Monday 17 January 2022
Arriving at Auckland International airport it was even worse than last time. This time I am on an Air NZ flight to Los Angeles; unlike with Emirates there is no business check-in, not that it mattered too much as there were few people there. This time once through customs, and security, ‘duty expensive’ (free) was open but no cafes, restaurants or other shops.
Boarding the 787, the business class area was reasonably full. Down the back everyone had a row of seats to themselves; the aircraft has a capacity of around 250 passengers and there were only about 80 on board. Landing in LA 11-hours later it was a different story with lots of people around but only half the number from the pre-Covid days. A few hours in the lounge and then onto Las Vegas for the Shot Show. Arriving in Vegas, being a creature of habit, I checked into the Treasure Island hotel at half the price I paid a couple of years ago. Soon I was in the bar on the ground floor, catching up with good friends Dave and Mike. Dave is living in Hawaii just now and is able to travel freely. He, wife Chrissie and daughter Ruby had come over a week early to do some skiing in Utah.
Tuesday 18 to Thursday 20 January 2022
The Shot Show got underway this year, unlike other years there was no range day on the Monday. Dave and I had been invited along as a guest of Aimpoint, who manufacture the best red dot sights in the world. Heading into the show it was pleasant to see that there were not the crowds that are normally there; in previous years if one stopped in one of the many aisles you would get shoved along. I headed straight for the Aimpoint stand, which had been in the same place for years, to find it had been moved from the back to the front near the main entrance. Not only was the number of visitors down but there were quite a lot of suppliers absent, some with signs up in the space they normally occupy saying “see you next year”. The Strip also hosted less traffic than usual.
The first night we were invited to the Aimpoint function at the Hofbrauhaus Las Vegas, set up like a large German Beer hall with beer served in huge steins. There we enjoyed a great meal and a good catch up with a few people we hadn’t seen for a while. At one point a couple of blokes came in with two long wooden horns and blew away.
Having had a bilateral release done on my knees on the 20 December I was not able to cover the distance around the halls at the show as well as in previous years, only walking 4 to 5 kms per day. As usual there were lots of new products on display, one a remote controlled mini gun in 5.56 caliber with a variable rate of fire. Could be handy for reducing the south island rabbit population!! Robotics are becoming a big thing in the defense world; one such item was a dog-like device that when kicked over simply turned its legs around and stood up the other way.
Friday 21 January 2022
Arriving at the Vegas airport early I was informed I had to do some online tracing forms for the UK government. I had booked a Covid test to be done within 48 hours of arriving in London as required. The Virgin check in staff just said take a seat and do the form online. At some point I had to put in the form the booked Covid test number; it did not work. I asked the staff who said that happens; you just have to book another Covid test. I did this with no success. Eventually I asked for the supervisor, who directed me to an obscure number hidden in the test reply. That sorted I checked in and boarded; the airport even has gaming machines at the boarding gates for people to get their final fix.
Again on a 787, this time with only 50 people on board, I did note that the standards of crew presentation and service had declined since I last flew with Virgin a few years ago.
Saturday 22 January 2022
Landing in London I headed to get my Covid test at the airport. The process was friendly and easy; the nurse doing the test said you will get your results in 30 minutes by email and I did. 35 pounds for a test with the results in thirty minutes made the one I got in NZ before leaving at a cost of $375.00 with results in six hours look super expensive.
I headed to the ticketing machines for the London Express and hadn’t got there when a friendly lady stepped in front of me and said “are you looking for a ticket on the express?” Yes! “I can do it.” She pulled out a little screen, booked me a return ticket, I tapped my card and a little box on her belt spat out a ticket. She explained where to go to catch the train and in a few minutes I was heading into Paddington station at 160 kilometres per hour.
Arriving at Paddington I got the Tube to a station near the hotel. As I was exiting the station I looked at my phone. As I did a service guy steps up and says “where are you heading sir?” I told him the Como Metropolitan Hotel. He said don’t worry about a taxi just jump on bus 6 and it will take you straight there, then walked outside with me and pointed out the bus stop.
My friends Richard and Melissa had sorted me a stay at the Como Metropolitan. On arrival the staff welcomed me and the duty manager showed me to my room on the ninth floor overlooking Hyde Park. The service I received here over the next few days was outstanding to say the least. I opted for a massage at the spa and the guy with hands of strength gave such a good massage I went back the next day for another one. The food in the Nobu Japanese restaurant was outstanding.
