite popular with the women around here (Karo and Hamer tribes). It is taken strand by strand and braided with a mixture of butter and clay.

They invited us into one of the fly filled huts where a pot boiled on an open fire. Ignoring the thousands of flys that settled on them and us they were happy to serve their coffee in bowls made from calabash. This stuff tastes even weaker than earl grey tea.

Soon we were joined by another young woman, then her mother and sister, followed by another young woman who were just dropping by for coffee, a common practice around here. It is only the father and first and sometimes second wife that get to sleep inside a hut; the rest of the family sleep on the ground outside except in the rainy season.

Relationships vary from tribe to tribe here. The two sisters that invited us in here are both engaged. That means the families organised who the husbands will be, the husband to be then waited with a couple of mates for the girl to come along, grabbed her painted her in cow dung and left. The engagement will last five years then after the husband has run the bulls ( they have to run across a coral full of cattle to become a man) a wedding can take place. During the engagement the girl can do as she likes as can the man. One of these girls has been pregnant and performed an abortion so she is free of children for the wedding.

In the Karo tribe until recently if a girl got pregnant before manage they carried the baby to full term then literally threw the baby in the bush. This practice has now mostly stopped.In this tribe if a man shags another man’s wife and gets caught then it is the man’s fault and he is killed (The wife is the property of the husband – after all he paid 127 goats for her). It seems the authorities respect these traditions and do not intervene.

As we emmerged from the hut a few of the local men had gathered for a yarn by a tree.

An aircraft had been spotted overhead and it was presumed it was for us even though several hours early. A much faster trip was made back to camp where we packed our gear, had a tasty breakfast and boarded the boat for the down river trip to the air strip, the boatman looking as serious as ever. We passed a belly-up croc floating mid-river. It had been shot late yesterday while trying to take a goat.

A taxi up the runway into the wind to make sure it was clear of stock, a quick turn and the Caravan lifted early into the air in spite of the tail wind.

On landing back in Addis Ababa we were eventually picked up by our driver and taken back to the Sheraton Hotel for a relaxing afternoon. We were picked up again at 7pm and taken to 2000 Habesha traditional restaurant and cultural show with a band consisting of a flute, two kirars (a 5-stringed guitar like instrument), a set of drums and a masinko (a bit like a one-stringed violin). These guys bashed out a fair bit of traditional music, at times accompanied by dancers, singers or sometimes both.



Ethiopia: The historic churches of the north

Monday 30 July 2018: Roger

After breakfast at the Sabean Hotel we took a stroll down the Main Street. The blue tuktuks swarmed the street like ants in search of crumbs. There are apparently over a thousand of these in this town of 50,000. Most of the shops are still closed as ladies set up their coffee shops with grass spread in front of the fire box and comfortable stools spread out ready for the morning rush. 

At 10 we departed for the airport. I am Intrigued to see a third storey on one of the many partly finished buildings, reinforcing in place ready for the concrete pour, all held up by eucalyptus sticks. We passed young men sitting on piles of rocks with a hammer breaking them into smaller rocks. 

I discovered that the dozens of incomplete multi-storey buildings in the town came about through corruption in relation to a previous government. 

A friendly policeman greeted us and checked our passports before we entered the confines of the tiny airport. 

Flying into Lalibella airport we passed over lots of cultivated land with small round-housed villages separated by deep ravines. Picked up in a clean, white van, we headed northeast up a valley then up into the hills. This relatively new road has many new houses being constructed on each side. Nowadays square houses with iron roofs are replacing the traditional round ones with thatched roofs. Unfortunately, although easier to build, the iron does not provide the insulation the thatched ones used to. The construction starts off with eucalyptus sticks making a frame; more sticks are added to make an enclosure; the roof goes on then the inside is plastered, as is the floor; then the outside is plastered. A mixture of mud and straw is used to make the plaster. It has to be just right; too much straw and a donkey may eat your house. 

We climbed a steep part in the road with stone retaining walls and stopped at a lookout for great views back down the valley. A petite woman lugs a load of firewood up the hill to sell in the town while a boy looks on, I am sure pleased he can avoid that task. These new roads and much of the new infrastructure is being provided by China – apparently originally they provided the labour in the form of prisoners from China. 

Not far along the ridge we dropped down into the city of Lalibella. Situated on a ridge it drops off steeply on each side with houses often perched on cliff edges. With around 50,000 people the town is spreading rapidly with a number of government built houses. 

Thousands of concrete pipes line fields below, all part of the China input for future infrastructure.

Although there are some sewerage pipelines most houses are not connected and still use long drops. Most houses have electricity but like the rest of the country they have many power cuts. Running water is also piped to most houses but the supply is inconsistent. 

A little way through the town we turned down a cobbled street passing a bunch of tidy stalls made from corrugated iron. This area was a little more tidy containing a number of small hotels. Our hotel Maribela is pretty new and situated on the top of a hill with expansive views over the land below.

After lunch we headed back through town to what was around 900 years ago a solid rock ridge. Then along came King Lalibella who decided to create a few churches. Rather than cutting the stone into blocks and building a church he decided to cut the stone and carve a church. The first and the largest monolithic church in the world is, to say the least, a great feat of engineering. The rock has been chiselled away all around the structure providing drainage and access, then columns chiselled out around the outside. From there they have chiselled their way inside creating internal columns to hold up the roof. A bread room has been chiselled into the rock to the south and entrances made on the north, west and east sides. 

Some of the outside columns have been replaced with block ones by UNESCO and a large structure has been built well above the church to protect it from the elements. 

There were also two little corrugated iron boxes which I thought were dog kennels. Oops got that wrong – “those are for the security guards to sleep in”
















After a look inside we exited and headed through a hole in some rock to the next one. We were able to circle around and up onto the rock between the two structures for a good view of both. There are no safety rails but only one tourist has fallen to their death, and they were not following directions. 

On each side of the second monolithic church are two much smaller semi-monolithic churches. In each of these structures priests sat or stood around while getting photographed by the tourists. 

Apparently part of the reason the king had these built was to attract visitors to the area. It appears he certainly got that bit right. There are two more semi-monolithic churches here but they are closed for repairs just now. Apparently all these sites are funded and administered by UNESCO. 

We headed down and out through what served both as a path and a drain, which continued down into what the king named the river Jordan, which contains a cross and baptism pool designed so locals didn’t have to make the pilgrimage to the Middle East. 

From here we headed to the town centre, chatting to the many local kids there keen to practice their English. 

A stroll down a nearby street revealed a local burger butcher, identified by lungs and trachea hanging outside, then to an ale house identified by a stick outside the door with a tin on it. We went in and Yohannes sampled the local beer brewed from honey. 

As we exited the bar the local women had gathered to clean the street, sweeping and picking up rubbish.

We were lead into a hall where a bunch of teenage girls were practicing for an upcoming dance to the beat of a plastic drum. We even got to join in and later take a group photo followed by a small donation. 

Back at Hotel Maribela we sat on the couch at the end of the dining room. The manager decided they should light the open fire. Five staff undertook this task: some sticks 100mm x 1m were put vertical in the fireplace, meths added and then the attempted lighting of a plastic bag. “Woof” the meths ignited, five staff reeled backwards, the flames died out and the process started again as they tried to get the fire going at the top of the sticks. To be fair, after over an hour of perseverance they did have a bit of a fire going. 

Tuesday 31 July 2018

We had a leisurely breakfast then decided to wander around a bit before our 9am pick up to see if we could get a few photos. We were soon mobbed by kids clamouring to try out their English and asking for money to support their schooling. One thing about this place: there are always lots of people hanging about.

We got some good pictures of some bone crusher or bearded vultures (lammergeiers), and black kites which were soaring on the thermals near the hotel.

After reconnecting with Yohannes our first stop was the church of St George. This is probably the most famous of all the Lalibela churches. It is carved in the shape of a cross and is very impressive. I still cannot fathom why anyone would go to all the difficulty of carving a church underground out of granite – surely it would be easier to build above ground – especially considering the large drainage ditches that needed to be dug out for managing the water. Earlier in the morning we passed a group of men chipping away at some granite rock with hammers – I commented to one of the kids hanging around that it made it easy to see just how difficult carving the churches out of the granite would have been back in the late 12th century. He quickly advised that the churches were actually carved by angels (one of the common beliefs espoused by the church here).

From the church we could see a small local market so wandered over to take a closer look. All sorts of wares were laid out including spices, vegetables, cooking utensils and much more. Apparently at the Saturday markets, which are the main markets of the week, you can barely move for all the people.

Next we visited the final group of churches. There is some debate between the church and the scholars whether these were originally built as churches or as a palace, banquet hall, kitchen and church complex for the king. Based on what I saw I am siding with the scholars but they are all used as churches today. Again I had to marvel at the amount of work involved and the intricacy of some of the carvings. These churches are all interconnected with a series of tunnels. You can walk around the top and take the main entrance but we opted to take the path known as “passing through hell”, a pitch black tunnel through the granite – left hand on the roof so we didn’t hit our heads and staying as close to the right as possible to avoid big rocks protruding from the left – it was slow progress. Roger gave Yohannes quite a fright after the two of us had exited and Roger didn’t respond to any calling and hung around in the tunnel for a while!!! Luckily I think Yohannes generally appreciates Roger’s unique brand of humour. 

We stopped for lunch at a uniquely shaped restaurant with nearly 360 degree views over the surrounding countryside then headed to a rather touristic “traditional coffee ceremony”. We continue to be impressed by how green and fertile this area is. Admittedly it is the rainy season right now and there has been rainfall every evening but given that we are at 2700m above sea level here and nothing grows at that height in NZ the lushness has surprised us. 

