When Brenda sent me an invitation to her wedding, I knew I had to go. It was to be on the 29th of December, a time when all should be departing the misery of London for warmer climes. So, I put plans of another diving holiday on hold and booked myself some tickets to Canada.

Having done this my thoughts turned to “exactly what do I want to do in Canada”. A thought instantly popped into my head. Snow mobiling. So off on a web search I went, and sent off a couple of emails asking people how they could entertain me & how much it would cost. Shortly after I got an email from Jeff Wilson of Klondike Ventures saying that he could sort me out & take me out camping & go dog sledding, ski joring & ice climbing. Snow mobiling it appeared, could be done, but really shouldn’t be encouraged. Nonetheless, it seemed that Jeff had a pretty cool way to fill in the time before the wedding & would leave only a few days after to be filled, so I was set.

Before I arrived I was a little concerned about the minor detail that I had been told that it got a little cold in Canada in winter, and this was something that I was not really used to, nor particularly prepared for. So I begged & borrowed a few items I figured might be useful, and thought positive thoughts. And Lisa was kind enough to give me a picket thermometer for xmas so I would know just how cold it was. This concern was needless. The temperatures were pretty balmy for most of the time, even reaching -5 a few times during the day. This was quite warm enough when trying to get a team of dogs to do as you wanted.

Of course it did drop to a slightly cooler temperature at night. This was not a problem though, as even when we were sleeping in a tent while dog sledding, these were outfitted with fire places & would therefore remain pretty much above freezing all night. On the night that I decided to forgo the tent & sleep outside under the stars in a sleeping bag, while the air was -22 or so, Pat was a whole pile warmer than nights sleeping in a dive bag in a field of daisies or a slightly windy dock in Weymouth. It seems that preparation is everything in sleeping out. Must remember that. And in answer to your question, it seemed like a good idea at the time. All of the times. And if you haven’t done it, don’t knock it. And you haven’t done it.

The cold weather did have some hazards though. And this is a nasty one. While the ice that is pretty much everywhere is ok with a little luck & standard rubber soled shoes, it becomes a whole new ball game when wearing leather soled dress shoes (I was going to a wedding remember?). This I discovered about two steps after I encountered said ice while wearing said shoes. Though I am not sure if the second step could really be counted as such, it was more of a flailing. Curiously the famous Canadian politeness & friendliness was conspicuously absent on this occasion as Leanne, a friend of Brendas I had met on our previous trip laughed at me. A lot.

Being made aware that leather and ice have a friction co-efficient only dreamed of by oil manufacturers made some difference to the success of walking in such a combination, but it was still somewhat erratic. What was curious though is that the addition of alcohol to the ice and leather combination made the progress a whole pile easier. Maybe someone is trying to tell me something. I would never have thought that there would be so many fruitful applications for that particular trio.

I am sure that a couple of you are thinking “what is ski joring & how dumb did Pat have to be to try that one?” Well the answers are being towed on cross country skis by Huskies & no more than usual. It is, as it sounds, something like water skiing, which I can do, so I reasoned that it could not be that difficult. Except of course that when water skiing you do not have to contend with trees, hills, rocks, steep banks, ice or if you were really lucky, combinations of the above. Unless of course you get it really wrong. These are apparently fairly normal features of cross country skiing, which I was only vaguely aware existed until I got to Canada. This of course resulted in me spending some time lying face down on the ground figuring out how to get my skis under me & pointing in the forward direction. This wasn’t too bad though, as the snow was generally pretty soft & the dogs were happy to treat these as sniff around the tree breaks.

While the ski joring was pretty good, the dog sledding was best. Imagine a team of 5 dogs who know that it is time for walkies tied to the front of a sled. Throw in a the normal features of cross country skiing mentioned above. Stand Pat on the back of the sled. Stand back.

The sled of course can be steered. Mostly by the dogs. Where they run, the sled follows. Partially by divine assistance, and least of all by me twisting the sled to attempt to coax it to steer away from whatever particular hazard the dogs had run around, and the sled was running towards. There did seem to be a knack to it though, and as the time went on I appeared to receive a little more attention from whatever divinity it is that looks over me.

Having mastered the basics, or at least been told the basics, we shot off up hills, down hills, along river valleys, all around places with just us & the dogs. And after the dogs had been running for a bit they even stopped barking. Sweet. The perfect antidote to that sprawling disease called London. And by the end of it, Jeff had managed to convince me that a team of dogs is a more fun way to bugger about in the countryside than a noisy snow mobile. Looking back, I dunno how it happened, but it did.

Ice climbing. This involves tying sharp pointy things to your feet & with the additional aid of two nice sharp axes, climbing up a shear, slippery wall of ice. Jay (my guide) assured me that it was perfectly safe though. Actually, thinking about it, he didn’t, he just had me sign a liability disclaimer. It was great though, and the focus on where is the best place to put your next foot or axe was a pretty good distraction from the little detail that you were getting a reasonable distance above the ground. Mostly. And Jay, possibly as he was being paid to teach me, did not laugh at me when I cocked things up, and even managed to keep most of his winces pretty discrete.

If you want to try it, they are making a pretty impressive ice wall at Shunda Creek hostel, which is a pretty good spot to spend a few days even if you intend to keep your feet on the ground. And thanks for the meal Tamara, it was great.

However good Shunda Creek was, it was here that the cold hit me first and worst. There I was, relaxing in the hot tub on Xmas evening, after a full days ice climbing, and decided that a cigar & drink would top off the day just fine. Alas I found that my Zippo did not want to work. It appears that a mere -15 is cold enough to stop them from working. Shocking isn’t it? But never fear, as resourceful as I am, I managed to hunt down some matches, which performed rather better. But I tell, you life is a struggle at times.