Sunday 23 January 2022
Late morning I headed to Clapham on the tube to visit my cousin, Molly, who had just returned from an isolated few weeks in hospital. Just before she was due to come out her husband Murray had been taken ill and also gone to hospital. Because of Covid neither had been allowed visitors. Molly’s sister, Anne, and Murray’s sister, Roz, had come from Wales and North England respectively to lend a hand while Molly recovered at home. Anne is my only other cousin, who I had only met once before on a trip to Wales in February 2008. After a long relaxed lunch Anne and I wandered up to the park (Clapham Common) to walk her dog and chat. By this time the light was fading on this dreary London day and it was time to head back to the hotel for a quiet evening. I had forgotten just how deep the underground is under London, with the long escalators hauling one back to the street level when dismounting at Clapham. Also the the number of no-longer-used chimneys that grace the old buildings in this part of south London.
Monday 24 January 2022
The first task of the day was to get a second Covid test to let me into Denmark and Sweden. This I did at Victoria station, another swift and friendly experience. Unlike NZ the Brits have really got their testing sorted. Hoping the results would show up negative after all the people contact in Vegas, 30-minutes later I logged on to the test site to confirm a negative result. Testing positive would have meant staying in London and isolating for 10 days – not something I had planned for. I had at this stage had a ‘do nothing email’ from the NHS saying i had been in contact with someone with Covid, probably from the flight and the efficient contact form we had done before leaving the US.
Later in the day I joined Anne for a stroll in Battersea Park, which is situated beside the Thames river. Another dull London day and the bare trees didn’t make for the best park I had ever seen. I am sure it is a lot better in the summer. In spite of the weather there were lots of people out and about, many walking dogs. We enjoyed a late lunch at a cafe in the park and a bit more of a stroll before the day ended. It was really great to catch up with Anne after all these years.
Tuesday 25 January 2022
I headed off early to Heathrow on the Express, arriving in plenty of time for the flight, which did not have a gate showing this early. I decided to go the the Star Alliance lounge at gate B as SAS airlines is part of that. After a long walk to the lounge I was told go back to gate A and use the Lufthansa lounge. Off I headed and on arriving at the lounge I checked the walk app on my phone to find it had been a 3km journey! As we flew out of London on a nearly empty plane the country was covered in a thick cloud as far as one could see.
Arriving in Copenhagen there was not a question about Covid; it was just a quick check of the passport by a friendly immigration lady and off to catch the train to Malmo in Sweden. After crossing the long bridge between the two countries we stopped at the first station, where police came through the carriage wearing gas masks, checking passports and covid tests. Arriving at Malmo I taxied to the Malmo Live hotel, where I had a room on the 11th floor with good views over the city.
After spending the afternoon catching op on a few things I headed to the 25th floor restaurant. Greeted by a very engaging maitre’d called Cassie, I was seated at a table by the window with great views over the brightly lit city. I ordered the main dish of halibut. My friend Ross and I had caught a few of these in Alaska some years ago. The food was great as was the atmosphere and the service from the staff.
Wednesday 26 January 2022
Erick, from Aimpoint, picked me up from the hotel early afternoon and we headed off to pick up a few provisions in preparation for tomorrow’s hunt. My friend Dave and I have known Erik and the Aimpoint team for many years and a couple of years ago we helped with the making of Aimpoint Hunts The Globe 4 in New Zealand.
Arriving at the hunting lodge,a former golf course, we had a look around. The former club rooms have been turned into a trophy and meeting room with trophies on the walls. One part of particular interest is the collection of rows of deer heads dating back to the late 1800s.
That evening we were joined by several people who had driven from various parts of Sweden and Denmark for the hunt. After a great roast pork dinner and a good yarn we headed off to bed just after midnight to ready ourselves for the hunt in the morning.
Thursday 27 January 2022
We were up early, but not as early as Erik, who had headed out in the dark to put up signs ready for the hunt. After breakfast we gathered in the lodge for a briefing, which was all in Swedish, not a word of which I understood. Fortunately Erick had asked Carl (on the left in photo below) to accompany me to make sure I didn’t shoot anything I wasn’t supposed to. There is a fine of E1000.00 if one shoots a sow above a certain size; there were only a number of fallow deer that could be shot including one big stag.
