Three Rough Blokes on the Amazon January – February 2015

Three rough blokes were having a beer one day and Roger was saying how he’d like to do the other half of the Amazon from Manaus to the coast. The other two didn’t take much persuading so in January 2015 we met in Manaus, Cam flying in from a week in Guatemala, AJ arriving after a few days in Panama and Roger after the shot show in Vegas and a few days in Panama.

Check out the full story below.

Amazon 2015

Screen Capture by Snagit

A Weekend in Ireland

Saturday 4 June 2022

We had managed to get a Ryan Air flight out of the local Garons Airport, which is about 3kms to the southeast of us. It also seems to be a good spot to keep a few redundant aircraft, both military and civilian.

We took off and climbed out to the east before heading northwest to Irsland. We were both really surprised at the variety of farming and horticulture that surrounds us in this part of France. There are large areas of flooding irrigation, using the water from the many canals that run through the area, mostly from the Rhone River. There are huge areas of salt farms, some with their bright pink ponds caused by a lichen in the water. One lot of paddocks was laid out like slices of pizza. We will have to hire a light aircraft one day and have a good look at the area from the air.

On the approach into Dublin we were greeted with large industrial plants and well laid out new housing developments on the city fringe.

Landing in Dublin the hostess opened the door on the Boeing 737.800. With no ladder there she pushed a couple of buttons and a ladder slid out from the fuselage; up came the hand rails and with a few bits and pieces added we were able to alight the aircraft and walk into the terminal and through immigration. After a long walk we reached the rental car counter, and from there a van took us to the rental car compound. Interestingly Sylvia usually books with Hertz but they wanted a thousand euros a day for a medium sized car. We shopped around and got a nice car for that price for 3 days.

Arriving in Dublin via the tunnel that is 10 euros during rush hour and 3 euros the rest of the time, we checked into the Marker hotel on the edge of one of the many canals. Having checked into the hotel and it still being early afternoon we took a stroll and along the way decided we should try out a hop on hop of bus. Booking one online we waited at the stop for the next arrival in 15 mins. Now the thing about these buses is you have to be able to hop on in order to hop off. Eventually along came the bus but the bugger didn’t even stop for us so we never did get to experience the hop on hop off bit. Sylvia made a phone call and got the normal ‘the driver should not have done that; if you want a refund you have to email us!!’ The next one was an hour away so we decided to take a walk.

There are some really nice buildings in Dublin, built from both brick and stone. Whilst many have a nice conforming kind of uniformity about them some really stand out. We passed the university and took a brief look inside. It is across the road from the Bank Of Ireland building, which is rather grand.

Not too far down the road we entered the local castle, formerly the home of the Viceroy of Ireland when it was ruled by the British.  On the 3 May 1921 the country was divided into two self-governing polities. After a war in 1922 southern Ireland became an  independent country while Northern Ireland decided to stay part of the UK.

It is thought that the in 10500BC  first of an early version of humans set foot in Ireland. Since then there has been a lot of water under a lot of bridges and many wars over territory going back hundreds of years with Henery VIII declaring himself king of Ireland back in 1541. Like many European countries they have had lots of wars including the first Desmond rebellion, the second Desmond rebellion and the nine year war just to mention a few.

The state rooms of the castle (which was all we were allowed to see) were quite grand with large rooms, one in particular displaying the flags of the Knights of St Patrick, of which there were quite a few.  Like many castles they had lots of old religious art on the walls and ceilings. In a couple of rooms they must have been a bit short of old paintings so they have some rather bad modern art in them. The castle is built around a courtyard with a nice clock or watch tower off to one side, and attached is a cathedral.

We taxied back to the hotel and spent a quiet relaxing evening.


Sunday 5 June 2022.

We headed north on the M1 motorway for a while but, like many motorways, they have planted trees along each side to stop people like me looking at the scenery and not concentrating on the road. After 20 minutes we took an off ramp and headed out into the country, initially only to strike hawthorn hedges growing on each side of the well-kept narrow roads. Things improved and we were treated to some nice scenery and the odd glimpse of the ocean as we headed north up the coast to the town of Carlingford. There we met up with Lorraine, whom we had met while she was holidaying in Singapore a few years ago. We enjoyed a nice lunch at the Bay Tree Restaurant.

Carlingford was originally a fishing village being on the Carlingford Lough, which is deep enough for large ships to navigate up to a port at Warrenpoint at the top of the Lough. At one point we were talking about the IRA troubles in Northern Ireland as Lorraine live sin the North. She said she was really too young to remember the “troubles” as they are referred to here.  We had noted both in Dublin and on the way here that many buildings are painted different and bright colours. Blocks of brick buildings all seem to have different coloured doors. Probably quite handy if you have a falling out with your girlfriend, just paint your door a different colour so they can’t find your house again!

 

After a very nice lunch we continued our journey north heading up the lough and back onto the M1 towards Belfast. My cousin Molly in London, who we visited recently, had informed me that in Ireland in their mother’s house had been a sword and a Gurkha knife that had belonged to my grand father. She and her sister Anne had recently sold the house and the people that had bought it were holding onto the items if I wanted to pick them up. They lived in a little village on the coast just northeast of Belfast, now our destination.

There is no sign of a border between the north and the south any more. However as we cruised along at the speed limit of 120kph, the little circle on the navigation system changed to 70. Sylvia pointed out that I was going a little fast, as was the rest of the traffic. I suggested that it may be miles an hour it was meaning and after Sylvia checked with google sure enough it was. We continued for some time, passing through Belfast. The roads are really clearly marked and well maintained.

Soon we were in Carrickfergus and collecting the sword that these nice people had kept for me. There was a lighthouse further down the coast so we went to check it out along with some brightly coloured buildings at the waterfront. Many Union Jack Flags were on display int he north celebrating the Queen’s Jubilee.

The trip back to Dublin was an easy one. Avoiding the tunnel we passed some interesting buildings and lots of different coloured doors.


Monday 6  June 2022

Waking early to a leak coming through the ceiling in the bathroom, we called reception and left them to it, heading down for another great breakfast. Soon we were on the motorway heading west. The trees once again obscured the view of the surroundings apart from the odd glance of some very green and prosperous-looking farmland.

A couple of hours down the road we saw a turn off to Limerick so we turned off to check it out. There was not a lot to see, just another little town.

We continued out of the town towards the cliffs of Moher it wasn’t too long before we arrived, passing a rugged looking  golf course and some small villages where the surrounding paddocks were divided up by stone walls. We pulled into the car park, paying a small fee to see the most visited place in Ireland. A short walk from the carpark we came across a group of shops dug into the hillside. Alongside, also in the hill, is an information centre. We headed inside and had a look through. The exit lead us to a track up to the cliffs.

The cliffs are indeed well worth a look; the rock seems like it is stacked like shist or slate. There is a small, castle-type building, which serves as a lookout with its narrow spiral staircase. We climbed up and had a look. A large charolais bull grazed in the paddock nearby. Hundreds of people were spread out along the cliff tops enjoying the views. There are a a couple of islands in the distance and some lighthouse-type buildings on the peninsular to the right.

I saw a sign on one of the slab stone walls saying the buskers here have to make their instrument’s out of wood as the salt air rusts metal parts. A man sat against the wall sheltering from the wind playing an accordion. I am not sure it was all wood; it looked like some plastic had gone into its construction.

Back in the car, we followed the coast north on a narrow, well-maintained country road, passing many recently build holiday houses and the odd village along the way. At one point to our right were hills made of what looked like solid rock but with stone fences dividing them into paddocks; maybe there is a rare breed of rock-eating sheep in this part of the world. Just east of Galway we hit the M6 motorway, which made for a steady, easy drive back to Dublin.

Arriving back at the hotel they relocated us to another nice room where we spent the rest of the evening relaxing.


Tuesday 7 June 2022. 

We woke at 4am to an almost cold shower, needing to be at the airport early to catch our Ryan Air flight back to France. Reflecting on Ireland we got the impression that is is one of the more prosperous countries in Europe with nice cars on good roads and no sign of beggars in the streets or people at the traffic lights with old bits of cardboard asking for money.

 

A Glimpse of India

Friday 20 May 2022

Mid-afternoon we drove to Montpellier and caught a flight to Amsterdam, trading the clear blue skies of southern France for the clagged in skies of central Europe. We are always impressed flying into Amsterdam by its neatness; from the air it looks like all the streets and buildings have been meticulously laid out over the many centuries. A driver in a nice merc picked us up and (I would love to say speed us) drove us the 15-kilometre (45 minute) trip to the hotel. There may be lots of bicycles here but they still have traffic jams. Sylvia had booked us into the Waldorf Astoria hotel for a two-night stop over on our way to India.

On arrival our bags were whipped away from us and we were seated at a desk and offered champagne while we checked in. That seems to be the drill at these rather flash hotels. After one of the receptionists had checked us in she took us on a bit of a tour. Opened in 2008 in a block of house originally knocked up in the 1600’s the hotel now takes up pretty much the whole block. The building the reception is in has a grand stairway with sculptures of the original owner’s wife on three walls and above that the family crest. The original dining room out the back still has the paintings done for the family of their holidays on the walls. One large painting lifts up revealing where the family used to secretly store their valuable crockery. Downstairs in the basement there is an old bank vault, which has been turned into a bar,  with the safety deposit boxes now used to store liquor. There is also a dining room, pool, gym and spa on this floor. Out the back is Amsterdam’s largest private garden, now a UNESCO site. It’s all of 150m long and 30m wide. This level seems to be below the level of  the water in the canal out the front. The Dutch are very good at waterproofing,  especially as Amsterdam is 2 meters below sea level. As we passed from one building to the next we noticed signs indicating the original owner of the house. After settling into our room we headed to the bar and enjoyed an evening of cocktails.


Saturday 20 May 2022

After a lazy start, a late breakfast and Sylvia’s French lesson we took a stroll through the town, passing a number of interesting window displays. The town was quite busy with lots of people entering and leaving the many shops on the short streets. Some buildings stood out on the edge of the canals we passed over before reaching the Rijksmuseum.

This building has a roadway through the centre of it, covered in the old style ceilings one sees in Europe. A young lady with a great operatic voice stood singing at the top of her voice as we entered. Buying a ticket online as we stood in the queue (apparently the only way it can be done) we headed into the large Arrium, the galleries branching off from there. Although it started of a bit just like any museum it got better as we explored.  There were paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Rembrandt amongst the many other paintings. The large Night Watchman  work by Rembrandt  was constantly surrounded by people who looked like they were discussing each brush stroke in detail. Another painting by Drost depicts the story of Cimon, who, sentenced to death by starvation, was kept alive by his daughter secretly breast feeding him.

There were some quite extravagant gold and silver tea sets and even a gold mirror the Dutch King William had had made as a present for his daughter to go in the dunny.  There was also some very nice furniture, models of ships, cannons, lances, firearms and even the crest from the front of a British war ship the Dutch had captured and brought home keeping the crest and destroying the rest of the ship. The original library is still in the building restored and still in use.  We really rated this museum for the effort they had put into the layout of many of their exhibits.

We enjoyed a light meal at the museum cafe before heading back to the hotel for a relaxing evening.


Sunday 21 May 2022

After a good breakfast a driver picked us up and we headed back to the airport. Luckily the limousine service had a special pass into the airport as there was a long queue outside the departure terminal.  Things have changed rapidly here since the end of covid. This particular company employed, before Covid, around 200 drivers of which they let a hundred go during covid. Now they are busier than before covid but have only managed to get a small number of the drivers back. This seems to be the case with many businesses worldwide as many people, as a result of covid, have taken up new jobs or gone out to work in their own business creating a massive shortage of labour, something very few saw coming. Apparently the same thing has happened after previous pandemics. Lucky we had been able to sneak in the back way as the terminal was packed. We were lucky also to be in Business class as we were able to get in the fast queue for security etc. Eventually boarding the plane and set to take off the pilot announced a passenger had not turned up so the bag had to be found and off loaded. Over an hour later we finally got airborne. As Sylvia often says as we watch people muck around at security “some people should not be allowed to fly.”


Monday 22 May 2022

It was after 3am when we landed in Mumbai to be met by a rather scruffy driver in a beat up old Suzuki car. Sylvia wasn’t impressed, especially when the guy said “don’t worry about the seat belt the hotel is not far”. A short drive and we stopped at the checkpoint at the hotel entrance; some sleepy looking guards ran a mirror under the car and looked in the boot before a large iron gate was pushed to the side and we drove to the reception. Our bags were put through the x-ray machine us through the scanner, then a pat down. Sylvia was taken into a curtained off area by a woman for this process.

Soon we were seated at the reception. The check in process complete, we were led to our room on the 6th (top) floor of the hotel. The young man made a point of how lucky we were to be in the Taj Santacruz Hotel as it has views from some of the rooms that look right down the runway, the only such hotel in India – “would you like an upgrade to one of those rooms?” both of us thinking it’s now 3:30am in the morning – we just want to sleep!

The little give away houses one receives when flying on KLM at the entrance to the business lounge

At 9.30am Sylvia is downstairs in the foyer meeting the Indian team to head out to visit retail and vet sites around the town. The airport is kind of in the middle of the city. Population here is around 20.9 Million, they say that if every one that lives here decided to lay down in an area the size of this city they would not fit! Don’t ask me who worked that out – it’s just as well they have lots of multi-storey buildings here. The hotel is attached to one of the terminals but not the one we came into. A recce around the area revealed lots of security with all the entrances to the hotel having soldiers with their AK’s on guard. The restaurant is situated in the centre of the hotel, open all the way up to the top of the 6th floor.


Tuesday 23 May 2022

Sylvia had a breakfast meeting at 8am while I sat alone in another part of the restaurant. At 9am a driver picked me up for a tour of the southern part of the city. We headed out of the hotel almost wrestling for space on the narrow road with dozens of rickshaws. These are black and no longer have a couple of poles out the front with a pair of legs powering them along. Now motorised they are basically a 3-wheeled motorbike with a cab built on top. In this part of town there are thousands of them. We headed onto a motorway with shops on each side selling everything, lots of people doing things.

We came off the motorway and ran underneath the brightly painted columns turning into a slum area the driver informed me with pride is where the slum dog millionaire was filmed. There are people everywhere all doing something, be it drinking coffee, sweeping the street, selling stuff or just hanging out and talking. Most of the buildings here have been made from all sorts of stuff, I presume much of it borrowed from building sites around the town. The driver pointed out some rough-looking, multi-storey apartment blocks and told me that the government is building these with 200 sq foot apartments in them to house the people from the slums. He also pointed down one of the narrow lanes and tells me how there are many small factories in the slum areas often making goods from recycled materials. He tells me there are no beggars in this part of town.