After we had been dropped back at the hotel we wandered into the main part of town to change some money at the local bank – I continue to be extremely grateful that I grew up in a developed country with so many amenities. The bank was crowded and stuffy and the processes seemed incredibly manual with multiple pieces of paper being exchanged during the transaction.

As we neared the hotel on the way back two of the girls Roger had been talking to in the morning invited us into their house for coffee. They were quite insistent so we joined and felt extremely privileged to experience a really traditional coffee. The eldest girl turns 16 tomorrow and was busy making the local staple, injera bread, which is made from the local grain, teff. It is cooked a bit like a pancake on a large griddle and they even had me have a go – edible but not pretty. 

Wednesday 1 August: Roger

Around 9.30am we left the Maribela Hotel heading to the airport. Just on the edge of the fast expanding town we turned down a dirt road. The driver stopped to talk to a couple of locals who warned him he would get stuck if he went any further. So we went further and yes we got stuck. We alighted leaving the driver to sort the van. There were several bullocks working the land nearby. 

We continued on foot, this time to a cave church. Apparently they tried to chisel deeper into an existing cave but the rock was too hard. It is part of a monastery with nowadays about forty monks housed in huts around the steep valley. It is also a place where people come to heal. An old guy lay on the ground wrapped in a blanket and was undertaking the holy water treatment (that’s the water that drips off the cliff above the cave). I think looking at the guy a doctor might be a better option. 

As we waited outside a woman turned up and swept the steps. Her title on the tag that hung around her neck was “tourist support and shoe keeper”.

Then a really old looking priest turned up. Our shoes in safe hands we went into the church. Bits of corrugated iron were in strategic places to keep the water out as the wall did not reach the cave roof. 

After another detailed history lesson from guide Yohannes we finally ended up at a steel box from which the priest extracted various crosses, crowns and a few other artefacts supposedly dating back around 800 years. Next was the goat skin bible in place here for some 500 years. I think the priest may have arrived not long after the bible. 

Heading back to the car a young boy and girl accompanied by a teenager who had been earlier impressively cracking a whip were singing, then wanted their photo taken. After some insistence I obliged. Yes, you got it! Next they wanted money, that they didn’t get. 

Skilled and well practiced at extracting money from tourists they followed us back to the van with one of them even turning on the tears. 

We had a long discussion with Yohannes regarding this practice, all too common here. It is unfortunate that we, as tourists, see people living in a less privileged situation than we are and feel the need to hand out money with no thought of the effect that it has on their future. Kids stop going to school and hang around on the streets saying to tourists “money, money, money”. In the long run our misguided generosity does more harm than good. We came to the conclusion it is better to give a lump sum to a local aid organisation than to individuals. 

At the airport we again went through the double security, the same people scanning and searching us (shoes off, computers out) as we entered the terminal and again at the boarding lounge some 10 meters away.

On arrival at Gonder we were driven through what, I think, are two or three towns which are joined into one big city. Here again there is a huge amount of construction going on as the town expands; the government is encouraging the expat community who escaped to Sudan under the Marxist rule to return.

There are lots of 5-storey apartment blocks and new houses built and being built. Eucalyptus is in abundance here and is used both in houses and in the construction of multi-storey buildings.

There are more tuk-tuks on the road here than there are privately owned cars – they literally jam up the roads. Horses are used to cart large loads on drays and horse-drawn buggies also cart people around. Animals roam even on the main roads and in the streets.

After a vegan lunch at the the Four Sisters Restaurant we headed to the local castle. Up to the 1600’s most of the feudal kings used to live in tents and move around. In 1632 King Fasillades decided to stay put and built a castle. His son then built another as did his son, hence there are several hectares of castles contained behind a wall in Gonder. The first-built and main castle and some others were bombed in the process of defeating the Italians in 1941. This is another UNESCO site and slowly they are being restored. 

Next stop another church. Surrounded by a wall yet another Holy Trinity church, built by one of the kings, is lined with paintings depicting bible stories. Yohannes proceeded to pick up a stick and point out the full details, picture by picture. Sylvia listened intently and by the end I felt a bit like the guy in the last picture!!! All credit to Yohannes he really knows his stuff. 

Next stop was the summer palace where the surrounding moat is now used as a baptism pool, filled once a year for the epiphany when thousands of people gather for a dip. 

The day over we headed to the Mayleko Resort for the night. 

Thursday 2 August: Sylvia

We left Mayleko Lodge at about 8am and headed out on the fairly new, Chinese built road the 180-odd kilometres to Bahir Dar. Despite being a main highway it often felt more like a footpath than a road, the fairly sparse traffic needing to dodge people, donkeys, sheep, goats, cattle and many other things that clearly have the right of way. Some of the animals felt comfortable enough to sleep right in the middle of the road and even very young children run along the side of the highway that has a 60-80 kmph speed limit. People were busy moving their animals to pasture for the day or preparing to plough their fields. Women carry heavy loads on their heads while men carry them on their backs, often propped up with the stick they all seem to carry with them. Wells are placed sporadically along the way and groups of people gather there to pump water for their day’s use.

The scenery varied from wide open pastureland to terraced hills and through busy villages. Tall volcanic plugs jutted out in some places; the locals call them the fingers of God.

Even small boys carry their ploughs in two pieces, the yoke (a thick plank with four sticks jutting from it that will sit over the bullocks’ necks), and the plough, (a longer stick with the ploughshare attached at one end). We stopped to take photographs at one paddock where a man was hitching his bullocks and attaching the plough. After getting his ploughing started he offered Roger to have a turn – probably the wiggliest furrow in all of Ethiopia eventuated and at the end the cattle kept going, even starting to plough the neighbour’s field, until the farmer ran over to stop them. I was impressed though by his ability to crack the whip. 

After about three and a half hours we arrived at Kuriftu Resort in Bahir Dar where we will stay tonight. Bahir Dar is situated beside Lake Tana, a large lake around 80km long, which is the source of the Blue Nile. This river meanders through Ethiopia and Sudan, eventually joining the White Nile in Khartoum and becoming the Nile river which flows through Egypt. Apparently 86% of the water in the Nile starts here in Lake Tana. 

After lunch we headed out again to drive to the Blue Nile Falls. The tarseal ran out fairly quickly so most of the hour-long drive was over bumpy, muddy dirt road, passing through many villages and busy markets, including the first livestock market we have seen with many goats, sheep and donkeys in groups ready for sale. We spotted the odd person carrying an assault rifle – apparently the local militia. These guys are charged with keeping the peace in the local villages but need to call in the police  from the nearest town for any serious issues or when they run out of bullets.

We eventually arrived at a small village called Tis Abay where Yohannes purchased tickets while we tried to fend off the many touts trying to sell us hats, scarves and other bits and pieces, all while engaging in humorous banter. 

We then wandered up a muddy track with many people offering to help steady us as we navigated the stepping stones. Being the rainy season the water in the river leading to the falls is a dark brown colour, reminiscent of the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The falls themselves were also a chocolate brown, but impressive nonetheless. These are apparently the second-largest falls in Africa (after Victoria Falls). There is a well-engineered and surprisingly sturdy swing bridge over the river at one point. 

As we made our way back to the vehicle we were besieged by touts – Roger was kindly but firmly trying to give lessons in politeness but I’m not sure how well he was understood. Even his firmest “no means no” only resulted in one tout being replaced by another. It was a shame as this detracted somewhat from what would otherwise have been an exceedingly positive experience.

We made our way back to Bahir Dar and boarded a boat for a trip over Lake Tana to the start of the Blue Nile river, where we even saw several hippos, including a mother and a very small calf. 

Returning to the resort we enjoyed a drink with Yohannes and our driver before retiring for the evening. We have been very much enjoying our engaging conversations with Yohannes. It seems that Ethiopia is going through a major political change with a new prime minister elected about 3 months ago. He appears to be very popular and seems to have been making some very positive changes in the country. I certainly hope he is able to deliver against the expectations.

Roger and Yohannes have also enjoyed a lot of banter with each other and it will be sad to leave him behind when we head south tomorrow.


Ethiopia: An intriguing history

Saturday 28 July 2018: Roger

Departing Singapore at 2am on Ethiopian Airlines, with their bright green blankets and bright yellow eyeshades, we had no doubt we were on the right airline.

Landing in Addis Ababa at 6am local time we were bussed to the terminal and really appreciated being first in line as the immigration guy took 10 minutes to process the two of us. Moving out through the unattended customs area we were surprised to see that most of the local hotels had their own little booth in the terminal.

Initially no one was around to meet us; eventually a lady turned up with a sign bearing the name of the travel company and soon we were in a van with our guide, Johannes, and his driver, heading through the quiet streets to the Sheraton Hotel. The hotel and its grounds are impressive; security is taken seriously. A federal policeman sits in the guard alcove AK across his lap. A mirror is used to check the underside of the van. Before entering the lobby we pass through X-ray machines and metal detectors.

Overlooking the hotel is the residence of the prime minister who is currently visiting the US.

After settling into our room, freshening up and a hearty breakfast, Johannes picked us and we headed into town. Addis is the third highest capitol city in the world at 2,500 to 3,000m above sea level. The first stop was a Karl Marx statue, the only reminder of the marxist rule, which lasted from 1974 until the early 90’s when the Ethiopian military was defeated and rebels took control of the country.

