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

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.



Paris to Caen – The Normandy Coast

Monday 25 October 2021

We still have a couple of more days in Paris so I headed off on the metro up to the second arch in Paris, the Grande Arche de la Defense. Inaugurated on 14 July 1988 for the bicentenary of the French Revolution, the structure stands 100m above the ground, weighs about 30,000 tons, and from what I can see seems to be office blocks on each side. It has a kind of a museum and gallery just under the roof and you can access parts of the roof but not all of it. It has great views over the city but the weather wasn’t that crash hot today. The gallery contains an exhibition of photos taken by the paparazzi over the years of various people of royalty and fame. There are lots of modern buildings surrounding it, some quite colourful.

From there I jumped back on the train and went to the other end of the No1 line to check out Fort Neuf de Vincennes, which I had discovered by accident on my first trip to Paris many years ago. Getting off the train I just did a walk by as I had toured the place back then. With its large moat and tall stone walls it’s pretty impressive.

Getting back on the metro in the front I realised that I had forgotten that these trains have no driver and are controlled from a control centre. Dismounting at Bastille I made my way through a maze of tunnels up onto the street and along the canal where lots of privately owned boats are tied up. People own these and cruise the many rivers and canals in Europe. It sounds like quite a good scheme to me – one day maybe…

A short walk up the river and I was back at the Louvre having taken in the views of a few more buildings and bridges along the way. At one point there were 30 odd police vans, lights and sirens going, heading in a hurry along a street. There must have been a big police lunch on somewhere. I enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a streetside cafe before making my way back to the hotel.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Joined by my US friends, brothers Michael and Eric, we taxied to the Gare East Station and caught the train to a little town about an hour and a half northeast of Paris called Chateau-Thierry. The plan was to visit a famous US Marine WWI battle site. Eric is a former Marine as was his father Bob.

Arriving before noon on an overcast day we headed to a local restaurant for lunch, after which we planned to get a taxi out to the the town of Belleau and visit the famous battle site.

Around 1230 Micheal gets on the phone to order a taxi. Bugger, none available so we thought we would try getting a rental car. Oops, they are all closed for lunch until two. We were leaving in the train at 3pm. We wandered the streets trying to find a place that might be open, only to be assisted by a friendly passing woman who did not speak english. Through google translate she directed us to the local Carrefour (a large retailer that also has rental cars). Arriving there Eric hands over his passport and US drivers licence; things are looking good until the computer tells the staff they won’t accept the US drivers licence. We are still not sure exactly why. I don’t have my passport so I produced some other ID, including my APEC card and NZ drivers licence. Bingo we are on our way.

Arriving at Balleau we headed to the famous dog fountain where clear water is dispensed through a spout in the devil dogs mouth. Surrounded by some old buildings it is a beautiful spot. Micheal and Eric drink water from the spout, a long held tradition. Across the road there is a museum which is closed today.

From there we headed to the Belleau Woods where the great battle took place. The Marines charged across open ground sloping towards the german positions, facing 200 machine guns and over a thousand german soldiers all dug in and ready to fight. The French forces were attacked by the germans on 1 June 1918, and punched a hole in the lines to the left of the marines. The marines conducted a forced march of 10kms to fill the gap. The german advance was halted at Belleau Wood. The germans attacked the marines at one point across open country; the marines held their fire until the germans were 90 meters away then mowed them down, the germans retreating.  The French commanders repeatedly called for the marines to turn back. Captain Loyd Willians uttered the now famous words “retreat? hell we only just got here!” On the 6 June the marines advanced into the woods across open ground suffering many casualties.  Another famous bunch of words were from First Sergeant Dan Daily of the 73rd machine gun regiment and recipient of two Medals of Honour “come on you sons of bitches, you don’t want to live forever”.

We headed into the forest where a memorial stands with a number of guns and large shells used in the battle. There are also a number of plaques with information on them about people who were decorated and a map of the battle. It’s over a hundred years since the battle took place but some of the trenches and shell craters are still visible.

Next we visited the memorial, erected  to honour the thousands who lost their lives in the area, including over 3000 marines. Above the memorial are the remains of an old hunting lodge that was mostly destroyed. Finally on the 26 June 1918 the woods were taken after 5 major attacks by the marines, many of them involving hand to hand combat. Over the 26 days the allied line advanced less than 2 kilometres. It is really important that we remember and respect all those brave men from all nations that fought so hard to give us the freedom most of us enjoy today. Lest We Forget.

As a young soldier in the 1970s there were still many people around that fought in the second world war but few from the first world war. It is impossible to teach those growing up now all the history in relation to these wars but it is important that people at least have an understanding of the sacrifices that were made by so many.

Wednesday 27 October 2021

We caught the train from Saint Lazare Station in Paris to Caen on the Normandy Coast. It took us some time to find the right machine to print a ticket as there are no ticket offices open here.

Arriving in Caen we picked up a rental car and headed to the Memorial Museum which has a particularly good section on the Normandy invasion. From there we headed to the town of Bayeux where Micheal and Eric had booked an apartment. I chose to stay in the Hotel Churchill. This town was the first freed from the occupation of the germans during the invasion. It has Street names such as Churchill and Montgomery. We headed to a restaurant alongside the town’s small canal for a late lunch before looking around the town and visiting the cathedral. I checked into the Hotel Churchill to be greeted by Matthias, who welcomed me to the hotel and explained that when you leave just hang your key on the board in the foyer – very trusting, there must be little crime here.

Thursday 28 October 2021

At around 9.30 we headed to the town of Saint Mere Eglise, famous for the Airborne guy who got hung up on the bell tower of the church and played dead after being shot at by a number of germans. He survived but when they got him down he was stone deaf as the church bells had been ringing while he was hanging around up there. They have an outstanding Airborne museum there. With a number of small buildings the first called the C47, which has a C47(or DC3) surrounded by great displays.

Next was the Neptune building where you walked onto a gantry which vibrated and on the side are a bunch of power troopers and to the front the two pilots. Vibrations and gun fire gave it a good sense of reality. It brought back some great memories of doing my first jump from a DC3, which NZ was still using in the seventies, without he gunfire of course.

Next we moved through to the Regan Hall with lots of propaganda posters from WWII. Last was a Waco building which houses one of the many gilders used to land forces into the area during the invasion. It was surround by various  displays of items carried by the soldiers on board including some old relics that have been dug up over the years from the surrounding fields. After that we wandered the streets surrounding the Square. One house has a plaque on it noting that a parachutist had landed in their yard only to be captured by a german that was billeted there.  At the end of the square there is a plinth to the various airborne units with some very profound words on it.  “THEY GAVE THEIR TODAY FOR OUR TOMORROW”

From there we went to Pointe du Hoc where around 300 brave men of the US Rangers assaulted the cliffs to take out the guns there. By the time they got to the top only 90 were still fighting fit only to find the guns were not there but had been moved back several kilometres. They eventually found the guns and destroyed them, saving many lives of those that landed, still with horrendous losses, further down the coast. I had visited here in 2014. Back then one could wander into the gun emplacements and among the huge shell craters that still remain from the massive shelling, delivered from the many Royal Navy ships prior to the landings. But health and safety has made it all the way here too; it’s now all fenced off.

Looking along the cliffs gives one an appreciation of just how hard it must have been for those brave men to assult the clifs while under heavy sustained fire from the Germans.

Next we headed to the Omaha Museum, situated just short of the beach. This gave us a different perspective again with lots of equipment and relics used by the brave men that came ashore under extreme conditions and heavy fire to assist in the freeing of Europe. A theatre showed a movie in both English and French, showing right back to the preparation of the invasion from the many thousands of troops that came across the Atlantic from the US to the UK starting months earlier. This built up a force of around five hundred thousand that took part in the invasion. In total secrecy these men boarded ships in the south of England with a diversion being further north by placing General Paton there with a bunch of blow up tanks. As the germans believed he would be involved in the attack and due to many other diversions the German General Rommel moved many of his troops east along the french coast. Many items essential to soldiers such as cigarettes, sewing kits, boot polish and various other things are on display in various places throughout the museum. The rope ladders and and grappling hooks fired up to the top of the cliffs from the barges below were also on display. There were also some of the many obstacles that were placed on the beach to prevent the invasion, hence the troops had to land at low tide to prevent the landing craft from being sunk by the obstacles and mines attached to them.

We next headed down to the west end of the Omaha Beach where some of the German bunkers and machine possitions can still be seen.

Next was a stop at the pristine US Omaha Cemetery  where the the headstones of over 9000  American soldiers are placed in dead straight lines with the grass mowed to perfection, the trees trimmed and the whole place kept in excellent order. Mike and Eric had lost the brother of their great grandfather at sea off the Omaha coast where, Kenneth C Quinn was a cook on what they believe was a rocket ship, which struck a mine of the Omaha coast. His body was never found. We searched around and found his name on the wall remembering those that were missing and never found, a very proud moment for both Eric and Micheal.

By this stage we had run out of day so we headed back to Bayeux to the Cave for an excellent dinner and some nice wine.

Friday 28 October 2021

I checked out of the Hotel Churchill and picked up the boys and we headed to look at the Mulberry B, one of two wharves that were built on the coast, this one at Arromanches-les-Bains (Gold Beach) in the middle of the 100 kilometre long invasion coast.  First we stopped on the cliffs overlooking the remaining structures still off the coast. The other, Mulberry A, was built off Omaha but was largely destroyed by a major storm not long after it was set up.  B was used for 10 months in 1945 when other french ports were freed to bring in supplies. During that period over 2 1/2 million men, 500 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies would leave before it was fully decommissioned. Bearing in mind that that the Allies didn’t break out of the Normandy area until late August 1944 there must have been a huge amount of supplies piling up on the coast awaiting the advance.

It is always the thought of the logistics management that I find incredibly intriguing and making sure that every soldier gets ammunition, food and water no matter where he is on the battlefield.

We visited the museum there before heading down to the beach where one of the bridges is still on display, as are some gun emplacements and other relics, including smaller parts of the wharf washed up on the beach. Each museum we visited had a theme relating to the particular area making them each a well worthwhile visit. There are many we haven’t seen in the area – one would need weeks to visit them all. This one had great displays of how the 125 large concrete forms were towed from England and sunk parallel to the coast, then pontoons were set up with steel bridges between, each float running to the shore to take the thousands of vehicles, men and equipment that were offloaded from the mini ships. Some of the displays even moved up and down to represent the movement of the sea. There was also other remote memorabilia around the room representing a lot of the equipment once again that the soldiers used as they came ashore.

Around 1PM I dropped Micheal and Eric off at the Caen Station (I found out later they couldn’t get a train until 5pm). Then I headed off along the coast, some 400km to Dunkirk. By chance I had ended up with a hotel on the beach. The Merveilleux Hotel is only a couple of years old and at this time of year cheap, and much better than I expected. As I was alone I had booked somewhere cheap. It was pleasantly surprising to find such a nice place with very friendly staff.

A stroll along the beach lead me to a bar where I sat and watched the sunset and looked at some of the WWII images of the evacuation of Dunkirk from 26 May to 4 June 1940, thinking how much those people gave so people like me could sit here today.

Saturday 30 October 2021

After a good breakfast I went east along the beach to where large blocks of multi story apartments have been built. With a sealed walking and biking track above the sand it stretches out about 10 miles.