We head back onto the motorway and across an eight lane bridge towards the main part of the city with the high-rises in the background. To the right of the bridge on the shoreline are many fishing boats and a bunch of make-shift houses where the fishermen live. The driver points out an abandoned milk factory which was government run and apparently used to supply milk to all the schools with milk. He also points out a 33-storey building where one of the local billionaires lives. We pass a beach and I ask why no one is swimming. “The water is too polluted” is the reply. Stopping by the water at the bottom of the seawall the driver suggests I get out and take a photo of this beautiful spot. As I walk over to take the photo a passing man waves his arm and says to me “great view”. The air is quite smoggy obscuring the great view somewhat. Hungry looking dogs lay about on the pavement.

We carried on our journey… next stop the museum, which is in quite a grand building but looks like there is a funding shortage as the way things are laid out is quite basic. There is however a display of coins, dating back to 600 BC. There are lots of Buddha style statues and a section of stuffed animals and birds of India including lions, leopards, tigers and others native to India.

Next we stopped at the railway station, which is a very grand building built by the English in 1887. There is quite a good rail network in India. In Mumbai there is a large metro service which at present is being extensively expanded throughout the city. Across the road is the city council building, which looks like it was built around the same time. Then we passed by the university stopping to look at the large sports, or should I say cricket, grounds situated across the road from the main university buildings, all of which are historically classified. At the entrance to the grounds is a sugar jucing machine which crushes the sugar cane creating juice, which is sold as a drink to the locals. There are many such machine around Mumbai.

 

We wound our way to to the bottom of the peninsula, or as far as we could go because the Navy Base takes up the last of it. A visit to the Gate of India, where I was asked politely by a group of young men and a woman if they could have a selfie with me, and a look at the Taj Prince Hotel across the road (which was the site of a terrorist attack in about 2008) meant, according to the driver, we had seen everything worth seeing.

From there we crossed the bridge south into the actual Mumbai city. Where we are staying at the airport area is actually one of the suburbs. In the city there are no rickshaws but many not-much-bigger black taxi cabs. The majority are Hyundai; someone has done a great sell job on these although there is the odd Suzuki . We made our way back up the peninsular passing a variety of shops, buildings and more slums, which seem to be tucked away on any bit of spare land, often right up against new apartment blocks. Apparently the government builds new apartment blocks for these people to relocate too. Many of them then rent the apartment out and move back to the slums, where they are more comfortable Some slum dwellers apparently have two or three such apartments they are renting out.

Arriving back at the hotel I was put through the scanning check again as three soldiers on duty looked on. Since the attack on the Taj Prince hotel by Pakistan-based terrorists they have taken security very seriously around here.

In the evening we headed out for dinner with the Royal Canin Indian Leadership team at a nearby hotel. On the way at a set of lights some young boys came to the side of the car and pleaded for money while on the other side a mum and baby did the same thing. In India there is no social welfare.

I really enjoy the spicy Indian food and this was the real deal. We were given large bibs, red for the meat eaters and green for the vege only people. There were no eating utensils; it was a use your fingers deal. Later after the main meal they brought out these nice copper bowls with a reddish liquid in them, which were to wash our fingers in.


Wednesday 25 May 2022

As I walked into breakfast I was greeted by name and room number by the staff on the desk. Good service I thought, then I realised we were the only europeans in the hotel. The driver was waiting and eager to go when I walked outside. This time we headed north up the west side of a big jungle reserve, which has survived the ever expanding city. Apparently back in the Bombay days the area used to be made of a number of islands – the gaps between have been filled in as reclaimed land making enough room for the many apartments and slums.

The slums are everywhere ,often right up against new multi-storey buildings. These intrigued me; I couldn’t understand how so many people could live in what look like real dives and not get sick through a lack of sanitation and potable water. On making some inquiries I found out the following. They are mostly built of stolen materials on land that does not belong to them. They have a series of portable toilets that are supplied by the local government. The power they either ‘steal’ by hooking into the local grid, or in some cases, they do a deal with a local commercial building. The local government also sets up water points in the area so people can have a supply of potable water, which is only for the locals to drink. We were advised not to drink the water even in the hotel and use bottled water for cleaning teeth. I took this advice especially as it was discovered that I had picked up in my previous travels H.Pylori. This is a bacteria that eats into the stomach, hence one bleeds into the  stomach resulting in low iron and also stomach cancer if left undetected.  A couple of weeks on several pills more designed for a horse than a human has got rid of it.

The road was some 5 lanes wide with stalls and even car repairs often set up on the inside lane. There are lots of traders set just back from the motorway making it a bustling and busy place.

The traffic was not too bad, always at least moving. After an hour or so we turned into a forest park. Parking the car we walked to the gate and ticket office. As we approached, two young women asked if we would mind filming one of them dancing in the park. I said yes and they rushed up and paid for the park access fee. We strolled up the road a little and my driver talked to some blokes about getting a ride to the caves. They then had a discussion about the filming and it was going to cost 5000 locals because I was a foreigner. The idea got canned and the women went off to do there own filming on their phone. I offered to give them the money for the entry fee back but they declined that. I mounted a beat up old van with that ‘will it make it thought’ at front of mind and headed for the caves, which are some 7 kms inside the park. Along the way we passed an Axis Stag or Indian spotted deer as they are known locally.

Arriving at the caves and heading up the steps to the gate I was turned away by the security guards as I had to buy a ticket.  Over at the ticket place I asked how much, the guy said “where are you from?” I said “New Zealand”. “300 locals please”, which I handed over, asking how much if I was from Mumbai? “25 locals” came the reply.

Set near the top of the hill are 109 caves that were occupied by Buddhist monks between the first and tenth century. They have an array of sculptures and drawings in them; each cave has its own water supply in the way of a cistern, which collects rainwater off the rocks around it.  Some of the caves were locked, I presume the ones with the drawings in them as I didn’t see any drawings. Some caves had several rooms, others just one.

When I got back to the car park the locals had their stalls set up selling fruit and drinks. A different van and driver turned up to take me back down to the gate as his brother’s van (the one I came up in) had broken down. The driver did point out a school as part of a slum that had been erected in the forest some years ago. I discovered later that in the past a couple of kids from this slum, whom gone into the forest to relieve themselves at night, had been taken and eaten by a local leopard, which are quite prevalent in this forest and are, of course, protected. As we drove back to the gate we saw some more deer and lots of people enjoying the bush. The dancers came and said good bye as I headed out the gate to find the driver.

We carried on north on the motorway, heading around the top of the jungle and back down the east side where the buildings looked more organised and the general area a lot tidier. In places it looked like building debris had been dumped on the side of the motorway.

The driver then suggested we go to the flash part of town where the Bollywood stars live. Bandra West is definitely a better part of town; the buildings look maintained and many have gardens and grounds. One of the apartments was about to undergo a paint job and bamboo scaffolding had been erected. This one rail of bamboo was what the painters stand on to do the painting. I asked the driver if they have a safety harness, and was told some of them tie themselves on with a bit of rope when they get up higher.

We headed through a street with a big street sale going on then back to the hotel.

The evening involved a dinner, this time with the people from last night and the people that report to them. The venue was a hotel nearby with a large atrium with with balconies on each room overlooking the atrium. After starters at a long table set up there we moved inside for the main meal. I was really impressed with the people I sat with at the table; they were all smart and engaging and seemed to all really enjoy working for Royal Canin.


Thursday 26 May 2022

After a morning of catching up an a few things, including a trip to the gym and a very good massage it was time to depart for Bengaluru.

The terminal where we departed from was full of many styles of Indian art and custom items lining the walls. Outside there is evidence of the new metro going in.

Arriving in Bengaluru a driver picked us up for the hour long journey into town. With a population of around 13 million the outskirts of this city look quite modern with major brands displayed in new buildings alongside the roads.

Arriving at the Conrad Hilton hotel we were given the usual story about a free upgrade to a better room on a higher floor. On arriving at this ‘upgraded’ room it smelt very bad, almost like a dead body had been left in there for a week or two. We rang reception and a guy turned up with some air freshener. On ringing reception again we were told there were no spare rooms. A visit to the reception and a conversation with the manager and we got a  room, pretty much the same but with no bath on the 10th floor that did not smell.


Friday 27 May 2022

At breakfast Sylvia joined one of the Royal Canin staff for a meeting as she had done each morning since our arrival in India. She works very hard on these trips. I was joined by Satinder, the GM for Royal Canin in India. He spent the time filling me in on why in Mumbai there is little crime. Apparently it is the belief in reincarnation that helps as people reap the rewards of their previous life in this life. If they are poor it is because they have been a bit bad in a previous life;  thus one has the chance to make a better deal for the next life.

At 9am a driver arrived and we headed off to explore the city. His english wasn’t that good but someone had given him a list of places to take me. We passed the lake that we could see from our room. There used to be a number of these around the city but most have been filled in to make way for buildings. A drive along Infantry road revealed a strong military presence in the town, both army and airforce. Next we passed the local government building with the high court painted red across the road. Here the rickshaws are mainly green and there are not as many of them.

Next stop was the palace, I think the summer one. The driver said I could take photos outside but would have to ask permission inside. Dismounting the car I raised my camera to take a picture of the gardens and had just clicked off a shot when a guy raced over and told me no photos. I lined up at the ticket box and bought a ticket, indicating to my camera. I paid the money and joined the next queue to get the photo wristband when the guy from the ticket box raced over. A security guard in tow points to my camera and asks me to come back and pay more money. I  went back to the booth and paid another 400 locals (USD5.60) and returned to the wristband queue where I got a pink and green wristband. One person handed them to me, then another person put them on for me. They are great at employing people here. As we left the airport the other night, at the pay machine the driver handed his ticket and money to a guy who put it in the machine and handed back the ticket the machine spat out.

As palaces go this one would rate towards the bottom end of what I have seem. It was quite dirty and looked like a half-hearted attempt had been made to restore and maintain it. At the back there is a big tent-like structure, which looks like they hold functions in. As I wandered through an old guy appeared from a room and started giving me a run down on the amazing artefacts in this part of the palace. He even insisted on taking my photo. Politely tolerating him I played along. When I exited he put his hand out asking for money. “Bugger” at that stage I didn’t have any locals on me on me. I went out into the garden and took a photo of the palace and headed to the gate. As i exited one of the three guys at the gate cut the bands from my wrist. Taking a few steps toward the carpark I raised the camera again only to have the guy race over and tell me no photos. There are definitely lots of people here with too little to do.

Back in the car we headed across town to the botanical gardens. Over the last few days I had been a little bemused by the way the traffic interacts and trying to work out if there were any rules or did it just all work. As we headed through a reasonably large, uncontrolled intersection to get into the gardens, 4-lanes of traffic bore down on each side. There were 3 lanes in the road we were on. It seemed to work like this. The driver just pushed his way through the traffic like a game of chicken; we were in the centre lane and most of the traffic was making a right turn. We had nearly made it across when another car decided to kill the chicken by turning right, hitting the front of our car. A loud scraping noise erupted from the left side of our car leaving a crease all the way down the car. Both cars stopped where they were and the drivers dismounted and yelled at each other. My driver got back in while the other guy took some pictures, did some more yelling and we drove off. I asked the driver who pays and he said they both take care of their own repairs as it’s not worth chasing the other guy for the money.

Arriving at the gardens I dismounted and headed up a small hill with a shrine in top. Not being a gardener I am mot sure whether it was the word botanical or the word garden that was missing from this scene, or maybe both, as the area just seemed be a bunch of unkept grass with a few paths and trees in it.

Next we stopped at an ATM so I could pay the driver in cash the 3000 locals for the day out, a very good deal. The first ATM would not work with my card. There were some workmen next door working on some scaffolding – unlike in Mumbai, here they seem to have three sticks to stand on.

Next was a rather nice restaurant next to an ATM that worked, where I ate a nice spicy lamb, some in chunks and some in mince, mixed together with a few spices added to give it a great flavour along with some naan bread.

Next we stopped outside a shop, the driver saying you might want some gifts. Sure I said “I will be back in a couple of minutes.” Tt was actually quite a bit longer than that. I usually think in these situations one is going to get well stroked. Walking in I was soon accosted by the manager, who spoke really good english and seemed to be a really good bloke. An hour or so later I emerged  from the the shop with a couple of rugs, two small decorated elephants, a stone ashtray and some stone coasters. What started out to be well over 300 thousand locals ended up just over 22,500. From what we have seen of rugs around the world these were good prices.

Next stop was a temple. The first one was closed so he drove me to another nearby. These are quite intriguing with all the little painted figures on the outside. The one I went into had a tree growing through the roof and had sort of been built around it. It was quite dirty but people seemed to go in and out in a steady stream bowing to the altar and lighting incense.

Arriving back at the hotel there was a wedding going on with the bride being towed along in a little cart by the groom. The light was fading as I headed up to our room to get ready to go to the airport. Interestingly I had seen no slums in this city, which on the whole is much better presented than Mumbai. The driver did say there are a few slums on the outskirts of the city.

Many hours later, after an unusually good aeroplane sleep, we touched down at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, to be met by a queue exceeding a thousand, immigration being the hold up. It appears to be taking some time for the European airports to come back up to speed after the pandemic. Even the departure terminal was packed as we caught our flight to Marseille.

 

 

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Critical Eye Conference at Windsor

Wednesday 11 May 2022

Flying out of Marseille late afternoon, we landed in Heathrow London early evening. Mounting a black cab (yes they still exist – more about them later) we took a ride to Windsor. Arriving at the Fairmount Hotel was quite impressive. Opened only a few months ago at the site of an old hotel, which had been added to in the same style of building, this place is impressive with its gate houses and  long drive through a grove of trees opening onto large grounds complete with lake and nice gardens. It gives the impression of being a country estate. With a couple of electric-golf-cart-type-cars and some very polite and friendly doorman out front to welcome us it is all rather nice. The reception area is also rather nice with a huge spacious dome ceiling and well-trained, friendly staff. We checked in and headed to our room for a relaxing evening.

Sylvia was here to attend a CEO conference run by Critical Eye.