Next we headed to the city university, once the palace of Haile Salassie. He ruled from 1930 to 1936 when the Italians invaded. Then again from 1941 to 1974. Apparently in many respects he was a highly rated leader. His earlier name was Ras Tafari and his elaborate coronation ceremony apparently created the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica where he has deity status. After one of his sons tried to overthrow him in the early 60s he gave his palace to the country as a university which it still is today. In front of the palace, part of which is a museum, is a staircase going nowhere. Built by the Italians during their occupation with 14 steps to celebrate 14 years of Facism. With the assistance of the Brits the Italians were thrown out and Haile took over again. Asked what he wanted done with the steps he said “place a Lion of Judah (the symbol of Ethiopia) on them.”

Once known as the hidden Empire, Ethiopia evolved in in relative isolation, protected by fierce fighters and impassable terrain. In the fourth century King Evan was converted to Christianity leading to the creation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which is still strong today. The east supports a sizeable Islamic population founded by propheit Mohammed way back.

In the late 1800’s the Italians were defeated when trying to invade. This makes them the only African country not to have been colonised (except for Mussolini’s brief run in the 1930’s). Since the 50’s they have had an on and off scrap with Eritrea which lead in part to the particularly brutal down fall of Haile by the Marxist military regime known as Dergue. They tolerated no dissent and initiated mass killings and forced relocations. When citizens arrived to claim bodies of state murdered dissenters they were asked to pay for the bullets in the victims. During this time Somalia, supported by the US, started a scrap over the Ogaden region.

As we went up the marble staircase a couple of cleaners joined Johannes for a photo. We also had Mekdla, a student, join us for our tour. We checked out various artefacts including drums and wooden discs which are put in women’s lips by a particular tribe. One area we toured by the light from our phones as the power wasn’t working.

Finally we had a tour of the seperate bedrooms used by Haile and his wife; her bathroom in pink and his in blue. Some uniforms and other memorabilia were also on display.

Next stop was the Holy Trinity church, surrounded by a cemetery where armed soldiers guard the tombs of past leaders. There is some contraversy here just now as a few days ago a famous engineer was assassinated on his way to an interview with the media supposedly to expose the corruption of the previous government. People are asking the question as to why soldiers can be provided to protect the dead but are not available to protect the living. There is also a shrine here where many of the heads of the previous government were executed by the Marxists.

Next stop was a restaurant called Lucy’s where we tried a local dish Bozena Shiro consisting of chickpeas, beans, spices and lamb served with copious quantities of Indera bread – gluten free and made from a local grain, teff, this is a main part of the diet here. Washed down with a local beer it tasted pretty good. The staff were super friendly and keen to pose for photos with Johannes and our driver, who are regular visitors.

After lunch we headed to the museum almost next door to check out the real Lucy. Here they have a really interesting board outlining the evolution of man like it was done in 60 seconds, with 0 being 7 million years ago and 60 being 5500 years ago when writing was first used. Various exhibits showed how animals had evolved over time, often to survive a changing environment. These all lead to Lucy who was discovered in the 70’s and is the oldest artefact found of man as an upright walking human.

We drove from there past Yekatit 12 Martyr’s Square with its statue representing the people who had been killed by the Italians in 1936 when they herded some 30,000 people onto the streets and ran them over with tanks and heavy vehicles.

Next we passed the Meyazia 27 Square Monument, a monument to Ethiopia overcoming Italian racism.

From there we headed to the centre of town where the metro rail begins. A number of buildings under construction or repair have eucalyptus branches and sticks used as scaffolding, apparently a common practice here.

The streets are dirty and dusty with lots of stalls set up along the road side. A bright blue Mosque is under construction amongst the rubbish that lies around the landscape.

Next we drove through the Merkato, one of the largest market places in Africa. It was like nothing I have ever seen before. It has evolved into sections; there is one area where they are remaking umbrellas from salvaged parts, in another there are people sewing and doing alterations, another seems to be recycled pots and pans, another electrical wire. And on it goes. Scrap arrives on top of cars and vans to be recycled. Looking down alley into the background there are thousands of shacks all with a satellite dish. Women process food, men carry huge loads on their backs or heads. Clusters of blue and white taxis, some Toyotas, many Lada’s gather in groups, many hardly looking road worthy. Amongst this absolute chaos people are smiley and friendly. Even the photos cannot truly describe what we saw here. Stuff arrives here as rubbish to be resurrected and sold in the thousand of stalls which also provide food for the locals.


Sunday 29 July: Sylvia

This morning we were up bright and early with a 6:20am pick up at the hotel to transfer to the airport for our flight to Axum. At one point we came across long lines of cars stopped – apparently a random search underway due to the funeral in town this afternoon so we did a quick U-turn and took a different road to the airport.

As with many developing countries chaos ensued at the airport. Queueing is definitely not practiced here – people pile over each other to get to the front of the line. It is good to be in relaxed holiday mode!

Once on board the Q400 Bombadier propeller plane it was an easy 1 hr-30 flight to Axum.  Axum is situated in a rural plateau with lots of agriculture. On our way into town we passed several trucks filled with young men, horns honking as they headed to a demonstration. We also passed lots of buildings in various stages of development. Apparently the government takes the land back if building is not started so people complete as much as they can and then wait for more money before doing more. 

We checked into the Sabean Hotel – simple and clean, then headed back out with Johannes to tour the area. Axum is the oldest known Christian community in Ethiopia. It all dates back to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He converted her to Judaism so this was originally a Jewish area. Legend has it that the original arc of the covenant was transported to Ethiopia and remains in one of the large churches here in Axum. 

We visited the ruins of a Jewish temple dating back over 2000 years. An Ethiopian eunuch was converted to Christianity in the early AD period and the Jewish temple was converted to a church. But not everyone converted and in the 9th century AD a female Jew lead a rebellion against the Christians in Axum and destroyed the temple. Churches were rebuilt in later years including one that women are not allowed to visit so I sat outside – much to Roger’s amusement. I was quite content to watch the many beautiful and often brightly coloured birds.

People here are incredibly friendly and seem to like to try out their English on us ferengi. And the kids are not shy about asking for money or a football either… and always with big smiles on their faces.

Next we visited the cathedral of St Mary Zion. It is in a small chapel outside this cathedral, also built by Haile Salassie, that the arc of the covenant is said to reside. Apparently only one chosen deacon ever sees the arc. He lives inside with it and is provided for by another deacon. They are building a new chapel next to the current one as it is starting to leak. Roger suggested that he might try and fly a drone overhead when they are moving the arc to the new building so someone can actually get a look at it.

The cathedral itself is a large cavernous building with many bright paintings inside depicting biblical stories of significance to the Ethiopians. It is clear the the Ethiopian Orthodox Church plays a critical role in the lives of Ethiopians with around 50% ascribing to this religion.

Next we visited a small, dilapidated museum show-casing numerous religious relics and the crowns of many of Ethiopia’s kings. Everything was stored inside glass cabinets but still looked dusty and dirty. Despite the security (no electronics or cameras – we had to lock them up outside and were scanned before entering), it certainly wouldn’t pass as a museum back home.

We headed up the cobbled road (they are not allowed to use tar seal here as they do not want to damage any of the other old buildings that lie buried here) to the ruins of a castle of a couple of kings from the 6th century AD. We also stopped at a small shack housing a large slab of granite engraved in three languages telling the story of  King Ezana’s (4th century) victories over his enemies.

After lunch and a rest at the hotel we headed out agin this afternoon, first to look at a field with about 70 monolithic stelae in them, three of them exceedingly large and engraved with different patterns. At 34m apparently one is the largest obelisk in the world. Archeologists are divided as to their purpose but it seems most likely they were grave markers given they have unearthed several graves and interconnected rooms under the field. There is a field outside the town with a number of smaller stelae in. Roger remarked that they were waiting for some fertiliser to help them grow.

We also visited the ruins of the palace of the Queen of Sheba and heard a more detailed version of the legend of her union with Solomon that led to nearly two thousand years of Solomic dynasty, ending in 1974 when Haile Salassie was dethroned. Legend or truth, there is no doubt that the locals believe the story and have built their religion on its basis.

Before heading back to the hotel for the evening we drove around the town and watched the locals going about their usual Sunday activities. There is a large university on the outskirts of town and many small businesses have sprung up along the roadside catering to the needs of students. We stopped at one stall and participated in a coffee ceremony with some of the locals.


Alaska for a Wedding

Friday 8 June 2018

Arriving in Anchorage, via San Fransisco, late last night I was lucky to have been offered a bed in Palmer with Barry and Marlene. Barry had provided his boat and taken us bear hunting when Ross and I visited 5 years ago. After a late breakfast we head out to Hatcher Pass for a  walk up to an old gold mine. The road up the hill to the mine is still closed so we park at a carpark below the gate. There are a bunch of Spanish bikers also there to check out the mine. Apparently these bikers are part of a world wide club and travel to different countries hiring what look to be some pretty nice bikes for their local journeys.

Barry had stayed home to do some jobs, Marlene had brought the dog Bella along. Visiting from Minnesota for the wedding were Debbie, Jim, Stacy and Mark. A few squirrel like things things bounced around in the snow, no one seemed to know exactly what they were.


Gold was discovered around here at the end of the 1800s this mine was a hard rock mine where they blasted tunnels through the rock to extract the ore. It operated until 1950 and is now a reserve with many of the buildings still in good repair. The area is now used a lot for cross country skiing in the winter and in the summer for hiking.

The wedding was set down for 4pm so no doubt while we were out and about Steve and Chantelle we busy preparing for the big day. The bride no doubt getting prepped up with make up while the groom and his team did their preparation. (photo stolen off facebook).

