The Snow Monkeys in Japan (Sylvia)

Friday 22 February 2019

I had been visiting the business in China (Shanghai) all week and next week I have to be in Tokyo to visit the Japan business so a colleague (Stacey) and I decided to spend the weekend in between in Yudanaka, Japan visiting the famous Snow monkeys. We flew from Shanghai to Narita on Friday afternoon and then caught the Narita Express train to Tokyo, then the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano and the Snow Monkey Express to Yudunaka, eventually arriving at about 11:30pm. Like everything else I have encountered in Japan, the trains here are clean and efficient.

We were met at the Yudanaka station by someone from the small hotel we were staying in and transferred to the hotel. I have to briefly comment on the incredible communication and service we received from the Bosanzo Hotel – they could not have been more helpful or accommodating. Check in was very smooth and they offered to drive us to the Monkey Park on Saturday morning.

Yudanaka is a pretty small town to the west of Tokyo near the ski area. Most of the people we saw on the train seemed to be heading there for skiing. The hotel was one of the few in the area that offered real beds, not just futons. Still when I unlocked the door and walked in all I could see were tatami mats and I had a moment of concern until I spied a sliding panel and found a small bedroom. I did have a bit of a giggle at the rather incongruous placement of the mirror in the bathroom. Even after a whole weekend of trying to figure it out I cannot fathom why one would want a mirror a foot off the floor?!?

Saturday 23 February 2019

The hotel provided a Japanese style breakfast and we were faced with an array of dishes including rice, salad, miso soup, boiled egg, miso fish, mushrooms etc. Despite all my travels in Asia I have to say I still prefer a western breakfast.

After breakfast we were driven the 4 kms or so to the Jigokudani Monkey Park. It was bitterly cold and snowing lightly as we headed up the 1.7km path to the monkeys. Despite arriving not long after opening we passed many other tourists on the way. Well before we reached the park entrance we spotted monkeys in the snow on the other side of the stream that ran through the forest that we were gradually climbing in. Tickets purchased we rounded a corner and there were monkeys everywhere.

These Japanese Macaque monkeys are the northern most species of monkey in the world and survive in freezing temperatures. The park sprinkles food to provide incentive for the monkeys to stay (which encourages them to not bother the locals and therefore protects them from negative repercussions) but otherwise the monkeys are wild and are free to come and go as they please. They are clearly very used to being surrounded by people and seem completely oblivious to us. Some huddled against the cold in small clusters, others played and foraged and several soaked, swam or groomed each other in the hot pool this area is famous for. It was funny to see their normally pale pink faces turn almost red with the heat of the pool. This is obviously a favourite spot for grooming and they looked to be really enjoying the experience. Their hands are so human like it is really incredible to watch them.

After a while the cold got too much and we headed back to the ticket office to thaw out before wandering back down the hill. From the entrance we caught a bus to Shibu Onsen, a small traditional Japanese village that has several Ryokans (Inns) and Onsens (Thermal Bath houses) and is clearly a popular place for people to stay, although we barely saw anyone while we were there – I suspect they all head up the mountain during the day. It would be interesting to visit during the evening and see how different it is.

We wandered through the town then back towards Yudanaka, stopping briefly to look at a large Buddhist statue and monastery. We spent the rest of the day catching up on work and rest and then enjoyed a lovely Japanese meal in a small restaurant in the town.

Sunday 24 February 2019

After another Japanese breakfast we headed back to the station and retraced our steps to Tokyo. It was great this time to be able to do the trip in daylight. It was a gorgeous sunny day and the snowy mountains made a magnificent backdrop to the agriculture and housing. It seems that they use every piece of land in this heavily populated country and this area is particularly well known for its apples so we passed orchard after orchard, all groomed and staked for maximum efficiency.

All in all not a bad way to spend a weekend…

Meanwhile in Monaco…

While Roger spent a few days in London on his way to Vegas for the Shot Show, I decided to spend a weekend in Monaco. I had spent the last week working in the South of France and was heading to Moscow for work the next week. There is a direct flight from Nice to Moscow on Sunday afternoon so it seemed like a good way to kill a weekend.

Friday 18 January 2019

I enjoyed the drive from Montpellier to Nice. There is something almost calming about driving along the wide open freeways in France. There are usually three lanes going each way and, at this time of the year anyway, there is little enough traffic that you can set the cruise control and rarely have to brake. The scenery though doesn’t change that much over the three and a half hours. All was going well until I got to Nice. I had planned to drop the rental car off at the airport and catch a taxi to Monaco. Sounded simple enough but neither the navigation system in the car, nor Google maps got the right location and I spent about 90 minutes driving through the narrow streets in Nice before I finally arrived at the airport!

That over it was an easy 30 minute taxi drive to my hotel in Monaco. Despite Monaco not being part of the EU there are no border posts. I was starting to get a taste of what Monaco would be like though – it is the first taxi I have been in where you can see the meter moving even when the taxi is stopped. They definitely know how to charge in this part of the world.

I was staying at the Hotel Hermitage Monte Carlo, right across the street from the Casino Royale and a beautiful hotel with lots of marble and luxury furnishing. It was extremely large and over many levels with a somewhat confusing layout. By the end of my two day stay I think I was actually starting to find my way around without having to backtrack too much.

Saturday 19 January 2019

After a leisurely breakfast in the stunning restaurant, with it’s gazebo style central feature, I headed out to explore the city. At only a couple of kilometres square it is pretty small but it does rise up out of the sea so there are a lot of stairs. In many places there are even escalators and elevators to make it easier for pedestrians. I wandered along the marina passing numerous luxury yachts.

I was heading towards the palace, home of Prince Rainier, which I could see on the hill.

As I headed up the hill I was a little amused by the sign I saw in many places along the way – kind of reminded me of the Trumpet “togs, togs, undies” ad from NZ a few summers ago.

Arriving at the top of the hill I was struck by the architecture and how clean everything was. Being winter it was relatively quiet. I cannot imagine how crowded it must get here in summer with all the rich and famous converging on the place. There are lots of gardens and parks around, one of the few things you can do here at no charge.

I decided to visit the Oceanographic Institute. I was very impressed both with the impressive building and with the variety and quality of the exhibits. The aquarium was also one of the best I have been to.

I wandered back through the gardens into the Monte Carlo area. I had planned to kill a few hours at the casino before heading to the spa where I had booked a facial and a body treatment to fill in the evening.

Unfortunately (or fortunately given my luck) the casino didn’t open until later so I had to make do with a quick visit to check out the interior.

I enjoyed my treatments in the spa and then had a quiet evening. On Sunday morning I headed back to Nice after breakfast to catch my flight to Moscow.

What would I say about Monaco? Interesting place to visit but I have absolutely no need or desire to go back again. At 25+ euros for a small bottle of sparkling water and a block of chocolate the place certainly lives up to its reputation for being expensive. I cannot help but wonder how such a small Principality has maintained its independence for so long.

Andorra: The 45km long country in a gully

Wednesday 16 January 2019

I had discovered on the map a small country, situated inland and sandwiched between France and Spain, and just over 300kms from Montpellier. After dropping Sylvia off at the Royal Canin Headquarters, where the roads still have burn patches in them from the yellow-jackets protests, I headed south down the A9 to Perpignan, then headed west up a long valley past lake Lac de Vinca. Along the way, as is common in this part of the world, are many fortress-type towns with walls and butresses, from the days of marauding villains. I stopped at Villefranche-de-Conflent and discovered a functioning town behind the walls, church included.

The road headed up into higher country passing a stone rail viaduct and the fortress village of Mont-Louis with great views of the surrounding countryside.

There are lots of villages, almost stacked on the hillsides, with the road often squeezed between buildings.

Finally, having crossed into Spain, I arrived at the Andorra border with its guard posts and guard boxes stacked with serious guards. I stopped ready to hand over my passport; the guy in the box didn’t even look up and waved me on.

A little about Andorra the principality: Created by Charlemagne it was eventually ruled by the Count of Urgell until 988 when it was transferred to the Catholic Diocese of Urgell with the present Principallity being formed by charter in 1278. It is now headed by two Co-princes, one the catholic bishop of Urgell in Catalonia Spain and the other the President of France. The official language is Catalan but they also speak French and Spanish. At 468 square kilometres and with a population of 77,000 people I was interested to see how it works. 10.2 million tourists per year, duty free and tax haven status keeps the place going. I had headed in at the southeast side and headed out the northeast. Basically its a 45 km long valley with thousands of apartments and hotels stacked on each side of the road.