At this point I had better mention the wedding, because 50% of the people who ask me about my trip ask “how was the wedding?” It was good. But I know that is not going to be enough. Brenda (the bride remember), looked fabulous, all went off without any noticeable problems, and a good time was had by all. It was good to catch up with people I had met on the last trip & meet a few more. Thanks for inviting me.

At the wedding, thoughts turned to what I was going to do for the few days between the wedding & me flying out. At this point Leanne showed that she had not gained her “moderately evil” moniker for simply laughing at people wearing slippery shoes. She heard that I had never snow boarded before & would be flying out in a couple of days so said “hey lets go snow boarding in Banff”. I, ever cautious, said “cool, ok”. And off we went.

As I have not been skiing in quite some time, it had never seemed necessary to purchase a ski jacket. And I did not manage to borrow one for the trip, and here I was going boarding. This was solved by the simple application of a number of layers of clothing, and ignoring certain evil people laughing about how cold they thought I would be. However I had a plan. Every time I wiped out my woolen jersey got an extra coating of snow and ice, and in a short amount of time, these formed a nice windproof barrier on the outside of my jersey & thus kept me warm during the fastest runs. Cunning eh?

The Sunshine resort in Banff has a deal where you got a lift pass, board rental & introductory lessons for about the same price as the lift pass & board hire. This seemed like a good idea, so I was off. Unfortunately it was not. The lessons were based on the liability insurance school of teaching. At lunchtime I found that by the end of the day they aimed to have us making turns on the bunny slopes. Probably. This contrasted somewhat with my usual approach to learning such things. I am a firm believer that these balance activities are less hard the faster you go. There is a slight offset, in that the ground becomes harder the faster you go, but I had travel insurance.

Thoroughly bored, and having figured out the basics of turning by heading straight down the bunny slope a couple of times, I was looking for more. At that point Leanne came along and saw that she was not likely to get too many good laughs by watching me on the bunny slopes. So she did the generous thing and offered to show me how it is done on the way down a real hill, all for the small price of having her laugh at me. I am used to people laughing at me as I attempt activities involving grace and coordination, so it seemed a small price to pay.

On the way up the lift Leanne, being the good teacher, shared a few secrets about surviving ski lift accidents. Although these pretty much boiled down to “if things start to go horribly wrong, bail”. Not exactly the most inspiring advice. I also learnt that the ambulances in Canada were not free, and so if I hurt myself horribly & required their services, I would have to pay for them. Needless to say, this concerned me somewhat, especially when Leanne claimed not to know the location of the nearest hospital. Although I suspect that it was more likely that she did know, but figured that hauling me off to hospital would waste the rest of her days boarding. I would have waited Leanne.

Anyway, Leanne shared with me the essentials of snow boarding. Mainly that it is the art of falling down a mountain attached to a plank. The trick though is to make the board do most of the falling, while you stand on top of it. This looks much cooler, and is less painful than the other way around. The other essential of snow boarding is that as you have your feet tied to the board, you can pretty much fall on your bum or your face. I generally ended up on my bum, and by the end of the day, I was somewhat concerned about the prospect of a 7 hour flight home the next day. But it was a damned good day, spoiled only by the prospect that I was going to have to go home & then to work the next day.

But that was Canada, a special thanks to Brenda & Larry for inviting me to their wedding, Jeff & Jill of Klondike Ventures for the great times with their dogs, Jay Banks for taking me ice climbing, Tamara at Shunda Creek for running a great place, Leanne for her boarding lessons & driving me around Yvonne for a place to stay & dropping me to the airport (again) & everyone else for making me feel at home. It is a great place, I will be back (better change your addresses guys!).

Alas all good things must come to an end, it was time to go to work & start getting the next trip sorted.

Before we get too carried away about this little tale, there needs to be a bit of a warning & an explanation. First the warning. Mum, you don’t want to read this, but if you do, it is all lies. Thinking about it, if you are easily bored, you probably don’t want to read it either.

And for the explanation. Why Jersey? People look at me funny when I said I was going to Jersey & said why. Well the reasons are many & simple. It is not London, it is an island & therefore inherently cooler than the UK. Before you get started on the state of my geography, the UK is not an island. You can walk to the UK from Europe (thousands do), it is part of Europe in all but a strict cartographic sense. Also I got some really cheap tickets for the ferry.

The plan was simple, nothing could go wrong. Catch up with some friends at the pub, catch the train, catch the ferry, buy all the duty free booze you carry. We got to the train station with enough time so that there was no hurry, but not too much that we missed too much of that drinking time. Sweet.

Things started to go less well at this point. The dude at the train station had no knowledge of the 10:30 train to Weymouth, & reckoned that the last one went at 8:30. I blamed Tom, for being too stupid to be able to read a train timetable. Rather unfairly, he tried to pass the buck to the train company for changing the timetable without notice, putting incorrect information on the website, or most gallingly of all, me, as he claimed that as I was there when he was checking the times, I should have checked his maths (am I supposed to do everything?)

Anyway, after ascertaining that no train was arriving from anywhere within a time which would allow us to catch our ferry the next morning, we decided that the only option would be to catch the train to the place nearest & figure the rest out from there. This closest station happened to be Poole, a mere 30 miles (or so) from Weymouth.

So we arrived in Poole at 1:30 (yes am) & after spending 1/2 an hour walking around in a nice 1/2 circle, we found signs that pointed to places on the way to Weymouth. So off we went. We got lucky, and after about 1/2 an hour or so of walking we managed to hitch a ride a few miles up the road. Then we started walking again. At this point a number of things were remarked, like how nice we were sure the scenery was here, how narrow these roads were & how poorly designed for pedestrians & NOT how lucky we were that it was not raining. Ill prepared we may have been but stupid we were not.

We did start to remark that distances were somewhat further when they were in imperial measurements, and mooted that they should change all of the signs to kilometers so we didn’t have so far to walk.