The wedding place was a lovely spot in the country overlooking the Matanuska River. Barry and I posed for a photo in front of Steve’s Super Cub parked up ready for he and Chantelle to depart after the ceremony.

After the ceremony we headed across to the local Wolf Lake Airport to a hangar for the party, which continued into the early hours. At this time of year it doesn’t really get dark so its pretty easy not to notice the time go by.

Saturday 9 June 2018

Mid-morning we headed down to the Alaska Aviation Museum where a plaque was being presented by the Baldwin family in honour of Steve’s father Jay, who died in an aircraft accident three years ago.

The museum, although small and dedicated to flying in Alaska, has some interesting exhibits including a Boeing 737 200 designed with special plating underneath to land on gravel runways carrying cargo and passengers to remote places.

The have a hangar they rent out for functions and another that is used for restoration. Staffed by volunteers, they aim to have most of their aircraft able to fly; this includes a Curtiss P40 Warhawk, which was recovered recently from the Resolution Islands, part of which were occupied by the Japanese during WWII.

In The evening we headed to the Grape Trap, a local Wasilla restaurant, where we enjoyed a good yarn and some pretty nice food.

Sunday 10 June 2018

After breakfast the Minnesota crew headed off to the airport. Barry and Marlene headed off to their local church while I relaxed. Later in the day Marlene and I headed over and picked up John and Carol, who are in the process of building a new hangar at the end of the Wolf Lake airport. Interestingly around here one does not need any permits of consent from the local council to build a house; even building inspections are not required although most good builders contract a private company to inspect their work.

We headed up to the Gold Mine Trail in the same are we had gone to on Friday. John is armed with a bear flare just in case. We bump into Kent and Helen, who joined us on the stroll. It’s a wide walking track heading up a valley alongside a hastily moving creek, charged with waters from the spring snow melt. Light rain sets is as we are a few hundred meters up the track – luckily I had my trusty red poncho.

By the look of it this valley had once been occupied by a glacier, leaving moraine walls on each side of the valley. There are a number of beaver dams along the way, which always intrigue me as to how, with the aid of twigs and mud, these things seem to hold water.

Carol, John, Marlene, Kent and Helen

In the evening Barry and Marlene cooked up some of their self-caught salmon. We were joined by John, Carol, Gary  and his wife Ramona. Gary, a retired airforce colonel, had some great stories to tell both about the military and about his flying exploits in Alaska and around the US. Flying is in the blood of most people here. With only 12,000 miles of paved roads 90% of Alaska is not accessible by road so small planes are the main form of transport into the back blocks. There are 16 times the number of aircraft per capita when compared to the lower 48 states of the US. With over 600 airports and 3000 plus airstrips flying is the way to go. Plus there are 114 seaplane bases, these fly out and land on all sorts of lakes and rivers.

Monday 11 June 2018

After another hearty breakfast we headed into Anchorage to do a bit of shopping. A visit to Bass Pro drew a blank for me as they seemed to be very under staffed and no one was too keen to assist me in my quest for new boots.

Next was REI and success with a couple of keen assistants giving good advice and bringing out different brands to try on. They also sorted me some leather treatment for the boots, which later got confiscated in Frankfurt as it was 110mls!!!

At Cabellas I got a new case for my binoculars and had a look at a few interesting guns. One in particular was the Smith and Wesson 460 5-shot revolver; unfortunately there was no way that was going to get through airport security in my carry-on bag.

Lastly we stopped at a huge warehouse called Costco, which one has to be a member of,  where people buy in bulk every thing from groceries to boats.

All too soon the stay was over as Barry and Marlene dropped me at the airport for the journey to Singapore. Interestingly I was for some reason routed through Denver, Houston, Chicago and Frankfurt, where I got to spend a day and night with my sister, Rachel, and her husband, Edward, who have lived in Germany for over 20 years.

Vancouver and Chicago

Friday 1 June 2018
Early evening Sylvia and I met at the Vancouver airport. She had flown from Singapore via Taiwan and I had flown from Auckland via LA. It’s interesting just how much walking is involved at airports from landing in LA and changing terminals to getting through immigration in Vancouver I had walked according to my phone nearly 4kms. I feel sorry for old people travelling. We taxied to the downtown Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel. With fantastic views over the grass-topped convention centre to the harbour, great staff and excellent service it’s a great place to stay.

Saturday 2 June

After a lazy breakfast we took a short stroll around the town, visiting a few shops, where again people bent over backwards to be helpful. The streets are clean and the buildings tidy.
At noon we wandered down to the to a jetty next to the convention centre where Harbour Air are based. After checking in, and having free coffee during the wait, we boarded a Twin Otter float plane for the flight to Victoria on Vancouver Island.
We took of to the north up the harbour before turning south and passing a huge heap of sulphur. Known as the Vancouver Sulphur pile it has been there for years; not the same pile but a never ending pile that is brought in by rail, mainly from Alberta. It is  a byproduct of oil sands. From here it is shipped all over the world.
We flew over a few dozen ships waiting for their turn to berth. Looking down at the sea it looks like there has been an oil spill with black streaks on the sand; it is in fact silt brought down from the mountains during the spring snow melt.
The flight over the many islands was very picturesque with lots of islands along the way. Flying at 1000ft we could only see a small part of Vancouver Island. There are lots of boats running around the harbour as we come into land but it all seems to work well.
A short taxi and we were at the jetty, tied up along with the other float planes. I had visited Victoria five years ago so was keen to give Sylvia a quick tour. This was going well until Sylvia spotted a funky shoe shop where we spent some time buying funky shoes. We continued out stroll around the town, which has lots of really neat buildings and is kept clean and tidy for the thousands of tourists that visit every day. Soon we spotted Big Bad John’s bar, which I had visited last time. We ventured in but not much had changed in spite of the barmaid telling us it had been refurbished a couple of years ago. The walls are lined with bras, money and other memorabilia from all over the world. We added a kiwi note with our names on it to the collection.
Across town we came to the parliament buildings – built of stone with grand lawns these are rather spectacular. They were closed for tours today with an orchestra playing on the steps. I did the tour last time I was here. We stopped at a wharfside cafe and enjoyed a nice lunch before catching the plane back to Vancouver. There are lots of water taxis running about the harbour that look quire top heavy but apparently are quite safe.
All too soon our visit was over. As we boarded the plane the pilot asked me to sit in the copilot’s seat for the flight home. We taxied to the outer part of the harbour to take-off into the light breeze. There was a ferry coming in but after some discussion over the radio we were cleared to take off with plenty of room to spare. We soon turned, heading north. Along the way the pilot pointed out different islands, mostly now owned by tech billionaires. One with a deep water port was used to manufacture ammunition during WWII, Another, Spieden Island, is the US territory where during the 60’s plains game such as kudu and bison were released so hunters could come and hunt them. This apparently went well until someone missed an animal and the bullet went through a house on a neighbouring island. Some of the animals still roam the island having adapted to the climate by growing thicker coats.

Sunday 3 June 2018

Sylvia was flying to Chicago just after lunch so we headed to the airport early to meet her uncle and aunt, Simon and Dale, who live at White Rocks near the US border. Simon, a former anesthesiologist, worked in Vancouver for many years and they are now enjoying their retirement here and, like us, they love to travel.
I took the train back to town and was surprised to see, when crossing the Fraser River, that large stocks of logs were contained but floating along the riverbank. I didn’t realise this method was still a method of transporting timber.
Arriving back at the hotel I took a free bike (they did have a stand of electric ones for $30 per hour). After being assured by the bike man it was not going to rain I headed of for a ride around what was once the island. Not far along the track it started to rain quite hard so I ended up stopping under a bridge and yarning to a Flemish couple who had also been caught out. After waiting some time and the rain not abating I put on my poncho and headed back to the hotel.
In the early evening, Des, a member of the local police ERT (Emergency Response Team) arrived. I had met Des in Texas last year while doing some long range shooting. We had a good catch up in the lounge on the 20th floor with his wife Kerri joining us later. One of the staff recommended a local restaurant called Nightingale so we headed there for a very nice meal and a good catch up, also enjoying the decor and the well-stocked bar. A game of pool and a couple more drinks at a local bar brought the evening/early morning to a close.