I stopped at Canillo and hopped on a cable car, which took me up to Roc de les Bruises ski field, arriving at the field, which had more ski tows than I could count running up all parts of the surrounding mountains. It was a beautiful day and due to a snow shortage the place was pretty quiet. I enjoyed lunch at one of the restaurants sitting on a deck overlooking the valley below. All the staff I interacted with were not from Andorra.

Back on the road it did not take too long to hit the border where I entered a tunnel taking me back to France. The road wound its way through a valley, eventually arriving at what appeared to be the entrance to a toll road. There was a policeman standing by the booth with, I think, a stop sign. I wound down the window, he said something in French and I gave him a polite bonjour, then the don’t speak French spiel. “Where are you from?” I think he said. “New Zealand” I replied. He looked somewhat surprised but his English was as good as my French. I noticed a car being tipped out in the car park so indicated I would pull over there. He nodded and I did. An English speaking guy came over and asked me where I was from. “New Zealand” I said. He said “you have come from there today?”. “No, from Montpellier.” “Have you been to Andorra today?” “Yes!” “Did you buy anything?” “No!” And off I went. It appears they were looking for people bringing tax free stuff into France. The drive back to Montpellier was a long one but the 800km plus trip was well worth it.

A Weekend in Edinburgh

Friday 11 January 2019
We arrived last night to the Old Town Chambers Apartments, located just off the Royal mile, with great views over the surrounding buildings to the lower Princess Street part of town. Many cranes in the distance are part of a new shopping and apartment complex being built. One can get an idea of the deep and steep alleys that run through this part of town.

We had a late start to the day with breakfast at the Edinburgh Larder then took a stroll down Princess St looking at the monuments and statues while enjoying a good view of the castle and the grand buildings backing onto the Royal Mile.

The people here are really friendly and helpful. We went to a hearing aid shop to pick up a part for my new hearing aids. The woman behind the counter said “where are you from?” “New Zealand” “they’re on the house -you have come so far I can’t possibly charge you.”

Back on the royal Mile we headed up to the castle, passing on the way a huge, stunning owl a chap had on display on the street.

Interestingly there is a difference between a Scottish mile and an English mile. The latter is 1760 yards or about 1600 meters, whereas the Scots mile is 1948 yards or 1814 meters. Don’t worry – it was made obsolete around the 1700s.

Edinburgh Castle is located on a volcanic plug or rock, which flows off down the Royal Mile. They reckon man has been hanging out here since 200 AD. It appears that the first castle was established here by David the 1st around 1200 and it remained a royal residence until the 1500’s then becoming more of a military barracks. They say it has been under siege more times than any other castle in the UK. Like most of these buildings it has been rebuilt and redesigned many times.

We headed in through the grand entrance and up to the terrace looking across the city to the harbour. Lined with canons it would have dominated the area in its day. There is also a super large canon with big balls, which with lots of powder behind them would have wreaked havoc around the place.

There is a good museum taking one through the history of Scotland.

The Royal Scotts dragoon Guards also have a museum here which is well laid out and interestingly displays a NZ Cross awarded to one of its soldiers during the Maori wars in 1869. There is also a bloody painting on the wall, which displays a battle scene where guns are firing, swords swinging and bodies falling but the piper still plays.

We wandered down the hill east along the Queen’s Mile. Luckily it’s winter so the place is not packed with tourists. The geology here is quite interesting. Formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago, the land runs down from the castle dropping away steeply to the north and south. We turned south off the mile along Bank St and soon were on a bridge that had shops and restaurants on each side; they were however on the fourth storey of buildings built up from the land below. Every now and again there would be a gap in the buildings and one could look down on the streets and buildings below, very good use of space.

We found a garden bar (with heater) and enjoyed a chat with a lovely young couple from Manchester over a G&T and cigar.

Saturday 12 January 2019

We rose late and headed to the Southern Cross Cafe for breakfast. Sylvia always checks out these places online and goes to the one with a good write up. If I am on my own I just stroll into one that looks good from the outside. Sometimes the food is not quite up to the look!

We then wandered east down the Queen’s Mile looking at the many tourist shop windows, whiskey and tartan being the main themes, nestled among the many bars and eating places. Mainly built of stone the buildings are quite impressive

At the bottom of the mile is the Palace of Holyrood house, still the Queen’s official Scottish residence. It dates back to the 1600s with a derelict abbey dating back to 1128. It has lots of history as various people battled for power. Queen Anne of Scots was in residence there for some time before things got a bit tough for her and she took off to London to seek help from her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, but got a bit unpopular and was locked up in the Tower of London for years before losing her head. Over its history it has been shelled, torched and looted many times but apart from the abbey is well restored. The palace is still a working palace where the Queen holds court, meetings, functions and presenting of decorations etc. One gets to wander through the palace with its rather drab decor, much of it as it was decorated by various kings and queens over many years. The royal family stay in an apartment upstairs when in residence that we did not get to see. They had a no photo policy which Sylvia pointed out to me after I raised the camera.

One wing on the castle was built as a fort and has walls 2m thick.

Leaving the palace we headed out the back onto Holyrood Park, which is a small hill or volcanic plug (probably considered a mountain here). We followed the path and hundreds of people up to the rocky top, known as Arthur’s Seat, well worth the walk as we had great views over the city from the top.

By the time we strolled back into town the day was nearly over and the light fading. We headed back to the garden bar stopping to check out Greyfriars Graveyard, a cemetery famous for a wee dog that sat on its owner’s grave for years after his death. At the bar three local woman were celebrating a night out, one originally from Tutukaka New Zealand. They were a great bunch with whom we had a lot of laughs before heading to check out the old and now underground city. The Mary King’s Close tour is well worth doing and winds its way through a variety of old buildings that have survived being built over. Way back people lived in these almost dungeons through plagues and poverty, many housing there animals in the the small caverns. Sewerage was simply emptied onto the steep alleys several times a day hoping rain would wash it down into the local gully. Apart from the upper storey these were built of stone; the upper wooden storeys were often destroyed by fire so were not a popular place to live. The tour guide did really well in taking us back to these times.

A model of the old city which went down 8 stories.

We had dinner at Zizzi, an Italian restaurant next to were we were staying, which is quite big but the service excellent and the food great.

Sunday 14 January 2019

After breakfast we headed to the airport for our flight to Marseille. Air France, not our favourite airline, had emailed and asked if we could check our carry-on bags through as the flight was really full. We only travel with carry on so we don’t lose out luggage but we decided to check our bags to help them out. The flight went through Paris to Marseille. As you have no doubt guessed by now my bag, along with those of a lot of other passengers, didn’t turn up. In all fairness it did get delivered to our Hotel in Montpellier the next day.

The Valley Of Barcelonnette France

Having spent the last three weeks at home in New Zealand catching up with friends and family in Auckland, Rotorua, Taupo and Waiouru, it’s time to hit the road again as Sylvia has a meeting in the southeast of France. Last year I wrote down the movies I watched ( mainly so I don’t watch them again) and also the hours in airplanes: 117 movies; 551 hours in the air. An email from Star Alliance said I had flown 198,996 kilometres with them plus I did a lot on other airlines. Sylvia has done a lot more than me.

Sunday 6th January 2019
Thirty-six hours after leaving Auckland we arrived in Barcelonnette. It was around 8pm and the last hour of the drive was on windy and icy roads in the dark so fairly slow going with Sylvia behind the wheel. Checking into the Hotel Azteca we hit the hay pretty early.

Monday 8 January 2019
After breakfast Sylvia headed back to the room to get up to date on emails and pre-reads for her meeting starting after lunch. I took a stroll around the town, careful not to go for a skate on the icy streets. It’s around -3 degrees at 8.30 in the morning, the sun yet to appear over the mountains. Fortunately it’s dry and there is no wind so it doesn’t feel too cold.
I was surprised as I strolled around the town at the number of mansions in what is a small town. Heading back through the town square I stopped at a local cafe for a brew and got chatting to a nice English couple who had lived in France for 30 years and moved here three or so years ago to retire. They gave me a run down on the town and its interesting history. Founded in 1231 the town, like most from that era, changed hands a few times and was owned or occupied by many different rulers. In 1850 people from the town started emigrating to Mexico, some of whom made a fortune returning to the town years later and building large mansions, some in a Mexican style.

Down the road the ‘yellow jackets’ are still out in protest. At times they block roads and intimidate people. Apparently in France every vehicle has to carry a yellow safety vest in it. One of Sylvia’s colleagues said how he was stopped one day and they started rocking his car until he got his yellow jacket out of the back and put it on the dash to show support.