After the briefing we headed off in a convoy to the hunting grounds, peeling off near the stand people had been allocated. A short walk from the car we arrived at our stand, overlooking a swampy bit of bush. I climbed up and Carl joined me. The beaters with dogs worked the woods around us to drive out the game. We had been in place only a few minutes when a roe deer wandered out of the scrub and stood 10m away looking at us. “thats a young buck – no shooting him” Carl said in a whisper; he wandered off back into the scrub none the wiser. The dogs sparked up nearby and then we heard a shot – someone had got lucky. Then a young boar came racing out of the scrub, running right past our stand with a dog on his heels. Another no shoot as the dog has to be at least 5m behind to shoot. Eventually a small pig dashed in and out of the scrub but too fast for me to take a shot. After an hour or two we moved back to the vehicle and drove to an RV for a debrief, where everyone reported what they had seen and what had been shot.
We then headed off to the next stand; as we were approaching a fox took off from right beside the stand. Someone in the next stand got him as he went past. The dogs and the beaters passed by several times. As we looked into the trees we sensed something behind us, looking around just in time to see half a dozen fallow deer disappear into the trees. That session over we headed back to the lodge for a fantastic lunch.
The next stand was at the top of a little gully with a good view through the trees. The wind funnelled up the gully and at about 5 degrees C, after an hour and a half it got a little chilly. Again we heard lots of shots from the surrounding stands but nothing came our way. That’s hunting, it’s just really great to be out there doing it.
After another debrief we headed back to the lodge where the game were laid out: 2 foxes, a number of deer including a big fallow stag, and a number of pigs. The beaters lined up on one side of the game, the hunters on the other and a short ceremony was carried out to show respect for the game. Magnus Samuelson, formerly the world’s strongest man, who, along with his brother, stars in many of the Aimpoint hunting movies, was also in attendance.
Most people headed off on their long drives home with Erik, Magnus, Janne and I staying another night. It was great having a good catch up with Magnus, who I hadn’t seen since making the movie in NZ in 2019. The four of us chatted the evening away enjoying a traditional meal on a board.
Friday 28 January 2022
Erik headed off very early to go an a hunt at another place, where he didn’t have to do the organising. The rest of us enjoyed breakfast before we headed off, Magnus to do some filming. Janne, who I had shared a room with the first night (my snoring didn’t even wake him or was he just being polite) dropped me off at the Malmo railway station before heading home to Stockholm. I took the train to Copenhagen airport.
Arriving at the airport very early for my flight I strolled up to the Brussels airlines counter and said to the lady behind the counter “checking in for the 1500 flight to Brussels”. She looked at me a bit surprised. I jokingly said “am I not allowed on your airline?” She said “not to Brussels today as there is no flight”. I gave her my passport and she checked and found that I had booked for tomorrow. Bugger! She said “don’t worry people do that all the time but most turn up a day late”. Emily was very helpful and suggested I could stay the night and explore Copenhagen or get a flight with SAS and I may be able to bet a refund from Brussels Airlines. Soon I had a flight organised an SAS flight and a refund underway from Brussels Airlines. I checked in and headed through security to the lounge. Magnus had given me a couple of cans of a new protein drink he is developing which I had put in my jacket pocket. Security confiscated them. They wouldn’t even let me drink them there due to “Covid”. After a few hours in the lounge I headed to the gate and got on the plane to realise that I had left my jacket in the lounge. Bugger! some days just don’t go well.
As we flew south over Germany the whole of Europe seemed to be coated in cloud. Descending down through thick cloud to land at Brussels, as I left the arrivals I was stopped and asked to show my tracing form, an online document that I didn’t have. Moving back behind the line I filled it out but it would not work. A helpful staff member had several goes but he failed too. I went back to the checkpoint where they got the police involved, who very kindly gave me a paper copy to fill out.
I was met at the exit by my friend Rian. He is based in Brussels as the NZ Defence Attaché with his wife Jo and son Liam. They were quite excited to see me as I was only the second visitor they had had since arriving in mid 2019. They have spent months in lockdown and even now Rian only gets to go to the office once a week. We spent Friday evening siting around the kitchen table having virtual drinks with with a bunch of generals from some of the other partner forces Rian works with. We enjoyed a variety of pies supplied by the Australian general along with some nice wine as they were celebrating Australia Day .