Monday 4 June 2018

I was in the lounge doing some work when I looked up to see a bloke hanging around on a rope cleaning the windows. I went out onto the balcony to have a closer look. This building is 48 storeys and the lounge is on the 20th floor. Duncan looked very comfortable hanging in his harness, suspended on a rope with another there, I presume, as a back up. He had been in NZ during the last Rugby World Cup and worked there teaching rock climbing.
Later in the morning I met Des and Kerri and they drove me around a few of the local places. Chinatown is a very tidy part of town as is the Gastown district with its steam clock. Hastings Street however is not quite what I was expecting. It’s like they have got every bad bugger in Canada and confined them to one street. Des explained how the street is just seething with crime, every illicit drug is available, local properties are constantly burgled to obtain items to sell to buy drugs, there are fights, stabbings and more. Apparently the city does its best to try and house, help and rehabilitate these people with little success and for some reason they all seem to congregate in this area.
We checked out the stream clock, the first of its kind in the world, installed apparently over a steam vent to stop the homeless congregating there to keep warm. At a cost of 42k it blows steam every 45 minutes and keeps people amused with a series of balls being carried up and down inside.
We then enjoyed a nice lunch at a local Japanese restaurant, after which Des and Kerri dropped me back at the hotel. I again took a bike and headed off for a ride around Stanley Park. This is a pretty area with good bike and walking paths and lots of green spaces. On the southern and eastern sides there are some beaches, all with logs laid out for seating and back rests. I presume they have been fished from the sea having escaped on the way to the saw mill. The bike trail back off the island lead me past a stadium and the World of Science, through Chinatown, across Hastings street and past the steam clock.
Around 5.30 Dayne (an ERT chap I also met in Texas last year) picked me up in his work SUV. The doormen did a bit of a double take as this tall, fully tooled up bloke dismounted and shook my hand before we jumped in the big black machine and headed off.
We cruised down Hastings St, where several cop cars were parked, lights flashing, as the cops were sorting out a bit of trouble. Several people lay cuffed, face down on the footpath, a few others in the process of being restrained while calling the cops not very nice names. We watched for a while, Dayne not wanting to get involved in case something serious went down somewhere else. From there we headed over to their HQ and took a look at their new armoured truck and had a look around their muster room and kit lockers. We had a good chat about various tools of their trade and then headed across town to the shooting range and training complex. Here all 1200 Vancouver police do both their shooting and situation-type training. In addition to the 25 and 50M shooting ranges there are rooms that can be set up with various sonorous sim (like a paint ball round) ammunition can be used to ensure police get it right in a real situation. There is also a large matted room where police are taught the art of restraining people. A lot of judo techniques are being brought into play here to try and restrain people without injuring them.
In the car park Dayne opened up the back of his truck to show me through the kit they carry, which, to name a bit, included stun grenades, runner and tear gas bullets, little mobile cameras to throw on buildings to see what is going on, a sniper rifle and night vision gear. Unfortunately nowadays there is a strong likelihood that some really bad bastards will show up in town so Vancouver, like many cities worldwide, has to have some real good bastards with the best kit to keep the rest of us safe.
As we left there Dayne got a call out – a guy was barricaded in a 6 floor apartment with a samurai sword threatening to kill people. He dropped me back at the hotel and went to help deal with the stand-off that lasted five hours.

Tuesday 5 June 2018

It’s cruise ship season here just now and there always seemed to be three in port and at least one in the bay leaving or coming. Some of these ships look more like a set of apartments, with each upper deck cabin having its own little balcony. After watching one of these leave the harbour I headed to the station and caught the train to the airport.
Arriving in Chicago late afternoon I caught the train towards the city, alighting at Damen a few kms north west of down town. Sylvia and her crew are staying in this wedge-shaped hotel, I think once a commercial building. On the roof is a bar; the sky is really clear this evening making for some great views over the city.
Sylvia and a team of senior managers from Mars are here working with a charity organisation called CARA who specialise in getting ex drug addicts homeless and other disadvantaged people back into the workforce, with a real focus on inclusive employment. The charity has been around for 27 years.

Wednesday 6 June 2018

After a leisurely breakfast I took a slow stroll into the city. I was surprised how little traffic there was as I headed down Milwaukee Ave.
I have been here a couple of times before and have looked at the museum, the Wells tower and done the ‘must do’ Architectural River Tour, where they explain how they reverse engineered the river to get it to run out of the lake to take the pollution down to the Mississippi River, and how over 100 years ago they jacked up all the buildings to raise the city. There are even more lift up bridges here than there are roads. The river splits, running north and south a few ks from the lake.
This time I booked to do the Gangasters and Ghosts Walking tour. As I made my way through the streets crossing the river, amazed at the number of bridges – all of which lift up to let yachts and ships through, including the odd spare one permanently stuck up in the air as if waiting for a new road road reach it. Arriving a little early at 75 Upper Wacker Drive I headed into the Land and Lake Cafe for a bite to eat. There I had a good bit of banter with Roberta, the waitress as I explained how what they call cream is really closer to what we call milk as that’s sort of how you get it from the cow.
Eventually finding Stefan, the charming, well-rehearsed walking guide a few doors down the road, we headed off on our tour joined by an Aussi bloke and a couple of women from Florida.
The first stop was to point out the building where Al Capone had his Stratosphere Club on the top floor. Interestingly the building housed mainly diamond traders who were consistently robbed on their way to and from work. To alleviate this problem a car elevator was installed, the first of its kind in the world, so the traders could drive in off lower Wacker drive and take car and all up to their office.
Next are the towers where interestingly, in the one on the right, over 1000 people have died through suuicide or murder by backing their cars over the edge of the car park. These were the first buildings in the world using a tower crane to build them. Apparently when they were digging the foundations on the right one they found human bones, maybe from an old Indian burial site and just carried on building. The building on the left has had only one suicide since they were completed in the 60’s hence the rent is cheaper in the right one.
The ship Eastland was berthed in the river and looked a bit top heavy as upper cabins, and then, following the Titanic sinking extra life boats added. One night during a fireworks display all the people on board rushed to the riverside to watch and it tipped over, killing over 800 people.
Next was the great fire. Apparently people jumped into the river to escape the flames. The river was so polluted with fat from the meat works that it caught fire around 300 people died. Not far from there is Death Alley, next to what was once the Iroquois Theatre, which was packed to over capacity, with people seated on the floor and exit doors that opened inwards, when a kerosene lamp set fire to the curtains and over 600 people died. The alley was curtained off and the charred remains laid out there.
The tour continued explaining various places where Capone had had people walked, particularly under the train lines while a train was passing to hide the noise. The above ground train lines were built in the late 1800s as too many people were being run over by trains. Interestingly they are the only lines I have seen where the electric rail is fully exposed.
As the city has been raised there is a huge amount of disused basement space, which is where many of the illegal bars were set up during the probation era. We stopped at the Palmer House Hilton, built in the early 1900’s with ornate ceilings and surroundings. Here was where many of the jazz musicians, brought up from the south by Capone, stayed.
We then wandered across to the Congress Hotel, where not only did Capone have a penthouse, but a mass murderer also  picked up a lot of his victims from here.
By this stage my bloody nuisance ankle was starting to swell again so I took the train back to the hotel where we spent a quiet evening.

A Quiet Few Days in Holland

Sunday 20 May 2018

Having arrived form Portland at 8am we had to wait for our room at the Apollo Hotel in Amsterdam to be ready. The place is a bit run down and the service even worse than one gets in France. The food, however, is great and the view from the deck, where four canals meet, is very relaxing. There is a constant passing of boats of all shapes and sizes. Sylvia is here for a conference involving nearly 400 Mars Petcare and Royal Canin senior people from around the world. They are also occupying another hotel near by.

In the early afternoon we took a stroll to Cafe Wildschut where we caught up with Mila and Anne who I had met in Belize a couple of years ago while traveling with AJ and Cam. Both have good jobs and are enjoying their homeland.

Monday 21 May 2018

Was a fairly quiet day as Sylvia had to prepare for a speech at the conference. Later in the day we sat on the deck at the hotel catching up with some of her colleagues.

Tuesday 22 March 2018

Having somehow injured my ankle last week I wasn’t up to going for a long  stroll. Later in the day I caught the train to Roermond in the southeast of Holland. Famous for its expensive shops, lakes and beaches, I had planned to go for a quick look around. As I left the station it rained really really hard, to the point, I heard later in the day, that houses were flooded in the area. Just by chance there happened to be a row of bars and cafes across the square from the station. Cafe De Tramhalte had not long been purchased by Vincent and his dad. Vincent, who was behind the bar, gave me a good rundown on the area. They get lots of people coming from Germany (the border is only 10km away) to shop and party. The bars open until 1 or 2 in the morning on week nights and the others are open until 5am in the weekends. Vincent explained how they shut at 2 in the weekend as there are too many fights after that hour. He also said living upstairs is quite interesting as often he will hear fighting in the early hours, look out the window to see what looks like a movie scene with glasses and bottles flying through the air amongst the brawling crowd.

Too soon, as in two beers later, it was time to catch the train back north. This time to S-Hertogenbosch, where my friends Rob and Femke live. I visited them a couple of years ago and took a trip through the canals here, which in a lot of places run under peoples houses. With its old style buildings and narrow streets and alleys – all well kept, it has got to be one of the nicest towns I have visited in this part of the world.

Leaving the station I headed once again for a bar to wait for Femke to finish work. The rain seems to be following me north. Femke eventually arrived, armed with umbrella, so we wandered through the streets to a local bar to wait for Rob, who was caught in traffic some distance away.

When Rob arrived we enjoyed a good catch up. Rob recently retired from the Marines and is now working in the security field. They are both excited as soon they are moving into a new house they are having built. All too soon the evening was over and we strolled back to the station where they bid me goodbye.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

With ankle still swollen I had a restful morning, I discovered there were boats for hire not far from the hotel so after lunch I headed down to hire one. Mathilde was on duty renting the boats at 80e for 3 hours, max 6 people. I paid up, jumped aboard and was shown the recommended route to take and how to drive the boat. “To go forward push the lever backwards to full throttle and the opposite to go backwards” she said. As I pulled away from the jetty in this electric boat my vision of speeding through the Amsterdam canals James Bond style were well and truly dashed! I could walk faster.

I headed towards the Amstel Canal which meets the Amstel river. A left turn took me towards the city centre. There are some quite big house boats moored on each side of the river, many with lots of land and flowers. They all seem to sit on what I presume is a floating concrete pad. Quite large boats and barges headed up and down the river. Mathilde had made made it very clear that the rules are “give way to bigger boats”. Lots of people hung about on the edge of the canals with the sickly smell of “wacky backy” drifting down from the streets. One of my Dutch friends told me “it’s the tourists that smoke that stuff, most Dutch people are too smart to indulge.” Turning left again I reached the city centre and the canals became quite packed with all sorts of boats. I did even manage to pass one slow pedal boat.

Eventually the tour brought me back past our hotel to the jetty. It is surprising the number of small boats that are tied up to the bank here with rotting covers and have obviously had no use for years.