At noon I met Sylvia at the hotel and we were transported by taxi up to a restored farm house at about 1550m. Bruno, the owner, is a colleague of Sylvia’s and it is here Royal Canin is holding its GLT (Global Leadership Team) meeting.

We sit down for a large and tasty lunch before the first meeting starts. After lunch Bruno hands me a couple of poles and some rackets (snow shoes) and points to a track heading up the hill. I head off up a sometimes icy track, steadily gaining height and exposing some great views up and down the valley and into the surrounding mountains. At the 2000m mark I fit the snowshoes and continue to a couple of small huts used by shepherds in the summer to tend to stock. Bruno told me later there are lots of wolves in this area and also some lynx, which would explain the larger than usual cat prints I saw.

I arrived back at Bruno’s at 6 as the meeting finished and we soon sat down to another tasty meal. Raclette, which is toasted cheese with potatoes and charcuterie meats. Many of the team are staying at the house so only a few of us had to make the journey back down the hill.

Tuesday 8 January 2019
After breakfast Sylvia and the other ‘hotel stayers’ headed back up the hill to continue their meeting. I took the car north up the valley alongside the L’Ubaye river. At Saint Paul Sur Ubaye I turned left heading up a valley with, in places, steep switchback, winding roads. The road topped out at a pass just over 2000m then wound its way down again to the town of Les Claux, a ski resort with the lifts running up from the middle of the town. There are numerous lifts, which on the map look like they link up with the next town down the valley.

The road lead to a large valley with lots of towns and villages running down to Lake La Durance. Stopping to admire the view I spotted what looked like a fort on top of a cliff so headed off to investigate.

Mont Dauphin turned out to be rather magnificent. Built in the second half of the 17th century to fight off invasions from nearby Italy, it has a population of around 150 people but all the apartments, barracks, ammunition store and officers quarters are still intact. Situated on the top of a three-sided cliff with moats, walls and more moats to the fourth side it would have been quite a challenge to conquer.

It never saw action and was not expanded as the Italian boarder moved further away. It was however bombed by the Italians in 1940. The population has always remained small, reaching just over 800 in 1856, I presume when a Regiment was stationed there.

From here I headed up the up the valley to Briançon where there are more old forts. The road headed up a valley then climbed a steep pass to Claviere and the Italian border. This town also had many ski lifts and cable cars, many idle due to a lack of snow. The road wound its way down and up through valleys and over passes passing Monte Motta where chair lifts take skiers up to 2800m. Eventually the road led out on to the plains and a town called None, near Turin.

From here I intended to head to the pass at the top of the L’Ubaye river on the French border. On putting Barcelonnette in Google maps it wanted me to drive back the way I had come, well over 400kms. I often wonder if Google maps has a commission deal going with the oil companies. Fortunately I was able to find the correct route on my Ulman-Pro app, which cut the journey down to under 200ks.

This part of Italy is totally flat with layers of agriculture and horticulture adjoining the many small towns and villages. A thick blue haze of smoke hung in the air all the way across the plains. It was dark by the time I crossed the pass and negotiated the road back to Barcelonnette.

Wednesday 9 January 2019
Not far up the valley is an old fort complex, which said on the website it was open for tours from 10am. Arriving just after 10 I discovered it was far from open; the car park was in fact more like a skating rink. Tempted to take a stroll up the hill I looked at the ice on the track and decided against it. Fifteen odd broken bones is enough so the aim is not to break anymore, I think some call it being responsible!

I headed back down the valley to the information centre at Jausiers. The lady there informed me that at this time of year don’t come here unless you want to ski as everything is closed! She did however tell me that if I went to Tournoux I could walk up a track and look at the forts from the outside. Heading across to an outdoor shop I managed to get some rubber gadgets with spikes to fit on my boots to walk on the ice.

Arriving at Tournoux I parked the car and headed up the track through the trees to Fort de Tournoux. As it turned out there are really five forts running up the hill from the road at 1400m to one at the top at 2010m. First started in 1843 with Fort Moyenne and superior built over 20 years these included passages and stairs running up the inside of the hill. Originally with brass cannons that could cover the road at a range of 3-400m, as time went on the fort and its armaments were upgraded, until as part of the Maginot Line in 1939 guns had ranges of 15km.

I strolled up to the top fort which was more of an observation tower than a fort. Everything was locked up so I will just have to go back in the summer to look inside.

Arriving back at Tournoux with a 15km walk behind me I ran into an English chap called James who was walking a couple of very energetic dogs. We chatted for a while and I headed to the car, James appeared again and invited me into his place for a brew. He and his wife Pam had met in Scotland some years ago. Five years ago they moved here as it was Pam’s grandmother’s place and although Pam was born in Paris she spent many summers here as a child. The house is one of the Mexican style places built in the early 1900’s with 3m ceilings. James explained it’s not that practical in this part of the world and they are slowly doing it up, recently having double glazing installed but still going through a heap of wood to keep the place warm. As with most little villages in the area they are one of the few full time residents most places are now holiday homes.

Thursday 10 January 2019
After another stroll around the town I headed down the valley and parked the car for a stroll up the hill to Bruno’s place to join the team for lunch. Sylvia reckoned the road was too icy to take our rental car up. At 4kms and a four hundred meter climb I reckon she just thought I could do with the exercise.

It is always rewarding to look back at the view when walking up a hill. We enjoyed a great lunch and said goodbye to the team, a taxi taking us down to the car for our drive to Marseille and flight to Edinburgh.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia December 2018