But someone was smiling on us. Some dude who muttered a lot decided that he should pick up 2 people who were hitching at 4am in the middle of nowhere. Community care of people who should be in mental institutions has some benefits I guess. But after a while of uh huhing to his muttering, we finally reached Weymouth & he dropped us off.

So we wandered to the ferry terminal & had a little nap.

Arriving in Jersey (after another little nap) we did the usual – wandered around the shops, had a look at some of the stuff in town & then decided “lets rent a car”. So we rented the cheapest car we could find at the first cheap & dodgy rental place we came to. It was an 850cc clone of a car with a name I had never heard of, and previously would not have beleived would sell in the western world. But enough dissing the car. I got to drive it cause the rental agreement said only I could (bad luck Tom). Tom got to hang on. For a poxy little car it had pretty good acceleration & revved nice and freely (must have been cause it was red). And only started to smell like it was on fire occasionally & only then after the more fun bits.

But this allowed us to wander all around the island, take in the sights (although for some reason Tom wasn’t that interested in them & kept putting his hand over his eyes). We found nice mostly deserted beaches, lots of cool castles, a vineyard with a distillery (it was calling to me). All and all a nice cruise around the island on a sunny day. And then it was time to head back to Weymouth, where after arriving at 1:30 we checked into our seaside accomodation. This being a budget trip, was one of the more out of sight docks that adorn the town. I slept fine, but Tom complained more. Hey Tom, next time bring a sleeping bag. At about 6 Tom decided that as he was cold awake and bored, the only reasonable action to take was to wake up the warm, asleep and (previously) happy Pat. Last time you get invited anywhere Tom.

Then it was time to catch that train & head off home.

So, to ensure you don’t fall into the same traps as I did, the lessons learnt from the weekend are:

30 miles is a long way when you are walking.

Jersey is a nice place to go to

Red cars do go faster

You can hitch a ride at 4am, it just takes a while

Tom can’t read train timetables.

Duty free on a 3 hour ferry trip is a great concept.

If any of you care, Tom insisted that he get an opportunity to put his lessons learnt for the weekend. Get your own website dude. But anyway, here they are:

If Pat thinks something is a good idea it isn’t.

Dunno what he means by that, but it kept him happy.

Barcelona is a pretty cool city. Warm, sunny, friendly people who are not trying to sell you perfume, great architecture, what more could you want? Other than a few less English tourists, but you can’t have everything.

Well what I would have liked would have been a stomach which had not decided to go on strike. This was either the result of something I ate in Egypt, or on the Iberia flight from there. Given the timing, it was more likely the latter. An airline that is nasty enough to not let you listen to your walkman is capable of anything.

This was a bit of a bugger and meant that it took that bit longer to go and visit things, and they couldn’t be too far from a toilet.

But Barcelona was a good place to be feeling poorly, and I was still able to do most of the usual things, looking at the buildings designed by a dude who couldn’t draw straight lines, that sort of thing. But despite his obvious lack of basic drafting tools like rulers, this Gaudi guy was pretty switched on. Designing a bench made out of bits of ceramic tile that as well as looking cool is actually comfortable to sit on is pretty impressive.

Of course, like everyone else, I went to see the worlds most visited construction site, and I have to say that it is pretty impressive. What is more impressive is the fact that while they have been working on it for over 100 years, they still have another 30 or so to go. And they haven’t built the big towers yet.

One minor drawback to Barcelona was the timing. When I was there, it was coming up to St Georges Day. It appears that St George is the patron saint of everywhere in Europe which hates dragons. But I also learnt that the story taught to us on our side of the world is not strictly the whole story. Before slaying the dragon from his mighty steed, he deafened it and herded it into favourable ground by throwing around more explosives than was used to dig the Suez canal. The Spaniads, as this is such an important event to them, faithfully re-enact the event in its entirety. Except for the dragon and the might steed bit, because they are hard to come by. But to make up for it they use more fireworks.

At this point I feel I should be writing some kind of summary of inspiring thought at the end, but there is not really a lot to say, other than it was time to go home & get a job (which took slightly under 24 hours) and get some money back into that bank account.

The trip has come to an end

After the disappointment in Bahrain, I decided that it would be a good idea to rock down to Alex pronto to make sure that I wasn’t stuck again.

The weather gods obviously were feeling that they had been a bit harsh, and I was able to go diving in Alex without any weather delays. Alex has been around for a while, and because of that, and the assistance of the geology gods, has a few interesting things under the sea.

Around 1000 AD, the locals were getting a bit worried that they were going to get to host a home game of the crusades. So to make things that little bit more difficult for the away team, they decided to get a whole lot of those columns and things that were lying about and drop them in all of the little beaches where it would be easiest to land a boat full of crusaders.

Things were pretty quiet for about 400 years. Then it was noisy. Probably very noisy, and peoples worlds were rocked. Literally. In more than one way. There was a bit of an earthquake. This made the lighthouse, all 100m of it, fall down. It also dropped the level of the land in the area drop by 6 or so meters. This meant that as well as all of the columns and such scattered around to greet the crusaders, a reasonable portion of the city, including the ruins of the queens palace, was now under the sea.

Some people have said that there are easier ways of going to look at ruins than strapping 25kg of kit, including a tin can filled with 3000psi of air to your back. But these reports are often unreliable, and besides, I had the kit with me, and had not had a dive in over a week, so down I went. And besides, I have never seen real ruins before, so it isn’t the sort of thing you want to miss.

Now you are going to be wondering what they were like. I am not sure. They were pretty cool. These old people were big on columns. Very big. Those big pink granite blocks down there came from Aswan (way south), and then from way up there when it was part of the lighthouse. Those cobbles were part of the queens courtyard, and that was the queens wharf. There was some seriously old stuff down there.

But despite being very old and cool, they were, well, kindof ruined. They just weren’t what they used to be. With a sense of romance and imagination you could imagine what it must have been like here in the heyday of the city. But romance and imagination rarely inflict themselves upon me.