Thursday 24 May 2018

Rob had suggested I take a look at the National Militair Museum near Soesterberg. I caught the bus to Amstel Station where the very helpful person gave me a print out on how to get there. A train took me to Utrecht. The line ran alongside a canal which had a combination of large freight barges and tourist boats heading along it.

On reaching the station I mounted a bus for the 30 min ride to Soesterberg followed by a km plus walk down a lane and across the old airfield passing a memorial and what had been the German airforce bunker from WWII – no longer accessible, but apparently once a large command post and tunnel complex.

Arriving at the entrance a Leopard Tank greeted me, along with a welcome sign. A good start to a museum!

This airfield is the oldest military one in Europe. Originally a small company was making aircraft here before WWI and went broke so the government took it over in 1913. During WWI Holland was neutral and many fighter pilots from both sides crossed into Dutch airspace to escape their pursuers. As a result they were interred for the rest of the war and Holland ended up with quite a collection of early fighter planes from both sides, helping them develop their aviation industry. In 1940 when the Germans invaded Holland this became a major German airbase. From here many bombing raids were carried out on the UK. The Germans built a large number of bomb proof hangars in the forests on the other side of the airfield, In spite of a massive bombing in 1944, which left the airfield cratered like the surface of the moon, many of these survived but just now one can’t visit them as birds are breeding in the area.

There are a huge range of aircraft, rocket launchers, tanks, artillery guns and machine guns here. Many of the fighter planes are suspended from the ceiling and others parked outside on the tarmac. I was impressed to see a German V1 and V2 rocket suspended on each side of the a spitfire. Interestingly my mother had often talked of seeing the V1 rockets over England while on an anti aircraft battery there during WWII. Later while on a battery in Antwerp she was knocked over by the blast of a V2 rocket that exploded a short distance from their gun emplacements.

Another fighter there was the Gloster Meteor which was the first Dutch Airforce fighter with jet engines, forty of these fighters were lost in training. There were no ejector seats back then.

Amongst the many machine guns there was a Swedish Palmcrantz & Winborge George mounted gun that fired by pulling a bar across the ten barrel chambers. Apparently in 1873 the Dutch army fired 3000 rounds in 3 minutes through this gun, more than many machine gins can achieve today.

Today they were holding a kids National Science Fair finals so lots of entertainment had been set up for the many attendees.

Having run out of time I tried to get an Uber back to the station but “no cars available” was the message. I strolled back to the bus stop and sat talking to a lady called Hanah who was up from south Holland for a job interview at a local brain research facility.

A warning to travellers in Holland about credit cards, or should I say the lack of places that take them. Having set out this morning with only 15e in notes and a few coins, the museum did not take credit cards so that was 14 some, a cup of coffee and I had a couple of euros left when I got to the bus stop. When I left the station this morning I had used the bus card from Amsterdam and was talking to the driver when I got on. As I mounted the bus and tagged the same card I noticed a red light. Asking the driver how much I was caught short. I had used a credit card on the bus in Amsterdam but that was not a go here. The driver said get on the bus you will just get a fine if the inspector gets on. Hanah did offer to help me out but the bus was on the move by then. Drivers had switched during the journey so when I offered some money at the end of the journey the driver shook his head and waved me away.

I have since discovered that credit cards are not widely accepted outside Amsterdam although some restaurants do take them, so carry cash in Holland.

Friday 25 May

Sylvia finished her meetings just after midday so we hired a couple of bikes and went for a ride around town. We had planned on heading out to the coast but a big thunder storm was forecast and packing wet clothes is not fun. We decided to head towards the city instead. This city is well set up for bikes – it’s flat, (in fact I haven’t seen a hill anywhere I have been in Holland), and there are bike lanes on all main streets. There are more people killed on bikes than in cars in Holland and around 14,000 bikes get fished out of the 100kms of Amsterdam canals every year, along with up to 50 cars. Interestingly most of the bikes here are upright with high handle bars which means the cyclist can see better whats going on around them and car drivers can see the cyclist easier. It’s quite common to see cyclists texting as they ride. If you live here you will own 1.2 bikes and use your bike up to 60% of the time.

We headed in the general direction of downtown ending up in Dam Square, where we stopped and enjoyed a light lunch at one of the many restaurants surrounding the square.

After lunch we headed down to towards the central railway station and turned right, passing the red light district before stopping for a look at the Maritime Museum, a magnificent stone building but the museum itself it not really much. It does have a replica sailing ship and the Royal barge, built by King William in 1818 last used in 1962 and recently restored.

We passed an original windmill and then made our way back to the hotel to pack and catch our flight to Singapore.


A Glimpse of Oregon

Monday 14 May 2018

We spent the weekend in Singapore with a visit from old mate, Ru, which included a Saturday dinner at Level 33 with its stunning view over Marina Bay and the light show. On Sunday we caught up with another mate, Chris, and his brother, Paul, for a tour of the Battle Box followed by a couple of drinks at our place.

We caught our flight to Portland Oregon, via Amsterdam, just after midnight Sunday. The last leg was on Delta airlines, where we experienced some of the best service and food we have had for a while on an airline. Well done Delta!

Landing late morning Sylvia and her colleagues, who had joined the flight in Amsterdam, went straight to a meeting at the Banfield head office in Vancouver, Washington State. I headed to the Sentinel Hotel in Portland. After checking in I took a stroll to the local Nike shop. As Portland is the home of Nike I expected a huge range of shoes but no such luck. I did however establish from the very knowledgable assistant that walking shoes are good for about 800kms. I realised mine had done probably at least four times that in the last two years. As they didn’t have anything suitable when Sylvia finished work we wandered to the REI store where I found a suitable pair of walking shoes.

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Sylvia and the team headed off to meetings early and, after a leisurely breakfast, I headed down to the Willamette River, which runs through the centre of the city and joins up with the mighty Colombia river a few miles down stream. At the river I turned right (south) and headed upstream. in a park on the river bank there were police assembled in various uniforms. I stopped and chatted to a sergeant at the back of a squad with various flags to discover it was an annual parade to honour the fallen. Parts of the park were covered in Canadian geese who barely moved as one walked through them.

A nice path headed alongside the river with lots of runners and walkers on it for the first few kms, then I was pushed away from the river through office and industrial areas and eventually I again found a park running alongside the river. I was surprised at the 12 vehicle bridges running across this river, from the north to the south end of the city, a distance of about 10kms. Several are double decked and many have lift up sections to let ships through. The oldest of these was built in 1910, the next a double decker steel bridge, also with a lift up section, was built in 1912.

Reaching the southern Sellwood Bridge I crossed over and headed back north along a sealed bike trail that ran alongside a rail line for several miles. Reaching the city I followed a walkway alongside the river until reaching the Broadway Bridge, which I crossed allowing for a good view downstream. This bridge also has, as many do, tramlines, with the centre span double-leaf bascule draw span opened for a ship to pass.

A path along the river’s edge lead me back up river until I turned off and strolled through Chinatown, then back to the hotel.

Wednesday 15 May 2018

I took an Uber across town where I picked up a rental car at Enterprise. I was expecting there to be a catch as the price quoted on line for 3 days was 65 USD. There was no catch just great service and soon I was on the road heading alongside the Colombia river.

I am heading for a town (population 46) called Antelope. The reason to make what is a long interesting journey is a few weeks ago Sylvia had headed to Tokyo and I was in Singapore with a few hours to spare before heading to NZ. I found a documentary on Netflix called Wild Wild Country. Thinking it was only one episode I started watching. Five episodes later I had to head to the airport so watched the last one in NZ. The story was about a Cult, started in India, called Rajneesh. Having got on the wrong side of the system in India they bought the Big Muddy River ranch near Antelope (for USD5.5 million) in the late seventies and set up a community. The conservative locals didn’t like the idea too much especially when they bought up most of the houses in Antelope and took over the town council, changing its name to Rajneesh. There was lots more too including a hotel they owned in Portland getting blown up, their attempt at assassinating a local councillor, bringing in thousands of homeless to get the town numbers up so they could take over the local Wasco council by vote and poisoning part of the town of Dalles, the county capital. I wanted to see what had happened to the place since 1985 when they were finally run out of the country.

Leaving the river at Biggs Junction and heading south the ground rose up to over 3000 ft. It’s large rolling cattle country where one can see for miles. Antelope is now a pretty derelict town with the church and the fire station the only well kept buildings. The cafe, school and the shops are run down and closed.

I headed out to Big Muddy Ranch about 18 miles away, most of it on a shingle road. The land out this way is a little steeper with rocky outcrops and deep gullies. The first evidence of the ranch I came across was the dam they built at the head of the valley. Dropping down into the valley there are a large grout of buildings at the southwest end of the sealed mile-and-a-half long runway, which is now cracked but still usable. I drove around amongst the large number of buildings until a guy in a pickup stopped me and said “hey man this is private property.” Oops! “Just trying to find the reception I replied” to be met with “just go up to the house and see Erika – she may give you a tour.”

I did just that and Erika was extremely helpful, she put me in her car and drove me around the place. I was the second visitor today; the other one was from Taiwan. She said before the documentary they got 2 visitors a year, now its two a day.