Friday 29 November 2018
Catching the 7am Silk Air flight from Singapore we landed In Phnom Penh just after 9am.
With a population of around 2 million and growing fast, Phnom Penh is situated on the Mekong River with waters starting in Tibet over 4000 kms away. The river plays a huge part in the economy in both irrigation and transport.
Traffic here, like in many cities in this part of the world, is diabolical, taking us 45 minutes to travel the 10km to the hotel. Motorcycles and tuk-tuks weave their way amongst the cars. It’s not uncommon to see 4 on a motorbike; women sit side-saddle on the back, often nursing an infant or two on their knees.
Checking in to the La Rose Suites in Street 21 we were impressed by the friendliness of the staff. A letter in the room explained how the hotel is part of an organisation that lifts children from poverty, often recruiting children from the dumps and educating them into jobs that in turn ensures their future welfare. It has pretty neat door handles too.
After a nice lunch in the hotel restaurant a driver picked us up and drove us out into the countryside. I don’t think I have seen as much rubbish and litter on the roadsides in any other country. Lots are really bad but this place is worse.
Arriving at our destination we brought tickets and an audio guide as we passed through the gates of the Choeung Ek camp, one of the 300 plus “killing fields” that existed during the Khmer Rouge reign between 17 April 1975 to 1979. Starting at station 1 we followed the audio guide through. Basically people arrived here by truck from S21 (more about that later). They were restrained in the truck, counted and checked off before being executed that night, while loud propaganda-type-music played to cover up the noise. Pits were dug and people led to the edge then killed, not by a bullet but by blunt or sharp object trauma to the skull. Hammers, bars, bamboo poles and other such tools were used. Sometimes their throats were cut with the fronds from a palm tree.
In the last few years there has been a boardwalk built to walk amongst the pits. There is a picturesque pond at the back in which skeletons still remain. Although an effort has been made to exhume most of the 20,000 people executed here, during the rainy season bones and clothing still come to the surface. These are collected and displayed in glass cases.
Various pits have different significance. In one, woman and babies were found; the babies had been killed by holding their feet and banging their heads on the tree.
In another, the skeletons were headless; these were Khmer Rouge who were executed for not following the rules. “It is better to execute a few innocent people rather than let one guilty one get away” was the policy here in those terrible days. In the beginning people were stripped naked prior to execution and the executions carried out the night they arrived, but as numbers increased people were often held in a shed in shackles for a day or two and their clothing left on to speed up the process.
This is the most I have ever listened to an audio guide as at the end of each station there are personal accounts from both the very few that somehow survived this ordeal or other similar situations and the odd guard that was here as an executioner. The last stop is the Stupor (shrine), which contains some 20 thousand skulls and other major body bones. It’s a squeeze to move around looking up at the many shelves of skulls. On some of the lower shelves skulls contain colour coded dots to indicate which type of instrument was used in the execution.
A look at the museum on the grounds concluded our tour, after which we headed back to town to visit the Toul Sleng School that became camp S21, or really a death row, where one came to be tortured and confess one’s guilt before being executed. 12,273 prisoners were detained here, of which only 7 survived.
Once again we set off with an audio guide. Just inside the compound there are 16 gravestones for the last victims, who were found shackled and executed as the Khmer Rouge withdrew near the end of the war. We then head into building one, where three floors of classrooms were used as torture rooms. Gruesome pictures on the walls displayed the terrible ordeals suffered by these victims. Strict rules had to be followed by the victims many of whom were academics and business people.
Outside was what was once a rope climbing area for the kids but at S21 it was used to haul people up by their wrists, which were tied behind their backs. When they passed out their heads were dunked in urns of excrement to wake them up before the process was repeated.
Next we moved to building B where the ground floor is used to display firstly pictures of the Khmer Rouge regime bosses, then many people who were both victims and guards.
There is one New Zealander there who’s brother gives a very moving account of how he reacted to the torture by basically taking the piss out of his captors by giving the name of his CIA handler as Colonel Sanders (the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken). He gave names of family friends and his mother as his CIA associates.
We moved on to building C, which had holes knocked through the walls between classrooms so guards could patrol the small brick cells built to house one or two individuals.
Lastly building four contained various exhibits from the site. The last room contains the skulls of those buried in the grounds before they ran out of space and started moving people to Choeung Ek.
Having now visited a few genocide sites I always come away wondering how these situations evolve. After a lot of reading, much of it quite contradictory (due to poor record keeping) this is my interpretation:
In 1953 Cambodia gained independence from the French, who had ruled for around a hundred years. They handed power to Norodom Sihanouk the king of Cambodia. In 1955 Sihanouk abdicated, handing power to his father, so he could become a politician, and formed the political organisation Sangkum, which won the 1955 general election. As Prime Minister, he governed Cambodia under one-party rule, suppressed political dissent, and declared himself Head of State in 1960. Officially neutral in foreign relations, in practice he was closer to the communist bloc.
Meanwhile in 1965 the Americans started bombing the eastern part of of the country where the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Kong had camps close to the boarder of South Vietnam.
In 1970, backed by the Americans, Sihanouk was ousted by the right wing Lon Not. Sihanouk went into exile in China.
In the background Pol Pot and his  Khmer Rouge were gathering strength, using the American bombing of civilians in Eastern Cambodia to market their anti Lon Nol and US campaign. A  CIA report at the time sums up what was taking place:
“The [Khmer Rouge] cadre tell the people the Government of Lon Nol has requested the airstrikes and is responsible for the damage and the “suffering of innocent villagers” in order to keep himself in power. The only way to stop “the massive destruction of the country” is to remove Lon Nol and return Prince Sihanouk to power. (Sihanouk did return but after a year was put under house arrest until 1979). The proselyting cadres tell the people that the quickest way to accomplish this is to strengthen KR forces so they will be able to defeat Lon Nol and stop the bombing.”
It appears that the US bombing ceased in 1973 but Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, when they took Phnom Penh on the 17 April 1975, were still able to convince people to pack up and leave the city telling them it was going to be bombed by the US, the idea being to disestablish the cities and send people back to the land. Those that didn’t go voluntarily were forced or executed. The intent was to triple the rice production to buy arms and supplies from China. These folks from the cities had no farming skills and the whole thing was a massive failure, with many dying from starvation and disease. This was also the period that so many were tortured and executed in what have become known as the ‘killing fields”.
Meanwhile over the next four years many Khmer Rouge troops were deserting and joining with the Vietnamese army that came to the rescue, invading Cambodia on December 25 1978. Phnom Penh was liberated on the 7 January 1979. Pol Pot and his evil band fled to the jungle of the Thai boarder where he still lead, and was recognised as leader by the UN for a number of years.
It’s all a bit hard to figure out why the world stands by and lets these events take place. Just recently our Prime Minister was pictured getting all friendly and offering aid to the Myanmar Leader, who is standing by and doing very little while the Rohingya people are raped, killed and driven off their land.
Maybe this note referring to Kissinger may help one understand:
“In November 1975 — seven months after KR forces seized control of Phnom Penh — Henry Kissinger said to Thailand’s foreign minister that he ‘should tell [the KR] that we bear no hostility towards them. We would like them to be independent as a counterweight to North Vietnam.’ Kissinger added that he ‘should also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way. We are prepared to improve relations with them.'”
Between 1.5 and 3.5 million people died through the egos of a regime that was always going to fail, to the detriment of the population.
The day over we headed to the hotel. The restaurant hosted a couple of young traditional dancers. The dance seemed to revolve around the most flexible fingers I have seen,

Saturday 1 December 2018
After a relaxed breakfast we headed of fwith the most friendly and helpful tuk-tuk driver I have ever struck. Tuk-tuks to me are quite interesting as every country has a slightly different version. Here they are mostly a motorbike with a trailer to carry the passengers. The back suspension has been beefed up to take the weight. Yhe other interesting thing here are the motorbike stalls, basically a sidecar fitted out as a small shop, complete with stock so one just parks up and starts selling.
First stop was the Royal Palace. Built in the 1860’s it has been occupied by the royal family almost continuously, with the Khmer Rouge shutting it down during their rule. Even when the Japanese ruled during WWII the king was allowed to stay in place. It has many buildings including a number of stupors and around one courtyard a covered walkway, several hundred meters long, has a continuous, colourful mural, part of which has been recently, and I am sure, painstakingly restored.
The place is packed with Chinese tourists, who are led in groups through the grounds and buildings complete with ear pieces and a guide squawking into a transmitter. They have no spacial awareness as they just shove in front of people. I bent over to undo my shoe laces to enter one building and two just walked into my head and looked quite put out as I butted them away. The buildings are well maintained, I am sure assisted by the large number of tourists.
Although we had picked up some local currency at the airport every thing here is priced in US$and even the ATMs dispense the green-back.
Next stop was the National Museum, which although it is not very big, does a good job of walking one through the history and origins of Cambodia, with its mix of Brahman (Hindu) and Buddhist history. People have been trading with both India and China from here for over two thousand years. I always wonder how such a small country seemed to define themselves and set their boundaries in what must have been a tribal or feudal existence back then.
After the museum we asked our friendly driver to take us for a look around town. It is only recently that the city has started to get high rise buildings. They are pretty much all Chinese owned, with investors pouring millions into condos and office blocks to the point that the infrastructure is staring to fail. Hence the Chinese government is now putting billions in to infrastructure. Cambodia, like its surrounding countries, has become a source of cheap labour for China, and to a lessor extent, US and European markets.
China is moving in a big way with huge manufacturing plants around the country. In the city of Sihanoukville, China has built 70 casinos with 30 more under construction. They call it zero-tourism as people come from China and are only taken to the Chinese-owned businesses. Hence most of the spend goes back to China. The local business are doing a starve and going broke.
We head down the banks of the Mekong River,  looking at the tall buildings across the river, then into the back streets fighting our way through thick traffic as we get a good look at the back end of the city. Like in  all these cities I am always amused by the tangle of power and phone wires strung up on poles and buildings.
After lunch a taxi came to pick us up – well tried to – his SUV wouldn’t start so we waited while he sorted it out. Turned out he was out of petrol. We headed out of town past the airport, passing many large factories and the normal roadside stalls and shops.
40kms and two hours later we turned onto a gravel road built up above the surrounding rice fields. We passed people harvesting rice and also a mechanised rice harvester in action. Kids jumped off the bank into the irrigation channel that ran alongside the road. We crossed a large earth dam and headed into the foothills. We stopped at a gate where a couple of soldiers lazed around, wearing part uniforms. Through the gate we headed to a big, red, open shed.
We had seen the brochure in a taxi the day before. Apparently this is the only country in the world where a civi or non-bad-bastard can shoot an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) so here we are to give it a go. It all sounds a dit dodgy because some info says it’s illegal but it’s all over the internet, and advertised in every taxi and tuk-tuk and it’s run by the local army.
Arriving in the shed I am handed a beer and led to a table full of automatic rifles, sub-machine and machine guns plus a couple of rocket launchers. The guy tries to encourage me to try them all, at a price of course. I explained that I have used most of them before and am here for the RPG 2 and 7. He explains that they don’t have any explosive heads for the RPG 7 so I settle on a couple of shots with the RPG 2.  $850 US is the best price I can negotiate.
The instruction is short: “put on shoulder like this” , “put left hand here”, “aim at drum” (it’s about 80m away), “on count of three pull trigger”. A couple of practices and the guy rests the launcher on his foot and pokes the rocket in, the launching charge goes in, then the fins are squeezed around and the tail slides in, a couple of twists and a pin fits into a notch and its ready to go.
With Sylvia filming it time for the first shot. Woomphah! And I feel the over-pressure from the blast hit my feet telling me if I am ever to take one of these into battle wear long trousers and boots rather than shorts and jandals. There’s a loud explosion. When the dust clears , the drum has disappeared. There’s lots of cheers and clapping from the onlooking soldiers. I wander over to Sylvia and the soldier standing with her laughs “she was shaking!” The rocket had landed just short of the drum so now it was time for shot number two.
The guy goes through the loading process and hands me the launcher. Bugger! It’s a different one with different sights on it. I thought I had it all figured out to hit the retrieved drum this time. The guy said aim at the middle of the drum, which I did but the next loud bang and the rocket skimmed across the top of the drum and exploded about 100m further away with another great blast and a plume of smoke. One would have to say this is a real bang for your buck(s).
More beers were handed out and the guys had another go at trying to convince us to fire some of the other weapons. More $$$ and good marketing but no sale. The day at an end the guys got out cleaning materials and cleaned out all the weapons that had been fired that day. There had been another crew of seven there before us. They packed up and we jumped back in the car, heading back to Phnom Penh.
Turning onto the main road we were somewhat perplexed by the number of small trucks packed with mostly women, standing room only. We asked the driver, Alex, “what’s going on here?” He explained that the garment factories had all closed for Sunday and these were the factory workers being driven back to their villages for their one day off. They will make the return trip tomorrow afternoon. We passed in excess of 100 of these trucks on the way back to the city.
As we neared the city we were amazed at the number of soldiers and police stationed every few hundred metres along the roadway. We couldn’t quite establish whether this was normal or if there was some important politician in town. The five hours of driving and thirty minutes of a blast had been well worth the experience.
We spent another quiet evening dining at the hotel and watching more finger dancers as we ate. Our impression of Cambodia is that inspire of the trauma and genocide they have been through these are really friendly and happy people.