Thursday 12 May 2022

After enjoying a great english breakfast with Sylvia, I took a stroll through the grounds and to Bishopsgate Road. With large stand-alone houses on each side of the street, with their large trees gracing the grounds, it’s quite a nice area. Passing the Fox and Hound I arrived at the entrance to Windsor Great Park, run by the Crown. At over 5,000 acres, it is quite special, especially being so close to London and open to the public. Not far inside the park is a gate and a couple of pink buildings, apparently where Prince William and family live when in town.

Passing the prince’s pad and following the road around to the right I passed a mob of deer – stags in velvet and hinds with babies on board. Soon a large statue came into view on my left, situated on the highest bit of ground around. Mounted atop a large copper horse sits Kings Charles, heading west at a gallop. To the north is a sealed road heading all the way to Windsor Castle. The road is lined with a row of oak and chestnut trees on each side. The chestnut trees have white lantern-like flowers on them.  I chatted to one of the Crown staff who was hanging a trap in every second tree; there is a moth that attacks the leaves, and if let loose the tree will lose all its leaves in a few days.

Standing by the statue I could see some large chimneys to the left of Windsor Castle. I asked a chap, who was doing some exercise, if it was a nuclear plant. “Yes, that’s the Slough nuclear plant, which is still operating.” A good way of telling the population it’s quite safe, putting it so close to Windsor Castle, I thought.

From here I headed down the long straight road to the castle. Lucky it was a week day and not the peak season as there were only a few people out strolling and walking their dogs. Arriving at the other end the gate into the castle was closed but a side gate opened up the way into the town of Windsor. There were a few people around taking photos of the rather picturesque pub close to the park entrance. There were also many expensive cars parked in the short street.

A couple of friendly policemen helped people with directions (remember those days) then came the real police, armed with M4’s, who patrolled the streets with that ‘keep your distance’ look about them.

I headed into a cafe and got a brew, which I was just finishing when I heard a military band spark up. Heading on to the street it was changing of the guard time. The band and the guard marched proudly through the streets with their heavy bear skin hats stuck firmly to their heads. Escorting them were four police armed with their AR rifles, something that is quite sad to see in these changing times. Following the parade they headed into the castle grounds. Heading to the ticket office and through security I was finally inside the grounds.

On the way in I picked up an audio guide and was really glad I did as it was one of the best and most descriptive I have come across. I headed first to the State Appartments. Heading up some steps the first stop was Queen Mary’s doll house that contains over 1500 to-scale-models of everything from cars to a small gramophone. With lights and running water its well worth a look. Unfortunately no photos allowed anywhere inside the buildings. I can however recommend that you take a look at the Royal Collection online at rct.uk.

Every item in the castle is owned by the Royal Collection Trust; the funds raised from us tourists go to maintain it. Wandering from room to room, the whole thing was outstanding and by far the best castle experience I have had. Every room, many bigger than a house, had a story; one king used to have a getting up and going to bed ceremony,  which people could pay to come and watch, an idea he got from King Louis XIV of France. The same king had more than ten children, none with the queen, whom must have been rather tolerant.

There was a big fire here in November 1992, which severely damaged this part of the castle. Local staff turned out to rescue a large amount of the art we see here today. They even managed to get the large carpet out of one of the large halls before the fire got to it. Ceilings and floors collapsed – all have been restored using British Craftsmen. Many of the rooms contain large artworks by famous artists. Some walls are lined with swords, pistols and rifles. One display even contains the bullet that killed Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar. Looking closely one can see the gold braid from his tunic on the projectile.

There are rooms here where famous people get to stay the night after one of the Queen’s special overnight dinners. This is also where the knights of the garter receive their investiture. Founded by Edward III in 1348 this is the most senior order of knighthood out-ranked only by the Victoria and George Cross. Only 24 living people can be awarded this at any one time.

It was the normal exit at such places “through the shop”. I stopped in at the cafe for some lunch before moving back into the grounds. Opposite the Apartments on the other side of what were the jousting grounds is where the Queen lives. Her standard (flag) flying on the tower indicated she was home today.

I entered a courtyard that overlooks the jousting grounds and the queens residence. Heading through an arch brought me out into the main grounds with St George’s Chapel on my right and the home of the poor knights on my left. The vicar on duty outside the chapel gave me a run down on the poor knights when I asked who lived in the building across the road. Their real name is The Alms Knights, established by King Edward III following the battle of Crecy (1346), when many of the knights were captured by the French. Many were forced to sell their estates to pay a ransom for their release. When the knights of the garter were established in 1348 veterans were called on to serve God continually in prayer. Twenty six alms, or poor, knights were appointed to pray four times a day for the sovereign and the knights of the order of the garter. Originally impoverished military veterans who received a small pension, now they tend to be retired colonels and above who escort the Knights and Ladies of the garter and attend the daily services at the chapel.

The trip through the chapel was stacked with history with quite a few kings and queens entombed in the building, some in the floor and some in large tombs above the ground. The audio tour gave a good idea of who was who and what they had done during their time in power. In one corner lays John Schorn, a vicar who ended a drought by striking his cane on the ground. He had healing powers and was famous for trapping the devil in a boot. This Gothic building was completed in 1575, and with its little statues and large stone blocks it a very attractive building.

After exiting the cathedral it was time for coffee in a little cafe opened in the 1600’s.

Arriving back at the hotel I booked a massage down stairs in the hotel’s elaborate spa. Apparently with their sauna, steam room, salt room and lots of other services they are in the running to be the UK’s top spa this year. Alex, originally from Poland, gave me an excellent, hard massage, relaxing the legs in particular after the 10 miles they had clocked up today.

Sylvia finished at around 6pm and we enjoyed a light meal in the restaurant and a relaxing evening.


Friday 13 May 2022

Yesterday, while chatting to one of the park staff, I had discovered that today in the park was some pretty serious horse racing. I had seen what looked like a show grounds out to the west of the road to the castle yesterday. Starting there today are three races, the first 100 kilometres, the second 75 and the third 60. So I wandered back to the park to have a look. One of the volunteers on duty just inside the park explained that after each round of the park (about 20 kms) there are vet checks carried out on each horse to insure it is still in good shape. If the horse finishes too fast they are disqualified or, if not up to it, can be dropped from the race after a vet check. I forgot to ask exactly what one had to do to win.  Taking a stroll further into the park I eventually came across a bunch of horses in the race. Getting along at a controlled canter they weren’t covered in lather as I had expected despite at this point having been going for 3 hours.

On the bonnet of one of the helper’s cars was a promotion for the Mongol Derby, which is a 1000km relay race held in Mongolia to re enact Genghis Khan’s messaging service. THEADVENTURISTS.COM

Back at the hotel I checked out of our room and headed to the tea room to do some blog writing. While seated there I noticed a young guy learning to set the tables, his boss showing him in detail exactly where to place each plate and utensil so it’s all lined up perfectly. A little later Ryan, the hotel manager popped in and said hi. He had greeted us in the lobby yesterday and explained how he likes to meet all the guests. Next a group of nice ladies arrived for a high tea, chatting and enjoying the well-placed sandwiches and little cakes all laid out in detail, along with a glass of bubbles.

When Sylvia arrived having finished her conference, we went out to wait for our cab. The poor young waiter had to come and get me as I had walked out without paying. It was only his fifth day on the job; all credit to him he handled the situation very well and soon we were aboard an Uber and on our way to London city. An Uber driver with a Mercedes had picked us up and drove us to the Charlotte Street hotel without using the car mapping system.

Having checked into Sylvia’s favourite hotel we took a stroll to Oxford street for a bit of shopping. The town is very quiet with hardly a car in the streets we walked through. Even the many pubs only have a few patrons. It’s a lot different than the last Friday evening I was in London before the pandemic. Apparently lots of people in are only coming into London’s many offices Tuesday to Thursday so the pub night is now Thursday. Great for us but I wonder how these bars pay their rent.

Arriving at Oxford street it was packed with thousands of people. Don’t tell me people have given up the pubs in place of shopping! Large union jacks hang from wires strung high above the street celebrating the Queen’s up and coming Jubilee. It sounds like that is going to be a pretty big deal; let’s hope the Queen is in good enough health to get to the many celebrations.

Shopping over we headed back to the hotel and sat outside, where Sylvia enjoyed a high tea and me a glass of wine as we watched the few people that were out pass by.


Saturday 14 May 2022

After a delicious english breakfast (something one can’t find in the south of France) we took the tube out to Clapham to visit Molly, my cousin, and her husband Murray. Last time I was in town both had been struck down with a few medical issues and Murray was still in hospital. Both are now recovered and Murray was off to the local tennis club for a doubles game early afternoon. We had a good catch up over a coffee or two along with Hugh, a school friend of Murray’s who was visiting from Devon.

Next we wandered down the road and caught the #137 bus to Battersea by the Thames river. Well that was after getting on the first bus and going to the other side of town, the driver telling us to get off as we reached the end of the line. Battersea, originally a coal-fired power station was completed in 1935 and operated until 1980. Being the largest brick building in Europe with four 101 meter high chimneys, it is an impressive building. After closing in the 80’s it fell into a state of disrepair but in the last few years has been turned into apartments and an entertainment area with many bars and restaurants. We stopped and enjoyed a bite to eat at one of these while watching hundreds of people go by. The last few days in London had been exceptionally sunny so many people had taken to grabbing a piece of lawn and stripping down to their togs to absorb the sun’s rays. This was noticeable not just here but at the Clapham Common also.

We took a boat down the river to Vauxhall from where we caught the tube to Oxford street and a short walk back to the hotel. We spent the evening sitting outside watching the people go by.


Sunday 15 May 2022

After a late breakfast we caught a black cab to the airport for the flight home. The driver was an interesting and chatty bloke, who was very willing to share his knowledge. As we headed along Oxford street he explained how prisioners, destined for the gallows, used to be held at one end of the street prior to making the journey along the street to the gallows by Marble Arch  where they would be strung up. On the way apparently they were allowed to do a bit of a pub crawl to enjoy their last few hours of life, hence the saying “one for the road.” When they had had their fill and could no longer walk they were put “on the wagon”.

I asked him why many of the black type cabs are now covered in sign writing. Apparently these are the cabs that are rented by the drivers. He also went on to say that drivers still have to do a test on where every street in London is to get their taxi badge. It takes several years to learn this and often people work part-time while studying. One has to be able to recite the directions to the examiner. The car this guy had was only weeks old and a hybrid. On a good day he can get 60 miles on a charge before having to run the generator (motor) but in the cold of winter that will drop to 30 miles.

Landing back in Marseille we noticed on the drive back that the grapes are starting to flower.


In the last couple of days, when out walking, I have noticed lots of work going on in the vineyards – from large tractors that straddle the vines with spray booms dousing the crop to workers, mainly woman, out with hoes taking care of the weeds. Today there was a tractor heading along the vines with a couple of what looked like brooms which omitted a spray to kill off any lower stems sprouting from the main vine.

A few days in Buenos Aires

Wednesday 26 April 2022

Arriving from Santiago late last night and checking into the Hilton, we were up early as Sylvia headed of to a day of meetings with the local Royal Canin team.

The Hilton is situated alongside the Rio Dique, which was once a port canal area where the old buildings alongside the water have been turned into restaurants, bars and office space. On the east (seaward side) a large number of high rise apartments have been built with new ones still going up. With inflation running well in the double digits in Argentina it is surprising to see how life just seems to go on as normal in this big city.

I was last here several years ago and am surprised to see the number of new tall buildings that have been added since then. It’s really great to see how they have kept the old cranes on display alongside the canal, standing like tall ornaments, painted in bright colours. The bridges still operate to swing aside to let, mainly pleasure, craft pass in and out of the area, each having a tidy and well kept control room. A tall ship is moored permanently on one side as a museum. There are 3 of these ships from the 1800’s, with one still operating as a training ship for the navy.


Thursday 27 April 2022

The day was spent catching up on a bit of work and a trip to the gym. In the evening I was picked up and driven to a restaurant to join the Royal Canin team for dinner at a very nice restaurant, a little way out from the city centre. Here we feasted on a variety of very tasty meats coming from every part of the cattle beast and finished off sharing an assortment of desserts and ice creams  dished up on one large plate.


Friday 28 April 2022

I took a stroll to the main station next to the favélas I had accidentally visited the last time I was here. Boarding the number one train, I headed to the end of the line and a place called Tigre (which is what jaguars are called here). One of the people at the dinner last night had recommended this place. Dismounting the train at the end of the line, I headed out of the station to be confronted by a really pretty town with a river running through the middle of it. It’s a tourist spot with cruises running from here out into the marshlands, which is a huge area full of waterways that feed the River Plate, including the Uruguay River.

At a local booth with a bit of point and pay, I soon had a ticket to ride one of the many tourist boats that leave from there to explore the many waterways. It was a bit of a fluke really as I ended up on quite a big catamaran with a good view from the top deck. Soon we were heading down the Puerto Delta De Tigre (river) passing a large amusement park and lots of industrial buildings, before heading north up one of the many waterways. This place can only really be described by photographs.

Hidden in these waterways is a whole city; they have schools, play centres and other community assets. There is a medical boat complete with doctors, nurses and a dentist that does a continuous circuit of the area. There is even a floating supermarket that does the rounds. Every house seems to have its own jetty with a lift to keep the boat out of the water. Most houses are well above the water on high foundations; they must get some big floods through here from time to time. One area we went through seemed to be dedicated to water sports.

We headed north, east and then south meeting the main river and heading upstream to the start point. Along the banks of this part there were many abandoned old boats, some of them now serving as giant pots with large trees growing in them. There was a navy station with their boats patrolling the waterways like a police force. The area is part of the Parana Delta, which is is some 14,000 square kilometres in size. We passed many boats loaded right up to the gunnels, a saying I have often heard over the years but this is the first time I have witnessed it.

As I was crossing the bridge after the tour finished, the boat I had been on pulled out from the bank, did a 180 degree turn and headed back down the river.

In the evening I joined Sylvia and some of her colleagues at an Argentinian tango show. We had a great meal and enjoyed some very energetic and highly precise dancing that followed the development of the Argentinian tango through the years. This version of the tango includes a lot of foot kicking that must result in some very bruised legs (and potentially more sensitive parts of the body too) when one is learning.


Saturday 29 April 2022

Sylvia and I had ended up on different flights back to France after a bit of a cock up in the booking. We headed off to the airport mid-morning, the plan being for her to wait for me in Montpellier as my flight was going via Amsterdam, hers through Paris…


Sunday 30 April 2022

We touched down in Amsterdam to be told by the pilot that we would have to wait to head to the gate because of congestion in the airport. After 30 minutes or so we parked at the gate and were allowed off. Heading to the transfer area and back through security there were about 500 people waiting to go through the two security points open. Over two hours later, with immigration still to come my connecting flight had long since left.