But there were some pretty cool points. In the middle of Alex harbour there is a WW2 aircraft. It crash landed right on the courtyard and ended up a bit over a meter from the base of a column. In other places, the plane would be the dive, but in Alex they don’t even know what sort it is. It was also pretty ironic that lots of the artefacts that we were looking at were simply rubbish. And of course besides the 2000 year old rubbish there was early 21st century rubbish. Though I think in another 1000 years the amphoras will still look cooler than the coke bottles.

Other things about the dive were less thought provoking. There was a very distinct layer of very murky water on the surface. At 6m the visibility was pretty good, but at 3, you couldn’t see your hand if you stretched your arm out. Now the nice easy explanation for this is that it is simply the silt laden waters of the Nile, before they have been able to mix with the salt water of the Med. I did not confirm that this was the case, as I find that sometimes optimism works best if it is not made to compete with cynicism and questions about such matters as sewerage treatment facilities in developing nations.

So after diving in Alex, it was back to Cairo where such famous attractions as Cairo taxi drivers, perfume sellers, the pyramids, camels, the Egyptian museum and papyrus merchants awaited. As well as a few less famous ones.

I was fast learning that in Egypt your scam sensors need to be operating at least 150%. These people have had 2000 years of experience with fleecing tourists. Unfortunately all of the best comeones start with people being friendly. Though some of locals are refreshingly bad. Just when I had decided that other than “Taxi, want a taxi?”, “hey, nice shirt (it was one of my white(ish) t shirts)” was the worst comeone line I had heard, along came one which made them look good. “You walk like an Egyptian”.

Most of them were pretty good though. While attempting to cross the street, I suddenly found myself inside a perfume shop, drinking coffee with a man who had married a Kiwi, and used to live in London, and had a shop in Auckland. It seems that this is the standard career path for an Egyptian perfume seller, as they all had a similar story. And after it became apparent that you really were not the perfume buying type, it was lucky that they had a brother/cousin/uncle who owned a papyrus shop that you just had to visit. Beam me up Scottie, I am in trouble down here.

But they were pretty friendly though. One guy was kind enough to stop me getting on a big flash new airconditioned bus, which stopped quite a way from the pyramids, to take me on a great journey including one local bus, two microbuses (like minivans, but with less doors and more people) which was cheaper, more fun, and lead directly to the pyramids. Or at least directly to his brother/cousin/uncles camel stable, where I was able to rent a camel for my trip around the pyramids. Wasn’t that nice of him?

For those of you who were wondering, yes, the pyramids do look as big in real life as in the pictures, but no the sphinx doesn’t. And for something that big, the pyramids really shouldn’t be able to jump out like they do. One minute you will be minding your own business, the next minute, there will be some big triangles in the way. And personally the navigation beacons for alien spaceships ideas sound a whole lot more reasonable than those screwy tomb theories. I mean who is going to go to all of the effort make 2.5 million big blocks of stone, then pile them up, just to be buried below a triangle? It just isn’t credible. And despite being one of the biggest cliches around, viewing said triangles from the collection of random movements on legs known as a camel sure beats walking.

But thankfully, not all of the people you meet in Egypt want to sell you things. While I was trying to decipher the Metro map, I met a nice young man who wanted to marry a western woman, and decided that I could help him. Why, he decided I could help him I am not sure. But he also decided that the best way to ensure that I helped him was to impress upon me the advantages of Egyptian men in general, and him in particular, in matters of the bed. In some detail. On the tube. Alas I wasn’t able to help him as we married my youngest sister off last month, but if any of you girls are interested, I am sure I have his email address around here somewhere.

No visit to Cairo would be complete without a taxi driver story. Mine is as follows. I grab a cab to go to the airport. I manage to beat off the person who attempts to negotiate a higher fare for the driver and claim his cut. We then set off. After a short distance he asks if I smoke, or if I mind him smoking. I reply no to both, having spent too much time around Jen to object to the latter, but not enough to say less to the former. He pulls out a cigarette, which remains unlit. This confuses me a little, but what do I care? A little while later we get onto the freeway and are driving along when he starts talking to the person in the bus beside him. I am reminded of the scene in Speed, where they are trying to warn the bus not to drop below 50. The reason for the conversation soon becomes clear. At the next intersection the taxi driver next to us, after a similar exchange (albeit one which takes place while stationary), produces a box of matches, which are then passed back and forwards allowing my driver to finally get his smoke.

Egypt did however leave me with one unanswered question, which if solved, would give great happiness to the world. Why is it that the odds of remembering that the blue colour on the tap does not mean that it is cold is inversely related to your need for a hot shower?

That, and what is it about Iberia planes which makes them the only airline I have ever flown on where they don’t let you play your discman. Not a good introduction to Spanish hospitality…

went to Bahrain to go pearl diving. You know, go diving, grab oysters, open oysters, find pearls. Simple huh, and with the promise of riches beyond dreams (or was I reading too much into the advertising there?), it has to be a winner.

So I fly in to Bahrain on a lovely summers day. Hot and calm. Crap weather to be wandering around a city with a pile of luggage looking for cheap digs, but great weather for diving. So I get myself said digs, and cruise off to the dive shop, where I say “I am here, take me diving”. And they say “no worries mate (Robin – the dive shop chick was an Aussie, so she did actually say that), we will do the course, and the forecast for tomorrow is looking a bit marginal, but if not, then the next day”.

This process repeated. The whole week I was there, there were 2 good days. The day I arrived, and the day I left. Someone, somewhere is laughing at me. Actually, considering that at least one person has read this, I reckon more than one person is laughing at me.

Despite having a holiday which primarily consisted of waiting to go diving tomorrow, Bahrain is a pretty interesting place to do it in. So I had fun, because the ones in charge of the weather (do they do the traffic lights too?) don’t have a monopoly on having a few laughs. And of course I try my best to spread joy and merriment in peoples lives. This was helped by the crew at the dive shop who reckoned that they should do their best to make sure I had a good time, which was pretty cool, thanks.