Sunday 2 December 2018

We had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, where the service was, to say the least, outstanding and the friendliness of the staff no less than amazing. Our driver picked us up and drove us back to the airport for our short flight back to Singapore.

Back to Accuracy First In Texas

Sunday 28 October
After an easy 14 hour flight to Houston, then onto Amarillo and a night in the ‘highly not recommended but cheap’ Camelot Motel, I arrived at Todd’s place near Canadian. I then settled into the training house at Sleepy Hollow. The afternoon I spent studying my notes from last year on long range shooting ready for the first class tomorrow morning. In the evening I headed in to the Cattle Exchange Restaurant, where nothing has changed since my last visit. The waitress got me to sign a form to get a three day licence to buy a glass of wine as this is still a dry county.

Monday 29 October 
Just by coincidence there are a bunch of Kiwi soldiers here on their second week of learning the ropes on the new Barrett MRAD (Multi-role Adaptive Design) rifles the NZ Army is in the process of purchasing. These are a versatile rifle with easily interchangeable barrels, enabling them to shoot both 7.62 NATO rounds out to 1200 meters and the 338 lapua Magnum round out to over 2000 meters. They were led by a major called John, whom I had met before.

At 8am the first class is underway, this year run by Colby, Todd’s eldest son, who like his father is a crack shot with an extensive knowledge in all aspects of the art.

After lunch we headed out to the wind course to put some of the learnings into practice. With targets from 250m out to over 800m there is a huge challenge in judging the wind as it gusts up to 20 kph plus from different angles as we move around the different stations on the 360 degress course.

In the evening Todd and Colby take me into town for a meal at the Stumbling Goat.

Tuesday 20 October
At 0630 Kane and OB, a couple of guys who I has also met before, turn up at the training house and we head over to Todd’s. From there we head out looking for coyotes. They are a real problem for the local ranchers as they prey on the cattle when they are calving, eating the calf and the cow while in labour. In a conversation yesterday when the subject of coyotes came up someone asked Colby if they are an endangered species. “Round here they are! We would like to kill every last one of them”.

It’s really windy as we lay down in various high spots and Todd sparks up the caller that booms out the noise of a distressed rabbit. We cover a part of Jason’s 30,000 acre ranch as we drive between vantage points. Only one coyote comes into check out the noise. He moves very fast and disappears as a quick shot from Kane goes just over his shoulder at 250m.

The scenery is vast and stunning. The ranch is dotted with oil and gas infrastructure with many wells going down to 2000m. Large pumps bring up oil and salt water that is separated by machines on the surface, the oil picked up by large trucks and carted to refineries. Gas comes up under pressure and is piped to a local pumping station and then down country.

Mule deer look on curiously as we drive past.

It’s then back to the training house to join the others for more theory before heading out to another range, this time with targets out to 1600m. Colby gives me a 300 Winchester Magnum to use.

At the day’s end Kane, OB and I head out with Todd to go and cull a deer.  Jason who owns the ranch we had been out on in the morning also clones deer and is tasked by the local authority with culling poor or sick deer from the wild.

He too is a keen long range shooter and along with Todd and Colby has shot deer at over 2000 meters. We pick Jason up and drive to a hill overlooking a paddock where deer often come to feed in the evening. The range to the other side of the paddock is over 1600m. With spotting scopes we scan the fields and surrounding scrub.

Eventually a deer that needs culling is spotted among some other deer. Jason, OB and I take aim while Todd calls the elevation and wind. This time I am using Todd’s 300 Norma Magnum. At this range even though the cross hairs are on the target we are aiming around 4.5m meters above the deer. The count is 5,4,3,2. Firing on the 2 the deer falls but gets up. Another volley is required to finish it. The white tail deer is recovered and taken back to the farm yard to be gutted.

Wednesday 31 October
After another unsuccessful early morning coyote hunt and more lectures we headed to a different range where I got to try out Todd’s MRAD in 338 Lapua Magnum calibre, the same one as the soldiers are using.

In the evening we head off with Todd and Jason for another deer cull. This time from the hill no deer are seen that need culled but as we are heading back we spot one in another location, this time just under 600m away. John and I engage it, the first volley going just to the right as we have misjudged the wind. Eventually it goes down on dark and it’s decided to recover it in the morning. The next morning Jason sends us a photo. It has been stripped to the bone overnight by Coyotes.

Thursday 1 November 
After touring some more country looking for coyotes we head to another range. I have lost count just how many ranges Todd has set up here but they cater for every aspect of long range shooting with some ranges having targets at over 3000 meters. This range the closest target is 1200m, the longest at over 2000m. I watch as one of the guys gets a second round hit at 2042m with the 338.

After sorting out the 300 I manage a 1st and 2nd round hit at 1600m. Being a less powerful round than the 338 it is hard to extend it beyond that. Some of the kiwi solders also have with them the .50 semi automatic Barrett capable of shooting out to 3000m.

We then move to another range where a competition is run with each person getting one shot at each of 12 targets ranging from 560 to 1380m. Justin, a former sniper of many years and a keen outdoors man, wins this outright.
Day over we head off for another deer cull but no deer meeting the criteria show up. As we stand on the hill many long trains head up and down the valley as the main line from California to Chicago runs up and down here.

We pass a nice white tail stag as we are heading back, then a couple of coyotes are spotted. Kane and OB jump out to engage them. OB shooting across the bonnet of the pickup kills one at 250 meters.

Friday 2 November
Another early morning start looking for coyotes. We stay only a few minutes at each location. There is no activity so we go to the top of a valley where early on we had seen one cross the road and head that way. Within a few seconds one runs out of some scrub below us and heads across a grassy flat moving fast. I snap a shot off and miss. The guys had been telling me on the way out ‘it was my turn to miss today.” In a flash the coyote retreats at great speed into the scrub. Coming onto a mound above the scrub he stops to look back and OB shoots him in the head. His mate heads up a far ridge 400 meters away dodging the odd bullet as he makes his escape.

The ‘golf course’ is being shot this morning, an 18 target course with targets spread out over several kms so the course is driven with the shooters stopping and dismounting to shoot the targets. The last two targets are shot after climbing a hill.

After lunch we head back to the wind course where the kiwis have their last competition. There is little wind today so the scores are higher than normal. Jason does a fly over in his Robinson 44 just as we are finishing up.

Shooting over we head back to the training house for a bbq and a couple of drinks. A Kestrel is awarded to Justin who has topped the shooting on the course. It’s been a really great week I really appreciate Todd inviting me back for a third visit. Colby did a great job teaching and helping people out – “a real chip off the old block”. I really enjoyed the interaction with Major John and his team, a real enthusiastic bunch.