After finally making it through immigration, I headed to the KLM lounge, where the service staff were very helpful. There was another flight to Montpellier via Paris later in the day landing at 10.30 at night. Sylvia had arrived in Montpellier early afternoon and had an early start the next day. The staff then suggested a flight to Marseille, arriving at 4.30pm, which I took. Sylvia made the 90 minute drive over to pick me up. Apparently the Dutch airport authority had not accounted for the school holidays and all the people wanting to travel again.

Back in France spring is prominent with everything looking alive; the grape vines green and wild poppies gracing many fields.

A weekend in the Atacama Desert

Saturday 23 April 2022

Up early, we headed across the road to the to the LATAM terminal to board our flight to Calama.  A two-hour flight north took us over large desert-like ranges with large solar farms and mines dotted along the way. There was even the odd town along the way. A driver met us and a nice Brazilian couple at the exit. We mounted a ford transit van and headed north out of town, passing a couple of wind and solar farms as we headed north to San Pedro de Atacama on a well-maintained, sealed road. There is a little rather hardy vegetation spaced out in places across the desert.

A little over an hour later we arrived at the Nayara Alto Atacama,  a little oasis in amongst what is bare-rock and river bed. The staff welcomed us and we had a quick briefing on the afternoon, evening and early morning activities that we were to participate in. We quickly settled into our room before heading off to a rather delicious BBQ lunch. This place has been well put together with green paddocks, ponds and the odd llama grazing behind the fences.

After lunch we enjoyed a massage before heading out in a van with two other couples for a journey into the salt mountains. Heading back out onto the main road we turned south, driving several miles before turning right (east) onto a good shingle road on a large flat valley. This road is surprisingly smooth and there are a few vehicles on it. After a few minutes we turned left (north) and headed down a not so well kept road. Heading up a slight hill we stopped on a low ridge and dismounted, where our guide gave us a run down on how the interesting formations had come about. 65-odd million years ago this had all been under the sea. Over many millions of years the Nazca and South American plates have been opposing one another, thus raising the land up from beneath the sea.  It is essentially salt, rock, sand and lots of minerals. Nothing visible to the naked eye grows here. Features such as rocks are sand blasted by the southerly winds that carry sand at around 100 kilometres an hour. Infrequent but heavy rain also has an effect, washing away any soft material and leaving large grooves in this moon-like landscape. The white stuff in the photos is salt.

Several other vans and a rugged bus were also in the area. We drove on to another stop inspecting a large piece of rock that had been mined in the past. Standing in silence we could hear the cracking as the salt expanded in the veins of the rock.

Another short drive had us standing on a ridge where our guide pointed out a large sand drift in the lee of a small hill. There is a  mountain range to the east and the Andes Mountains to the west with the salt mountain range in between them. There is absolutely no sign of vegetation here. It is the highest and driest desert on earth. The average rainfall is 1-3mm a year. Some rain stations in the desert have never recorded rain. By the look of the terrain, when they do get rain it comes all at once.

We continued out into a flat part of the desert where our guide and driver set up a wine and cheese table while we watched the sunset and the colour on the mountains change. We could also see the sun reflecting of  he buildings at the Alma, the worlds largest radio telescope station.

Around here the sand has almost buried large trees, which still keep growing in spite of the sand. We also had a good chat to Mike and Charlotte (on the right) from London, who have spent a couple of weeks in Chile.

We headed northeast, the track bringing us back onto the main road just north on San Pedro. Back at the Alto Atacama camp we relaxed for a while then at 8pm we took a stroll up a  onto small hill with a guide to star gaze. The milky way was quite prominent in the clear sky with various star groups standing out such as the southern cross. After a late night and an early start I almost dozed off as we lay on the bed type chairs looking at the sky.


Sunday 24 April 2022

At 0500 we arrive at the reception ready to hit the road to the geysers. On the board the trip shows a start time at 0530. Sylvia is not impressed as she would have loved another 30 mins sleep. The poor bloke that had written the time down wrong on our sheet did later apologise.  After a cup of coffee or two, the two couples joining us, one from Brasil and the other from New York, turned up. We mounted the van for the hour and a half drive to the geysers. Apart from being stopped by the police to see we had the correct paperwork the journey was uninterrupted. A steady climb took us up to 4500m before dropping down slightly onto an almost plateau, where we often deviated off the road onto desert tracks to avoid the corrugations in the shingle road. At first light we arrived at the geyser field.

We stopped for a bathroom visit and were told as we alighted the van it was -10 degrees C. The air was really dry so it didn’t feel that cold – or else they were exaggerating the temperature to add to the experience. We mounted up again and drove a short distance to the steam field. These were defiantly not the biggest geysers in the world but the people who hadn’t seen geysers before were certainly excited. We wandered through the field as our guide provided some explanations. They have tried to generate electricity from these fields with little success, there is and old piece of such equipment sitting rusting in the field. Unlike geyser fields around Rotorua in NZ there was no  smell of sulphur. Even though we are at 4300 meters the nearby volcanos of the Andes tower above us. One such still active mountain has a road to the top from where they used to mine sulphur.

After a couple of strolls around the geyser field, at one spot waiting 10 minutes for the geyser to blow off a bit of steam, we  headed back down the road we had come in on. Stopping by a small wetland the guide and driver set up some chairs and prepared a rather nice breakfast as we relaxed in the sunshine. The pond was surrounded by a tussock like plant – even in a climate this dry and still at 4000m add water and stuff grows.

As we drove away I spotted a sly Andean fox waiting to race out and see if we had left any scraps behind.

Heading back down the hill we passed another pond hosting water birds and a mob of vicuna with young ones in tow. These are often hunted by the locals for their nice fur and meat. Crook, teal and Andean geese floated around on the water (or walked on the ice) as if oblivious to all us tourists studying them.

The contrast of colours in this area are really quite outstanding and not what one would expect in such a dry barren place. As we headed further down the hill we stopped on a steep incline where the guide pointed out a couple of green rabbit type things with long tails apparently these viscacha are quite good eating.  Another wetland a little further down the hill, just past a small village, had the four varieties of Pink Flamingos found in this part of the world all feeding in little groups on a fresh water pink shrimp. There was also a little hut near the pond designed for the rangers to take shelter in.

On the drive back to the hotel we got to see some great views across the plains as well is some rather large cactus plants on the side of a canyon. Arriving back at the hotel we had lunch and a massage and all to soon it was time to head to the airport for the flight back to Santiago – a great weekend break over far too quickly.


Monday 25 April 2022

The morning was spent catching up on some work stuff in NZ; most of the afternoon was spent trying to change a booking with Aerolineas Argentinas airlines. I have mentioned before that travel has got a lot harder post Covid! Well these bastards set out to confirm that. I had the fare to Buenos Aires booked for Wednesday night instead of Tuesday. Sylvia had had a go at changing it yesterday online with no luck. I had a go on line but it just could not be done – well not by me either.  I then went for a stroll down to their local office just down the road. A sign on the window “closed until further notice! Phone ….!” Back at the hotel I tried the phone, no luck! Then the WhatsApp number by message (not allowed to ring that one) following the prompts which ended with “we will get someone to contact you”. That was two days ago and yes, you guessed it, that someone is no one!! I headed down to the hotel reception and got help from a very helpful staff member who spoke english. She rang all the numbers and got the same message on each number she tried: “we don’t answer the phone, contact us on WhatsApp”. My interpretation “You’re a customer, we want nothing to do with you! Piss off and fly with someone else!”. In the end we just booked another fare and went to the airport early to check in, where a very helpful woman sorted it out after checking with her supervisor and me paying another 75USD.


Tuesday 25 April 2022

A driver picked me up mid-morning and we headed to the National History Museum, situated next to the Plazade Armas (a revered city plaza with many statues). A bunch of school children were in full noise as they marched around the plaza protesting, about what I am not sure.

Chile was taken by the Spanish in the mid 1500s although there was little gold here compared with Peru. Pedro de Valdivia, an army captain recognised the agricultural value and with around 200 men ventured into the country, overpowering the locals and founding Santiago in 1542. The greatest resistance to Spanish rule came from the Mapuche people, who opposed European conquest and colonisation until the 1880s; this resistance is known as the Arauco War. Valdivia died at the Battle of Tucapel, defeated by Lautaro, a young Mapuche toqui (war chief), but the European conquest was well underway.

The country was basically ruled by the Spanish until the early 1800s when a war of independence was fought in 1818. Chile declared itself independent although this was not recognised by Spain until 1840. Apart from the normal political punch-ups things rolled along until the early 1970s when Chile headed down the socialist path under Allende’s presidency. In 1973 a coup, backed by the CIA, saw Allende shoot himself and Pinochet take power. At this stage inflation was running at 600% ( I hope NZ is not heading that way under our socialist orientated government). Since then Chile has been through many ups and downs but appears to be on an up just now although there is a fair bit of unrest and a lot of change coming with a newly elected left-leaning government and the constitution being rewritten – apparently by a committee of some 150 citizens… watch this space.

A stroll through the local streets took us to the Museo Chileno De Art (art history Museum) where some of the aftifacts looked like some of the pre European NZ stuff. Maybe there was a copyright breach way back.

Not far away is the presidential palace where i could only observe from behind a low fence as the local military in their smart uniforms and shiny long boots stood guard. The police here still wear polished leather belts and holsters

From there we strolled back to the car, passing the demonstrating students gathered around a large statue of a horse in the Square of many statues. Next I was driven to the military museum, which took one on a journey of the country’s years of conflicts and military history, including escapades into Antartica.

 

The last stop of the day was the Sky Costanera. At 300 meters high it has a good view of the city and i am sure on a better day a good view of the surrounding countryside. Looking down on the city I was surprised to see a complex and and very modern infrastructure in relation to the roading system with roads seeming to run both underground and above ground, crossing over each other with ease; there appears to be a lack of congestion from where I sat. With just under 6 million people it is a big city with wide streets and some nice buildings, let down a little by the amount of graffiti on many buildings. A short stroll took me back to the hotel. At 5.45pm the driver picked me up and we cruised past the Royal Canin office to pick Sylvia up on the way to the airport for our flight to Buenos Aires. A big thanks to the team at Royal Canin for organising the driver and the places to go.

Good friends in Hawaii

Saturday 16 April 2022

Arriving at Auckland airport there were a few more people around than in January. Still none of the airline lounges are open and many of the shops are closed. The one cafe open has a constant queue of waiting passengers.

Once again I am flying on Fiji Airlines with a stop in Nadi. I did ring Air NZ to book a fare to Hawaii but was told “we don’t fly to Hawaii until July”. I suggested that I could fly to LA with them then they could book me on United to Hawaii and back to LA. The answer I got back surprised me. “No we can’t do that – we don’t fly to Hawaii until July”. Hence I went on line and booked with Fiji, saving over a thousand dollars.

This time the flight was full to Nadi, where I waited a couple of hours in the very nice business class lounge there. The lounge was quite full with people flying back to to the US after a relaxing holiday at one of Fiji’s many discounted resorts. In the 1980’s planes couldn’t make it all the way to the US so there were always one or two stops along the way. The next leg of the flight to LA was also full in spite of which the service on the flight was up there with what one would get on Singapore or Emirates.

Arriving in the US immigration had their sights on me again. The lady behind the counter said “we can’t find your ESTA do you have a copy of it?” Since an incident in Mexico a few years ago I have always carried a hard copy. I handed it over and she said “wait over there”. Soon an immigration officer turned up and said “follow me”. This time it was to a room with a hundred odd people in it. “Stand or sit over there and do not look at or touch your phone”! After what seemed like an hour I took my phone out to look at the time and was immediately pounced on. A few hours later I was called to a booth where the guy tapped some keys, stamped my passport and handed it to me. I asked what the problem was. Apparently when the airline had scanned my passport the 9 at the end had come through as a 0.  Stopping at the counter they gave me a chit to give to the airline who would put me on a later flight no extra charge. Racing out of the terminal, jumping a bus and then a bit of walking I made it to the United terminal. People let me jump the queue for security after which I ran to the gate, which was the furtherest in the terminal, just making it as the last person to board my original flight.

Five hours later we landed in Hawaii where I was met by good friends, Dave, Chrissie and daughter Ruby. Dave is over here as a Liaison Warrant Officer for the New Zealand Defence Force on a two year posting which finishes at the end of this year. I am their first visitor.

Dave and Chrissie live just across the road from Ewa Beach on Iroquois Point, which is situated in the west side of the entrance to Pear Harbour. All the naval craft sail in and out of the harbour not far from their house. Across the other side of the harbour entrance is the three runway airport which both military and civil share. There is a constant trail of civilian aircraft landing and taking off and every now and then there is a more intense roar of jet engines as the military F22 raptor generation jets take to the sky.

After a good catch up Chrissie headed off to bed. Dave and I headed over to meet the neighbour, Aaron, a 20-year-plus veteran of the US Navy. Still serving as a Chief Petty Officer he is a great bloke with lots of stories to tell. After a few good yarns it was time to hit the hay.


Sunday 17 April 2022

After checking out the beach across the road and watching a couple of naval ships go in and out of the harbour we headed over to Barbaras point to join some friends of Dave and Chrissie, who work for the local FBI SWAT. We relaxed and chatted the afternoon away. People swam and surfed, some on the airfoil boards skimming across the waves effortlessly.


Monday 18 April 2022

We headed around the harbour and into the hills on highway 3. A tunnel took us to the windy side of the island where the steep hills are covered in thick bush as the rain gets dropped there as it hits the island. We dropped in to Old Paly Rd Whiskey, which is run by a retired US Marine Colonel who Dave works with. Then it was off round the coast, stopping at a lookout above Wailamaio Beach for a look across the colourful water.

Next stop was a blow hole next to a beach famous for movie sets. The colour of the water here is quite striking.

We stopped at a beachside park and enjoyed a picnic lunch before heading to Diamond Head where a tunnel takes one through into the crater. Dave showed his military ID and was given free entry and thanked politely for his service. I had been up on the head when visiting Hawaii in 1988. Back then one could just wander up a track on the hill to the top at no charge. Those tracks are all closed and it looks like the money is rolling in. We enjoyed a pineapple flavoured sorbet watching many people paying for the walk up the hill on the old railway track used to ferry ammunition and supplies up the hill to the gun emplacements.   Back in the late 1800’s a number of cannons were installed in the crater to defend the island, able to lob shells 8 miles out to sea.