From there I took a drive around the town on the way to pick up Sylvia from the railway station. She had worked her way through the French Bureaucratic process and headed to South Africa on Tuesday night for three days of meetings, and had flown back to Paris overnight then caught the train to Dunkirk and now joins me for a week of well-earned holiday.  We headed to the Operation Dynamo Museum, past the many waterways and canals that are present in most costal french cities.

The museum was set out really well with a number of alcoves taking us through the great evacuation step by step. It was at Churchill’s instruction that the navy got every civilian boat over a few feet across the channel to rescue and evacuate the hundreds of thousands of troops with their backs to the sea, surrounded by the superior german forces. This mission started in secret without telling the French as they wanted to use Dunkirk as a resupply port for their all but defeated troops. Some 240,000 troops were evacuated from the port which was under constant bombardment from the Luftwaffe and close to a hundred thousand were taken off the beach.

The evacuating troops had destroyed the engines in their trucks, so when an enterprising engineer NCO decided to used the trucks to build a wharf they had to be pushed into the sea and lined up like a pier so the troops could walk across to board the many boats arriving to rescue them. Over a hundred thousand French troops were evacuated, many who went back to fight in the south of France later that year.

There were many interesting items on display including the front end of a rather rusted out truck only found in the sea in 2009. The displays were well done and it was easy to follow the time line through what took place. One interesting item was an armoured Skoda canon with a MG34 machine gun mounted above the canon barrel; I hadn’t realised that Skoda made such things.

A thousand British and sixteen thousand French troops gave their lives at Dunkirk.

As we left Dunkirk we realised that most of the city must have been rebuilt since the war.

Mid-afternoon we arrived in Calais. After checking into the Hotel Meurice we headed to check out the Hôtel de Ville (the city Hall), a mainly brick building with a bell tower. Building was started in the late 1800s but not finished until 1925 and required repairs after WWII. We took a tour up to the bell tower where we looked over the city and watched some of the 37 ferries a day that run between here and England, coming and going. There are remains of old forts and an old theatre in the town, the rest of the buildings look post WWII. In the distance we could see the White Cliffs of Dover.

We took a stroll down to the beach where the local dragon moved slowly past, occasionally puffing smoke and fire. It must have been a rather long, slow ride for those mounted on top. The large beach area, complete with dividing fences was pretty much deserted with summer over. Our walk back to the hotel took us past the old watch tower and a monument of the local famous corsair (pirate), Tom Souville.

As we walked through a park near the hotel we came across a really well done statue of De Gaulle and Churchill.

Paris October 2021

Tuesday to Friday 19 October 2021

Sylvia dropped me off at the Nimes Pont du Gard railway station where I caught the fast train to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, which is close to the Expo centre which was hosting the MOLPOL exhibition for the rest of the week. I checked into the close-by Hilton Hotel, which I can highly not recommend, then caught the local metro to the show about 20 minutes down the line form the airport. There I caught up with Erik and the team from Aimpoint.

The show only occupied one of the stadiums at the exhibition centre so it wasn’t huge. Aimed at both the military and the police there was quite a variety of products on display. What is really interesting is the rapid advancement in technology, particularly in the area of drones. In the past few years many new companies have come on the scene to counter drones around airports, nuclear and other important compounds. Many have drone detecting radar and then net type guns to shoot them down, others claim their systems will identify the location of the operator, jam the communications and take control of the drone and land it in a safe place while capturing the operator. It’s a bit like when man invented the bow and arrow and along came shields to stop the arrows.

Slim fitting body armour for men and woman woman made to oder in Colombia apparently has been well tested in that part of the world.

Another interesting bit of equipment was a 20mm rifle made in Croatia with a large cylinder on top to help manage the recoil.

Bullet proof vehicles were also on display with shot up parts to demonstrate how effective they are.

A device that hooks onto the back of a rifle scope so the commander can see the same image as the sniper before he takes the shot.

I also met some new people, in particular Karl and his team from B&T Gun Manufacturers in Switzerland, who I joined, along with the Aimpoint team, for dinner on a few occasions.

By Friday the show had quietened down so I left early and went for a stroll to check out a Concord I could see from my hotel room on the edge of the airfield. These were a supersonic passenger plane (2179 km/h) that were in service across the Atlantic – London New York in under 3 hours. It operated from 1976 until 2003. In 2000 one crashed in Paris after hitting some debris on the runway that had fallen off a previous aircraft when it took off. All the crew and passengers died. Interestingly the Russians produced the supersonic TU-144 which went into service in December 1968, but only was used as a passenger aircraft for 3 years after a couple of crashes. It was used for cargo until 1983.

Saturday 20 October 2021

Sylvia arrived by train from Nimes in the very early hours of the morning. After a bit of a sleep in, we headed into Paris to the La Maison Champs Elysees Hotel, not far off the Avenue Champs Elysees. Here we met up with our friends Micheal and Eric who are visiting France from the USA for a few days. After checking in Sylvia and I  went on a stroll checking out the sights. Crossing the Seine we walked along the south bank looking at the truly outstanding architecture of the city. After passing the Grand Palais, which is closed for renovations we crossed over again to look at the Obélisque De Louxor, originally from Luxor in Egypt and moved here in 1830, and Place de la Concorde. With its gold top and hieroglyphics on all sides it is quite impressive. There were originally two of these and the other still remains in Luxor. We continued up river to the Louvre, which I had walked past a number of times but never got around to visiting. There was quite a queue but we were able to book online and jump into the lineup and half an hour or so later we were heading down the stairs under the glass pyramid structure that sits in the middle of the grounds. Along some corridors and up some stairs and we soon entered the first of many stunning galleries. The architecture in this building is quite amazing. I’m not sure about some of the artwork though, probably just best described in the photos attached. We did take a look at the Mona Lisa where hundreds of people queueing up to see it and get a close look. I used the zoom on the camera to get a closer look.

As we wandered through the building and the various halls and up-and-down many stairways it was quite overwhelming with a massive collection of artefacts, statues and other items dating back more than 5000 years. I’m sure we didn’t see it all. One could probably spend several days here to see everything.

As we left the building and strolled back, amongst the thousands of people, towards the obelisk we came across a circular pond surrounded by chairs with people sitting facing the water as if waiting for something to happen, but in reality just passing the time or needing a rest. We strolled back to our hotel and enjoyed a glass of wine with Micheal and Eric. Paris is a bit like Las Vegas everything is a lot further away than it looks and it’s quite easy to clock up quite a few kilometres just on an afternoon stroll. It’s interesting how they have blended the new buildings in with the old and most of the buildings are no more than five or six stories high.

Sunday 21 October 2021

After a good breakfast at the hotel we took a stroll down the Avenue Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. (Arch of Triumph).  This 50m high Arch was first commissioned in 1806; it took two years to complete the foundations. It was built to honour those that fought in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. It was not completed until around 1836. Bodies of unknown soldiers from WWI are buried underneath it. It has a spiral staircase that runs up each side and is a really interesting place to visit for the memorial type area inside of the top and then you can go onto the roof and have a good look around Paris and see the 12 avenues joining at the location. We were lucky we got there relatively early but as we were leaving the crowds were starting to build. We are also lucky that it was a stunning day and we could see across most of Paris apart from a bit of haze.

After winding our way down the many stairs, or steps should I say, to the bottom we headed back down the street to the river and then up the river and jumped on a boat just near the Louvre. Sylvia had booked us a lunch cruise on the La Grand Pavois. Casting off at 1230pm we headed up river, taking in the magnificent architecture of the many outstanding structures alongside the river and passing the island with the Notre Dame cathedral on it, which is currently closed after the big fire that happened there a couple years ago, until we reached Pont de Bercy where we turned around and headed downstream, this time passing on the other side of Notre Dame. We continued on down river past the Eiffel tower where the boat did a one and a half turn around so that we could take in the views in all directions. Looking back up the river was a miniature of the Statue of Liberty.

It is interesting to see the variety of boats tied up alongside the river and in places the road platform is cantilevered out over the river. Another thing that’s really interesting is the variety of bridges; in some places the bridges have been built beside each other and then a viaduct across the top carries the local Metro. The engineering and effort that has gone into building the city is quite amazing. The food and the wine was great. A photographer walked around the boat and took photos of everybody and then came back with an iPad and tried to sell them to us but no such luck in our case. The boat pulled back alongside the river bank about 230 and we strolled our way back to the hotel as Sylvia had to catch the train back to Nimes in the early evening.

She is having a few problems with the French bureaucracy at the moment and getting her residency permit sorted out. She was actually supposed to fly to South Africa today but has had to go back to Nimes and meet with the bureaucracy  as she can’t leave the country and come back in until they’ve done something special with her visa so on Tuesday she has a meeting with the authorities and hopefully will get permission to fly to South Africa on Tuesday night and she’ll come back and join me in Dunkirk on our return from South Africa next Saturday. That’s if she gets to go otherwise she’ll come by train and join me anyway.

Mathilde and Morgan a nice young couple sitting next to us looked like they were also enjoying the cruise and the excellent food.


A Weekend in the Loire Valley

Again thanks to all those that made lots of comments on the last post. We are thinking of you all back in NZ with the country struggling after the delayed effort in getting people vaccinated.

Friday 1 October 2021

I picked Sylvia up at work at noon and she plugged into the GPS Chateau Moulins that we were going to do a drive-by on on the way to our, accommodation at Relais des Trois Chateaux. The route took us  south through Montpelier then northwest through to Toulouse on what was about a 6-hour journey. As we drove down the road heading to the Chateau Moulins,  I pointed to the big barn across across the paddock and jokingly said there it is. Well that’s exactly where the GPS took us. There are in actual fact eight ChateauMoulins in France and we had picked the wrong one. On checking the map we were still some 230km and two-and-a-half hours from where we had wanted to go!!! But anyway we had a good look around some different countryside as we headed to our hotel, eventually arriving around 8:30pm.  The food was good, the service average, even for France, and the workmanship in the recently renovated bathrooms was worse than terrible but we settled in there for the night.

Saturday 2 October 2021

After breakfast we headed for our first stop of the day, Chateau Chenonceau. The site has been some sort of chateau or fortification since about the 11th century. Like many of these buildings it was burnt down and rebuilt between 1515 and 1521. In 1535 the chateau was seized by King Francis I for an unpaid debt to the crown. After Francis’ death in 1947, Henry II offered the chateau as a gift to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

She was apparently one of the prettiest women in France and spent her life maintaining her looks by having cold baths and wearing lots of make up. As it turned out, when Henry, as a seven-year old prince, had been sent off to Spain, through some dodgy hostage deal, Diane, some 20-years older than him, had kissed him goodbye and he fell in love. Later when he became king he took her on as his mistress. She went on to build the magnificent gardens, the arched bridge across the river and the halls on top of it, but in 1556 when the king died the Queen had it taken off her. (For some reason she was a bit jealous of Diane who had supervised the education of their children among many other things).

Anyway Diane didn’t do too badly out of the deal as she got another castle down the road, which apparently with its land was worth more than this place. She became quite a renown business woman with a large silk plantation among other things. We were quite intrigued by some of the gadgets in this castle – a good example is a pump to pump water up to the kitchen from the river and another was a spit roasting device in front of one of the massive fireplaces where a weight was hanging out the window on a rope to turn the wheel which in turn rotated the roast on the spit in front of the fire.