After the Rajneesh left, the place sat empty for years and was eventually bought by Denise Washington, a Copper Baron and philanthropist, and given to the Young Life Group, who have many camps across the US. Many of the buildings built by the Rajeesh, which the local council wouldn’t provide consents for, are still standing and were passed retrospectively. This includes what was the communal hall over 150 meters long and 50m wide, which is now a recreation hall. A new new dining room has been built, which caters for 500 people, and there is also a swimming pool and a lake. The new mess hall has facades of the old town of Antelope inside it. It appears the local ranchers have come to accept this latest religious group. There are a couple of  the original  accommodation buildings still in use, which sleep 400 plus lots more of the original buildings scattered around the place. Up a valley to the south there are more original buildings plus lots of new ones being built for a new youth camp for older kids.

The Rajneesh had built a huge community here. Erika said some old members have returned and said all they wanted to do here was live a peaceful life off the land. Unfortunately the local ranchers and the people of Antelope and the surrounding county didn’t quite see it that way so it all got a bit out of hand. Erika also gave me a good rundown on the camps they run for youth here and the farming that still takes place on the 65,000 square mile ranch.

I headed south to a place called Crooked River to visit Walt, who is the father of Stacey, who works with Sylvia in Singapore. Walt is a snow bird meaning that he and his wife head down south to Arizona for the winter. Walt had just returned to the new house they built on the hill with stunning views over the valley. His wife is enjoying a bit more sunshine down south. After a beer and a yarn I headed the 3 hours back to Portland this time via Mt Hood and the forest.

Thursday 16 May 2018

After another big US breakfast I headed southwest to the Evergreen Aeronautical Museum. I had heard about this place briefly but didn’t really know what to expect. The museum is made up of four large buildings with quite a few aircraft scattered around the outside. There is also a waterpark building that just happens to have a 747 Jumbo on the roof.

In the main building is none other than Howard Hughe’s Spruce Goose, a project funded by the US government during WWII. Designed to cary 750 troops and totally build of wood, this amazing beast made only one short flight in 1947, after which it was stored in a large warehouse funded by Hughes until his death in 1979. It was on display in California for a while until Evergreen got hold of it and built the building it now, fully restored, sits in, surrounded by other aircraft. With its 8 3,000 horsepower engines, large fuselage and wing span, it is trully impressive. I paid the extra money for a tour of the cockpit and look inside the wings.

Next I went over to the second building that housed space rockets, fighter jets, helicopters and the SR71 Blackbird, which flew at a top speed of 36 miles per minute. Thirty two of these were built, 12 of which were lost in accidents.

I hadn’t realised that space walks were done from the tiny mercury capsules and also discovered that the management of NASA had instructed that if they couldn’t get the space walker back inside they were to attempt re-entry with the poor bugger still attached as they didn’t want the bad publicity of leaving a guy up there.

Next I headed over to the theatre where a movie called Fighter Pilot was playing. It is the story of a pilot who went to the fighter pilot training exercise “Red Flag”, which is held every year in the Nevada Desert to fine tune pilots from all over the world. The story and photography was pretty amazing with lots of shots of fighters and bombers in action.

In the evening Sylvia and I took a dinner cruise up the river on the Portland Spirit. It gave us a good view over the city and took us about 10 miles upstream. interestingly where large houses now stand was once an industrial area with foundries and other heavy industry. There are still piles that once hosted large cranes on the river’s edge. On the return we were allowed on the bridge where the Captian was more than happy to tell us about the many bridges and other things about the city. On the river are a number of floating docks with houses floating upon them. Apparently the river rose up so much a few years ago that the docks floated up past the tall posts they were on and they floated off down the river creating mayhem. They are now on taller posts.

Friday 16 May 2018

We took a drive out to the Colombia river, stopping at a little town town called Troutdale for brunch before driving around the edge of the city along pretty, tree-lined roads. Dropping the rental car off, we headed back to the hotel as Sylvia had an afternoon/evening bunch of Skype meetings to attend. I headed up river to a cablecar I had spotted on Tuesday. This took me up to the hospital on a hill from which I found a track through the bush back to town. One thing that surprised me about Portland is the number of homeless people around the town. As I walked through a nice park that runs between two streets by the university at least 10 homeless slept on the grass, some with dogs and few belongings, others with lots of stuff piled on carts. Over the previous few days we had seen homeless all over town. I asked the question why to a number of people but got no defined answer. Apparently the legalisation of marijuana has lead to prolific drug use among them. One guy told us that some other states apparently give their homeless a hundred bucks and a bus fare to Portland to add to the problem. Whatever the reason it is not a good look for what is a pretty nice town with wide streets, character buildings and lots of trees.








Helpful people in South Korea

Wednesday 9 May 2018

Arriving in Seoul yesterday evening, out of Auckland via Singapore, I had a quiet evening trying to figure out if it was possible to get to the JSA this trip. After many inquiries I discovered the area is closed just now – no-one is sure why. Instead I booked a 3-day rail pass with Korail or KTX

Having looked up the trip on Google, I set off by bus for the station around 8.30am it was a clear day in Seoul unusual as its usually covered in a smoggy haze.. I headed to the information desk with a screen copy of my pass on my phone. The helpful guy at the counter went and got someone else, who got someone else, who explained that this is a private high-speed train company (they have 52 million people in this small country so no doubt can afford the odd private train line) that does not accept passes. He politely provided directions for getting to Seoul Station on the MRT. I was at the MRT station checking out the map when a young woman came over and asked in really good English if she could help. We boarded the train together and Selina explained how she was studying Russian and planned to be a diplomat, a good one she will no doubt be. We arrived at Seoul station just in time to jump on the bullet train a couple of minutes before it departed. As I had not booked a seat I was ushered to a pull down seat between the carriages by the conductor. As soon as we were underway I found a couple of empty seats and sat by the window enjoying the the view as we left the city heading southeast into the hills.

This place is impressive. The hills are all bush covered with no sign of cultivation and every time we pass through flat land between the hills it is intensively farmed. Along the edge of the hills there are often hundreds of 20-storey-plus apartment blocks, obviously housing thousands of people. With a population of 52-plus-million, 26m of whom live in Seoul, it still leaves a lot of people to fit into this reasonably small country. It sits 24th in the world for population density with 513.25 people per square kilometre. New Zealand at 200 on the list of 241 countries has 16.78, over a million of whom live in Auckland giving it a density of 1210 per sq km, far too many in my opinion. Seoul is at 10,400 per sq km.

Apologies for the poor photo quality there are no opening windows on these fast trains.

The train headed south-south-east to Daejeon a city 0f 1.5 million, then southeast towards Ulsan, before turning south to Busan. Arriving at the elevated station I could see to the east lots of brightly coloured houses on the island of Yeongdu-gu. Heading out of the station I wandered east towards the island past the cruse liner terminal. In the distance was a huge crane, which I tried to take a photo of but was yelled at by a security guard indicating photos not allowed. Following the road around onto the bridge to the island I saw again the crane floating on the harbour. Apart from one captured in Germany and now in the Panama Canal this is the world’s biggest crane, capable of lifting 3,600 tons. This Hyundai crane, surrounded by tug boats, was being moved around the harbour.

0n the other side of the bridge I got close to the colourful houses, some of which were being demolished to make way for new buildings – thats progress I guess. I had also spotted a large suspension bridge going back to the mainland. Hoping it might cater for pedestrians I walked around to it. No pedestrians allowed! It is however well worth a look with a circular road joining it to bring in traffic from the east.

I strolled back to the bridge I had come over through another part of the ship building area. This place is really clean and tidy with the odd single-storey old building still surviving amongst the high rises. The streets are clean and in good repair. Crossing back over the bridge I headed north to the markets. These must be the best kept markets in the world; the pavements in good nick and everything clean, tidy and hosting a large range of dried fish, herbs and all sorts of other stuff. An old lady pushed a large cart through the streets laden with fruit and vegetables selling to the stall holders.

Back at the station I booked a seat for the return journey after which I headed to the information counter to find out if I could get a train tomorrow from Seoul to Goseong on the east coast, just south of the border. Google maps showed a line going there. “No train there”, I was told, but there is one to Gangneung further south. Later at the platform a guy came up to me and asked how I got on at the information counter; it turned out he had lived in NZ for 3 months. He warned me that Google maps weren’t to be relied on here.

Arriving in Seoul I found the bus station and got on the bus number stated on Google maps. Holding the money out and showing it to the driver as I had done in the morning, the driver yelled at me and indicated forcefully I should get off the bus. The next bus came, I got on, threw some change on the money box and off we went, I checked the map to make sure we were heading in the right direction, which we were for the first 10 minutes, then we gradually swung around to the north, which was not good. The map showed a rail line running under the street so I got off and went underground to the station. While checking the subway map a very helpful chap came over and told me in good English which trains to take to get back to the hotel.

Thursday 10 May 2018

I caught the subway to Cheongnyangni Station, then the high speed train to Gangneung. This high speed line was only finished last year in preparation for the Winter Olympics held earlier this year. It used to be a 5 hour train journey now cut to under two hours. I grabbed a jump seat between the carriages and showed my photo pass to the guard who went off and found me a spare window seat. The country was similar to yesterday with bush clad hills and cultivated flats.

Arriving at the very new and well laid out station in Gangneung I headed through the town to the river. Crossing the river I headed downstream on the stop bank which had a nice tree-covered path on it. Between the river and the stop bank there are lots of sports fields. Looking back across the river to the town I was surprised how small it was with a population of over two hundred thousand. As I headed down river there was a large industrial area with every bit of spare land supporting crops of various kinds. A few kms south I could see a control tower for an airfield from which fighter jets were taking off every few minutes, circling north towards the border and returning.

At the river mouth a tower on each side supported a flying fox with lots of people queueing up for the ride across the river and back. Crossing the foot bridge to the north side I discovered a nice beach resort with lots of cafes and shops. All the cafes had English names as did many of the shops. The beach extended several kms to the north, where lots of kite surfers were showing off their skills. As I walked up the beach I came across many trenches dug into the sand, some with overhead cover. A compound surrounded a tower with a heavy machine gun facing out to sea.