A short drive found us in the Waikiki Beach part of town amongst the expensive shops, bars and restaurants. After parking in a parking building we took a stroll through town in the direction of the beach to visit the military museum, which turned out to be closed on Mondays. Behind the museum is the famous Waikiki Beach, which was, as usual, swarming with holiday-makers, some who who had received an overdose of the sun. By the pier lay a  monk seal guarded by cones and tape and supervised by a local conservation officer making sure that no no one went near this rare and protected species. A short stroll back into town and we visited the bar to quench our thirst. Interestingly, even though the US is well behind on some forms of banking as they’re still using cheques, here, after setting up a tab at the bar, you paid by scanning a QR code on the table and simply walking away. Once I figured it out it seemed to work well and I didn’t get charged twice. We enjoyed a meal at Duke’s Lane Market Restaurant before heading home.


Tuesday 19 April 2022

We wake up to find there is no water in the area due to a leak somewhere. This means the local schools are closed for the day along with some other public services. Like any big city in the world, this one has its infrastructure problems. Recently fuel from a big storage area under a hill, where the fuel is stored for the Navy and reserves to the island (apparently billions of gallons), leaked into and contaminated the bore that provides water to this part of the island. There are also, from time to time, power outages  and traffic jams.

There are around a million people living on the island of  Oahu. Around 50,000 of those are serving military personal plus around 80,000 family members. After tourism the military is the next biggest contributor to the island’s economy.

Mid-morning Dave dropped me off at the Pearl Ridge Shopping Centre, where I spent the next couple of hours trying to find a PCR Covid test in preparation for the next leg of the journey. Finally I located a place at Pearl Harbour shopping centre a few miles down the road. It was a drive-through place but they did let me walk through and the staff were very helpful. I never did get the results of the test though. After completing the test I headed to the Pearl Harbour museum.  There I boarded a bus, which took me across to Ford Island, where I visited the aviation museum. This is split over two hangars, one of which still has bullet holes in the glass from the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbour in December 1941. There are large range of aircraft dating back to World War II with a large complement of modern fighter jets and military helicopters, many parked outside between the two hangars.

Next stop was a visit to the US Bowfin submarine that has been tied up at Pearl Harbour since 1981 as a tourist attraction. Launched in 1942, it played a part in the Second World War, serving throughout the Pacific and sinking more than 15 enemy ships. With 10 officers and 70 crew it would’ve been quite a cramped place to live. No doubt in those days the crew was kept occupied polishing the large number of brass objects on the ship. With 4 large V16 diesel engines which charged the batteries (these could only be run on the surface or down to periscope depth) it had a range of 20 thousand miles.

Dave picked me up on his way home from work. We spent a quiet evening chatting, our conversations often interrupted by the loud roar of the raptor jets practising their night flying around the island or a C17 cargo jet thundering down the runway amongst the many civilian flights coming and going.


Wednesday 20 April 2022

The water came back on during the night but schools are still closed. Dave dropped me off at the military museum in town just before it opened at 10am. Just after 10, having had a wander around the outside, I headed to the door which was still locked. A closer look revealed a sign “Closed for alterations February to December 2022”.

Booking an Uber, I headed back to Pearl Harbour catching the bus again over to Ford Island, this time to visit the Missouri, the 63rd and second last battleship ever made by the US Navy and the last to be finished. Launched in January 1944 the 57,540 ton battleship, with 9 x16 inch guns and other armaments, was truly a magnificent ship. 270 meters long and 36 meters wide it originally had a crew of 2700. This was reduced in the 1980s to 1800. It was where the Japanese signed the surrender at the end of World War II and there is a display on the deck where this was done, including a copy of the surrender document, which the Canadians signed on the wrong line pushing everybody else down, with New Zealand just about off the page.

Only the main and one other deck are open to the public at present; even just navigating these spaces takes a good couple of hours and I’m sure a lot longer if you stop to read every sign. The ship saw action in World War II, Korea and was last involved in conflict in the 1990 Gulf war, firing a few cruise missiles into Iraq. Although struck from the Navy register in 1995 the ship did not arrive at Pearl Harbour until 1998, where it now attracts thousands of tourists a year. I’m sure as time goes on the lower decks will be open to the public and I will definitely be back for another visit. Its 16 inch guns could send  a 2700lb shell 23 miles in 50 seconds. Each gun operated individually; they could rotate over 300 degrees but were only fired when the barrel ends were over the water to prevent damage to the ship. Compared to the submarine there is lots of space on this ship with a large mess or dining hall for the crew, where president Roosevelt queued up with the sailors to get fed when he and his wife were travelling on the ship. There is a separate mess for the petty officers, the warrant officers, officers and senior officers. The ship has its own bakery, a post office and even an Internet room, which no doubt was added later.

Dave picked me up and we headed back to Ewa beach for some dinner before I was dropped at the airport for the flight to LA.


Thursday 21 April 2022

Arriving at LAX at 6.30 am I stayed airside heading for the International Departure terminal, hoping to set myself up in the lounge for the day. However, partly due to Covid, most of the lounges were not yet open, the Star Alliance lounge not opening till 10 am. As I had not received any results from the Covid test in Hawaii, which according to the documentation was required to into Chile, I headed out of the terminal to find a locally situated testing centre. Taxis have been banned from LA International airport, I presume for congestion reasons, so I managed to get a bus to a taxi terminal and then a rather grumpy taxi driver to the local 911 Covid testing centre. I think the taxi driver was a bit pissed off that I wasn’t going far enough and informed me that there was a minimum fee of $20.

The PCR test was really easy- after parting with 189USD I stood at the counter and the lady reached through from behind the glass and stuck the stick up my nose. I received the results 2 1/2 hours later.

Arriving back at the terminal I could not get through to the lounges as I did not yet have a boarding pass. The entering Chile process is rather complicated. You have to go online, fill out forms and wait for them to get approved. Eventually after several hours I got as far as the checkout process, which then informed me that due to Covid I couldn’t check in online. I had to wait for the checkout counter to open, so at around 2 o’clock I headed there and checked in. My Covid test wasn’t required and according to the  counter staff hadn’t been for several days. Nobody had updated the website. I did have to show a certificate to say that I had Covid insurance and that I had filled in the C19 form and that was about it – much less complicated than it appeared online.


Friday 22 April 2022

After a sleepless 10.5-hour overnight flight from LAX we touched down at Santiago Airport in Chile, where after a complicated form-filling process at the airport I made my way to the  Holiday Inn, where I spent the day catching up on a few things while waiting for Sylvia to arrive from Mexico, where she had been visiting the Royal Canin team for the past couple of days, having also visited Bogota from France in the early part of the week .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a Hard Road Home

We talked a bit in the last post about traveling in the world of Covid. In Europe it’s reasonably easy. Leaving Europe to head to South America is a little more difficult. Forms and more forms. Tests and oops the results don’t arrive so its another test. Luckily Sylvia is really good at that stuff. There is that question in one’s mind, “what happens if I test positive for covid in Colombia?” All one can do is deal with it if it happens. Will lose isolation spot in NZ but go back to France after a negative test.


Friday 18 February 2022

Sylvia arrived home from work early so we could make it to the Montpellier Airport for our 7.45pm flight to Paris. Just making the flight with seconds to spare we made it to Paris, where a taxi awaited us. Part way to the hotel Sylvia gets a second call from another taxi driver who is waiting for us at the airport – we still don’t know how that happened. Arriving at the Renaissance Hotel in the Marais area of Paris we settled in for the night.


Saturday 19 February 2022

We woke to a blue sky with views over the chimneys to the Sacré Cœur church. Heading down to breakfast we observed that the hotel had been recently done up in the 1970’s style. We were here, well thats not quite true, Sylvia was, to check out some Royal Canin Pop-up stores, which have been set up to research the market in relation to cats and dogs. A short walk from the hotel passing the the Place de la Republique we arrived at the  A la Découverte de Royal Canin pop-up store.

One of the team was there to greet us and took us on a tour through the store. Just inside the entrance there is an area where people can take selfies and have them sent to them. There is a wall where people can write notes . Next there is an interactive screen one can stroke and the fur on the screen moves, dates come up which one can click on and the history of Royal Canin comes up.

Friendly staff greeted people as they came in; some bring their cats to get photographed by an onsite photographer. Her lovely dog had to be held away from the studio door while the cat pics were underway. People can also choose a personalised carry bag. There is an interactive programme which helps people chose the right cat or dog to suit both their personality and living environment.

As we wandered back past the memorial a protest had sparked up in support of the Tigre region in Ethiopia.

We jumped on to the metro which took us under the Seine River to the St Germain area where we enjoyed lunch and some people watching before wandering down to the Royal Canin L’Atelier Félin.

We were welcomed to the shop by a couple of the team members. This shop specialises in cats and in the back is an area where people can meet with a specialist to discuss cat behaviour and nutrition.  There are also some interactive screens and a friendly bunch of staff ready to offer advice to customers on what to feed their cats. Royal Canin specialise in specific food to suit your pet’s lifestyle, breed, age and, with a veterinarian recommendation, specific conditions that they may suffer from. Downstairs there is a large range of product available.

From there we strolled back to the hotel, crossing the Seine River and passing the Saint-Eustache church, enjoying the attractive streets of Paris.


Sunday 20 February 2022.

The drive to the airport was fast with little traffic until we got to the vicinity of the terminal where cars came to a standstill; our driver kept driving up the outside lane then cutting in to the traffic probably knocking 20 minutes off our journey. It quickly became obvious we wern’t the only people leaving the country.  Heading through the priority queues and striking one of the best counter guys ever, we were soon in the lounge meeting up with Sylvia’s team members Sarah, Sophie and Mathieu, who were accompanying Sylvia on the market visit.

Landing in the concrete jungle of Sao Paulo we were picked up in a couple SUV’s and headed northeast along really good, up-to-5-lane motorways. Three hours later we arrived at the Marklin Hotel in Sao Carlos around 10pm local time.


Monday 21 February 2022

We met for breakfast at 7am with a number of the Royal Canin leaders who had driven up from São Paulo last night. Sylvia and the team headed off to the Royal Canin factory in the nearby town of Descalvado. I took a stroll around the local streets. Like most South American cities there must be some really good barbed-wire salesmen here, with most walls around houses topped with barbed-wire. The streets were tidy and well-kept with good footpaths and well maintained berms.

I followed a large stormwater drain down to an intersection with a large statue of Jesus (quite common in this part of the world). There are also a few blocks of high rise apartments dotted around the city, with its population of 250,000.

At noon Plinio, a very enthusiastic manager from Royal Canin, picked me up and drove me around the rest of the city pointing out large condominium areas on the edge of town all fenced and with manned gates.

From there we drove through the local farmland to the town of Descalvado where the Royal Canin factory is. The area is full of lush farmland growing corn, coffee, grasses for stock and sugar cane. Interestingly there are four pet food factories in the town. They were originally set up here as there was an abundant supply of protein such as chicken, pork etc., and corn, however the government has started subsidising the growing of sugar cane for the manufacture of bio-fuel. Most local farmers have switched to the cane as, with the subsidies, there is more money in it. Hence the ingredients have to be sourced from much further away now pushing up the cost of production.

Arriving at the factory Sylvia and her team were still on the factory tour. I sat in the staffroom and chatted to a couple of friendly people. Sylvia and the team arrived and a few speeches were made before we headed off on the drive back to Sao Paulo, this time in a bullet-proof car. After checking into the Raddison Hotel around 8:30pm we turned in for an early night.


Tuesday 22 February 2022.

After breakfast Sylvia headed off for a day visiting stores and veterinary clinics. I headed off on foot to explore a little of this concrete jungle. With 12.4 million people crammed into 1521 km2 the central city is full of multi-storey tower blocks, many over 20-storeys high. Lots of old buildings are being knocked down and new apartments blocks going up. The city is 465 years old and the largest in Brazil and in the southern hemisphere. Heading southwest I came to the Parque Ibirapuera, a large, well-kept park with a couple of lakes and lots of pathways, trees and many stalls getting set up for the day’s trading. I was surprised at the number of people out exercising or just strolling. There are a number of museums and pavillions in the park – all closed as I was a bit early, or closed for Covid.

Next to the park is a large monument “Obelisk of Sao Paulo”, 72 meters high; construction began in 1947 and was completed in 1970. It is dedicated to the victims of the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932. The monument itself is fenced off however underneath there is a large chamber with lots of names on the walls and several chapels.

I strolled back through another park where I saw a homeless man hauling his kit, tent included, up into a tree. From there I wandered the streets discovering another park in the middle of town, fenced and with phone and power wires strung up like cobwebs. The streets were busy crammed with cars and pedestrians.


Wednesday 23 February 2022:  Travel starts to get a bit more challenging…

After breakfast we headed to the airport for our flight to Bogota via Panama. Arriving at check in the nice lady behind the counter asked for our Covid vaccine certificate and our yellow fever certificate.  We all looked at her a bit surprised. Luckily I had my yellow fever certificate with me in a satchel I carry with all I might need one day – stuff like a spare Passport, hard copies of vaccination certificates etc. Sylvia had left hers in France and Sophie had never had the jab. The firm’s travel agent had dropped the ball on this one and not advised them of the requirement of having the vaccine at least 10-days before traveling out of Brazil to Columbia. After many phone calls and checking all over the terminal for a vaccination place it became apparent that there was no way Sylvia and Sophie could make the flight. I had to go on my own as my flight to NZ was booked out of Bogota.

I boarded the plane feeling sad for Sylvia, Sophie and the Royal Canin team in Columbia who had been looking forward to the boss’s visit for some time.

Arriving in Bogota late in the evening I was met by Tomas (the Royal Canin country manager) and his driver, who I figured out very quickly from the bulge in his jacket, was packing a gun. We headed to the car park, our driver bringing up the rear, and mounted a Toyota SUV with bullet-proof windows and armour in the doors etc. Recently one of the managers, moving with his family to Bogota, arrived at the airport with his family. The family and most of the baggage left in a bullet-proof car while he went in a taxi with the rest of the baggage. On the journey, while stopped at the lights, two blokes walked up and smashed the window to the taxi, held a gun to the manager’s head and took all his valuables, computer, passport etc. There have been lots of people here held up at knife point at ATM’s and phones snatched out of peoples hands etc. Crime has risen in Bogota with a large number of young refugees coming from Venezuela.