During the First World War the large halls above the bridge over the river were used as hospitals, the model of this setup is displayed in one of the outbuildings at the moment. In good French style they grow and make their own wine and there’s a winery in one of the other buildings as well the old stables filled with a number of carriages and other modes of transport including a couple of old Bentleys. There’s also a large vegetable garden and lots of houses which various people associated with the castle nowadays live in.

Next stop was Chateau de Chaumont-sur-Loire. This was originally built around 973 to keep an eye on the border between county Blois and county Anjou. It stayed in the d’Amboise family for 5 centuries. In 1465 Louis XI had the place burned down to punish one of the family for annoying him. It was later rebuilt and stands pretty much in the same form today.

Like other similar places you don’t see the whole thing because parts are under restoration or locked off for other various reasons. This place is undergoing ongoing maintenance and it’s not as nice and well-presented inside as the previous place but still very interesting to look around, and the grounds, stables and other buildings are all in really good nick making the visit well worth while. This is the place Diane De Poitiers was given when thrown out of Chateau de Chenonceau. She finished off the construction and the structure that is here today is as it was in 1566. We can still see the pock-marks where bullets have struck the wall at some stage in the past and wonder about all the stories the building could tell if it could talk. When we read about these places I’m sure we only get a glimpse of what’s taken place over the last thousand years.

Next we headed up alongside the Loire River, stopping at a sign that says restaurant. Driving into the carpark we don’t see a restaurant. The car park is full so we park on the side of the road. On the other side is a cliff and on a closer look at the bottom of the cliff is the entrance to Le Pied dans le Plat. It’s a restaurant inside a cave about 40m deep and 20m wide with lots of rock bolts in the ceiling. The place is pretty full but they give us a table down the back behind what is the dance floor. It turns out that the cave was dug by hand around 400 years ago. After a good meal we continued up-river noting that in this area there were several cave business at the base of the cliff.

Next stop was just a drive by of the Chateau Royal d’Amboise, another place knocked up in the 15th century and visited by kings and literary figures such as Leonardo da Vinci through to the 19th century. On the hill above the town and the river it has commanding views over the area.

Last stop for the day was the Chateau Royal de Blois. This place has been a chateau since pre-854 when it was attacked by Vikings. It was rebuilt in the 10th and 11th centuries. In the 16th century the red brick wing was added. In 1515  when Francis I took power a new wing was constructed at the request of his wife with one of the period’s most important libraries, which later became part of the national library. It has an external spiral staircase on this wing that looks outstanding. Following the arrows going up and down various spiral stairs we worked our way through the place with all its extravagance of the times on display in various rooms. Again large parts are closed off so as usual we never got to see it all. There is a garden at the back which looks out over the city below, with its huge churches and orange-clad-roofed stone buildings.

Driving back to our hotel Relais de Trois Chateau, which is certainly no chateau in comparison to what we have seen today, the countryside is mainly cropping. Interestingly this so-called valley to us seemed more like a large plain with a rivers and canals running through it. There are still large fields of sunflowers, the flowers now dead, awaiting harvesting along with corn and other crops. Only a change of crop defines the paddocks – there is little to no sign of stock hence the reason for no fencing.

Sunday 3 October 2021

First stop was the magnificent Chateau de Chambord. This place is by far the most impressive of what we saw. Construction started in 1519 in what was a swamp area, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey and damp enough to rust them. In summer it was hot, humid and plagued by mosquitos. On the good side it was surrounded by some great hunting. It was in fact designed as a hunting lodge for King Francis I (1494-1547) in the French Renaissance style, using both French and Italian designers including Leonardo da Vinci. They think he was responsible for the concept of central grand staircase with its two spiral sets of stairs and the tower on top. The construction was slow to get underway intrupted by the Italian war from 1521 to 1526. Building resumed September 1526 at which point 1800 workers were on the site. The king only visited the place for a total of 7 weeks before he died; each time furnishings and food had to be brought in advance – a major exercise requiring some 2000 people.  The exiled king of Poland lived there from 1725 until 1733, during which time it was furnished. The French revolution in 1792 saw the place stripped and everything including the doors sold; some doors were burned to keep the place warm during the sale.

The place is huge with with canals and waterways remaining from when the swamp was drained In the 1930’s it was taken over by the state and restoration started after WWII.  The 13,000 acre property was fully walled.

Unlike in other chateaus there are no arrows directing you through the place. This is good as the rooms are so big there is space to just wander. There are many spiral staircases other than the main one some which are locked off. There is quite a large chapel and lots of parts that are closed to to public. One thing that is really common in these chateaus that I haven’t mentioned before is really bad art of various types, but mainly abstract, and to our eyes most of it is very untasteful or to  put it bluntly bloody awful.

It seems pre-Covid there were some 700,000 visitors going through the place. Tourism might be bad for our carbon footprint but it does a great job in preserving places such as these. There is no way anymore will be built. As we looked through this place we were discussing how big the wealth gap must have been in those days, or was it that there were a lot more available resources and less people demanding them.

Not too far down the road is Chateau Fougeres sur Bievre. In 1030 this manor house belonged to the Count of Blois. During the 100  year wars it fell into English hands; they abandoned it in 1429. In 1470 Peerre de Refuge, adviser to the  Duke of Orleans and treasurer to Louis XI turned it into a miniature fortress.  It did a stint as a spinning mill  from1812 to 1901, became a historic monument in 1912 and passed to the french government in 1932.

This place is almost quaint, built around a courtyard the buildings are quite narrow particularly the northwest side, which is only a couple of meters wide.  We entered from around the back following the arrows which took us up and down narrow spiral stairs and at one stage into the roof space. Some of the bedrooms are set up as they were and in places posts and beams have been put in place to hold up the sagging ceilings.

Last stop for the day was Chateau Cheverny. This property has been in the hands of the Huraults family since the late 14th century. Once a forttres and taken by the crown because of fraud, King Henry donated it to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. Looks like she did pretty well out of that one kiss!! She didn’t spend much time there and sold the property to the former owner’s son, Philippe Hurault, who built the current chateau.

After the revolution in 1802 the family stripped of its wealth sold the property, but bought it back in 1824. It’s been open to the public since 1914 and they boast it has only been closed to visitors twice, once when the present owner got married the other when the queen mother visited. The family still live in the chateau, tucked away in probably quite large apartment down the right-hand end.

The place is well-preserved and arrows guided us up and down stairways and through most of the building. Out the back there are grounds and a cafe in what was the old orangerie building, and out the front, near the stables, are the 150-odd French hounds, still used for hunting and much larger than the english fox hounds. There is also a trophy room, which one can view from the door. The old stable area is off limits as it is used as an admin area by the family. There are large well kept grounds along with a vineyard.

Arriving back at the hotel at around 5pm there were no staff around, not even a drink available so we headed back over to Blois for a meal. The first place we went into had menu’s on the tables; Sylvia went to the bar to ask for some food and was told “no Food”. We had a drink and left. The next place wasn’t much better – the waitress, busy perusing her phone, eventually got up, sent us to sit outside and went back to her phone. We went to the pizza restaurant down below and had a great meal and surprisingly good service – not common in these parts at all.

Monday 4 October 2021

We set of at 0715 as Sylvia had a meeting at 1400hrs. The drive back was a lot shorter and took us through some quite interesting countryside, lots and lots of farmland and some spectacular bridges and viaducts put in to get keep the traffic moving at 130 kph.

Saturday 09 October 2021

We took a drive out to Aigues Mortes and enjoyed a great pizza lunch at one of the many restaurants within the city walls. The place was pumping as some sort of carnival was going on. Outdoor bar areas had fences around to make sure those entering had their Covid jabs. We decided to walk the city walls, getting a ticket at the entrance. About 3 meters thick, with towers at intervals and great views over the city it was quite interesting.

One thing that is prominent in all these old places is the size of the fire places they must have had a big team of lumber jacks to keep the wood up to them.

Heading along the southwest part of the wall we looked down on an arena where it looked like some form of bull fighting was going to tale place. We waited and watched as a truck came and sprayed water around the outside edge of the arena. Eventually a bull was released, not into the arena but to the outside, taking the crowd by surprise. The people leaning on the post and rail fence had to jump into the arena to escape the leather bound horns of the bull.  At one stage he actually ran up to the grand stand scattering those seated in that part. Next he made his way into the arena and the people jumped out apart from a few who stayed to challenge the bull as he pored the ground, tongue hanging out, ready to take on all comers. As soon as he made his move these people would run and jump over the rail to safety. There were some hay bales in the middle of the arena which a number of people decided to sit on and torment the bull and eventually the bull knocked the top bale off sending the three squatters to the ground and then, as if saying “okay I won” he trotted off back to his pen. The bull had a great time entertaining the crowd and went home alive and well at the end of it.

Settling in to France

Firstly thanks to all those that wrote comments on the last blog. It’s actually really good to be in this place of interest and able to write a few stories again.

Over the years Sylvia and I have travelled quite a lot and Sylvia has lived in Australia, Singapore and the US, as well as New Zealand. For me to actually sort of move to another country, apart from a year in Australia in the 70s, is a new deal. Setting up in France and not speaking the language is quite an interesting experience. In the past I’ve managed to make my way around the world by ‘pointing and paying’ but here it is a little different doing things like joining the gym, opening a bank account, finding a physiotherapist to work on my recently broken Achilles, and also last but not least at the new French lessons (poor teacher). I have found everybody so far to be really friendly and helpful even though I don’t speak the language and have to drag out my phone and use Google translate, but with a smile and a laugh we seem to be able to get there in the end.

It’s becoming pretty obvious I haven’t travelled for a while as on a number of occasions I have gone to the wrong side of the car, and on one occasion even got in and had a brief moment of ‘where did the steering wheel go?’.

Sunday 12 September 2021

It’s a sunny day as we head northeast to Avignon, about 45 mins from where we live. I noticed on the map a place called Tarascon, on the Rhone River, and we decided to take a look at it. We crossed the Rhone and drove through the town past some of the rather picturesque canals, stacked with many boats.

The road led us across the river again to the Chateau of Tarascon. More of a fort than a Chateau it was knocked up by the princes of Anjou at the start of the 15th century. Complete with a moat, thirty plus rooms, and a few battle scars from when, in 1652, Prince Fronde had a crack at it. It is apparently one of the most beautiful medieval castles in France. We took a look through – the self-guided tour was well set up, leading us through, I think, most of the rooms in the place. Although the layout was pretty much the same on each level the ceilings were often different, some stone and some wood. Some rooms had art (well I think it was art) displayed in them. Like most forts it eventually lost its importance. From the 18th century until 1926 the place was used as a prison. Eventually after climbing many stone spiral stairs we ended up on the roof, from which there are great views across the city with its huge cement works and other industry, and of course some other old fortifications.

From the roof the the spiral stairs led us down through the parts we hadn’t seen. The castle surrounds a courtyard, obviously built that way to let light in from all sides. There is also a dungeon, which we were denied access to.