Saturday 29 January 2022
After breakfast Rian and I headed east on the motorway towards Luxembourg. Rian is somewhat of an authority on military history; a few years ago when he was based in the US he took me on a very interesting tour of Gettysburg. This time we were heading for the town of Bastogne, where the Battle of the Bulge took place towards the end of WWII. This is when the Germans, at this point losing the war, decided to make a big push against the Allies and turn the tide by pushing right through from the Ardennes area to Antwerp to cut off Allied supplies. They split the allied forces and encircled the lines so the Axis powers could negotiate a favourable peace treaty. On the 16 of December 1944 due to a combination of allied overconfidence, preoccupation with offensive plans and lack of air reconnaissance due to bad weather, the germans attacked a weakly defended part of the allied lines with around 410,000 men 1,500 tanks and assault guns, 2,600 artillery pieces and a thousand odd aircraft.
The Americans put up tough resistance on the north shoulder to the west around Eastbourne Ridge into the south around Bastogne and blocked the German access to key roads to the northwest and west that they had counted on for success. The battle lasted until the 25 January 1945 with the Germans advancing less than 100 kilometres at the furthest point, only to be driven back again. With close to 100,000 casualties on the German side and the loss of many tanks and aircraft this weakened the German forces considerably. It was the toughest battle the Americans endured during WWII. The Allied forces suffered nearly 70,000 casualties and lost many tanks and aircraft also.
First we visited a museum in Bastogne; this was once the German officer’s mess and is run privately by a couple of keen collectors. It has really good displays and battle maps plus a room one can sit in that simulates the bombing and fighting in the town.
Many of the items in this 101 Airborne Museum had been collected locally, much of it having been left behind at the time of the conflict. Bastogne was held during most of the battle with supplies being parachuted in and reinforcements making it through to the town.
After the museum we enjoyed some lunch in town before heading to the the Bastogne War museum, which unfortunately was closed for maintenance. Across the road is the US Mardasson Memorial. Tall and shaped like a US star it is impressive. The names of all the fallen US soldiers are engraved on the walls of the memorial as are all the States. In spite of the foggy Belgium weather (apparently its been like this for months) the views from the top gave a good appreciation of how hard this country would have been to fight in with its open rolling hills and valleys.
Next we drove out to Foy where Easy Company (famous from the movie ‘Band of Brothers’) from the 101 Airborne were dug in only 100m from the German lines, with the trees in the forest giving them some concealment. The shell scrapes are still visible. A memorial stone has been placed near the site with the names of those that died here on it. The movie Band Of Brothers has revitalised interest in this area.
From here they attacked the town of Foy with the company spread out across the town, having no communications and being pinned down by snipers. Lt Ronald Speirs made a dash through the German lines, running down the main street to communicate with the rest of the company. That done he then ran back the same way. As I understand it, the Germans were so taken by surprise that they hardly even made a serious attempt to kill him. Standing on the corner, looking up the main street near the houses that had the snipers in and that still have bullet holes showing, it’s hard to believe he survived one run let alone two.
We than went to another forest with fox hole remnants, where some German soldiers had turned up with a white flag. They had a message for the US General asking him to surrender within two hours or artillery was going to devastate Bastogne causing large amounts of civilian casualties. The Germans were blindfolded and taken to the General’s HQ. The answer they got from General McAuliffe was “NUTS”. Typed up on a page, it was handed to the Germans and they were sent packing. The artillery barrage never eventuated.
The siege of Bastogne was finally broken on 26 December when George Patten’s third army broke through from the southwest. The 101 Airborne was not pulled from the front until mid- January. I am sure that it is only man’s passion for peace, love of country, family and friends that allows people to survive the harsh conditions with little food and temperatures of -28 degrees C. Many men from many nations gave up their ‘today’ so we can have our tomorrow.
On the way back to Brussels we stopped at the lovely little town of Dinant, the home of the saxophone. It straddles the Meuse River with a connecting bridge lined with large saxophones and is a cool place to visit. It has a cable car that runs up to a castle on the cliff, lots of cafes and restaurants and some great looking buildings.
Arriving back in Brussels we headed to a local Lebanese restaurant for a very enjoyable evening.
Sunday 30 January 2022
After breakfast we headed out to watch Liam play soccer at a local field, which is divided up into several courts so the young kids can play on a smaller pitch.
Next it was of to the Brussels South Charleroi airport, quite away out of town, as I was flying Ryan air, one of the few airlines that flies direct to Nimes from Brussels. A taxi home and I was in time to drive to Montpellier to pick up Sylvia from the airport there as she had just arrived back from New Zealand.