Arriving at the Four Seasons I was checked into a very nice suite, booked obviously for Sylvia. Tomas joined me for a drink and, being originally from Argentina, a chat about rugby.


Thursday 24 February 2022

While enjoying a good breakfast at the hotel I received a message from Mauricio, who was to be my driver for the next few days. He was waiting in the car park downstairs. Soon we were on the road and heading through the slow and dense traffic. Our first stop was the Bataro Museum. This was a mixture of some rather different art, a section about the drug wars, an area on currency over the years and a few other bits and pieces, none of which I really understood as it was all in Spanish. I did however manage to set off an alarm when stepping back too close to a painting when taking a photo.

Next sop was the military museum where I struck a really friendly bunch of people, working out I only spoke english a young soldier was called down from the next floor to take me on a tour. Rodrigos had spent time clearing mines dotted around the country left over from the FARC; about 25% of these still remain. He guided us through the museum with items in relation to various conflicts dating back to the independence war with the Spanish in the early 1800s, and many conflicts that have followed including wars with Ecuador, Peru, Panama and a number of revolutions. There have also been operations against pirates and still ongoing guerrilla war which seems to be igniting again with the FARC. A treaty was signed with them in 2016, which is represented by a gold AK-47 with a spade on the bottom of it displayed in the museum. I had been forwarded a security briefing that a confrontation with the FARC had taken place that morning some 500km north east of Bogotá where 23 terrosits  were killed so it looks like it’s not over. Columbia also took part in World War II and in the Korean War and there were good displays and equipment used in these conflicts and also a good history of the Army, Navy and Air force. All the staff are very friendly and two soldiers based outside guarding the place with their Czechoslovakian made AKs were keen to have their photo taken with me.

Next we strolled down the street past the presidential palace and round the back to the police museum. This had a good section on Pablo Escobar, including a poster with the 100 million Peso reward offered at the time of his capture. Not sure if anyone got paid out. There were areas on crime detection, bomb disposal and other bits of history.

We strolled back across the Plaza de Bolivar and past the Cathedral Primada de Colombia. Lots of traders and stall holders were set up around here selling both food and general merchandise.

Next stop was at the bottom of the hill which has Monseratt on top. We brought a ticket for the steep cable railway carriage which hauled us to the top.

Dismounting the car we headed up the many steps to the church as the rain closed in, the views over the city fast disappearing. After a quick look at the church we headed back down the steps to a large restaurant to enjoy a local lunch. On leaving the restaurant I had a few problems paying as their eftpos machine was not getting a signal, and to make matters worse I had no locals in my wallet; luckily it sorted its self so I avoided the embarrassment ment of having to ask Mauricio to pay.

We mounted the car and headed back down the hill, passing the upcoming car on the way.

Next we headed to the gold museum; with its large vault doors this place was simply amazing. All the gold objects had been dug up from various Inca and Mayan tombs, some dating back thousands of years. It can only be described by the  few pictures I took as i don’t have the words to describe it. The leaders, kings or rulers from those times really left us a legacy from the burial rituals that took place in their belief in the afterlife. I left thinking that from our time now there will be nothing left on earth when we move on to give those 1000 years in the future any inclination is to how we have lived in the past few hundred years. I don’t think any of our leaders today or the wealthy people amongst us will leave behind them a legacy such as left by these great rulers of the time. There was a shop on the ground floor where one could purchase gold plated copies of some of the jewellery worn back in those times.

Arriving back at the hotel I enjoyed an excellent massage at their spa, administered by a masseuse who was incredibly strong in relation to her size.

That evening I enjoyed a dinner with the Royal Canin Colombia leadership team, which had been organised for them to socialise with Sylvia and Sophie. They are a great group of people all dedicated to making a better life for cats and dogs.


Friday 25 February 2022

Mauricio was waiting bright and early, our first stop being a testing centre to get yet another covid test. The first place did not do the tests for travel however the next stop was successful with the aid of the camera on google translate to get the form sorted. The staff were really friendly and with no one waiting we were soon on the road out of town.

Heading to the Salt mine at Zipaquira, 45km from Bogota, I have never seen so many busses all on a seperate road alongside the highway; they were at times nose to tail almost like a train. Long bus stations are alongside the bus road catering for thousands of people. One would think with all those buses there would be little traffic. That was not the case – it took us 2.5 hours to make the journey. Even as we entered the toll road with its fully digital gates the traffic only reduced a little.

Arriving at the mine site we bought a couple of tickets and headed down the drift into the mine. Like many mines the main tunnel had tunnels off to each side where they had pulled out huge quantities of salt. A lot of these have been turned into catholic type shrines with crosses and various coloured lighting in them looking very effective. The main tunnel wound its way down into a big area which had round columns, churches, shops and even an Egyptian area with gold painted statues and a story about the Egyptian leaders etc. There was also a spa and lots of coffee and souvenir shops.

Finally we ended up at the salt mining experience. At a counter we were given a hat with a light on it and headed off into some small tunnels with no lights and a rope to guide us  through the small tunnels to get the full experience of what it was like to be a miner in the old days. Popping out into larger tunnels every now and again and being able to look down in to the halls below it was an interesting experience.

Finally we arrived at the salt face and were given a pick and told to get some salt, it didn’t exactly fall of the walls and it took a fair few swings to get a good hand full of salt.

We wandered down to the end of the tunnel and hopped on a little train and were taken out of the line on a lower drift and back up to the main site.

After some lunch and a drive through the local town we headed back to Bogota.

On arrival at the hotel I thought it would be a good idea to check in for tomorrow’s flight to Guatemala then Los Angeles.  We had booked the flights back on the Opodo app: WARNING DO NOT USE! It had come through in French. I did the check in to see I had a seat in economy after paying for business class. I rang the UK number which would not take the booking number and cut me off. I then tried that horrible chat bot thing. An hour or so of that I got to talk to a human, well it told me it was. It must have been infected by a bot because after telling me to ring a  Belarus and then a Swiss, and finally an English number none of which worked I basically got nowhere.

Later that evening Tomas and his wife Josefina picked me up and we headed out to a very nice Japanese restaurant for a very enjoyable evening.


Saturday 26 February 2022

I woke at 0500 and decided I had better see if the check in for my flight to Guatemala had gone through. It had so I decided to check in for the next leg to LAX. It wouldn’t let me check in so I had a closer look to find that  they had put me on the flight to LAX the next day meaning I would miss the LAX to NZ flight and the quarantine date. Not wanting to try the bot again I just booked another fare for today. Arriving at the airport nice and early Mauricio escorted me around, gun still on hip. Arriving at the Avianca Airlines counter the staff were very helpful and got me a business seat sorted to Guatemala. The next one they said I would have to sort there. I said goodby to Mauricio and boarded the flight.

I  sat down and checked my phone to see there was an email from Avianca to say they had cancelled my next booking due to suspicious activity. Arriving at Guatemala I spent some time at the counter sorting that out and just managed a seat down the back as the flight was full.

Arriving in LAX I headed to immigration and struck quite a friendly chap at the counter – well he was until he flicked my passport open at a page with a visa to Turkmenistan on it. Instantly he was my friend no more. After some minutes of questions on why and what I travel for and a look at our blog site he said I cant get the system to work for you – wait over there. He closed up his booth and disappeared returning 20 to 30 minutes later with a Chinese woman. “Come with me”. She led me into a room with a long stainless steel bench. After some minutes of questions holding her clip board close to her chest so I couldn’t see what she was writing down. I said “excuse me I don’t mean to be impolite but if i don’t get going I will miss my flight to NZ and have to stay here till the 13 of March as I will miss my quarantine spot. She said “we wouldn’t want that”, got my passport stamped and sent me on my way. I checked in at Fiji airlines and the lady on the counter said you had better hurry as the gate is 30 minutes away. I headed through security and entered the tunnel that now goes right under the airport to the gate on the other side, my name being called as I was 150m from the gate. The plane was a brand new Airbus 350-900 with a really comfortable business class lay out, very attentive and enthusiastic staff who didn’t disappear and hide after the meal was served like most cabin crew do these days.

Arriving in Fiji I was watching a movie and never even felt the plane land. After 5 hours in the lounge at Nadi I boarded the A320-200 for the flight to Auckland, along with 8 others!!! 4 in business class and 5 in economy class  and a few crew down the back doing some study.

As i write this I am in my last day of quarantine and will hopefully be out and free tomorrow unless someone in the government changes their mind.

 

 

A visit to Thun, Switzerland – the home of B&T precision gun makers.

Friday 11 February 2022

Thank you to all those commenting on the Blog. We really enjoy reading your comments.

Feeling slightly guilty about the  ease of  travelin Europe and having looked up on line that there were no Covid restrictions preventing us from traveling to Switzerland, we set off by car at noon for the city of Thun. With people being responsible and using easily available RAT tests to monitor Covid, and self isolating as required, business continues with minimal interruption. The driving in Europe is pretty easy, especially in France with good quality toll roads, and we sped along at 130kph reaching the Swiss boarder at Geneva in around 4 hours, passing Orange, Lyon and Grenoble. At the border we were pulled to one side to purchase a road toll pass for 40E, which is valid for the year. Just out of Geneva heading up the east side of the lake the traffic came to a standstill, the GPS telling us it was going to be 55 minutes to cover 5kms. After 15 minutes or so we were directed to turn off to the left and headed up a narrow winding road which we followed for about 15 minutes before heading back onto the motorway, having bypassed the traffic jam. The motorways here are great too with a speed limit of 120kph. With a great view of the alps across the lake we continued northeast heading up into the hills towards Bern.

Passing Bern we headed southwest, arriving at Thun around 7pm. Checking into the Seepark Hotel on the lake front we headed into the restaurant where we enjoyed a Michelin star dinner before turning in for the night.


Saturday 12 February 2022.

After a late breakfast we took a stroll around the waterfront into the town centre, built around the canals that run through the town and passing the old Scholoss Schandu (Castle Hotel), built in the 1800s. Not far down the canal we boarded the Schiffahrt for a cruise of Lake Thunersee. Heading a short distance up the canal we were soon out on the lake.

The scenery on the lake is up there with one of the most picturesque boat tours I have ever done; up there with a trip on the Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu in the South Island of New Zealand. We managed to secure a table on the top deck and enjoy a leisurely long lunch as the boat made its way up the left side of the lake, stopping at many picturesque towns to drop off and pick up passengers. There is a real mix of the old and the new including large mansions from the 1800s intermingled with the more modern chalets and houses grouped together and spread out over the hillsides.  About half way up the lake the boat started to criss cross its way up the lake calling in on villages on each side. Mountains run up the right (west) side of the lake, all spectacular and of different shapes. Just about all have a building or mast on top. Some houses are perched in places that look impossible to access.

I decided to get adventurist and try out a local cheese dish (raclette). A little burner was placed on the table powered by some candles, the idea being to melt the cheese and drizzle it over the potatoes that came with the dish. Not quite enough heat made it a long, slow process, by the end of which I was a little cheesed out.

Many houses along the way had boat sheds alongside or underneath with the boats conveniently all raised above the water on a hoist.

A road runs along side the lake sometimes heading up into the steep cliffs and cantilevered out over them with many narrow tunnels carved into the solid rock.

Reaching the top of the lake we headed into a canal that took us into the town of Interlaken where people take the train to head up to the many ski fields in the area. The sky above the town was full of Paraponts  with their pilots dangling below them as they glided through the very calm and clear skies.

There we waited a few minutes while people disembarked and boarded before starting back down the lake.

There is a canal that links with Brenzersee, a second lake, and during the summer they extend the cruise to include that lake too. It was great to see the landscape from the other side as we headed back down the lake getting a double dose of the scenery. The odd boat was on the lake fishing for Northern pike and trout. As we looked back up the lake towards the end of the journey we had great views of the three great mountains this region is famous for; the Eiger (left), Munch, and Jungfrau. There is a railway line that runs under the summit of Munch to take passengers to the Jungfraujoch, a restaurant and observation area including an ice tunnel through the glacier, that Sylvia had visited back in 2001. It is situated in the saddle between Minch and Jungfrau. At night from the hotel one can see lights up there.

Disembarking we took a stroll through the town passing over the wooden bridge, that contains the old the wooden weir that controls the outflow of the lake, to the local castle, also now a hotel, built around 1200AD. Some nice young tourists from Albania asked that we take a couple of photos of them to which we obliged.

On the way back to the hotel we passed the thousand plus year old  Scherzligen church with history going back to 900AD


Sunday 13 February 2022

After a relaxing morning and a late breakfast Sylvia headed off for the drive back to Nimes. Early afternoon Casca, from B&T, picked me up. We headed along the lakeside road which gave me another perspective of the stunning landscape. After passing through the narrow tunnels on the cliffs and the narrow cantilevered bridges we arrived at Interlaken where we enjoyed a yarn and a drink in a very nice cigar bar. It was again a stunning day with great views of the surrounding mountains. We then headed down the west side of the lake stopping at the village of Aeschi bei Spiez where Mark lives to enjoy a late lunch at the Chemihutte, a large busy and well-run restaurant overlooking the lake.

Casca gave me a rundown of how the village works: each household, as in most towns, contributing to the maintenance of the town and the local bomb shelter where everyone has a spot reserved. Most towns and cities in Switzerland maintain such structures. Since the mid 1800s the Swiss have been digging fortifications and shelters to protect their population from invaders. In 1882 the 15K Gotthard double track rail tunnel was completed with fortress tunnels linked to it. More tunnels and fortifications were added over many years and during WWII. This is known as the “National Redoubt” and secured the mountainous central part of Switzerland providing a defensive area for a retreating Swiss army. They also have huge underground complexes containing hospitals, nuclear shelters and more. Some have been closed over more recent times. Many are now museums. Switzerland is one of the few countries that still has national service, where people between 18 and 20 are called up to do military service. This is well supported by the population as last time the left wing pushed for a referendum to remove it 72% of those that voted wanted it maintained. People I have spoken to over that past few days that have served all believed that it gave them a good start to life, learning self-discipline, independence and much more. With reservists and regular soldiers they have an active army of some 120,000. People that object to military service do a stint working for the community such as in rest homes.