They waste little space here as even the ground between a block of appartments and the beach, which one would expect to be lawns, was cultivated and growing produce. A road through more fields took me back to town. There are still the little statues on street corners from the Olympics.

On the ride back as the sun was going down I dozed off. Waking just before the station I grabbed my pack and shoes and headed onto the platform. As the doors closed I realised I had left my camera on board. While trying to work out how to go about getting it back, a young couple who had got of the train asked if there was anything they could help me with. I explained the camera situation and Lee said “don’t worry we will get your camera back”. He got on his phone and called someone he knew who worked for the railway. His girlfriend Park also helped. Park had to head of to see someone so Lee decided he would come with me to Seoul Station and help me get the camera. We headed to a local subway and while on the journey he got a call to say the camera had been handed in and taken to the lost property. Arriving at the station we headed to the lost property and there it was. Lee then rode the train back to the hotel with me as Pack lived nearby. She was waiting for us as we arrived at the hotel. Unfortunately they had to rush of to a meeting and could not stay and dine with us. I am going to make a point of catching up with them next time we are in town.

I don’t think I have been anywhere in the world and struck so many friendly and helpful people in such a short time. To think  this country was ravaged by war just over 60 years ago with every substantial building north of Busan and the surrounding area destroyed. These people have done a great job of rebuilding their country.




Chengdu, Home of the Panda

Thursday 19 April 2018

Checking in at Shanghai Hongqiao Airport, we boarded a bus for a nearly 30 min bus ride to the old terminal to board the plane. This was followed by an hour delay while we waited for a take off space. Arriving in Chengdu airspace some 3 hours later we then had to circle to wait for a landing space. Chengdu is a smaller city than Shanghai with a population of around 18 million and is the capital of the the Sichuan Province, home to around 81 million people and a couple of thousand giant pandas.

As we headed off the plane we merged with what seemed like thousands of people who seemed to disappear as we headed into the baggage hall with 25 carousels spread over a few hundred meters. A driver met us and soon we were on a four-lane road heading into town. It was getting late by the time we checked into the very modern JW Marriott hotel, which, like many modern hotels, had its reception on the eight floor.

Friday 20 April 2018

After breakfast I took a stroll down to the Tianfu Square (the main Square). With a large statue of Chairman Mao overlooking it from the north the activity here was somewhat unusual. Soldiers and police seemed to be on full alert. Police wore barbed, riot-type arm guards and carried shields with three in each group. One in the group carried what looked like a spear or an electric cow prodder. Groups of soldiers and police stood in threes in a triangle. Asking around later I couldn’t find a reason for this type of activity; I am quite sure it wasn’t just because we were in town.

Next I headed to People’s Park, which is quite attractive with tea houses, various statues, a stream, ponds and lots of people relaxing. One group of women performed a tai-chi version of line dancing to music. This is apparently very popular in China and often causes confrontations as groups take over parks and squares to practice, to the annoyance of those who like their peace and quiet.

After leaving the park I wandered around a bit until I came across the “city with wide and narrow streets”. This old part of town, with its traditional brick buildings, was recently restored and now is a major tourist attraction. When I say tourist I mean tourists from other parts China. I was the only European guy around and unusual enough that a couple of girls asked to have a photo with me. The streets in this area are clean and well kept as are the shops. An unusual activity here was ear cleaning done outside, the patient in a chair while a guy with a head torch pokes around in his ear with some metal rods. There is a huge variety of food on sale here with stalls and kitchens set up amongst the souvenir shops. At one point I saw a video playing outside a tea house with dancing and other acts on it. After some pointing and paying I was lead in and given a seat near the front. For some time a chap with a bald head and wearing a robe stood up and talked about various bits of calligraphy type art work to which people clapped enthusiastically. After 30 minutes of that a very solemn looking woman sat and played a horizontal harp type device. She was followed by another solemn woman who played a vertical guitar type instrument. Finally a guy with a long-spouted tea pot came out twirling it around and pouring the odd cup of tea from various angles. After nearly two hours I decided I had seen enough and quietly made my way out. I always have a good chuckle at myself when I end up in these situations where I haven’t really got a clue what is going on or how long it’s going to go for. I strolled through a few more streets before heading back to the hotel.

Just outside the hotel there was a big line of these bloody “trip over in the way bikes” to which they were adding more to the line up,and unusually these ones were lined up and in a stand. To be fair I did actually see some people using them around the town.

At around five I was picked up by one of the Royal Canin staff and driven to a really cool restaurant made up of lots of rooms with water features and bridges. There I met Sylvia and the Royal Canin team for a rather interesting meal. Dishes of various things kept arriving at the table, many laced with the local  sichuan spices which have an amazing hot taste while making the end of your tongue and lips go numb for a few minutes. Jelly fish, preserved eggs, cow stomach, beans, shrimps, pig trotters, congealed duck blood and tofu ate some of the ones I can remember. To add to the night was a corn wine drunk from small glasses in a skulling type manner as each of the team tool it in turns to stand up and have a ‘cheers’ with me. I am sure China sells this stuff to North Korea to fuel its rockets!!


Saturday 20 April 2018

At 9am Lucia, our guide, and a driver picked us up. We headed out of town on the wide roads, which continued well out into the country. The infrastructure here is very impressive with motorways often running on pilings across the country side. About 50kms to the northwest near Guanghan is the Sanxingdui Museum. This came about some years ago when a local peasant discovered some relics beneath his land and started taking them into the local market to sell them. Then some archaeologists found out and started investigating. Their discoveries have turned Chinese history on its head. The Chinese always believed that China started in China with their history and culture developing from within. Dating back between 3000 and 4800 years these findings show Egyptian and Greek influences. This part of the world was also going through the early bronze age. The museum is set in a nice park with two pavilions separated by colourful gardens and a nice forest. The displays are well done and easy to follow. The lighting allows for good photographs which are the only real way to describe what we saw. There was even one object that looked like a steering wheel.

Interestingly there were also lots of African elephant tusks discovered in burial sights around the area. African elephants never roamed in this area. There was also an area the depicted through maps movies and photos the extent of the excavations over a large area.

Visit over we headed west to Dujiangyn where the Min river emerges from the mountains. This is a pretty big set up with lots of tourists wandering around. We were waved off the street by an enterprising local down a driveway to an empty lot where this guy was running his “make a few bucks in the weekend” parking lot. A short distance away we crossed the Qingshui Jiang river over a ornate footbridge.

On the river bank there is a busy restaurant. David, The GM of Royal Canin China and an expert fisherman, headed to the fish tank and soon had a prize fish in the net, which was cooked and on the table in under ten minutes, along with some other spiced dished. We enjoyed a nice lunch as hawkers wandered past trying to sell various spices, herbs and other produce carried in large baskets.

Back across the river we headed into the Ancient Min River project. This is very impressive. About 2300 years ago the Qin State and Chengdu city was often flooded until Li Bing, a a hydraulic engineer, rocked up and built this amazing water management scheme. First he had the  Qingshui Jiang river dug which then branched off into three smaller rivers to irrigate the whole basin. He then diverted the Min river so at normal times the river irrigated the fertile land, boosting the population of the state with many people moving to Chengdu City helping greatly to expand the power of the Qin State.

The river was diverted in such a way that when the floods came the excess water went down the old Min River Channel as it still does today. It has certainly been modified considerably in the last two thousand years with modern dams and spillways but the original design was impressive. A major earthquake in recent years means a lot of the memorial area has been rebuilt, done nicely with water features, statues and nice gardens. Taking a crowded swing bridge then a spillway bridge across a couple of dry channels we headed up river across another crowded swing bridge and up the hill to a pagoda for a good view of the project.

The tour over, we headed  to the south side of Chengdu to an old, well-restored part of town to a restaurant that served vegetarian food that looked and was supposed to (but not quite) taste like meat and fish. A tradition from the nearby Tibetan monks area.

Sunday 21 April 2018

Lucia picked us up at 9.30am and we headed northeast to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda.

A bit like a zoo it was well laid out with lots of bush, bamboo, panda merchandise shops and quite a few pandas. Once nearly extinct there are a couple of thousand of of them nowadays, many roaming the nearby hills. The perception is that they are a gentle cuddly bear, ‘wouldn’t heart a fly’ type of animal. Apparently not so, as in the wild they they not only eat bamboo shoots but meat as well. Part of the demise in population was caused by pandas wandering down the paddock and feasting on the odd goat and the peasants retaliating by killing the pandas. It would be quite nice one day to go for a stroll in the hills nearby and see them in the wild. The research centre is sectioned off with the younger pandas and older ones in separate compounds. There is also a breeding area. They seem to spend a lot of time doing not very much and just laying around.  Their compounds are surrounded with a ditch with a vertical wall on the outside.

Another area houses the red pandas. They are much more active, often running along the ground and up trees. Their compound is surrounded by a high fence with electric wires on the top.

On the way out we stopped and sent  panda postcards to Kirstie and Victoria. It will be interesting to see if they make it to NZ and how long they will take.

We stopped for a nice lunch on the way to the airport and mid afternoon we boarded an A321 for the flight back to Shanghai. We were seated in the back row and just now it’s the changing of seasons in China, which apparently makes for a bit of rough flying. It was quite exciting as the plane bucked its way through the sky at various points during the flight.

A big thank you to David for sticking around over the weekend and showing us the local sites, and his team in Chengdu for organising out guide Lucia.