So instead of diving, I lapped up some of the culture to be had in Bahrain. If you have never been to a Moslem girlie bar (yes there is such a thing), it is something you must do at least once, at least it is if you are masochistic. The show is even less spectacular than you would imagine, but I learnt that Fosters makes a no alcohol beer (but can it taste any worse?). Those Saudis watching the show wouldn’t be drinking alcohol would they? The fact that shows as bad as that one do not only survive, but flourish, is one of the best arguments that I have seen that extreme rules about what one may and may not wear are a bad idea.

Though not all of the woman in Bahrain seemed to follow the Islamic clothing rules. The ones who hung around my hotel speaking Russian especially. They made an interesting contrast to the people who decided that the modesty required of Islamic women extended to having to wear gloves. Interestingly for a country where the women are covered from head to toe, there are a lot of jewellery shops.

Alas, even the airlines were not cooperating, because the flights to Cairo were all full, so I couldn’t extend my time there and had to leave for Egypt as planned. Bugger.

I thought that you might like to get the thoughts of someone with talent & skills on Aussie, rather than just mine, so I attached this.

The Confusing Country

by Douglas Adams

Australia is a very confusing place, taking up a large amount of the bottom half of the planet. It is recognisable from orbit because of many unusual features, including what at first looks like an enormous bite taken out of its southern edge; a wall of sheer cliffs which plunge deep into the girting sea. Geologists assure us that this is simply an accident of geomorphology and plate tectonics, but they still call it the “Great Australian Bight” proving that not only are they covering up a more frightening theory, but they can’t spell either.

The first of the confusing things about Australia is the status of the place. Where other land masses and sovereign lands are classified as either continent, island, or country, Australia is considered all three. Typically, it is unique in this.

The second confusing thing about Australia are the animals. They can be divided into three categories: Poisonous, Odd, and Sheep. It is true that of the 10 most poisonous arachnids on the planet, Australia has 9 of them.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that of the 9 most poisonous arachnids, Australia has all of them. However, there are curiously few snakes, possibly because the spiders have killed them all. But even the spiders won’t go near the sea. Any visitors should be careful to check inside boots (before putting them on) under toilet seats (before sitting down) and generally everywhere else. A stick is very useful for this task.

Strangely, it tends to be the second class of animals (the Odd) that are more dangerous. The creature that kills the most people each year is the common Wombat. It is nearly as ridiculous as its name, and spends its life digging holes in the ground in which it hides. During the night it comes out to eat worms and grubs. The wombat kills people in two ways: First, the animal is indestructible. Digging holes in the hard Australian clay builds muscles that outclass Olympic weightlifters. At night, they often wander the roads. Semi-trailers (Road Trains) have hit them at high speed, with all 9 wheels on one side, and this merely makes them very annoyed. They express this by snorting, glaring, and walking away. Alas, to smaller cars, the wombat becomes an asymmetrical launching pad, with results that can be imagined, but not adequately described.

The second way the wombat kills people relates to its burrowing behaviour. If a person happens to put their hand down a Wombat hole, the Wombat will feel the disturbance and think “Ho! My hole is collapsing!” at which it will brace its muscled legs and push up against the roof of its burrow with incredible force, to prevent its collapse. Any unfortunate hand will be crushed, and attempts to withdraw will cause the Wombat to simply bear down harder. The unfortunate will then bleed to death through their crushed hand as the wombat prevents him from seeking assistance. This is considered the third most embarrassing known way to die, and Australians don’t talk about it much.

At this point, we would like to mention the Platypus,estranged relative of the mammal, which has a duck-bill, otter’s tail, webbed feet, lays eggs, detects its aquatic prey in the same way as the electric eel, and has venomous barbs attached to its hind legs, thus combining all ‘typical’ Australian attributes into a single improbable creature.

The last confusing thing about Australia is the inhabitants. First, a short history: Some time around 40,000 years ago,some people arrived in boats from the north. They ate all the available food, and lot of them died. The ones that survived learned respect for the balance of nature, man’s proper place in the scheme of things, and spiders. They settled in, and spent a lot of the intervening time making up strange stories.

Then, around 200 years ago, Europeans arrived in boats from the north. More accurately, European convicts were sent, with a few deranged and stupid people in charge. They tried to plant their crops in Autumn(failing to take account of the reversal of the seasons when moving from the top half of
the planet to the bottom), ate all their food, and a lot of them died.

About then the sheep arrived, and have been treasured ever since.

It is interesting to note here that the Europeans always consider themselves vastly superior to any other race they encounter, since they can lie, cheat, steal, and litigate (marks of a civilised culture they say),whereas all the Aboriginals can do is happily survive being left in the middle of a vast red-hot desert, equipped with a stick.

Eventually, the new lot of people stopped being Europeans on Extended Holiday and became Australians. The changes are subtle, but deep, caused by the mind-stretching expanses of nothingness and eerie quiet, where a person can sit perfectly still and look deep inside themselves to the core of their essence, their reasons for being, and the necessity of checking inside your boots every morning for fatal surprises. They also picked up the most finely tuned sense of irony in the world, and the Aboriginal gift for making up stories. Be warned.

There is also the matter of the beaches.

Australian beaches are simply the nicest and best in the entire world. Although anyone actually venturing into the sea will have to contend with sharks, stinging jellyfish, stonefish (a fish which sits on the bottom of the sea, pretends to be a rock, and has venomous barbs sticking out of its back that will kill just from the pain) and surfboarders. However, watching a beach sunset is worth the risk.

As a result of all this hardship, dirt, thirst, and wombats, you would expect Australians to be a dour lot. Instead, they are genial, jolly, cheerful, and always willing to share a kind word with a stranger, unless they are an American. Faced with insurmountable odds and impossible problems, they smile disarmingly and look for a stick. Major engineering feats have been performed with sheets of corrugated iron, string, and mud.