Monday 14 February 2022

Casca (Technical Support Manager Europe for B&T) picked me up from the hotel and we made the short trip to the B&T Headquarters and factory in an industrial area on the edge of town. Casca, originally from the US, has been in the gun business for many years, having worked for several of Europe’s other firearms producers. I was taken to a conference room where Casca gave me an in depth presentation on the extensive product range. This was a real insight into the prestigious side of Swiss precision engineering, attention to detail, good organisation and logistics. Today the business is 31 years old, started by company owner Karl. Starting as a mechanic and having just completed a stint in the Swiss army, he started making suppressors. Over the years the products have developed to include a range of rifles, assault rifles, submachine guns, pistols, suppressors and accessories. Employing a hundred people, they maintain guns for the Swiss Army and supply guns and accessories to police and militaries world wide. They now also have a factory in the US.

Their latest product is the APC9 Pro weapon System that has a selection of lower receivers to accomodate different types of magazines. This weapon was recently adopted by the US Army as the next generation Sub Compact Weapons. Part of what won them this tender is that 15 weapons were disassembled and all the parts thrown into one box and reassembled from the mixture of parts. All the reassembled guns worked perfectly when reassembled with the mixture of parts. True precision engineering.

They make all the accessories for their guns as well as accessories and suppressors for other companies. Another innovation has been to research the ability of police to shoot, which worldwide is not too good. Even at 2 meters one has a 62% chance of being missed by a new cop.

As a result of this they have developed the universal weapon with a stock to give police a better chance of hitting a target at a longer range with less chance of hitting an innocent bystander .

The presentation included the full range of products including guns for firing less-lethal  ammunition. The non lethal 40mm launcher fires a foam type projectile to incapacitate a person causing them minimum harm. A number of these have been sold to the NZ police.

After lunch I enjoyed a tour of the factory with its large number of well laid out C n’C machines.  That evening Karl picked me up at my hotel and we went into town for a meal at a very nice Italian restaurant, where we we chatted about the growth of B&T over the years and the city of Thun with its low crime rate and good standard of living. I met Karl and his team at the MilPol (Military Police) show in Paris last year and they very  kindly invited me to pay them a visit.


Tuesday 15 February 2022

Arriving at B&T mid morning Casca took me into one of the internal shooting ranges where I got to try out a number of their 9mm Sub Machine Guns and a couple of pistols. Over many years I have fired many sub machine guns. These ones are excellent with excellent recoil management, accuracy and trigger operation. All are fitted with Aimpoint sights making it easy to engage the target. Some I fired had suppresser fitted and some without.

Next I tried out the USW (Universal  Service Weapon) with its fold out stock, which extends the pistols accuracy considerably.

Next I got to shoot the YP9 (Veterinary Pistol) Modelled off the rare Wellrod, originally made for the SOE during WWII. The VP9 is bolt action with a 5 round magazine. It is a suppressed pistol, primarily used by vets for quietly putting down wounded or sick animals in urban areas. It comes complete with a well laid out case including accessories. One of the suppressors, like the Wellrod, has rubber baffles to make it very quiet.

Original Wellrod Pistol

The range visit over, I enjoyed another lunch with Karl, Mark and a couple of others.

Next was a tour of their shop/show room with its great range of B&T firearms plus a range of outdoor clothing and products. Out the back they have 10 and 25m shooting ranges.

The visit over Casca dropped me back at the hotel passing on the way the local Tank practice range right on the edge of town. Thun has a major army training centre where most of the Swiss soldiers come at some point of their training. Swiss soldiers still take their firearms home with them where they keep it until the next training session. There is little gun crime in Switzerland.

I really enjoyed the experience of visiting B&T and enjoying the people and the opportunity to see true Swiss precision in action.


Wednesday 16 February 2022.

After an early breakfast during which I watched a young lady come down to the lake front, as she had done the day before, strip down to her bikini and go for a dip in the lake – the water was probably a little warmer than the -2 degrees showing on the local outside temperature – I strolled the short distance to the local train station. Like most of Europe there are a selection of tracks and a number of platforms. The countryside is interesting with a mixture of farmland and villages almost adjoining . A train change at Bern and soon we were underway to Geneva, heading into the mountains and then down alongside Lake Geneva arriving at the station in about 2 1/2 hours. Then a 2 1/2 hour stopover at the station in Geneva. There are no places to leave bags at stations any more so I had to hang around the train station before boarding the train to Lyon. Interestingly on the trip through Switzerland nobody came and asked for my ticket and there was no sign of any police or military. As soon as we crossed the French border police boarded with a sniffer dog and went right through the train the dog sniffing every bag. I just took my mask off to have a drink and a policeman said “put it back on as there is a €150 fine if you don’t”. For some time the line followed the Rhone River through the hills before heading out into the rolling country and arriving at Lyon. After another couple of hour break we were sure soon rolling out through the suburbs of Lyon. Interestingly, like in many places in Europe, people have planted their vegetable gardens alongside the railway line or within little fenced off plots, which look to be well cared for and maintained. Arriving at Nimes’s Pont du Gard station about 15 minutes late Sylvia was there to pick me up and we headed home for a quiet evening.

Friday we head to Paris for a couple of days as Sylvia has some meetings there, then to Sao Paulo in Brazil for 3 days, then Bogotá in Colombiaro. From there I head back to New Zealand where I’ve managed to fluke a quarantine spot. Sylvia will head back to France.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Sweden to Hunt

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.

Exploring the Northwest Coast of France

Sunday 31 October 2021 – Sylvia

We woke early this morning having gained an hour overnight with the end of daylight saving. After a lovely breakfast in the hotel we headed off. We had decided to start in Dunkirk yesterday and plan to drive our way slowly back to Nimes over the next eight days. We headed first through Boulogne Sur Mer, apparently the largest fishing port in France. It may have been because it was raining but we were not inspired enough to stop. We continued on through rolling farmland. It is all tidy and well tended, mostly cropped with only the odd fenced paddock housing a few cattle. The light was pretty watery and the sky still had the orange tinge of sunrise until about 11am. The leaves though are starting to turn  with some good autumn colours in some spots.

From Boulogne Sur Mer we took only minor roads rather than ferries and passed through many picturesque villages. We drove through Le Tréport and got our first glimpse of the massive white cliffs that seem to make up a lot of the shoreline around here. Wherever the cliffs stop are little villages and ports. The buildings are really pretty, a mix of half-timbered houses and brick and stone, mixed together in intricate patterns. Most of the houses are quite narrow and three-four storeys tall.

Roger was intrigued as we drove past a nuclear power station. We had to drive all alongside the extremely intimidating looking fence to try and get a glimpse of the place. Of course the visitor centre was closed.

We drove through Dieppe, quite a large port town. Many of these coastal towns have car ferries to England. We stopped at Veules-les-Roses, a really picturesque village that is said to be one of the prettiest in France. We had hoped to have lunch there but all the restaurants were full. I guess on a rainy Sunday there is not much else to do but eat out… It was the same at St-Valery-en-Caux. Eventually we gave up trying restaurants and made do with a delicious french baguette sandwich, from one of the boulangeries, that we ate in the car.

We passed another nuclear power station and managed to get a bit of a glimpse of some of the cooling bunkers. I am going to have to try and find one that has an open visitor centre somewhere between here and home to keep Roger happy.

We carried on, passing through Fecamp and Eretat before heading back on to the main road for the last stretch to Honfleur. This is just across the Seine from Le Havre – we had to cross two huge bridges, including the Pont de Normandie.

Honfleur is a stunning town, full of incredibly pretty buildings and set on a small port area. We wandered around the harbour, stopping for an aperitif and a cigar in a small bar before heading up the hill and back around to our apartment for the night. Even Roger commented that every building is calling out for a photograph to be taken. It is obviously a very popular spot as we found it hard to book a hotel here last night, finally ending up with a very well-located apartment.

One of the stand out buildings here is the Church of St Catherine, France’s largest wooden church, that dates from the 15th Century.

We finished the day with dinner and some people watching in one of the local restaurants.


Monday 1 November 2021: Roger

We left the apartment early and headed west, eventually getting on the motorway right across the Normandy coast, taking a detour through Bayeux, then heading to Cherbourg-en-Cotentin. We headed straight for La Cite De La Mer (the maritime museum) where we entered through a large building housing a variety of underwater vehicles.

Out the back as if in a dry dock is parked a Nuclear submarine.

This Le Redoutable, the first of 6 of the Redoutable class was built in Cherbourg starting in 1964, launched for fit out in 1967, then going into operation in 1971. At 128m long with a beam of 10.6m it was the first French submarine to have a bunk for all 120 crew and fifteen officers.  With its nuclear reactor encased in lead just behind the control room with a tunnel through to access each end of the boat it carried 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range of over 2000 kilometres. All 16 missiles were designed to be launched at once to different targets with the submarine being stabilised by numerous small propellers not far below the surface. Two of these warheads would detonate with more force than all the explosives uses in both world wars. When the missiles launched they would be surrounded by compressed air until they broke the surface, never coming in contact with the water.

With the reactor generating heated steam it drove a turbine at 6000 rpm which, through a reduction box, dropped the revs to 100 to drive the large bronze screw propelling the boat at up to 25 knots underwater.  The hull was especially designed to contract as it submerged to a depth of 300m. Voyages generally lasted 70 days with little need to surface as the equipment on board produced clean air and water.

There were two alternating crews each doing a 70 day stint at sea. With a spacious wardroom for the officers, a mess for the sailors and a even gym area it was a great advance for the submariners. We entered at the back with an audio guide, which gave an excellent commentary as we moved through the boat covering two of the 3 decks and exiting near the bow through the torpedo room with its 4 tubes and 15 torpedos, each with a range of 15 kilometres. At the rear of the torpedo room is an escape hatch.

There is a large galley where each night the bread is made, wine was carried and drunk a little on board. Interestingly they banned walkmans as it meant the crew became too insular.

On exiting you could see onto the ballast tank which surrounded the hull and was filled with sea water to submerge the water pumped out with compressed air to surface.

The commentary given by an ex captain made it very clear that this vessel and its missiles were designed to be used as a deterrent to war: “we have these and will use them only if we have to so don’t piss us off”. It is a maze of pipes, wires, dials and switches, which would have kept the maintenance crew busy with 8000 spare parts and the machinery to make anything they did not have in stock. One non technical item that really stood out was the inclination gauge.

This particular boat was retired in 1991 with is reactor section removed and a blank section put in. I have been on a number of submarines over many years; this one is by far the most spacious.

Next we toured a well set up display on the fate of the Titanic. This was really well set out with an introduction going through the time line of the ships building and its stop here on its only voyage.

We enjoyed a really nice steak in a lovely restaurant  by the waterfront then headed up the hill to the Liberation museum, which unfortunately was closed on Monday. From there we drove the 3 hours to Saint Malo where we had booked into a hotel behind the old city walls.

Founded in the first century BC it developed over the centuries into a walled city ruled by various people – it became an impregnable city, at one stage occupied by pirates. In 1944 it was bombed and shelled by the allies and the Germans burnt it to the ground. In 1948 the locals decided to rebuild it in the original style and by 1960 it was complete. It is now a thriving tourist town full of shops and restaurants. The cathedral is the only original building still standing. Tomorrow we look forward to walking the city walls.


Tuesday 2 November 2021: Sylvia

After a fairly early breakfast in our hotel, Quic en Groigne, this morning we headed back to Mont Saint Michel. We had driven past yesterday but the weather wasn’t great and we were short of time so we decided to leave it until today. I am so glad we did! The weather this morning was perfect. I have wanted to visit this incredible historic site for a very long time. It is a huge abbey perched precariously on a small island about one km from the shore. These days there is a raised road and walkway for accessing the site – a must given the unpredictable tides. It was first developed as a monastic site in the 9th century and like so many other historic places has seen its share of battles over the years.

Today it is one of the most visited places in France, hosting some 2.5 million visitors a year. A dozen monks and nuns of the Jerusalem Order live in two independent communities here and celebrate the divine offices three times a day.

(Photo of a photo hanging on the abbey wall)

We parked and wandered the roughly three kms to the island, marvelling at the view. The tide was out but it was still incredibly stunning. It is hard to imagine how this was built so many years ago.

We wandered through the narrow streets and alleyways heading ever-upward towards the abbey. I had booked tickets on line and we wandered straight in. The abbey itself is huge with great, cavernous rooms, huge foundational pillars, loads of medieval arches and some spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. One room displays a number of relics including a crown and sword, supposedly belong to Saint Michel himself.

It is a truly inspiring place and one that the pictures don’t really do justice to.

We stopped on the way back for lunch in a small restaurant with magnificent sea views. We have learned our lesson from the past few days and were there early enough to nab a fantastic table right in the window. I kept thinking how crowded it must be here in summer and how glad I was that we had visited in November instead.

After lunch we made our way slowly back to St Malo to walk the ramparts. One thing I have noticed driving around this area is a number of trees that look like they have pom-poms on them. As they are losing their leaves, an epiphytic plant that grows on the trees is becoming more visible… quite an unusual sight.

The walk along the ramparts at St Malo definitely didn’t disappoint. In fact, after being a little underwhelmed by the place when we arrived yesterday, today I really got a sense of the city and its incredible history. Amazingly you can walk all around the walls at absolutely no charge and we really enjoyed wandering along and exploring the different perspectives and angles.

There are a number of fortified islands around here, which can be seen from the ramparts. With it being nearly high tide, the waves were crashing against the shore quite spectacularly even though the weather today is quite calm. I can’t imagine what it must be like here in a storm. Large seagulls seemed almost tame, hanging out on the walls. I saw many different people ‘talking’ to them…

About halfway around we stopped in at a cafe/bar so Roger could indulge in his daily cigar and wine ritual. I finally succumbed and had a crepe… OMG – why did I wait so long… delicious!

We finished up the day by wandering out along the sea wall to get fabulous views back over the city. All in all it’s been a great one.


Wednesday 3 November 2021: Roger

Up early we left the Quic en Groigne hotel and its friendly man on the desk, who wished us well for our journey. It had been a while since he had had anyone from NZ stay. We headed for Brest, a 3-hour drive through the pleasant and tidy French countryside. We have noted that things are much tidier in this part of France than down in the south.

Brest has been for many years a famous French ship-building port with ship-building starting there in the 1500s. Pre WWII the French had a large submarine and naval base there, complete with pens to service them. When the Germans were handed it they continued to use it as a naval base, kicking out the French locals as they fully occupied the city with its many medieval buildings and city wall. Towards the end of the war the city was occupied by elite german paratroopers, submarine crews and navy crews. With heavy guns dug in around the city they were eventually under allied attack. It was not until 19 September 1944 that the American VIII corps, assisted by British tanks, after days of intensive shelling and 3 days of hand to hand fighting, freed the city. The city was left in ruins and had to be totally rebuilt after the war with the West German government paying compensation to help rebuild the city. The port was never able to be used by the allies as intended to bring in supplies to support the war effort in Europe.