From there we followed the river until we reached Avignon. First used as a fortress by the Romans in the 1st century, then then modified over the years. In the 13th century double walls were erected to protect the locals from the king of France, Louis the eighth, but in 1266 he fronted up and took over the place, filled in the moat and had a lot of the fortress pulled down. But then a few years later the people of Avignon erected new walls 30 to 40 m beyond the previous ruins. In 1309 Pope Clement V moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon and decided to extend the city walls further to protect the city from the many bands of bad buggers that roamed the Rhone valley back then.  (4300m of walls still stand today). During that period the 11,000 sqm Palace for the popes was constructed, along with a cathedral next door. It is interesting that all the stone for the city and its walls came from across the river. From what I can establish there were some six Popes that lived there before the papacy returning to Rome in the 1400’s.

We parked in the underground car park and headed into the large courtyard alongside the castle, where we took a seat at one of the many restaurant tables in the square enjoying a relaxing lunch and some people watching. We saw a train coming and going pulled by a small tractor and towing carriages with tourists on board so we decided to give it a go. It turned out to be quite a good way to see the place including a commentary in a language of one’s choice on the plastic head phones, which gave a good history as it weaved its way through the narrow streets, up high from where one can see more forts on the other side of the river, eventually taking us outside the walls and past the famous Pont D’Avignon (Avignon bridge) before heading back into the fort again. After the tour we took a stroll to the city square outside the Palace D’Avignon (City Hall) before heading home having had a really interesting day out.

Tuesday September 14 2021

I had said to Sylvia when Ifirst arrived “it looks like they get some flooding around here from the size of the ditches on the road sides”. She said that they say “if it rains really heavy stay where you are as the roads can flood”.

I was about to leave the gym at Vauvert (about 15kms from home) and was chatting to someone under the canopy when heavy rain came through – as heavy as I had seen in Singapore. Within minutes there was ponding around the place then it stopped, so I headed to the car and drove down to a local restaurant, Le Cartel, with its friendly staff, which I frequent quite often.

It poured down! I sat in the car for a little while, waiting for it to ease. Lightening was hitting the lightening rods on nearby buildings as the storm got more intense. Eventually I made it into the restaurant, where the power was off but the staff were very accommodating, and I sat and waited out the storm. Part of the carpark turned into a lake; luckily I had parked on the high ground. Sirens wailed around the area as emergency services went to assist people. After a couple of hours the rain stopped, the power came back on and I had some lunch, which I thought would give the traffic a chance to clear. Apparently there had been 95mm of rain or 6 months worth in two hours. The sky cleared a bit so I decided to head home. I got a few kms down the D135, a local road, and the traffic going in my direction was stationary. After waiting a while I headed back, then north, trying to find a way through. I found a road with little traffic on and forded a few ponds to then come to a road closed sign. All the other roads were clogged with traffic so I headed back to the D135 and sat in the car with the line moving a car length every now and again probably only from people turning around and heading back. After a very long time and a bit of map study I headed back to Vauvert, through the town to some high ground. Even there the road had taken a hammering with big wash outs and in one place I had to drive along the footpath to avoid a deep pond. Avoiding obstacles and heading through a couple of small towns I eventually made it home 3 hours after leaving Vauvert. I was really lucky I had stopped at the Le Cartel as roads had turned to rivers, the local canal had overflowed and many cars were washed off the road. One still sits parked across a roadside drain.

Arriving home the house was fine apart from no power as the mains had tripped out. The local road is covered in stones washed out of the vineyards, to the point in places it looks like a truck has been up and laid shingle on top of the seal.

Friday 17 September 2021

Every year at the Nimes Arena, which was constructed by the Romans in 70 BC and is apparently the best kept of any of the Roman era arenas, they hold a bull fighting carnival over several days. This is apparently the only one left in France where they actually kill the bulls. Having seen these events dramatised in movies I thought I had better go along and see the real thing. I was lucky to get a seat in the front row. Arriving early, having walked through the carnival beginning outside the stadium, I watched the crowd filter in, people bringing cushions and drinks, and the guy next to me me lighting up a Cuban Cigar. The crowd was about 50-50 men and woman. Men walked along the lower wall carrying large trays of drinks and snacks. Sand on the arena floor was clean and the sand raked smooth with two oval white lines painted on the sand. A brass band played high up on the terraces at the east end of the arena.

Before the start time of 5.30pm the stadium was pretty full and on time a parade of all the participants (bulls excluded) takes place. Two women on horseback lead the parade, next are some solid looking horses wearing a large mustard-coloured heavy cape, then men on foot followed by a couple of two-horse teams with a swingle tree rigged up behind them.

Then the action begins: to tire the bull out matadors with pink capes set themselves up at three points around the arena behind a barrier offset from the arena wall with a gap too small for the bull to get through. The  gates open at the east end of the arena and a black bull comes out of the tunnel and looks around as if to say “what are all these stupid people looking at!”. A man comes out from behind the barrier and waves his pink cape, the bull charges, the man runs back behind the barrier as the man at the next barrier runs out with his pink cape, the bull charges and so it goes on until the bull tires a bit, then the pink cape men take it in turns to play matador with the man holding the cape out and stepping aside as the bull charges.

Then out come a couple of the leather-clad horses, this time blind folded. The bull charges the horse, sometimes getting its head under the horse and lifting the front or back legs off the ground. As this is happening the rider, carrying a lance with a short spike on the end, plunges it into the back of the bull around the shoulder area. The men with the capes then run around to draw the bull away from the horse. This is repeated a few times; the horses never flinch.

Next men with no capes run across the arena to the bull and try to lunge two colourful darts complete with barbs into the back of the bull above the shoulder, jumping aside as they do it to avoid the bull’s horns. These now hang off and must be rather uncomfortable as the bull runs around being challenged by the pink capes.

The bull is now running a bit low on energy and it’s time for the matador, complete with red cape and chest puffed out, and looking like a cock strutting his stuff around the arena.  He bows to the officials at the west end of the arena then tosses his hat on the ground and begins waving his cape at the bull. The bull comes in as fast as he can, head down at the red cape, the matador steps aside and struts around as the crowd cheers. After a lot of this the matador is handed a sword from the side and continues to torment the bull. Eventually as the bull charges he side steps and lunges the sword down between the bull’s shoulder-blades, I presume aiming for the heart with his fine meter-plus long sword. From what i witnessed if this is done well the bull dies pretty much straight away. If not the bull is still slowly running around being distracted by the pink capes while the matador goes to the sideline and is handed another sword. He then lunges at the bull, the sword entering the back of the neck and the bull drops like a concrete block. The crowd goes wild, people standing and cheering as the Matador takes a bow, walking around the ring; people throw him flowers and hats and various other objects. The flowers are kept and the rest are thrown back. At the same time people rush out through the tunnel with buckets, shovels and rakes collecting the bloodied sand, raking over the sand so that it’s nice and smooth for the next challenge. While this is happening the team of horses come out and attach a chain to the balls horns and drag it from the stadium quite quickly. The next challenge is underway. There were six bull fights that night with three matadors taking part. Each fight was similar to the last one and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the bulls. It’s been a tradition in this part of the world for hundreds of years so one has to respect that as part of the local culture but I probably won’t be going back to see another bull fight any time soon. Well it was in someways quite an interesting experience.

Saturday 18 September 2021

Today was the annual grape harvest day at Royal Canin’s head office and factory. About 130 adults and 50 kids turned up to help pick the acre of grapes.  The harvest was apparently smaller than usual as a frost had hit the area earlier in season. The quality was, they reckon, very good though. In less than two hours the 2.2 ton of grapes were picked and we were enjoying a BBQ and some of last years wine. It was great to meet some of the many people Sylvia works with and observe the compound next door where Royal Canin keeps some of the worlds best cared for cats and dogs. They are looked after in this compound where they are all fed with the various Royal Canin products to ensure the product is to the highest standard a pet can eat. For helping out we were given a case of wine from last year’s harvest – a nice drop it is too.

The harvest over, Sylvia and I headed to Aigues-Mortes, a walled city near the coast. In the 13th Century, King Louis IV was looking for a port to dispatch his crusades from. His son, Phillip III the Bold, built the walled city over thirty years and it still stands today. It’s a really nice place to visit with small shops, cafes and restaurants, narrow streets and few cars allowed to enter. With 1.6 km of walls overlooking the salt flats and the Mediterranean it’s a place we are sure we will visit frequently.

Sunday 19 September 2021

We took a drive to Saint Guilhem le Desert. Situated on the west side of the edge of the Herault river, a town of under 300 people. It was established as a monastery in 806 by Saint Guilhem and being an out of the way place has survived pretty much intact. It’s a rather unique little town that is built in a gully with the creek running under the houses and is full of small cave-type shops at street level with the houses on top. A town square with restaurants and good food turned out to be a great place to have lunch.  It’s only a couple of hundred meters from the top to the bottom of the town but very intriguing how the buildings have almost been weaved together making it an interesting place. After lunch we followed the road up the river though the arid countryside in this part of France. There were a number of dykes along the river and even what looked like a power station.


Breaking out of New Zealand – August 2021

Saturday, 28 August

Around 2:30pm I arrived at the Auckland International airport. Normally I’m not that excited to be leaving New Zealand, but with the current state of affairs in the country and the poor job the government has done getting us vaccinated with only around 20% of the population double vaccinated and a recent break out of the Delta virus variant, I was actually quite excited to be leaving the country.

Not surprisingly  there were very few people about in the terminal as there are very few planes coming and going from New Zealand, particularly as everybody arriving has to isolate for at least 14 days, due to the lack of vaccinated population. Secondly it’s really hard to get a space in quarantine to return to New Zealand, so consequently many airlines have dramatically reduced the number of flights and out of the country. When checking in I was given a $35 voucher to spend at a bar, the only one open in the departure terminal as under level four lockdown rules all the lounges are closed at the airport. With only a few people around it was a quick trip through immigration and airport security. I wandered through the closed shops  to the bar and presented my voucher to find out they did not sell alcohol, so I settled for a cup of coffee and a stale sandwich for the exorbitant cost of $27.

Not to worry though I was soon be seated on the Emirates flight and airborne, with a glass of wine in hand and a lovely meal as we headed to what I thought was supposed to be Dubai, but turned out was a stop in KL in Malaysia to refuel and pick up a few passengers. One young lady boarded in KL in a full protective suit, mask, goggles and all; there was no way that the virus was gonna get her.

Landing in Dubai, the airport was reasonably busy, all the shops were open and people were wearing masks but going out about their business as normal. The lounge was open where I enjoyed a good breakfast before boarding the flight to Lisbon.  It was supprising to see the number of large aircraft surrounding the terminal. It looks like the rest of the world is getting on with life while NZ sits self-isolating in the bottom corner of the world.

As we left Dubai I was sitting on the south-side or starboard side of the plane as we flew over the Palm Island, and  from there over the Sahara desert.

As I looked out past the triple seven engine, which was part of what was thrusting us forward at around 700 miles an hour I wondered if we were ever going to make these electric and how many batteries would have to fly to get that thrust. As we flew west across the desert every now and again large green circles of vegetation appeared. It’s almost like add water and you can grow anything, anywhere – then suddenly it goes back to miles and miles of sand, sand, rocky mountains and sand. We flew across the gulf of Aqaba, then across Northern Egypt and the Suez Canal and out into the Mediterranean, well above the coast of Libya and the other northern Africa states, then across Spain and Portugal.

Landing at Lisbon airport, apart from people wearing masks there was no sign of people social distancing or other things that people do to stay safe from the pandemic. It was almost like there wasn’t one – only the masks gave it away. Boarding the flight to Marseille the crew chief constantly checked people with cloth masks to make sure they were a compliant mask – well I presume that’s what he was doing I couldn’t really understand what he was saying.