Alone of all the races on earth, they seem to be free from the ‘Grass is Greener on the other side of the fence’ syndrome, and roundly proclaim that Australia is, in fact, the other side of that fence. They call the land “Oz”, “Godzone” (a verbal contraction of “God’s Own Country”) and “Best bloody place on earth, bar none, strewth.” The irritating thing about this is they may be right.

There are some traps for the unsuspecting traveller, though.

Do not under any circumstances suggest that the beer is imperfect, unless you are comparing it to another kind of Australian beer.

Do not wear a Hawaiian shirt. Religion and Politics are safe topics of conversation (Australians don’t care too much about either) but Sport is a minefield.

The only correct answer to “So, howdya’ like our country, eh?” is “Best{insert your own regional swear word here} country in the world!”.

It is very likely that, on arriving, some cheerful Australians will ‘adopt’ you, and on your first night, and take you to a pub where Australian Beer is served. Despite the obvious danger, do not refuse. It is a form of initiation rite. You will wake up late the next day with an astonishing hangover, a foul-taste in your mouth, and wearing strange clothes. Your hosts will usually make sure you get home, and waive off any legal difficulties with “It’s his first time in Australia, so we took him to the pub.”, to which the policeman will sagely nod and close his notebook. Be sure to tell the story of these events to every other Australian you encounter, adding new embellishments at every stage, and noting how strong the beer was. Thus you will be accepted into this unique culture.

Most Australians are now urban dwellers, having discovered the primary use of electricity, which is air-conditioning and refrigerators.

Typical Australian sayings

“G’Day!”

“It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”

“She’ll be right.”

“And down from Kosiusko, where the pine clad ridges raise their torn and rugged battlements on high, where the air is clear is crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze at midnight in the cold and frosty sky. And where, around the overflow, the reed beds sweep and sway to the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide. The Man from Snowy River is a household word today, and the stockmen tell the story of his ride.”

Tips to Surviving Australia

Don’t ever put your hand down a hole for any reason whatsoever.

We mean it.

The beer is stronger than you think, regardless of how strong you think it is.

Always carry a stick.

Air-conditioning.

Do not attempt to use Australian slang, unless you are a trained linguist and good in a fistfight.

Thick socks.

Take good maps. Stopping to ask directions only works when there are people nearby.

If you leave the urban areas, carry several litres of water with you at all times, or you will die.

Even in the most embellished stories told by Australians, there is always a core of truth that it is unwise to ignore.

See Also: “Deserts: How to die in them”, “The Stick: Second most useful thing ever” and “Poisonous and Venomous arachnids, insects, animals, trees, shrubs, fish and sheep of Australia, volumes 1-42″

For those of you who have never been to West Australia, it is big. Very big. Even before the plane had reached the airport, it gave off this feeling of a city with all of the space in the world, and no real need to go to any extreme measures to squeeze things in. The reason for this was to become immediately apparent.

After the obligatory tour of the sights of Perth, with a few wineries & such thrown in for good measure, it was time to pop up the coast to Exmouth (1300km up the coast), where we had a date with some sharks. The trip up made the reason why Perth has the spread out feeling very clear. WA is big enough to fit all of Texas, NZ, the UK, Ireland and Japan inside. Unfortunately it doesn’t have the topography of these countries. Not so much none, but what is there is very spread out. It is not awe inspiringly flat like Alberta, but had things that when they grow up, could be called hills. That and just enough curves in the road to keep that steering wheel from becoming decorative only and hide the occasional traffic cop (bugger).

The impression it gave was that when they were designing the planet, Australia got left till last and Slartibartfast had to stretch an islands worth of topography to a whole continent. And with plains being so expensive to get right, it was easier just to use what was left in the bucket.

On the widelife stakes, there were a lot of kangaroos (it is Australia after all). Almost all of these were very tired and were sleeping on the side of the road. We were to discover why this was the case. Australian wildlife has a thing for headlights. They just love to stand and watch them come closer. While this behaviour is not a problem with possums, and is probably an advantage, the trait becomes a little more of a concern when exhibited by slightly larger animals.

We resolved that we should avoid the attentions of said wildlife by not driving at night. Unfortunately this measure was not sufficient. We headed off for an early start one morning, and quickly decided that we would have been better off staying in bed. Half of the kangaroos in Australia had taken up station along the side of the road during the night and were waiting for us. As we drove past they would launch themselves the car. A number of theories were advanced for this behaviour. The bright lights one was out, as our headlights were off. Perhaps they were all very depressed. More subversive was the rumours that the military had trained them all during WW2 to recognise Japanese vehicles and throw themselves into them, just slowing the advance of any Japanese invasion. However this was dismissed as unlikely as the ability to distinguish cars based on the name on it seems to be beyond 50% of the human population, let alone kangaroos. It was also possible that by coincidence they all had to get to the road just as we arrived (why did the roo cross the street?…). Or maybe they are just dumber than sheep.

Other than that, there was a huge variation in plant life. The further north we got, the small trees made way for smaller shrubs. Mind you the rivers changed from wide things with water in them to wide things with no shrubs. Then we came to Lake Cameron.

Lake Cameron

But what about all of the interesting little towns up the coast, I hear you say. Well there aren’t any. There are bugger all uninteresting ones too. As proof, I have exhibit A:

Aussie Road Sign

Wooramel and the Overlander are roadhouses. They sell petrol and food and stuff. And as you would expect, being the only thing for 150 kilometres, they are vast. Well, you would be wrong:

Overlander

But I would not like to say that there are no interesting features in WA. Sarah said we had to go and see some stones at Hamelin Pools, so we went there. These stones have a big name I cannot remember, but are the type responsible for changing the earths atmosphere to one that is oxygen based, so I guess they are kindof cool. They are also responsible for the vast iron deposits in Aussie, so all in all, the Aussies at least should be nice to them.