We took a stroll around the cliffs above the the extensive port on the Penfeld River. We spotted a cable car crossing the port and jumped on while it took us to a large building that was once a ship building workshop, and now has large spaces that kids race around on roller blades and scooters below the gantry cranes still in place.

We headed into a restaurant for an early lunch having learnt that places fill up at noon; this place was packed just after 12pm. After lunch we took a drive alongside the naval yards with their large dry docks and many ships in port, passing the still used nuclear submarine penstocks.

The naval museum in one of the few old buildings left in town opened at 1.30 so we went in for a look. Well set out, it took us through the town’s maritime history with models of  early sailing ships, some up to 80-meters long with a hundred plus cannons and 700 crew. One area was full of wooden carvings and another showed the modern ships and subs. When the slave trade was abolished a large prison was built in Brest to provide labour for the ship building – there was quite a section on that also.

We had noticed a different language on some of the signs around town and discovered that this was a Celtic language spoken in the Britanny area prior to French, originating from the UK people who inhabited the area way back.

The tour over we headed to Lorient, some 200kms down the coast; another naval town where the Germans had built a submarine base during WWII. The three large pens still stand today and, although bombed during the war, were used by the French navy up until 1997. They are now a museum and a rescue centre.

After checking into our hotel we took a walk down to a rooftop bar called Vertige. On arriving we were greeted by a very friendly barman called Willian. He had lived in both Scotland and Australia and spoke excellent English. He advised us to check out a bar in Bordeau called the Cafe Francais. We enjoyed the views over the harbour and the penstocks as the sun set.


Thursday 4 November 2021: Sylvia

It was a frigid morning this morning as we set out for the museum. Roger was perfectly comfortable in shorts and t-shirt as usual, while the rest of us mortals were wrapped up in jackets and scarves and still freezing.

First stop was the Flora Submarine museum. Like all the other museums we have seen it was very well done with some great audio-visual displays show-casing the making of the submarine base here and what happened during the war. There was also an impressive section with multiple screens highlighting some of the events of WWII and the ensuing Cold War. We were also able to board and explore the old submarine. It was interesting after having seen the nuclear submarine the other day how much smaller this one was. Hot-bunking was required, and the sailors only got one shower – at best – in 30-45 days at sea.

Our next stop was a guided tour (in French only) of the submarine base. This area was captured by the Germans in June 1940. They started building the pens shortly thereafter. There are three different buildings with the capacity to house about 27 subs. The first two built have only one dock with water in it. For the other docks they would have to be  sailed into a cradle, winched up out of the water between the two lots of pens and then towed into the dry dock by a tractor thingy. The submarine we visited earlier is now sitting on one of these contraptions. This apparently took only 45 minutes. Each of the two buildings had a concrete roof, 3.5m thick which was impenetrable to all the available weapons at the time.

Between 1941 and 1943 Churchill ordered heavy bombing of the area and as the war continued heavy aerial cover over the Atlantic meant subs stayed submerged as much as possible. The third block (K3) was built between 1941 and 1943 and is the most imposing. It houses 5 wet docks and two dry docks. In places its roof is 7-9m thick – enough to stop the tall boy bombs, which were made later in the war from passing through. There is still a crater on the roof where one landed. There were open galleries at both ends to help disperse the bomb blasts. The entrance was protected from torpedoes by two warships which were sunk in front of the building with a series of cables strung between them. The wrecks are still visible today. Anti aircraft batteries were placed on the roof – with over 250 guns around the city (150 > 50mm).

Lorient and Saint Nazaire were the last parts of mainland France to be liberated after the May 10 1945 surrender of the Third Reich. The French installed a submarine base here on 19 May 1945. The area played an important part in the Cold War and also had an air base and most escort ships were built here. However the area never supported the newer nuclear submarines and was closed in 1991.

We then headed to Saint Nazaire. This area is famous for a Commando Raid, Operation Chariot, where a US WWI frigate, that had been donated to the British Navy, HMS Campbeltown, was loaded with explosives and driven into the lock gates effectively shutting down the only dry dock in the south of the British channel capable of taking the larger German battleships such as the Bismarck. It wasn’t fully repaired until 1948. It is incredible to think of the bravery of the men that carried out that raid. Many died, many were captured and just over a third made it safely back to England after the raid. Five received the Victoria Cross. There is a monument here to the commandos.

Saint Nazaire also has a disused submarine base but it is much smaller than the ones in Lorient. There is a large bridge over the Loire river here and we noticed many cruise ships in port that seemed to be wrapped in shrink wrap. I wonder if they are being mothballed here with the downturn in cruising due to Covid.

We then drove to Nantes where we had booked to stay at the Radisson Blu hotel. From the outside it looks like a huge old bank. This looks like quite an interesting city but it was getting late by the time we arrived. We headed across the road to an excellent bar and restaurant, Aristide, where we had a truly excellent meal, one of the best I have had in a very long time.

 

As I write this I am struck by the irony, knowing our plans for tomorrow, that I have ended up with this blog to write and Roger will end up with that one…


Friday 5 November 2021: Roger

We headed off early to Puy du Fou, an amusement park about an hour out of Nantes – or should have been! As we headed out of the carpark the car GPS sent us up a narrow street then a left turn; we were following a delivery van and ended up in an area that we were not supposed to be. Typical of central cities in France they have retracting bollards to keep people like us out. Anyway it was like playing in a maze; each street we went down, and there were many, was blocked off buy bollards. A guy even banged rather loudly on Sylvia’s window and pointed in the direction of a large church – maybe he was suggesting we go and pray as that was no way out. Eventually we followed a delivery van out, hoping like hell that the bollard would not come up as we passed over it – I had visions of the car being jacked up. It was quite an amusing episode although Sylvia didn’t quite see it like that.

At around 9.45 we arrived at the park, taking a stroll through the Le Monde Imaginaire de La Fontaine, which was basically a kids story area with the odd rabbit, cow, goat and sheep plus a few mannequins and statues of various other animals. I was thinking “I hope it gets better than this”. Next stop was Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantomes, and did it get better! It was outstanding! The outdoor stadium filled up as we sat on wet wooden seats (some of those that knew had brought plastic to sit on). Soon the wet seats were forgotten as the show began and out from a rock a princes arose, dressed in white; a song began as doves flew off from above her bed.

It got better and better as the story was told in song, not that I understood a word. Spoonbills swept low over the crowd followed by a variety of birds including ravens, hawks eagles and even some marabou storks, some swooping so low over us from behind that you felt a rush of air as they passed by.  Knights on horses rode past in front of us, the ground in the centre opened up with birds, people and animals emerging. Then from a balloon above a falcon dived vertically, followed by eagles which circled and then dove down to falconers stationed around the stadium.  At the end there must have been two hundred plus birds in the stadium in a choreographed symphony.

Next stop was the Vikings; this time there was another princess involved and a battle took place as raiders came to attack the locals. There were loud bangs and warm flashes of flame, which Sylvia appreciated as it was a little chilly. At one point a mob of longhorn cattle chased people along the road; wolves, horses, sheep, goats, owls and other animals took part. There were some great acrobatics as people dived off buildings into the water, did back flips and other antics and then fought each other. The highlight was when a viking ship rose out of the water with statues on board only to spring to life and join in the fight. The king appeared out of a trunk that had been thrown in the water, then brought peace to the town and magically disappeared leaving an actor just holding his clothing (not sure how they did that). Then to finish it all off the soldiers from the boat jumped back on board beating drums and holding flaming torches as the boat disappeared beneath the water (not sure how the did that bit either – a lot of breath holding maybe).

Next we stopped at one of the many restaurants for some lunch, served by people in period costume. Sylvia had hoped to warm up but the place had no doors or windows. Interestingly the hundreds of people that had attended each show just seemed to disappear into the surroundings as apart from going in and out of the shows there were no crowds.

We wandered through some of the well made villages with artisans at work then down to Verdun. This quite long  walk-through exhibit portrayed the conditions during the WWI battle of Verdun in eastern France, where a thousand troops died every day for a year. Constantly there was the sound of rifle, machine gun and cannon fire during the 15 minutes it took to walk through. Live actors were stationed at places like the hospital and fire control head quarters and at one stage a soldier in full kit, including gas mask pushed his way along the passage past us. The ground shook and flashes occurred in places to add to the realism. Hymns came from a makeshift chapel, alcoves held men in hammocks, provisions, cook shops and rations. I had only taken my i-phone with me so could not get any good pictures.

Not far away was Le Secret de La Lance. Another princess having a few problems ends up taking on the whole British army almost single handedly with a bit of assistance from the odd knight in shining armour and a magic lance. Once again lots of animals took part and there was indeed some great stunt riding as riders bounced of the ground on each side of their horse as it galloped past, the sort of thing i used to try on my horse as a kid except i ended up on the ground the horse leaving me there as he galloped off riderless. These guys were great and well practiced and the horses well trained. There were lots of pyrotechnics, soldiers running up and down walls, sword fights and acrobatics, the princess coming out on top, not that again I understood a word of the story. Even Sylvia only picked up bits and pieces. Walls disappeared and rose from the ground, the castle did a 360 degree turn, draw bridges went up and down – another really well done show! We only realised later that you can listen in English on an app with earpieces.

The Le Signe du Triomphe was the next stop, set in a oval colosseum-like stadium seating a few thousand people – we were back to Roman times. This time another young lady had a few problems; the emperor stood in the stadium dishing out harsh justice while one of his soldiers rescued a young lady from a bunch of slaves, a battle ensued intermingled with parades of people and animals through the arena. Apart from camels, horses, cows, dogs and goats there was even a bunch of very obedient geese on parade. More fighting, the slaves were herded into a wooden box, then the barriers around the stadium were raised further and the other animals removed. A man and a woman with whips entered the stadium then out of a hole in the wall comes a tiger that jumps up on the box and dives inside through a hole in the top. Next an almost white lion wanders in and takes his place on a pedestal, followed by three lionesses who mount the stage only to be chased off by the woman, who all the trouble is over. Finally the emperor is chased across the stadium by a hyena. That part over the barriers go back down while chariot races and other things carry on. The show concluded with the soldier and the woman united as they are paraded out of the stadium. There are some 1500 animals used throughout this park, all that we saw in great condition and well trained; apparently the birds are free to come and go as they please, among them are a number of endangered species.

Last stop for the day was Le Mystere de La Perouse. This is another walk-through exhibit about La Perouse, the explorer sea captain who was sent by King Louis XVI with two boats to explore the world. Setting off in 1785 to explore and collect specimens he headed to South America, rounded the horn, went up to Alaska, across to Russia and down to Australia then finally disappeared when the ships were wrecked in a storm off the Solomon islands. It was years later that evidence of the wrecks were found. The walk is through the provisions taken (there was a truck load of wine), then through the ship in which interestingly they have the ceiling moving to give one the impression that the whole thing is moving. There are imitation cabins and large displays of the specimens he collected from rocks to animals. Another well set up piece of amusement.


Saturday 6 November 2021: Sylvia

I am a little sad that our holiday is coming to an end. We have certainly covered a fair amount of mileage and have enjoyed listening to a number of different podcasts on the way.

Red shows the ~5 hour drive we have left to do tomorrow.

This morning we set off from Nantes – luckily without getting stuck in the maze first – and headed to La Rochelle, a lovely port city and the fourth of the five places the Germans had set up submarine bases. We didn’t visit the submarine base this time but wandered around the old port area, with its three towers and ornate gates. There are numerous cafes and restaurants, which all filled up around 12 as the locals (and us) settled down for a leisurely lunch.

We have been incredibly lucky with the weather this trip. Whilst it has rained on and off, every time we have stopped to do something or needed to be outdoors it has cleared up. It has not been warm and at times has been really cold – there was a good frost still on the ground in the shady patches we drove past at 10:30 this morning, but really we cannot complain.

After lunch we got back on the road and drove to Bordeaux. The whole area here is pretty flat with lots of farmland. Interestingly, whilst there is still a lot of cropping around here, there are also a lot more cows and sheep around and the majority of paddocks are fenced, which we haven’t seen much further north.

Bordeaux is an amazingly beautiful old city with a huge cathedral and a large area closed to the majority of traffic, filled with shops, restaurants and bars and loads of people. We had booked a small boutique hotel right in the centre, near the cathedral so were able to stroll around the town from their easily. The city is built on the banks of the Dordogne River.

After our customary cigar and wine stop, during which we met, and chatted to an interesting chap from the UK, who has recently bought, and is renovating an old house in the city here, we wandered back to the hotel for a quiet evening. Tomorrow we will have to drive home so I can get back to work on Monday but I would definitely like to come back and spend a bit more time in this town.


Sunday 7 November 2021: Roger

After a good nights sleep at the boutique Cardinal Hotel (definitely a ‘Sylvia hotel’) we headed through the streets of this very well preserved old town to the river where we turned left following the river down stream. Just on the edge of the city are more german built submarine pens, the 5th and most southern on the Atlantic coast. Other bunkers were also built in Germany, Norway, and Belgium to service the 1162 submarines used during WWII ,of which 785 were sunk. We hadn’t intended to visit another one of these however we saw that here they had turned the pens into a digital art centre. Not really being into abstract art I was a little sceptical prior to arriving. As it turned out I found it well worth the visit. The water is still in the pens with board walks between the bays and many of the digital images being reflected in the water. The art rolled through on the walls, floors and on the water making all sorts of images by numerous famous artists. Some rooms at the back also had separate displays.

Around 11am we hit the road for the 5-hour drive back to Nimes. About 200kms southeast down the A62 we came to Toulouse (known as the pink city for its many terracotta brick buildings), where we headed into the centre for lunch. It is another city in its original state with its reddish bricks on many stylish buildings. Arriving in the central square we headed into an underground carpark. The stairs leading us up into an area with many restaurants. We sat down in the outside seating at the busiest one, Le Grand Cafe Florida, established in 1874. The service and the food was great with lovely buildings surrounding the cafe.  After lunch we took a brief walk around the city centre before heading southeast and watching the country change into the arid lands of southern France. Autumn colours are now evident particularly in the vineyards.

We picked up Sylvia’s car from the railway station and then dropped the rental car off at the local airport and suddenly another great holiday was over.