30 August 2021

Arriving in Marseille there was no immigration or customs as we had cleared these in Lisbon. Sylvia was there to meet me for our little-under-an-hour drive to the place we will be living, near a little town called Caissargues, just south of Nimes. The house, which is rather large, is about 300 years old, made from stacked stones from the surrounding paddocks. As far is I can establish the stones were sort of laid with a concrete type substance. Later the walls were plastered to give it that solid stone look. The external walls are about 600mm thick and there are some internal columns that are some 500 mm². There’s an old stone step in the kitchen that’s been nearly worn flat over the years. Exposed in some places are some old logs that are obviously holding things up and that have been  riddled with borer over the years. The house is among a small group of buildings that are surrounded by fields and fields of vineyards, this being a large grape growing area. About 96% of the wine that comes from here is made into red; I’m told it’s not exactly up-market. Three friendly white horses also hang out in a bare paddock behind the house.

Saturday 4 September 2021

The first week here has flown by, getting various things organised, joining a gym, signing up for French lessons (poor teacher) etc. and the first weekend had arrived so we decided to head to a little town called Uzes, which Sylvia had discovered a few weeks before. The drive out there takes one through some quite nice country and across some very dry looking rivers.

The town has been around from the early BC days. Situated at the headwaters of the Alzon river in the first century the Romans built an aqueduct to take water to the city of Nimes, some 50 km away. Over the centuries the town has been run by various bishops and on occasions been fortified. It is now famous for its farmer’s markets on Saturday mornings. Fortunately we were there early enough to avoid the crowds and enjoyed some breakfast and having a wander around the town including the old castle, which I’m not sure how how long has been there but apparently is still occupied by some sort of royalty from time to time. It is also nice to see, as with many of these old European towns, how they just made the buildings fit the spaces available.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

We took a drive across to Arles, a city on the Rhone river. The waters of this river start in Switzerland and by the time it gets to this part of France it’s quite a large river and  used to transport cargo from Port Saint Louis du Rhone to the various towns and cities along its banks. There are also many canals for irrigation that run off the river, providing much-needed water to the large agricultural area in this part of France. As we drove down the river towards the mouth most of the paddocks are quite small and look like they use flooding-type irrigation to grow their crops. As we reached the river mouth there are large salt flats that have been there for over 100 years harvesting salt for tables around the world.

This area is also renowned for its birdlife with hundreds of pink flamingos wading the shallow waters, among the many other birds that hang out in this area. Past the salt flats there is a long beach that runs along the coast, popular with hundreds of people picnicking. I reckon tents or umbrellas are essential to keep out of the hot sun.

As we were heading back through the little town of Salin De Griraud,  with it almost barrack-style buildings, we spotted a side road; the map indicated it led to a ferry crossing,

We headed  down the road and soon the  car ferry turned up and we were whisked across the river (a new experience for Sylvia) to Port Saint Louis du Rhone. The town by the river is quite picturesque with a harbour area full of yachts and other pleasure craft, and a number of cafes and restaurants, which by this time of day were all closed. Just to the east of the town is a large container port and industrial area. As we headed north again along the west bank of the river required on trade by a lineup of wind turbines, obviously producing some of the local electricity. The land was pretty somewhere on the west of the river with most of it divided up into small paddocks and we even manage to spot some of the famous-in-this-area wild white horses that run the plains.

Wednesday 8 September 2020

Over the past couple of weeks we have heard machinery moving around the area from around 5am each morning; they knock off at around noon. This is part of the grape harvest. On the corner just west of us there are a number of large yellow bins set up. Little Renault tractors tow hydraulic trailers back to there and tip the grapes into the bins. To date I had mainly seen the harvesters in the distance apart from one by the bins under repair one day. Today I was lucky as they were harvesting the vines near the house so I took a wander down and had a closer look. The tall blue machines straddle the vines and move along quite quickly. There are plastic fingers at the front of the machine which rotate upwards and somehow the grapes are stripped from the stalks leaving the stalks  and the leaves on the vine. From the amount of air blowing out of the machine I have a feeling the grapes are blown into the bins on top of the machine. Every few rows they stop and tip their load into the trailers which transport them back to the yellow bins.

By 1pm that day the harvest was over and the bins were gone.


Pictures from the South Island NZ – November 2020

The sun sets at Glentanner Station, near Mt Cook

Reflections on Lake Pukaki

Once arid land with irrigation now runs thousands of cows just south of Twizel

Ahuriri River running from the Lewis Pass past Omarama

The Clay Cliffs, created out of layers of silt and gravel deposited by glaciers some 20 million years ago

Ahuriri River

Lupins used to be prolific in the area, especially along the roadside, but recently have been sprayed and are now mainly found in the riverbeds.

The Avimore power station on the Waitaki River. Completed in 1968, it provides 30% of the nations power.

Waitaki dam power house. Finished in 1934 it was the first hydro dam in NZ

Waitaki Substation distributes the 105MW of power produced here.

St Albans church,  just down river from Kurow

Lush Pastures created with irrigation from the Waitaki river

Drawings in the limestone caves near Duntroom

Arriving in Oamaru at the end of a weekend festival.

Steve’s friends, Michael and Lee-Ann, run the craftworks brewery in the old town part of Oamaru. This hand-made beer has to be aged in barrels for at least 6 months before drinking.

A local friend of ours, Jodi, came to help us sample the beer.

Around the corner we dined at the Criterion hotel, where the locals were still dressed in their period costumes.

Monday morning around 9am – the town is very quiet on this dull day, the streets dominated by the marvellous Oamaru stone buildings.

At the local cafe we ran in to Pam from New Plymouth, who is nearing the end of her bike ride from the top to the bottom of NZ

The old Teschemakers Girl’s  School near Kakanui, just south of Oamaru

Kakanui Beach

This church at Maheno was built by Colonel Nicholes in the mid 1930s to honour the soldiers who served in the first world war. This place is also where I started school a few years ago!

The Maheno War Memorial, next to the church.

Kuriheka Station Memorial with the large woodshed in the background.

The house we lived in when my father worked here as a shepherd and where my mother cooked for the shearers and musterers

This station is famous for all its Oamaru stone buildings. In the foreground are the stables, with the large homestead In the trees behind. It had its own hydro-station and sawmill when we lived there in the 50’s. It was once open to the public but alas no longer.

Moeraki Boulders, which appear from the banks above the beach eventually getting ground away by the sea and turning into sand.

We enjoyed a great meal of Blue Cod and chips at Moeraki’s Fishwife cafe, recommended to us by Peter and Julie, who we had popped in to see at Kakanui.

Views from the Fishwife Cafe

Arriving in the Catlins

Suart beach

A very pregnant sealion waddled up the sand at Suart beach, heading for the scrub go give birth to her pups.

The Catlins coast with it rugged cliffs and sandy beaches

The Purakaunui Falls, easy to access through beautiful bush, are one of the most photographed falls in NZ

Maclennan. River valley

Thirty odd years ago a man parked his house bus here at Patatowai and spent his days making gadgets and developing an amusement park.

Tautuka Bay – we drove the length this magnificent beach.

Large Eucalyptus forests have been planted throughout Southland and are mainly harvested for wood chip.

Curio Bay when the tide is out shows off fossilised logs which were laid down here in the ash of a large volcanic eruption 170 million years ago while NZ was still part of Gondwana. Since then NZ went under the sea and rose up again. Hectors Dolphins can also be seen in the next bay called Porpoise Bay .

Waipapa Point Lighthouse is another interesting stop. This is a copper skinned building with the gap between the skins partially filled with rocks to stop it blowing away. Built in 1884 ,with a keeper’s cottage nearby, it still operates electronically  with the keep having being retired years ago.

Tiwai Point, a large aluminium smelter which consumes over 10% of the country’s power. Located on a peninsular just north east of Bluff and built in 1974 on the promise of cheap power from the Manapouri dam it is still hanging in there, with constant threats from the owners to close it.

Bluff Port

Looking north from the hill above Bluff. Just southwest of here, a short boat ride away is Stewart Island, a place I have yet to visit.

Invercargill is NZ’s most southern city with a must-see, privately owned transport museum. Bill Richardson collected cars and trucks most of his life and when he died in 2004 he had amassed 170 vehicles, His family continued the collecting and there are now some 300 cars, trucks, tractors and more in the museum.

Further down Tay Street there is a large motorbike collection, recently purchased by the Richardson family to prevent it leaving NZ

In the local hardware store you will also find the “World’s Fastest Indian”

This is the Indian motorbike that Burt Munro made history in by reaching 105.67 MPH across the Bonneville salt flats in 1967.

The picturesque little town of Riverton.

Sheep farming is the main income stream in this part of NZ.

Otahu School that operated from 1913 to 1956

This weir controls the water level of both Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau, which link up here, supplying water to the Manapouri underground power station that supplies the power to Tiwai point.

Dawn breaks at Lake Te Anau

Heading north for Milford Sound on highway 94

Eglinton river flats

The Mirror lakes hosting NZ’s smallest duck the scaup

The Hollyford valley

With a high rainfall, large rocks are used to protect the roads around here; every year there are road closures from slips, washouts and avalanches.

The Homer tunnel with its traffic lights to control the one way traffic. its a big job just clearing the avalanches above here in winter.

Mitre Peak at Milford Sound

A large carpark able to cater for 28 large tour buses hosts only one half bus. Now is the time for all Kiwis to get down here and look at this stunning part of the world.

There are 15 tour boats based here. Just now only 3 or 4 are operating a reduced schedule. Many of the aircraft are either tied up on the ground or have been moved elsewhere for storage.

Bowen Falls, the water supply for the generator, is fed from the top of this spectacular waterfall. There is now cellphone coverage in this part of the world.

Trees grow in these cliffs by intertwining their routs to hang on, every now and again one near the top lets go taking all those below with it. They take about 150 years to grow again.

These cliffs plunge vertically straight down into the water, in some places to 500m below the water level.

The fjord is some 12 miles (19k) long and up 2 miles (3k) wide. It is actually a fjord as it was created by a glacier a few million years ago. It was the NZ Navy who mistakingly called it a sound early last century.

Fur seals are a common sight here.

These Fiordland Crested Penguins (an endangered species) return here from the Antarctic each year to breed.

As we leave here we have a good understanding as to why Rudyard Kipling named this place the Eighth Wonder of the world.

As it is the only road in we had to head back to Te Anau before following highway 94 through the stunning farmland of Lowther, Athol, Garston and Kingston to Queenstown.

The entrance to the town of Cromwell, known for its fruit and cherry growing.

Lake Dustan the last of NZ’s hydro dam lakes, settled in a valley between the Pisa range and the Dunstan range, is now a grape growing area.

The Lewis Pass on Highway 8 reveals some more spectacular hills

The mighty Rakaia River on the east side of the Southern Alps.

Large trees grace the old town of Hamner.

The Waiau River running from the Lewis Pass

Marau Springs Hotel on the west side of Lewis Pass

The hops farms of Motueka

Harwoods Hole, 176 meters deep, runs into an underground river, which one can walk out after abseiling down into the hole.

Atop an interesting rock formation near the hole is a great view out to Takaka.