But the best thing about the trip up was this:

After we crossed it, things were much better, cause everyone knows that the tropics are much cooler places to hang around than the rest of the world.

For those of you who were wondering by now what exactly prompted us to drive to Exmouth, it was whale sharks. These are big sharks of the non big teeth variety, which means that you can swim with them without things getting too exciting.

We went out on the Ningaloo Blue, which was a pretty good operation. We went out, had a dive, then were snorkelling with some mantas, before being called back because they had seen a whale shark. So off we went, got to where the shark was, got in the water, and got a glimpse of a whale shark buggering off, and so got back on the boat. It seemed that today all of the whale sharks didn’t want to play. A day on a boat in the sun is a better day than one on land, but it was far from the best shark watching day.

But the Ningaloo Blue didn’t want us to go home disappointed, so they said we could come back tomorrow for free, which was pretty cool. The next day was good. The whale sharks decided to hang around. So we could swim along side them for basically as long as we wanted. This was pretty cool, but led to the observation that they were just bus sized fish, they swam in a straight line and you followed, thinking “that is a pretty big fish, but it would be more exciting if it had teeth, or could swim around corners”

After we got tired of swimming after whale sharks, it was time for lunch. This was just winding down when a few mantas arrived. Torn between the choice of lunch and mantas, I briefly considered taking my sandwich with me, before rejecting it as impractical because I would have my snorkel in my mouth. So I ate quickly and went looking for the mantas.

We had been told that the mantas were pretty shy, and that splashing, bubbles or other such things would scare them away. It soon became apparent though, that that may apply to a lot of mantas, but we had come across a school of mantas, who wanted to show off. They would fly straight towards you and veer away at the last minute, laughing at how hopeless you are in the water. There were a lot of them, and they stayed a long time. It rocked. If you get the chance, flag the whale sharks & go swim with the mantas.

Other than that, and the usual stuff of swimming on pretty much deserted tropical beaches, camping beside said beaches until we had to go. Sarah had to go to work, and I had to leave what is probably the second best country (despite the lack of topography) in the world because I had to make my fortune in Bahrain

Well, some of you, those from foreign parts most likely, will be expecting amazing tales of scenery like something out of a movie and adrenaline pumping activities. Well, I am afraid I must disappoint you.

I arrived, caught up with some mates in Auckland, my sister flew up to pick me up, together with my new brother in law, and we flew down to Tauranga. Yeah, the scenery on the flight was pretty good, but nothing better than you would expect.

So then there was the wedding thing. I have to say that my sister looked fabulous, or my mother will get upset, and I must say that both of the bridesmaids, especially Megan looked fabulous as well, or else I will get in trouble again. But even without duress they did look pretty good.

Other than that, it was a wedding. A whole pile of effort for a very short time. Sorry Mum, but you know how sentimental I am. Mind you, I cashed in big time on the brownie points for flying all the way round the world to go my sisters wedding.

Then I cruised off catching up with people. Those of you I caught up with, it was real cool. Those I didn’t, bummer dude (or dudette) , you will have to come and visit me or leave it till next time.

So that was pretty much NZ. Some of the same people. Some different. Compared to the UK, very very quiet. Bordering on dead. Is this a positive or a negative? Of that I am unsure, but it was time to move on, so off I went to Perth.

Truk, Hawaii, and lots of time on planes.

3-5 May

It is good to see you all back here ready to read another exciting instalment of my travels. The trip got off to a good start, even the tube drivers called off their strike.

However many days this is in real life was spent either on aeroplanes or in airports. I am sure that there is a place which would take longer to fly to than Truk, but I am not sure just where it would be. If you happen to figure it out, please let me know. Still it is almost on the way to that wedding.

For those of you who are not divers, or just generally do not have an excessively good knowledge of the geography of obscure parts of the Pacific, Truk is here:

Map of micronesia

If you must know, the map was kindly supplied by the CIA, but I hope they don’t mind.

The flights were as flights are. Flew over the Arctic on the way to Vancouver, saw lots of icebergs out the window, but disappointingly no polar bears. Mind you I suppose that that just goes to show how good their camouflage is. I didn’t see any penguins either, but if they had any sense they would be hiding from the polar bears, so that would explain that one.

The stop in Vancouver was just long enough to bring back fond memories from the last trip, and make me think I should have spent a bit longer there this time. Oh well. Canada, as with the European countries, is attempting to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease to its shores by the dual techniques of a slightly damp supposedly disinfected carpet and crossing their fingers really hard. Mind you it has to be better than telling everyone from blighty to bugger off & stay there until they get their shit together. That would have been annoying.

Hawaii was interesting. The airport terminal is US meets Pacific. US complexity & islands lack of signs. But luckily they skipped the US fondness for the rules & decided that the Island attitude is better. Unfortunately I had about 7 hours to kill before my flight left in the morning, so decided to crash out in the airport lounge. I forgot about the little detail that airports in the US have the metal detectors, bomb detectors etc to get there as well, and I had all my luggage. Other than the usual mild curiosity about exactly what is in my carryon bag (only a few essentials I don’t trust the airlines with), I was faced with people who cared what I had in my luggage.

This examination of my bags, and in particular my dive bag prompted a couple of interesting questions. Why is it a concern to security guards if you are carrying a stethoscope? How can a fist sized block of metal with four hoses about a metre long extending from it (also known as a regulator) be mistaken for a stethoscope? (forget the “this might be a little cold”, this is going to be bloody freezing). And would it not have been a little bit more useful to have noticed the knife that was also in the bag. Must have been that plastic sheath shielding it from the x-rays. But the security guy thought to ask if I had a dive knife, so I said yes, it is in there, so he had a fish through looking for it. At one point he was holding the knife in one hand while looking suspiciously at my torch, asking if it was the knife. Maybe he was trying to lull me into a false sense of security.