Up High in Shanghai

Wednesday 10 October 2018

We spent the last two nights in Guangzhou where the smog was so bad that it was impractical to take photos. I sent an email to our friend Louise, who is an environmental engineer in NZ, showing a PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter or PM diameter less than 2.5 micrometers) and an air quality level of over 160. I got a reply saying the WHO recommendation was 25. “If you go outside don’t breathe!” On the drive in from the airport we could taste a metallic taste in our mouths and our eyes were stinging. I ended up spending most of the day in the hotel catching up on some work. Clear visibility from the hotel room on the 75th floor was only a couple of hundred meters. Interestingly one of Sylvia’s Chinese colleagues said they only get worried when the reading is over 300.

We arrived at the Park Hyatt hotel around 6pm. The hotel occupies the 79th to 93rd floors of the Shanghai World Financial Centre. This seems to be common practice in China and some other parts of the world nowadays. It’s a little complicated as the concierge is on the ground floor, a lift takes us to the reception on the 87th floor, then another lift takes us down to level 80 where our room is. Then for breakfast its up to 87, change lifts to get to 91. I think the complexity is well represented in the faces of the sculptures in the lift lobby on the ground floor.

Sylvia headed off to a dinner meeting, I headed to the bar on the 87th Floor. The night view from here, overlooking the Bund and surrounding buildings, is out of this world. Many of the tall buildings in the area are lit up and the lighting coordinated amongst the many buildings. What looks like a shadow moves across the old stone buildings by the Bund then the lights change and thy look like they are dancing. “No I didn’t have that much to drink!!”

Thursday 11 October 2018

Sylvia headed off to a meeting so I headed up to floor 91 for breakfast situated 3 floors under the oblong hole in the top of the building, which tops out at 492m. Sitting looking northwest across Shanghai on an almost clear day one realises just how packed in the buildings are on the west side of the Huangpu River. But in spite of that there are areas where the old low buildings have survived, looking almost squashed in amongst the skyscrapers. It is also interesting to look down on the building next door and see the mobile cranes that run around the top of the building to lower both window cleaners and maintenance people over the side.

To my left, while eating breakfast, I noticed an even taller building, towering more than thirty storeys above where I was sitting so I had to get out and investigate. Heading down to the street and across the road – there it was, the Shanghai Tower, complete with observatory on top. As I walked up the street to find the entrance it was quite hard to get a picture of the building we were staying in as it is so tall.

Eventually I found a ticket office away from the tower itself, grabbed a ticket and headed down an escalator to the basement. Fortunately there weren’t a lot of people about so the wait was minimal to get into the lift, which shot us up to the 119th floor (552M) very quickly as the fastest super lift in the world, reaching speeds of 18m per second. Yes, an observatory – but across the city, not up to the stars as the name would have one suspect.

I wandered around the 119th floor then took a stairway up to the 120th. Completed in 2015 and standing at 632m meters this is the second tallest building in the world, only outdone by the Dubai tower at 828m. Although it is not a perfect day the views out across the city can only be described in the pictures below. One gets a bit of an appreciation of how you can cram 24 plus million into a city.

I found a corridor with a counter in it and on inquiring was told that this is where one goes up to visit the damper. “It’s only explained in Chinese” the lady made sure I understood before buying the ticket. I went around the floor again while waiting for the next viewing then bang on 11am a chap guided 3 of us to the lift and up we went to floor 125. Exiting the lift we were greeted by a robot-like device that jabbered away in, I presume, Mandarin as the Chinese guys seemed to understand what it was saying. In spite of not understanding what was being said I got the gist of how this massive counterweight called a damper helps steady the building in a typhoon or earthquake. We looked through windows into the damper room. A large weight sat on a platform surrounded by rams to steady and control the movement if an event takes place. Best of all was an example of how it worked on two simple structures, one with a weight and one without. Viewing over, I took the lift back to the basement – interestingly only reaching 10 metres per second on the way down.

I headed east along a wide avenue towards Pudong. This is quite a nice part of town with a wide avenue with trees on each side and relatively short, more spread out buildings. Thinking how short the buildings looked I counted the floors on one – there were over 20!

At one stage I was walking alongside this nice hedge with patterns of plants growing in it, then I spotted some white things sticking out. On heading over and taking a closer look the whole thing was made of plastic!!

Several kms down the road I came across a a park garden area with wide stone and concrete walkways. This lead to Century Park. Heading for the gate a guard in a suit got a bit serious and pointed me to a kiosk. Oops its a pay park. Ten locals and I had a ticket and headed in. A concrete path takes one around a small lake with some gardens and trees surrounding it. After the circuit I headed down the nearby road to the canal that ran out to the main river.   Along the way some people fished, others walked and others picked tiny yellow flowers from shrubs. This is apparently an older part of town and still has houses among the not-very-tall old appartments until one gets closer to the river. Later along the edge of the river I came across a van full of parcels being sorted on the riverside road.

Reaching the river with its wide boardwalk running alongside, I stopped at Bunny Drop, a nice little cafe with outside seating. Heading into the cafe I ordered a tuna sandwich and a small bottle of wine. Handing over my “World Master Card” it wouldn’t go through. Next the “visa”. No luck!! I was about to get Google translate out to type out an apology when a chap standing at the counter next to me explained that lots of small places in China these days don’t take international credit cards. They use We Chat and some other forms of mobile payment. As I only had 60 locals in cash I asked him to apologise for me for causing the staff inconvenience. He did better than that and paid my bill for me. Eddie was his name. He explained he had just chucked in his job in the financial world and was heading to Vancoover. Good luck Eddie! Wherever you end up you’re a bloody good bloke. As I headed out to sit down I got chatting to a lady with a poodle the cafe staff had been patting. Kate, originally from Taiwan, moved here with her husband Alan a few years ago. Alan is one of the senior managers with Qantas here in Shanghai. We had a good chat over lunch and soon it was time for me to head back to the hotel.

In the evening Sylvia had a night off from dinners and meetings so we enjoyed an evening in the bar watching the lights of Shanghai.


Malta: Unlike Rome it is built of stone

As a young soldier, while on leave, I stayed with a Mr Cowan near Hastings in NZ. He was a retired RAF Wing Commander who had been based in Malta in WWII during the Italian and German bombing campaign. He told me a story that has stayed with me. He described it as the bravest thing he had ever seen. An unexploded German time bomb had landed beside their last undamaged hanger. A flight sergeant loaded it on to a forklift and drove it of to the local rubbish dump.

Thursday 27 September 2018

Leaving Italy on Ryan air was an experience in itself. These guys are organised in making every minute count when it comes to getting aircraft back in the air. We were called to board then stood on a stairway for several minutes before heading out onto the tarmac where we stood and watched the passengers disembark from the just-landed plane. As soon as they were all off on we went. Very efficient!

Landing in Malta around 1pm a driver from La Falconeria Hotel picked me up for the short trip into Valletta. The route took us around the north side of the fort (yes this town of 5,500 odd people is a fort). Arriving at the hotel I was greeted by really helpful and friendly staff and soon settled into a room. As Sylvia was flying in from France later in the evening I went for a stroll around the town or fort. The place is outstanding to say the least and steeped in some of the most interesting history I have come across.

Valletta, originally a rocky peninsula jutting into the harbour, has long been of strategic importance. After being attacked by the Ottomans in the early 1500s, they started in 1566 building the tunnel and drainage systems and bastions. By the early 1600 it had become a sizeable city. To try do it justice with the help of wikipedia here is a summary of the history of the 316 km2 country with a population of 432,089 this year.

First occupied by Neolithic farmers, probably from Sicily, around 5900 BC, a combination of global warming (probably not man-made) and bad farming practices ran them out of food and they left.

Repopulated again from Sicily around 3850 BC this group built the temples, one of which, the Ggantija temple in Gozo, is still standing today and is believed to be the oldest free standing building in the world. These guys lasted about 1500 years before being driven out due  again to global warming and drought, at which point this culture too disappeared.

Various Bronze Age people then occupied the island until 800 BC when the Phoenicians possibly arrived. In 400 BC it became a trading post linking  Sicily and Italy to what is now Libya. From 250 BC to 500 AS the Romans ruled in one form or another. In 535 AD it was integrated into the Byzantine province of Sicily. There is speculation the Greeks rued for a short time around 800 AD.