Arriving back at the car from the hole we discovered a group of Kea (a native parrot) ripping apart an inner tube some one had as a bike tie on the back of their car. They are quite cheeky and have been known to tear the rubber from around car windscreens.

The area around Takaka revealed some stunning beaches as well as Steve’s corner.

The Takaka hill road exposed some great views back towards Kaiteriteri.

Sandy Bay Just north of Kaiteriteri.


Split Apple Rock

Havelock, at the head of Pelorus Sound

Pelorus Sound

The port town of Picton where the ferry departs for the North Island

A spitfire, one of the many planes displayed at the aviation museum near the Blenheim Airport. This is well worth a visit.






































A Great Bunch of Folk and the Inaugural High Country Helihike

1 November 2020

It’s been a while since we have been anywhere to write about, having being locked up in NZ since March.

Sylvia headed off to Singapore in early October to spend some time with her team there. I have taken the opportunity to head down and visit our good friends, Ross and Helen, at Glentanner Station, near Mount Cook in the Mackenzie Country in the South Island. Having being born not far from here it is a special place and I believe has the best scenery in the world.

Glentanner Station has been, for many years, running, in conjunction with The Helicopter Line, scenic flights, heliskiing and flying hunters into the hills to sustain the farm and preserve this beautiful place. It also operates a campground with cabins, and tent and caravan sites.

Today is the first of, what I am sure will be many, Heli-walks. Ross has invited me along for the ride as there was a spare seat on the Helo.

We meet the boat people, as they call themselves after taking a trip up the Murray River in Australia a couple of years ago. All from Timaru, they had read about this venture in the local newspaper.

Surrounded by mountains on the edge of the river flats, with blue skies  and clouds around Aoraki Mt Cook, the setting for this little adventure is stunning.

After a safety briefing from Diago, the load master, the first group climbs aboard and the helo lifts off. After watching them land on the hill and a 15-minute wait, the helo is back and we climb aboard, heading east out over the braided Tasman River, which feeds the ground-powdered water from the glaciers into lake Pukaki, giving it its beautiful turquoise blue colour. We head over Mt Cook station towards the Jolly River Valley before turning south and over-looking the vast Tekapo Military Training area with Lake Tekapo in the distance, Heading back west past the top of the lake we circle around and land in the tussock where the first group meets us.

The helo departs and Ross gathers us together and tells us a little about the the land we are standing on. At 1000m above sea level we are on a moraine wall created by a glacier that was here around 14 thousand years ago. Just below us is one of many tarns that exist up here, which is fed by a spring and drains off down into the Glentanner stream below. He also explained that at this altitude english grasses don’t grow and that this area and to the west is not running sheep although hares and thar (a Himalayan mountain goat) do feed around here. When the fence was built up here in the early 1960s they strapped the posts in bundles onto a piper cub and flew them up dropping them into the tarns.

As we strolled south along the track Ross told us a little about the farm and the privilege his family feels being the guardians of  the beautiful land and the efforts they go to to keep it free of wilding pines. His father came here in 1957 as a farm manager and when the lake level was raised in 1974 and some 7000 acres was lost from the farm the opportunity came up to buy the station, which they did. Ross’s father realised pretty quickly that it was going to be very had to survive on just farming and saw an opportunity to develop a tourist business which they have built over the past 45 years.

We crossed a little stream, where Ross said he had sat with a Japanese man and drank whisky added to the pure mountain water. A number of the boat people emptied their water bottles and filled then with this sacred liquid.

Ross explained that the many predator traps we saw along the way are part of an effort to make some 300,000 hectares predator free. This includes some 14 high country stations and crown land and is all being privately funded by some very generous benefactors.

The walk is easy, following a farm track along the mostly flat moraine wall with stunning views of Mount Cook and the surrounding mountains to the north, and with sweeping views to the east across the tussock  plains and to the south over the stunning blue lake Pukaki.

The group, mainly from a farming background, is really keen to hear from Ross how they farm the 6000 Merino sheep. The Station originally some 45,000 acres of pastoral lease land running back into the mountains to the west, recently went through the tenure review process where the high country went back to the crown and the lowland became freehold to Ross and his family, who now has his two sons Mark and George running the farms.

The track starts to head down hill as we look over the farm buildings and the camp ground and tourist hub. There is also a small airport with a runway long enough to land small jets. This was built in the 80s by an airline that no longer exists and is now part of Glentanner.

After enjoying great views of the steep hills up and on the south side of the twin streams we reached a couple of huts built by the government in the 1960’s. We stopped and had a cup of tea and some very nice cake baked by Helen. Ross explained how the huts had been built to research the grasses and flora in the area. There is another hut up at about 1500m that was also used for this purpose –  we caught a glimpse of the roof as we walked by. Over the years I have stayed in both these huts while hunting thar in the surrounding hills.

The next leg was all gently down hill back to the tourist centre. As we crossed over a sty Ross pointed out a large rock where he is going to resurrect a plaque to George Thompson, who was the second owner of the station and disappeared when crossing the lake in a whaling boat in 1885. The plaque was originally erected by the lake and removed before the lake was raised for the first time in 1950. It disappeared for many years and was recently returned to the station. Ross has had it restored.

Arriving back at the tourist centre after a comfortable four hour stroll the captain of the boat people thanked Ross for his excellent guidance along the way. It had indeed been an excellent afternoon out taking in some interesting history while enjoying some of the worlds best scenery.



Berlin: Track Cycling World Champs February 2020

Monday 24 February 2020

Boarding the Lufthansa flight at Tokyo Haneda Airport I was surprised to see the the number of empty seats. Two thirds of business class was empty and over half of economy class. Obviously the coronavirus is having a big effect.

At Frankfurt they only had 2 customs officers on with a queue winding its way back through the terminal well over a 100 meters. I was lucky to arrive as the queue was starting to form but still only just made the flight to Berlin.

The trip from Tegel Airport took nearly an hour in the heavy evening traffic. After checking into the Upstalsboom Hotel and dumping my kit I headed over to the Vienna House Abels Hotel, a large hotel and conference centre across the road from the velodrome and a large swimming complex, where most of the track cyclists participating in the World champs are staying. Kirstie and I enjoyed dinner together and had a great catch up. Kirstie had been in town since Friday and explained hew easy the tram system was to use. “Dad you just get the tram across the road west to the next intersection then get off and get on the tram on the line heading south. Following the instructions and having only glanced at the google map she showed me I got on the south facing tram and the bloody thing instead of going straight ahead turned east and took me back to where I started. So I payed for an Uber instead.

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Kirstie had said I should be able to watch them train at 1000 so I took a stroll to the Velodrome. Luckily Kirstie had warned me they were underground. Basically a big flat paddock with one rectangular and one round concrete structure at ground level, which housed the velodrome and a swimming complex underneath. I headed to the first set of lifts, which brought me out by the swimming complex that seams to have several pools in it. To the north on the underground road was the entrance to the Velodrome, which was all closed up.

I went down to the next level where a door was open so I wandered in. A short distance down the corridor I was confronted by a number of security people who called the English speaker over as I tried to explain why I was there. He made it very clear there was no way I was going in. He probably sleeps with a copy of Mein Kampf under his pillow. Making a careful withdrawal I headed back up to the ground. Then thinking I have to give this another try I headed back down to the public entry. This time a door was unlocked with security people everywhere. I tried to explain again why I wanted in so they got a part English-speaking lady who then took me to a good English speaking lady called Sarah from Finland, who is studying in Berlin and working as a volunteer at the champs. She told the security people that she would accompany and sit with me as I watched. Problem solved. As we walked into the stadium she asked me who my daughter was. When I told her she lit up with “Kirstie is a friend of mine. I have stayed at your house in NZ.” Sarah, a former track cyclist, who rode for both Mexico and Finland, trained at the Velodrome in Cambridge NZ for a while.

After watching the training I headed by tram to the NZ embassy to get some documents witnessed. A very helpful lady called Frances sorted it all out, asking me what had brought me to Berlin. I explained about the cycling and while she was sorting the docs the Ambassador, Rupert, popped in for a yarn, saying the team manager had invited him to come out to say hi to the team but he was a bit tied up as our Minister of Justice was in town.

I wondered around town, through the Brandenburg Gates and past them to the Bunker, which was closed.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

I headed over to the the Allied Museum, which is in the what was the American area. This covers mainly information about the blockade of Berlin from 24 June 1948 to 12 May 1949. The blockade was brought about by the Soviets to force France, Britain and the US out of West Berlin. Bearing in mind Berlin was some 170kms inside Soviet East German territory.

In March 1948 the Allied powers decided to unite the different occupation zones of Germany into a single economic unit. In protest, the Soviet representative withdrew from the Allied Control Council. This coincided with the introduction of a new Deutsche Mark in West Berlin (as throughout West Germany), which the Soviets regarded as a violation of agreements with the Allies. The Soviet occupation forces in Eastern Germany began a blockade of all rail, road, and canal. Only the air corridors remained open.

Over 230 thousand flights flew millions of tons of supplies into West Berlin keeping the city going until the embargo was lifted. The museum contains lots of information on the airlift as well as information on the life of the Americans from the war up until reunification. There is a section of the tunnel the allies build under the wall in the 60’s, from which they tapped into the Soviet communication system. Only problem was that Philby, one of the Cambridge five was still in M16 hence the Soviets knew all about it.

The original Checkpoint Charlie is also located there along with one of the planes used in the air lift.

Light damp snow fell as I walked back to the station. I headed to the Velodrome at 1pm for the start of the racing. The NZ team pursuit team put up the fourth fastest time with Kirstie leading them out. I managed to get some good pictures of the racers in spite of having being told by the security staff my camera was too big and I had to hand it in at the nearby counter, which I forgot to do.

After the first session was over I joined some of the other parents in the hotel restaurant for a meal and a few drinks.

In the evening I went anI watched some more racing taking a few more pictures of the kiwis as Kirstie had said they don’t have a photographer and in spite of the many professional photographers at these events they never seem to get access to the pictures.

Thursday 27 February 2020

I was staying in what was East Berlin. 65% of Berlin had been destroyed during WWII so much of the city is relatively new built by the soviets with ,wide streets and many of the buildings made to a similar style. The public transport system here is fantastic with trams linking to the several different rail systems around the city.

I spent a good part of the day strolling the streets and looking around. Just like in many cities old factories are being turned into residential apartment buildings.

In the evening I headed back to the track to watch the the next round of the team pursuit. As there are five in the team and only four race Kirstie did not get to race this one. They raced the US team, who had come first in the eliminations, but their race did not go to plan so they missed out on a medal race. Last year they were placed third.

After the racing I headed into the city centre to a bar. I was enjoying a glass of wine and editing some photos on my phone when my battery went flat. Now back home this would not be a problem just ask one of the bar staff to borrow a charger. But not here, no one has such a thing for an i-Phone. It was pissing down with rain and all the info on the hotel was in my phone. Being a bit dyslexic I could not even pronounce the hotel, let alone spell it. I probably could have found my way there eventually but was going to get soaked in the process. I wandered into a couple of shops but still no i-Phone charger. Then I headed into Dussmann’s book store where a friendly sales guy took a charger off the shelf and took me to a power point. Problem solved.

Friday 28 February 2020

A couple of train rides took me to the old Tempelhof Airport. This site has a history going back to the Knights of the Temple, who occupied it around 800AD. After that it was mainly a military type area until the 1920’s when it first became used for aviation with the Hindenburg airships being launched from there with hundreds of thousands of spectators turning up, as they did when Orvil Wright did his 1.5 hour first passenger flight.