Anyway, once that they had ascertained that I was carrying a knife, and which one was the knife, they decided that I couldn’t really take it in with me. In a very mellow and low stress way of course. They could teach the guys at Chicago a couple of things. Mind you I think a quick refresher in “identifying offensive weapons 101″ might be a good idea. So I had to wander off in search of the luggage lockers, aided by some vague directions and no signs. But when I achieved this I had a moment of inspiration. On my way back, as I only have about 24 hours, starting at about 2am, I could ditch my gear and explore Hawaii unhindered for 24 hours & save money on a hostel I would hardly sleep in. Genius.

After ditching the more obvious offensive weapons in my possession, I made it back into the terminal & hung around for a while. Here I discovered that the low budget approach to Hawaii might be a necessity. The limited food shops open in the airport at 2am make London look cheap. USD5 for an icecream? I think not!

Time to get on that plane to Truk, via Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae & Ponape. All of these places were nice enough to let us get off and have a little wander for a little while without any of those annoying immigration hassles. Except for Kwajalein, because that is a US military base, and a pile less welcoming than the others.

Diving in Truk.

First I will bore you with a little history lesson, without which, the question “why Truk?” keeps popping up. Truk is a big Atoll, meaning there is a big, nice, calm harbour in the middle of the Pacific. Deep enough to get big boats in, but shallow enough that when they fail to float (more about that later), divers can still dive on them. At the end of the first world war, they were divvying up Germany’s possessions, Japan stuck up its hand and said, “what about all of those little islands out there in the middle of nowhere? Does anyone else want those?”. And so the Japanese got Truk and a number of other islands. They decided that it would make a great safe port for their ships.

During World War 2, the Yanks somehow got the idea that a massed carrier based attack on a major port was likely to be fairly effective. And so operation Hailstone was born. Unfortunately the Japanese moved all of their major battleships & carriers out a few days before the attack, but left behind a huge number of supply ships, as well as a few destroyers and such. But when the Yanks came to Smash Truk (their words), they found plenty there & sunk it.

So, we have a whole pile of WW2 wrecks in one location, in relatively easily diveable conditions, like nowhere else on the planet. That is why Truk.

The next week blurred. The daily routine you have heard before, eat, sleep, dive. The diving was fantastic, going through engine rooms with the tools & spare pistons still in place, holds with all of the supplies needed to run an army. Bicycles, planes, trucks, John Deere bulldozers, torpedoes, periscopes, bottles of sake, mines, as well as shells from about 303 size through to the big battleship size, as well as the odd ex inhabitant, as well as all the usual fish stuff – a few sharks, nice corals etc. Still, it was not a place to go if you have any of those irrational fears about the dark, confined spaces or unexploded munitions. Still, unless you start bringing the stuff to the surface, they tell us it is not too likely to go off. That and I got my 100th dive in on a nice old Emily flying boat. Nice dive that.

We also had some below water entertainment, courtesy of one of the other liveaboard operators. Usually we avoided wrecks that any of the other operators were on, cause there are plenty of them out there, and we could. But the morning we went out to the San Francisco Maru, the Truk Aggressor was anchored to her, and cause the San Fran is a deep one, it was then or not, so we had to deal with the hassle of other divers on the wreck.

Anyway, we dropped down to the San Francisco, had a look at the tanks, the bow holds full of mines, the usual stuff. The observant of you may have remembered that I said that the Agressor was anchored to the wreck. They had sent down a diver to tie their 132ft long ship to the bow of the nearly 60 year old war wreck that is their livelihood. Me, I reckon that it cannot be good for the wreck, and once the wrecks break up, the divers will go. That and the little detail that the bow is filled with munitions which are also nearly 60 years old, unexploded and definitely still live, though a little unstable, would make me find somewhere else to anchor, but maybe I am just being a little silly.

One of the best things about the trip was our boat, the Thorfinn. The Thorfinn is an ex Norwegian whaler with a steam engine, none of this diesel stuff, except for the generator. This meant that after diving through the engine rooms of the wrecks, we were able to go down & see how they looked when they were working. Lance (captain & owner) seems to like his baby & didn’t seem to mind all of our questions about how it worked. All of the boys on board had a great time, and that was even before storytime started.

Alas the week came to an end, and we had to leave.

Hawaii

I had a day to kill in Hawaii. I figured that I shouldn’t blow my budget in the first week, and quickly realised that Hawaii looked to be very capable of doing that. So I wandered to Pearl Harbour, and had a bit of a look at the Arizona Memorial, found out that all the Japanese had really achieved was sinking a few obsolete old clunkers, most of which were salvaged & back in action shortly anyway, and really pissing off the States. Lots of the important targets were missed entirely. Doop.

Other than that, Hawaii seemed interesting. Waikiki is ok, but there is not a lot of point in making a mediocre beach.

After not a whole pile of time I was back on that plane again outta there.

A little while ago I was informed that my sister was getting married & that my presence was required. So I set about determining the optimum route to get there and back. It goes something like this:

Truk

NZ

Aussie

Bahrain

Egypt

Barcelona

Home(bugger)

Hell of a way to get to Tauranga, but it seems you just can’t get direct flights these days. Bummer eh?

I will spare you most of the hassles I had with travel agents I faced in actually booking the trip, but some were just too good. There was the agent who informed me that I could not fly to Truk from London. Or Auckland to Bahrain, or anywhere but London to Auckland. There was the woman from Flightcentre (whose motto is “Lowest airfares guaranteed -provided you tell us what they are first”), who when I complained that one of her workmates had not called me back as promised, looked at my itinerary & said “I can see why”. Me, all I could see was a fair swag of commission going their way. And there was Trailfinders, who after taking a week and 3 phone calls to mail me an itinerary, suggested that it would be best if they mailed the tickets to me 7 days before departure.