In 870 AD Muslims from North Africa ruled and after a siege, many bloody battles and the annihilation of the population the country lay empty for some time until in 1048 it was resettled by a Muslim community and their slaves. In 1091 Sicily took over again. Over the next 440 years it was sold and resold to various feudal lords until in 1479 it became part of the Spanish empire.

In 1530 the island was handed to the to Knights of St John, who ruled for the next 275 years. In 1798 Napoleon rocked up and stayed for six days, putting in his administration system with the French ruling for a couple of years until in !800 it became a British protectorate.

In 1964  Malta gained independence and in 2004 Malta became part of the EU.

Friday 28 September 2018

After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel we took a stroll up to the top of town and jumped a bus to the old city or fort of Mdina, about 10kms west of Valletta. Even outside Valletta the architecture is pretty amazing with rows and rows of stone buildings, most of which have the famous enclosed Maltese balconies cantilevered out from where the window would be. A stone aqueduct still stands in places that once bought water to Valletta. As we headed west we came across lots of small, arid looking farming plots, many surrounded by stones that had been stacked into fences over many years.


Built on the edge of a cliff, Mdina is quite spectacular with a deep moat on the south side with a bridge to the gate.

Entering the old city we were confronted by a maze of alleys, small squares and a large cathedral. We came across some people dressed in Medieval costumes who invited us into a museum about the Knights of St John. Originally founded in Jerusalem in 1070 as a Catholic military order they roamed Europe leading the Christian crusades eventually arriving in Malta after the fall of Rhodes. They became famous in Malta for repelling the Turks, who turned up with forty thousand men.

The Knights having had word of the invasion harvested all the crops even those not ripe then poisoned many wells to deprive the invaders of food and water. The Turks overran a fort near Valletta then a bare peninsular. They cut the heads off the Knights they captured and floated them on crosses in the harbour. The knights then cut the heads of their Turk prisoners, loaded them into canons and fired them into the Turk camps. Apparently this had quite a demoralising effect on the Turk soldiers. Eventually the Turks withdrew from the island having lost over two thirds of their troops.

From both the fort walls and the restaurant we visited for lunch outside the walls we had great views of the local farmland.

We then headed by taxi to the Hagar Qim Temples out by the coast. These are the oldest temples in Malta and they reckon the oldest man made structures in the world. Built  back around 3800 BC with no written language and no steel tools they managed to build these structures, which included door frames chiseled out of stone. In 1995 this and four other sites on Malta were recognised by UNESCO as world heritage sites. They have had structures built over them similar to the ones we saw over the monolithic churches in Ethiopia recently to protect them from the elements.

The two sites here consist mainly of the original stone and some that has been recreated. there is also a museum which takes one through the history of the people who occupied the island at that time.

After the second temple we strolled across the arid land to look at one of the eight surviving watch towers, thirteen of which were were built by the Knights between 1658 and 59 to warn of coastal attacks.

A bus took us back to Valletta where we sat on the deck at the hotel enjoying a quiet evening and a view over the city.

Saturday 29 September 2018

After another great breakfast at the hotel we headed for a stroll around Valletta heading to the northeast side of the peninsular overlooking the Marsamxett Harbour. Around here there is simply fort after fort, all as if they are keeping an eye on each other. Looking across at Fort Manoel on another peninsular jutting into the harbour to the left of which were pleasure boats and more solid looking buildings. To the right on a coastal peninsular are modern looking apartment type of buildings looking somewhat out of place.

Rounding the bottom of the peninsular we passed the Malta War Museum and then had great views across the Grand Harbour, the far side of which is also lined with forts.

We then strolled through the streets heading up to the top of the town to view the noon firing of one of the canons. There is something really neat about this town and the way the buildings look, all built of lime stone with balconies – most enclosed with timber and glass and painted  in varying colours – protruding from them.

Arriving at the canons we were greeted by a young man in a khaki uniform, complete with pith helmet. He was super helpful and gave us a good rundown on what was going to take place at noon. As noon approached crowds gathered on the walls above the guns, music played and khaki-clad men marched out to prepare gun number 4 for firing. A loud bang as the gun fired its blank across a large cruise liner,  a cloud of smoke and it was all over.

We headed to a small cafe on the nearby square and enjoyed a light lunch after which we headed back to the guns where another khaki-clad man gripped us up and lead us the entrance of the war tunnels.

These tunnels were originally dug by slaves and prisoners over 500 years ago, designed as escape routes and as a way for people to move about the fort safe from artillery bombardment. Originally they were a lot smaller but were enlarged at various times, particularly in WWII. It was then that ventilation was put into the tunnels to extract air, often using recycled ventilation ducting from submarines. After passing a 20,000 litre water tank and a boarded up 20-plus meter escape shaft, we entered the tunnel, passing small rooms with six bunks that slept twelve people -called hot bunking (something I have experienced on mining mill reline jobs where there has been a shortage of beds).

We headed down a steep stairway into the operations room, which still had the maps on the wall from the NATO days (1950s to 1974). Desks and rooms overlooked this area where the bosses sat to observe the movement of attacking aircraft and ships during WWII and the position of both the NATO fleet and the Russian fleets in the later days. Somewhat decayed, old recovered maps from WWII lay on the table and in a back room.

Our guide explained that it was only in 2009 that they entered the tunnels to begin restoration and there are still many tunnels yet to be accessed and explored. We headed back up past the radar room which played a big part in defending the island. Malta had the earliest sophisticated radar system during WWII which played a large part in in preventing invasion.

We exited the tunnels into the ditch, a large moat like structure that was never filled with water to prevent mosquitoes breeding, but in the early days had canons firing wooden canisters filled with 700 lead balls down on invaders. Here you can see the line where the rock ends and the stone fort starts.

Crossing the ditch, as they call it, we headed through another steel door and up some stairs to an observation area with views over the harbour and back to the land behind the fort. We overlooked large oil rigs being serviced and a couple of cruise ships bringing thousands of people to the island. Interestingly most of Malta’s income is from tourism; the day I arrived 4,000 people were flying in for a conference.

We then wound our way through more tunnels coming to one that was used as an air raid shelter with steel bunks hinged from the walls for important people; the other poor buggers had to sleep in the floor.

A few more tunnels and our guide delivered us to the Lascaris War Rooms, where we waited in a theatre watching some movie footage from WWII, which showed us the utter devastation Valletta suffered during the bombings. it was during this period that King George V awarded Malta the George Cross, which to this day holds pride of place on their flag.

Soon another guide moved us through to the war rooms, which are also well underground connected by tunnels. They have set up a small a small museum with various uniforms and the original WWII map which was discovered behind the NATO map in the operations room.

From here we moved through a number of small rooms including the telephone exchange to the plotting room. Our guide gave us a demonstration of how aircraft and ships would be positioned on the map to show both enemy and friendly forces.  He then went on to explain how a captured enigma (code) machine was used at Malta to intercept enemy radio traffic and know the movement of their ships. So as not to let the Germans know they had broken their codes, spotter planes would be sent out on what looked like a random course and just ‘happen to run across’ a convoy of German or Italian ships.

Leaving the war rooms we headed to the top of Valletta and taxied around the south side of the Grand Harbour passing the many fortified towns on the way to Fort Rinella. Entering the fort grounds we headed down the path into what were originally the barracks and store rooms of the fort. We arrived while one of the khaki-clad men was giving a tour to a group explaining with great knowledge what each room contained in the way of various equipment uniforms medical supplies etc.

The tour over, we headed into a courtyard where another khaki-clad man went through the history of the sword. This was followed by an excellent demonstration of how soldiers were drilled in the use of the sword and the practice that took place after that.

From there we headed into some more tunnels to see how the world’s largest muzzle-loading canon worked. This Armstrong canon weighing over 100 tons could propel a 1 ton shell, with a charge of 250kg of black powder, eight miles with the ability of penetrating 21 inches of steel.

The canon, too big to be manhandled, had a large water tank sunk into the floor filled by a steam pump with a weight placed on top of it creating hydraulic pressure, which both rotated and elevated the gun. After each shot the gun would be rotated to a washing position to flush any sparks out before reloading. A hydraulic ram was used to load both the charge and the projectile through the muzzle. Pretty impressive for 1883. There were two of these guns, ones on each side of the harbour. The other was cut up for scrap years ago.

Tour over we took the bus back to Valletta, on the way discussing how impressed we had been with both the passion and knowledge displayed by those khaki-clad men from Heritage Malta.