In 1933 Hitler decided he wanted to build a major airport there. In 1935 architect Ernest Sagebeil was given the design task. The 300,000 square meter building was built the following year. With dozens of stairways at the back it was designed to accommodate 100,000 people on the roof for the important people to sit while millions paraded on the grounds below. The whole thing  was built in a year (at the time the largest building in the world) but never quite finished as the money ran out and the 100,000 people never got to sit on the roof. It did however work as an airport, the first to have its own baggage handling and freight area. Planes could pull in under the large apron and park beside the steps to the terminal. As the Germans were the Aryan race they didn’t need lifts, but they did put a couple of special ones in for Hitler.

I found an English-speaking tour was on at 1.30 and joined in. As luck would have it we struck probably the best tour guide ever. She knew everything about the place, was easy to understand and very accomodating. We first headed out onto the apron where she pointed out the hangar that had been used recently to accomodate refugees along with several hundred containers that were also part of their accommodation. The large radar station could apparently “see” several hundred miles into the Soviet east during the cold war. The Soviets captured the airport at the end of the war and during the battle many of the building were damaged by fire. During the war the airfield had been bombed by the allies to an unusable state but the buildings had only been only hit twice.

This was the main airport used to fly in relief during the embargo. When it started they could unload a plane in 30 minutes; by the end it was 3 minutes. We headed inside to the arrival and departure hall, which is rather grand with its tall ceiling and large columns making those entering feel small. Then it was up to the dining room, which looked out over the airfield and catered for 2,500 people. In its day this airport was catering for 5 million passengers a year. In the long term it was designed to take 80 million, however planes got bigger and would no longer fit under the aprons so eventually it was closed.  It is now a historical place and  various parts are rented out. We moved into the grand entrance hall behind the arrivals hall with more large columns, marble floors with underfloor heating (which is throughout most of the building and still works) then we went up a level to another large hall. In this part the limestone cladding had been stripped off to repair other parts of the building. Yes, the building from the outside and in looks like it was built of stone, but like in Rome it’s concrete with stone cladding.

At one stage we went into one of 300 bunkers, which were designed in case of air-raids, which they thought based on WWI experience would only last 30 minutes. Kids’ drawings were on the wall to keep people amused as filtered air was piped in the room. In WWII a partition and buckets were added as the raids often went all night.

Back up lots more stairs we went to a sports room where the US used to bring in locals for basketball competitions. interestingly the CIA blue-room was right next door to this.

Finally we headed down more stairs into the basement where the been film archive bunkers were situated. One of these had caught fire and none of the archives were ever recovered. Parts of the building are still used as a police headquarters. Many movies have been made here including the Hunger Games.

At the front of the complex is the head if the large eagle that once stood atop the entrance. There is also a statue to celebrate the embargo relief flights. I have only scratched the surface of what is here. If you are ever in Berlin this place is well worth a look.

With this radar the US could see some 400 kms into Soviet airspace .

The container village that up until recently housed refugees is being removed.






Saturday 28 February 2020.

Racing started at 11am so I headed to the track to watch and take more photos. Later in the session the women’s Individual Pursuit took place with Kirstie and two of her team mates taking part. This is not a race they train for as it is not an Olympic event. Last year Kirstie came fourth in this event; this year she did not do so well, not getting past the eliminations and placing 12th. Her two team mates did a little better but did not make it into the next round. Kirstie has written a really good piece about the race and her experience on facebook.

This year after qualifying well, we ended up 6th in the TP after making some execution errors. In the IP I knew I had to…

Posted by Kirstie James on Wednesday, 4 March 2020

In the evening i went back to watch  more racing and particularly the Women’s Madison final, a 30 km race which is raced in pairs with riders slinging each other forward as they change out and come back into the race. At one stage a rider rode between the two as they were holding hands for the changeover causing a dramatic crash. One would think “how did that happen -why didn’t she brake or slow down?” These bikes have no brakes and do not free-wheel so it is very difficult to slow down, let alone stop.

After the racing Kirstie and her team mates, along with a few others whose races had finished racing for the week met in the top floor bar for a few drinks.

Sunday 1 March 2020

I headed to the Brandenburg Gate to join a walking tour of central Berlin. Our guide, John, an Irishman with a good sense of humour and plenty of knowledge, took us for a stroll around the centre of Berlin, giving us a rundown of Berlin during and after the war and into the Soviet era.

We started by the Brandenburg Gate, adjacent to the US embassy, near the famous Hotel Adlon, where Micheal Jackson did his famous ‘hold the baby out over the balcony’ trick. The hotel looks old but was only built this century  and is apparently 13k euros a night for the penthouse.

Interestingly when the Russians finally captured the centre of Berlin they concentrated on the Reichstag building, almost completely destroying it, not realising that Hitler had never used it. A photo if the Russian soldiers holding a flag up on the building caused Stalin some grief as one of the soldiers was wearing two watches.

The whole area around the centre of Berlin apart from the gate was pretty much flattened. There was not a tree left standing as the people had cut every one down for firewood. The Russians buried 2,000 soldiers not far from the gate in an area that became West Berlin so each day during the Soviet era a ceremonial guard was marched into the west to to stand guard on the memorial that also had supposedly the first two Russian tanks to enter Berlin and the first two artillery guns to engage the city.

Next stop was the star representing the famous spot where President Regan gave his ‘take down the wall’ speech. The actual spot was in the middle of the road but the plaque is on the footpath. Next was the 25 million euro Holocaust memorial consisting of 2,200 concrete rectangular cubes which people have all sorts of different interpretations of.

Then we came to the spot where Hilter had his bunker and headquarters. The above ground building was 400m long and built of stone. The soviets demolished it stone by stone and sent the stone to Russia to build war monuments and memorials.  Apartments now cover the area. The famous Hitler bunker was pretty much unknown to the public and completely destroyed and buried until the internet came along – then people started turning up at people’s apartments and asking if Hitler lived there so a sign is now in place indicating where the bunker was.  John told us the story of how Hitler got married to Eva Braun one day then she bit on a cyanide pill and he shot himself. Their bodies were wrapped in a rug, brought to the surface, doused in diesel and set on fire. The Soviets managed to track down Hitler’s dentist and get hold of his x-rays to properly identify the body.

Bunker was under the tree                                

The bodies were placed roughly where the parking sign is.

Around the corner we came to the only Nazi building left standing in the city, formerly the air ministry it now houses the finance department. With some two thousand rooms and seven kilometres of corridors it is impressive.

Around the corner from here is a section of the wall still standing. Now what a lot of people don’t know about the wall is it was originally put up as a fence overnight. Prior to that people could cross from the east to the west and get money and housing as an incentive to stay. Stalin got a bit miffed that all these people wanted to leave the Soviet ruled area so on the night of the 12-13 August the Soviet soldiers laid down 30 miles of barbed wire through the centre of Berlin. Easterners were not allowed to cross to the west and the number of check points for Westerners to cross to the east was reduced. Even now Russia is harder to get out of, than it is to get into. On the 15 August they began replacing the barbed wire with concrete to protect their citizens from the pernicious influence of the decadent capitalist culture of the west.

You will see in the photo below the pipe on top of the wall to make it hard to get a grip when trying to climb over. The pipes were given to the east by the west to help them improve their infrastructure.

Just down street there were a bunch of cars that looked like Ladas but were in fact the famous Trabant, manufactured from 1957 to 1990 in east Berlin. With a composite body, an east-west engine, no speedo, indicators or fuel gauge, and made to order. they were apparently quite popular.

You can now hire them and go on a Trabant convoy drive around Berlin. According to John you normally end up getting towed for part of the journey.

Marlyn, originally from Quebec and now living in Germany, was the only other person on the tour on their own so we had a good chat along the way.

The famous Checkpoint Charlie, was the third checkpoint: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie – not the name of some US soldier as apparently a lot of US visitors think. This is not the original building.

After a coffee at the Charlie cafe I headed back to the track and sat with Kirstie and some of her team mates to watch some more racing. One of which was the mens final 50 km Madison, in which the two Kiwi competitors won the silver medal.

All too soon it was time to head to the airport for the long journey back to NZ.

Japan: Niigata, Mt Fuji and the Imperial Palace, Feb 2020

February 2020

The year has had a busy start as I joined Sylvia for a few days in London mid-January, after which we flew to Las Vegas where our good friends, Dave and Chrissie, got married at the Gracelands Chapel. Yes, they even dug up Elvis for the occasion.

This was followed by a week at the shot show. Sylvia headed to Disneyland, joining her sister, Deb, for a few days of fun. Since then Sylvia has been Singapore, France, NZ, Singapore, while I have been back in NZ, and now here we are in Japan for a week. I flew to Singapore on Friday from NZ for the weekend.

Tuesday 18 February 2020

We strolled to the Shinagawa Station this morning, catching a local train from there to Tokyo Station where we jumped on the bullet train to Niigata. Even the way the trains join together here is neat and tidy, not to mention the red coats that line up on the platform to clean the train, and then bow before the passengers are allowed on.

Heading northwest Tokyo seems to go on forever with its mix of housing and tall buildings all jumbled together. The train line is elevated so one gets a good view across the city.

I had an aisle seat in first class. Sylvia and her were team down the back somewhere. I spotted an empty window seat and took it until the conductor came along and gave me a lesson in sign language that I need to get back to my own seat. I obeyed. Soon after my phone rang, which I answered, only to have the conductor reappear and usher me out of the carriage into the corridor between carriages, the only place one can use a phone.

Having got a grip on train etiquette, I stood in the corridor watching the cities roll by. Gradually the odd bit of countryside appeared briefly between cities. Eventually we headed into a very long tunnel and after 22km we broke out into snow country and the city of Yuzawa.

As we pulled out of the station sprinklers sprayed, I presume, warm water onto the track, I presume, to melt the snow and ice. We were soon underground again. Emerging again we headed through some farmland and more towns before arriving at Niigata.

The Royal Canin team headed off by van to visit stores. I headed north on foot for a few blocks, hunting out a famous Sake Brewery. During the stroll I came across a couple of roadwork sites. I am always intrigued how they keep these sites so clean and tidy here in Japan. I think the secret lies in the witches-type brooms they use and the constant cleaning of the site as they work.

Arriving at the brewery I found the English tour was at 2pm so I took a stroll down to the convention centre near the coast. Not far from the brewery is, I presume, a temple with nice grounds and statues.

The building next door has an observation deck (it’s free) on the 31st floor with great views over the city and the Sea of Japan. The mountains to the east were clagged in but the local views over the ferry terminal and industrial buildings give one a great appreciation of just how tidy things are in Japan.

I strolled back to the brewery and joined the 2pm tour. The lady took us through how Sake is made. Starting with polished rice, which is ground down. The better the quality of the Sake the more it is ground, hence taking more rice to make the better brew. It’s fermented in steel tanks. It used to be done in wooden vessels and now here they have gone back to that for the top end stuff.

After fermentation it is pumped as a slurry to a press which removes the liquid. The waste, which is like a block of plastic, is used in the manufacture of skin creams and lotions, the making of miso soup, and some for animal feed.

Back in the seventies in Japan they had sake vending machines around cities, one of which still survives but not in working order.

After the tour we headed back into the shop area and paid 1000 locals to taste all the different brews on sale. I got chatting to three young men from Austria, one of whom is studying international law in Japan, the other two visiting him. By the time we had tasted some 20 different brews we couldn’t really tell the difference.

Just after 5 I rejoined Sylvia and the team at Izakaya Restaurant where we enjoyed a rather delicious meal of mainly raw fish plus puffer fish (fugu) and steak, which we cooked ourselves on a small heated stone. All too soon we were back on the train speeding back to Tokyo.

Wednesday 19 February 2020 

A taxi across town to Shinjuku, the meeting place for the bus tour south to the Mt Fuji area. Mt Fuji is closed at this time of year. We headed south, soon catching our first glance of the 3300m+ volcano.

We are lucky with the weather as the previous 3 or 4 times I have been to Tokyo the mountain has always been clagged in. Leaving the city we head into hilly countryside which is a little bleak at this time of year with most of the trees having lost their leaves. Each large valley we pass through seems to host a city.

Arriving at Lake Fujikawaguchiko we park up at a viewing spot by the lake. We have clear views of Fuji across the lake. This is quite a tourist spot with special viewing cabins facing the mountain set in the nearby hills.

Next stop is the Alakula Sengen, a pagoda situated some 400 steps up a hillside facing toward Mt Fuji, which had sadly disappeared behind the clouds.

Back on the bus we then headed to Oshino Hakkai, a small tourist village which has a spring that the waters from the mountain gush from. The 8 m deep pool harbours some brightly coloured fish. Lots of stalls sell sticky rice balls and other delicacies. Chestnuts are cooked in a pressure cooker.

Apparently, or so they claim, there are no rivers on Fuji and all the snow melt and rain seeps down through the lava popping up in springs around the area. The water has special properties allowing people to live longer. There are lots of sculpted trees here. The Japanese can even make a pine tree look good.

Next stop, which I missed when I booked the trip, was the Gotemba Premium Outlets. Yes a bloody shopping centre! You could just see the top of Fuji poking through the clouds. I found a restaurant and enjoyed a pizza and a glass of wine. Disappointingly this was the longest stop and from the number of buses in the car park there is obviously some dodgy deal being done between the tour companies and the shopping centre.

Thursday 20 February 2020

A stroll through the stunning hotel grounds took me down to the Shingawa Station.

Apparently the land where the four Prince hotels are located once belonged to the emperor’s family but was sold to pay off some of his tax debt after World War II. Every time we stay here i am impressed by the beauty, tranquility and peacefulness of the grounds.

A few stops up the line took me to Tokyo station and a short walk to the magnificent grounds of the Imperial Palace. Crossing a bridge over the first moat one enters a large area covered in sculpted pine trees.

I headed across the grounds and up a small hill to a bridge over yet another moat, with its high stone walls on the inner side, to where google maps said the entrance was. This entrance, guarded by a couple of soldiers, was closed so I headed back down, following the moat around to the west and through a large gate heading north. The grounds on each side of the moat are well kept with every tree and bush trimmed and shaped.

Near the end of the moat I asked a policeman where the public entrance was. He pointed it out on my map about 2kms back to the east where I had sort of come from. Strolling back across the grounds I eventually came to the public entrance where a very helpful chap gave me an entry form and said come back in an hour for the tour. I found a local cafe and enjoyed some lunch while waiting.

At 1.20 i arrived back at the gate to be led into a large room where several hundred people were gathered waiting for the tour of the palace grounds. We were split into groups by language. The guides all have a squawk box attached to their waist and a microphone to their face. Most of the palace has been rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in 1945. The emperor recently abdicated and handed over to his son. Apparently the legacy of this leadership goes back over 2000 years.

There are lots of buildings in the grounds, which cover over one million square meters of central Tokyo. First stop is the Fujimi-yagura building constructed in 1659 on top of a 15 m high rampart. With all four sides identical and no visible doors it was a little hard to capture. The overhanging bits had holes in them from which rocks could be dropped through on anyone silly enough to try to climb up the wall.

Next was the Imperial Household Agency. Constructed in 1935 the third floor was used as the palace after WWII until the current palace was constructed.

We passed Hasukae-bora moat where in summer lotus flowers blossom.

At the top of a small hill is the Chowaden Hall, which is a large reception area and part of the palace. Completed in 1968 it is adjacent to a large courtyard, with a 100-plus car garage underneath it, that is used for the emperor to address the people on his birthday. A copper statue at the east end represents a pine tree with its evergreen strength.

The people in the green jackets in the photo above come from all over Japan to attend to the royal gardens behind the palace wall. They pay their own costs for their 3-day stay and on the last day get to meet the emperor.

We headed to the  gate and from across the  bridge looked back towards the building on the hill that was brought from Kyoto (the former capital) some years ago.

The emperor’s residence was pointed out, situated behind another wall next to the Palace.

After a few more stops and explanations from the guide as we wandered down the hill and she explained how the emperor and his wife go out to the fields and help in the gardens and with the cultivation of silk worms.

The tour over we handed back our badges as we left the grounds. As I headed back to Tokyo station I looked back to see another white house on the edge of the moat, its purpose of which I am not sure.

Friday 21 February 2020 : Okinawa

After a relaxing catch up on a bit of work during the morning at the hotel we headed to the airport. Interestingly the ANA lounge has only packets of rice snacks in the way of food but a good supply of whisky and beer. We arrived at Naha airport in Okinawa about 5pm and headed on the bus to the rental car pick up only to be informed that we couldn’t get a car as we didn’t have an international drivers licence. Must say I haven’t been asked for one of those for 20 years. We got the bus back to the terminal, then a cab to the Hilton Doubletree at Chatan, about 30kms and an hour’s drive up the coast. Here we struck the most helpful staff we have ever experienced.  We found we could apply online for an international drivers licence, the staff offered to print it off for us. Car booked for the next day we headed to a bar for a quick drink.

Saturday 22 February 2020 : Okinawa

Prior to breakfast we checked at the desk and the staff said they would get the rental car brought to us. A few minutes later they were back with the bad news. The printed copy of our downloaded online licence was no good. This is Japan and everything must be done properly. No rental car, we organised a driver for the day. Our first destination was the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium at the end of a peninsular about 30kms up the coast. That 30 kms took well over an hour and a half. Nothing moves in a hurry around here. On the way we passed the large Kadena US Airforce base and a large marine base. There are still some 25,000 US servicemen based in Okinawa on land that was confiscated after WWII.

Sylvia had particularly wanted to visit the aquarium as it has whale sharks on display. We weren’t disappointed as after heading down a few passageways with lots of different marine life we came to a large auditorium facing a huge fish tank containing a large variety of fish including stingrays, manta rays and tuna to mention a few. Cruising around amongst them were two massive whale sharks. We watched them for some time then headed into a tunnel to watch from below. It was then that the feeding started. Krill, or some similar food, was tossed into the water above. One of the sharks floated almost vertically sucking large amounts of water into its mouth like a giant vacuum cleaner, filtering the food out as it forced the water out its gills. It was really interesting to watch.

Apologies for the poor quality photos. I haven’t quite worked out how to get good pictures through fish tank glass.

Outside, the grounds were well set up with a large shark at the entrance and many bushes shaped as varieties of marine life.

We had planned to head up to the top of the island but as the trip had been so slow we headed southwest to the Okinawa Gojuryu Kenshi-kai Museum. The coast is pretty rugged in most places with the odd sandy beach outside large resorts. Along the way we began to realise that most of the buildings on the island are solid concrete, some looking like bunkers or fortresses. This is perhaps not surprising bearing in mind that the island was pretty much leveled by the huge naval bombardment that took place between April and May in 1945. 2.7 million explosive devices were used by the US 500,000 strong force prior to and during the invasion. 1.1 Million of these never exploded and had to be taken care of after the war. Over 200,000 people died during the invasion, most of those civilians. The Japanese put up such heavy resistance here to delay the inevitable attack on the mainland. It may be a good thing that the two atomic bombs brought the war to a close as the invasion of the Japanese would have taken many more lives and caused much more destruction.

An hour or so later we arrived at the Karate Museum. The driver looked at it and said “closed,” He wanted to drive on but I asked to get out and have a look. A phone call and Dr Tetsuhiro Hokama, a 10th degree black belt and master of the Gojuryu style, came to the door and welcomed us in. He pointed out that he has people from 40 countries come and train with him and he often visits many countries to give seminars and coaching to people. At 75 years old and having dedicated most of his life to learning and teaching karate he was very hospitable and keen for us to see his museum upstairs on the second floor. He lives on the third floor and has done for the past 30 years. The museum is a collection of memorabilia he has gathered over the years with lots of old newspaper and magazine articles about him and other karate masters from Okinawa and other parts of the world. Karate was developed in Okinawa over hundreds of year, evolving from kung-fu and other martial arts arriving from China. It was not until the 1920’s that some Okinawan masters took karate to Japan. Although Japan had jujutsu, from which judo was developed in the mid 1800’s, karate as such was new to Japan.  We had a good chat to Dr Hokama, who also has a Phd in calligraphy. He was keen to answer any questions and in the short time we spent with him it was obvious he was very dedicated to both karate and calligraphy.

Next we headed further southwest to Peace Park. Situated on the coast this is a large memorial to those that died during the war and houses hundreds of plaques containing all the names of those that lost their lives during those bloody times. The museum outlines the atrocities committed, often by Japanese soldiers, on the civilian population, many of whom committed suicide at the end of the battle as they had been told by the soldiers what bad things the US soldiers would do to them if they were captured.

We had planned a fourth stop but the day was over so we headed back to the hotel and took a stroll around the local “American Village” as its known. Most of the people on the streets were US service people heading in and out of the many bars, shops and restaurants. We enjoyed a drink at a local cigar bar and a stroll through the streets.

Sunday 23 February 2020

We again arranged a driver to take us to the Japanese Naval Tunnels and then on to the airport. After another short trip that seemed to take forever, we arrived at the old naval tunnels. Situated on top of a small hill with good views over the city some 450m of tunnels were dug by hand by the local civilian population with picks, shovels, crowbars and other hand instruments. They worked tirelessly 24 hours a day until the job was done.

At the top of the hill there is a monument and a small museum, which then leads into the tunnels. This is where Rear admiral Ota made his last stand. During his final hours he sent a last telegram to Tokyo praising the people of Okinawa for the fight they had put up and the concern he had for their future. He then committed suicide in the tunnels. It took several days for the US forces to clear the tunnels as the Japanese fought to the end and when they ran out of ammunition used spikes to fight with. The tunnels are well preserved and well lit with lots of little caverns that housed such things as generators, medical facilities and more. One such cavern still has the shrapnel marks from a grenade explosion. The exit from the tunnels bring one out near the car-park with a good view to the south of the city.

As we had driven around the city we had seen statues of lions on many buildings. It turns out that the lion is the symbol of Okinawa.

We took our flight back to Tokyo, from where Sylvia was heading back to Singapore and I was staying the night, fortunately at the airport hotel. I said goodbye to Sylvia at the International terminal and got on the airport bus to go to the hotel at terminal 2. Not far into the journey I got a call from Sylvia to say she had my passport and I hers. By that stage she was through security and had to convince the guy to let her go back. I did the full circuit on the bus and we swapped passports and all was okay!