The evening upon us we were sitting on the deck at the hotel when we heard loud bangs echoing around the town. Looking north about a km away across the harbour near a church we saw fireworks exploding high in the sky. This went on for well over an hour. Apparently fireworks are very common here with few rules and regulations regarding the manufacture of them. Hence many villages have their own fireworks factory. I was unable to ascertain if this particular display had any significance but it was impressive to watch.

Sunday 30 September 2018

We headed off reasonably early to visit Marsaxlokk, a fishing port and town south of Valletta. Very picturesque with many small boats painted many colours, market stalls lined the water front many selling the normal ‘made in China’ junk. It took a while to make our way to the fish stalls where there was a large army of produce mostly, but not all caught from the local sea. Some fisherman sat on their boats still picking small fish from their nets in the hot sun. As we left the many fish restaurants alongside the water from were beginning to fill with the day’s tourist catch.

We mounted the bus for the journey back to Valletta to be greeted (which is probably not the right word) by a rather grumpy bus driver. He took my 5 euro note and waved me down the back of the bus, pissed of I did not have the 2 euro fare in coins. I noted he put the note in his pocket. As we wound our way back through the narrow streets he would abuse people for getting on or off the bus too slowly, at one point banging his fist on the side of his compartment as people were slow to move. On arriving at Valletta I asked him for my change. “I fkn!! gave it to you he said”. I pointed to the note still in his top pocket; he delivered more abuse, so I picked 3 euro out of his tray and got off the bus to as he thew the 5 euro note after me, which I returned to his tray. He threw it again so I just kept walking as a bunch of about-to-mount passengers looked on in horror.

We headed by taxi around the Grand Harbour to the Malta at War museum, situated at Birgu. Unfortunately it is closed Sunday so we wandered down past the many boats in the inlet and caught a small local back to Valletta.

A tour of the National War Museum at Fort St Elmo took us again through the history of Malta and was well laid out enabling one to get a true feel of how complex the history of this small island really is.

Our time up in this ‘must come back and spend some more time here’ place we headed for the airport. At the check in counter it turned out that Lufthansa had some how cancelled Sylvia’s return fare. So much for helping them out by changing flights on the way to Milan. We were sent to the service desk where eventually the young ‘trying to be helpful but out of her depth woman’ got the manager. He, who maybe hadn’t heard of the word service, got himself off to a really bad start to the point by the time he had finished Sylvia had certainly given him a lesson in service. Eventually we were put, with some apprehension, on a Turkish Airlines flight via Istanbul to Singapore. All credit to them the service and the food quality on the flight was really great.

Lake Como, Italy for a good mate’s 70th

Saturday 22 September 2018
A couple of hours before we were due to depart for Milan, via Frankfurt, on Lufthansa, I received a call from Singapore Airlines saying Lufthansa was overbooked and would we mind flying direct to Milan on Singapore Airlines. “Yes please!” We landed in Milan at 7am and headed to Sixt, the car rental company, The car wasn’t ready so we had some breakfast then headed back to Sixt. These guys in their bright orange and black uniforms would have to be the best rental car company we have ever dealt with. As they didn’t have the car we wanted ready they upgraded us to an E Class Mercedes, a bit under powered and a challenge to drive on the narrow roads around Lake Como but they didn’t know where we were going.

We headed to Como then up the east side of the lake to Torno. We scouted Villa Torno and then drove up the narrow roads to Bellagio, where Sylvia had found, on the net, a good shoe shop. The place was packed so I dropped her off and drove out of town and waited in the car until the shoe purchase was done as there was no where to park. Two pairs of Italian shoes in hand I picked her up and we headed back along the narrow windy road to Torno, often having to pull over to let cars, trucks and the odd bus past.

Arriving back at Torno my long time and great friends, John and Lesley, had arrived at the Villa. We parked in a car park off the main road and headed, baggage in hand, to the Villa we had scouted earlier. Ringing the bell, a lady in a bikini informed is there was no John here. Bugger! wrong Villa Torno! John sent a google location and we headed up steep paths and alleys to the correct location, high on the hill with stunning views. We arrived covered in sweat to find we could have driven up. It’s John’s 70th tomorrow and they have booked this place to celebrate after a cruse in the Adriatic. John’s son Gair, wife Amy and their two well-behaved daughters, Piper and Phoebe, are also here.

Lesley and Amy cooked a great meal and we enjoyed an evening catching up and recalling funny events from the past.

Sunday 23 September 2018
Sylvia had to fly out to France for a meeting so we set off early to Bergamo airport. The round trip was over four hours. On returning I wandered the narrow streets of Torno before settling down at a bar by the lake to wait for John’s crew to return by ferry from Como where they had been shopping.

We spent the evening again eating great food, reminding John that he is now officially old and having a good time.

Monday 24 September 2018
Lesley and the rest of the crew headed to Como, this time for some real shopping – as in not just food etc. John and I took a stroll down into Torno, checking out the amazing way a town like this is put together with its narrow alleys, steep steps, and buildings, which all seem to stand on every bit of land no matter what it’s shape.

After a leisurely lunch by the lake we strolled back up the hill finding some steps near the villa which we thought may be a short cut. They ran up the hill to an old, unoccupied stone house on a small field. Long ago it would have supported a family living mainly off the land.

It was close to the villa so we cut through the woods and over a few stone walls to get home. Villa Torno is owned by a local art dealer and is built around an old stone watch tower, of which there are many in the area. It took 4 years to build. With stunning views, sauna, spa pool and lots of rock around the back it’s a great place to stay.

Tuesday 25 September 2018
After a leisurely breakfast we headed in convoys up to Bellagio so Lesley and Amy could explore the shops. It wasn’t as busy today so we found a park easily. While the others shopped John and I looked at interesting things like the car ferry berthing in a strong wind and a choppy lake, architecture and a few other things.

Around noon we all met for lunch at a nice restaurant half way up the hill in one of the many staircase alleys.

At lunch Lesley informed us she had found this wonderful family-owned jewellery shop. After a stop at the gastronomie for some supplies we wandered down some steps, stopping at a silk shop. This area is known for its silk as it has been harvested in northern Italy for over a thousand years. After a lot of guidance from Lesley, Sylvia now has a nice silk scarf.

Next stop, at the bottom of the steps on the flat, was Corner Shop Bellagio. In we went and like in the silk shop the staff were really friendly and helpful – to the point of removing all pain as I slid my card across the counter. Once again with a little help and a lot of encouragement from Lesley, Sylvia now has a nice necklace with matching bracelet. John also slipped out his card and bought a very nice necklace for Lesley as his birthday was also their 20th wedding anniversary. “Great way not to forget the wedding anniversary”

That evening we dined at a local Torno restaurant by the lake.

Wednesday 26 September 2018
We are up early to say goodbye to Gair, Amy, Piper and Phoebe who are heading to Milan to catch the train to Paris, where they will finish their holiday before returning to Sydney. After breakfast we headed into Como and around the bottom of the lake to head up the west side. The road started off quite good here with wide lanes and tunnels to cut out the windy roads around the hill. All went well until we got just south of Argegno. Here the traffic just stopped. As we waited for the best part of an hour many cars in the line turned around and headed back down the lake. Eventually we got moving and then stopped again. This time there were some police directing the traffic. What had happened is that two or three big trucks and a bus going in both directions had met in the narrow town streets. I mentioned this to a waiter at a restaurant later – he just shrugged his shoulders “it’s just normal here”.

We eventually arrived at Dongo, the place where the partisans had captured Mussolini in 1944. They also executed him a bit further down the lake with a French-made 7.65 MAS-38. Only 1900-odd of these were made in France after the German occupation but somehow many got into the hands of the local partisans. The museum took us through how Mussolini was captured along with 16 of his ministers, disguised as German soldiers. Many of the partisans worked at the local steel mill, which then employed 1500 people. They organised a strike that day so they could go out and attack a German convoy as there was a rumour Mussolini was moving through the area. They let the Germans go, not a shot fired, once they had their prisoners, who were held in what is now the museum for a short time. The 16 ministers were shot on the local beach. Mussolini and his mistress were taken further down the lake, executed and then their bodies  were taken to Milan and hung up by their feet while people threw objects and shot at them. Must have saved the country a fortune in a long expensive trial.

After lunch we headed to Griante, where a car ferry took us across the lake to Bellagio. There was no way we were going to risk another hour waiting for a truck jam to clear. Lesley did ask if I wanted to pay another visit to the Corner Shop – I politely declined.

We spent a relaxing evening at the villa, again with great food and tasty wine. I was heading to Malta early the next morning, John and Lesley back to Sydney.
Life is busy and short so it’s always great to spend time with great friends.