THE GREEK ISLES – October 2012

 

Back to Istanbul

It was only this time last year that Huckleberry B and I spent a short time in Istanbul, after our pilgrimage to Gallipoli. However, we really did not see the city.

Our stay would again be short. However, on this occasion, our day in the Turkey’s largest city will remain long in our memory.

For starters, Huck B had arranged for us to stay at a charming little hotel – the Neorion – in Istanbul’s old city. Unlike our hotel last year, which stood along a reasonably wide boulevard in the central business district, the Neorion was nestled in a nondescript laneway amongst the maze of narrow streets which meandered down from the Hagia Sophia Mosque to the shore of the Bosphorus. As part of the old city, both the small hotel and the location boasted genuine character.

What made our day in Istanbul so special, however was the time we spent with our friend, F, who had returned to Turkey for several months to finalize the affairs of her late husband.

We met F at the ferry wharf and, after hugs all around, set off on a delightful ride across the Bosphorus. Never has the journey from Europe to Asia been so easy and so short. It was lovely to sit on the benches on the outside of the ferry and watch the expanse of Istanbul drift by, its hills covered by small dwellings punctuated by the domes of a dozen or more mosques with their minarets reaching for the heavens.

Before long we were joined by F’s sister, B, and it was off for a leisurely lunch at a fish restaurant by the ocean. Unfortunately, getting to the leisure of the lunch was less than leisurely. If there is one thing about Istanbul which has not changed it’s the traffic. Getting anywhere on Istanbul’s roads is traumatic. We have never seen such smothering congestion. For much of the time, it is thrilling to achieve a walking pace. For the majority of the time, our vehicle was stationary.

To make matters worse, on this particular journey, our taxi driver was not sure of the exact location of the restaurant for which we were looking. He would stop periodically and stick his head out the window to ask somebody strolling by for directions. Invariably, the helpful individual would point in a direction opposite to our travel and in contradiction to the last helpful individual.

Happily, we finally found our restaurant and sat down to a spread of mezze followed by some delicious fresh fish. The location was lovely. Adjacent to a marina and overlooking the ocean, we had the place much to ourselves.

After lunch, we strolled out to the main road to look for a taxi. However, to our surprise, we were greeted, instead, by a slim Cavalier King Charles spaniel trotting happily towards us with her master. Huckleberry B and I instinctively smiled and waved at the charming little dog. Noticing this, the CKC’s  master smiled at us and stopped so we could say hello. We soon learned that the dog’s name was ‘Chico’, who was almost one year old. Whilst fondling her ears, Chiko jumped up and placed her front paws on Huck B’s thighs and craned her neck forward to give my wife a kiss on her cheek. I told Chico that she was a good girl.

Later in the day, after I had overcome a bout of Chico-inspired homesickness,  we did some shopping. However, this proved more difficult than may first have been anticipated. We were, specifically, looking for business shoes for me, to go with the ones I had purchased in Istanbul the previous year (with which I was pleased).  Unfortunately, when we arrived at the sister store by taxi, we discovered that the shop had closed. The bright side was that this gave us an ideal excuse to sit down at the adjacent Godiva shop and enjoy a round of coffees and iced chocolate milk.

Next, we were back in the taxi to another shopping district in search of the elusive shoe store…

With the store located, shoes sampled and  purchases made, it was (obviously) time for more coffees and Turkish delight. We sat down in a bustling market area where, we were told, only locals ventured. The place was teeming with Turks of all shapes and sizes. At a nearby table, I could see a mother listening intently to all the excited words which were spilling from her son’s mouth whilst her husband sipped quietly on his drink. Meanwhile a rotund young man strolled by with his arm draped around his girlfriend’s shoulders.  Across the alleyway, a mother and adult daughter sat in contented silence.

In every direction we looked, we could see the colours of the local football team. F explained that there was a game that night and the spectators were having a quick meal and a drink before heading to the stadium. When I observed that only one team’s jersey was in evidence, F stopped a supporter pushing past our table and asked who they were playing that night.

The supporter spat out a word in Turkish and F explained that the opposing team was also from Istanbul and ‘those people don’t come here’. I made a mental note to avoid the stadium that night; sounded like some bitter rivalry might by playing out.

As the sun began to set over the Bosphorus, we headed back to the wharves and took a ferry back to our corner of Istanbul. It had been a wonderful day. We felt as though we had sampled some of the ‘real’ Istanbul. A day to remember.

Silver Spirit

After our memorable day in Istanbul, we boarded Silver Spirit and looked forward to our seven day cruise among Greek and Turkish ports.

Of all the vessels we have had the privilege of experiencing, there is no question that Silver Spirit is the most impressive. Our standard verandah suite was spacious and very well appointed.  I adored the wooded paneling on the feature wall.

Entering the room for the first time, I was very pleased with what I saw, but wondered where the television was. I soon discovered that it was set inside the mirror opposite our bed. Once activated, part of the large mirror became a TV screen.

Outside our stateroom, the rest of the ship had its attractions too. In particular, there was a speciality Japanese Restaurant which we frequented regularly. On the first night, we enjoyed a Japanese degustation menu. Most of our lunches involved a seemingly endless stream of sashimi and sushi.

Across the aisle from the Japanese Restaurant was a speciality French Restaurant. Whilst very pleasing in its own way, we preferred the Japanese.

There were other dining options too. In addition to the main dining room, we could enjoy a hamburger or a hot dog around the pool. The area used for buffet breakfasts and lunches was converted to an Italian Restaurant  in the evenings, which we also sampled on one occasion.

What makes the dining options so remarkable, is that Silver Spirit is only a small ship. Its capacity of some 540 passengers compares favorably with Sapphire Princess‘ guest list, which exceeds 2,000.

Overall, the food on board Silver Spirit was simply outstanding, as was the high level of service.

 

`Capitalism Will Kill You’

With deep regret and a very heavy heart, we left Silver Spirit on the morning on 15 October.

It was so sad to close the door on our Stateroom and leave the vessel for the last time.

Soon enough, we were on a bus for a day tour of Athens, before being dropped off at the Sofitel Hotel at Athens Airport, where we would stay for one night before flying to Cyprus for my birthday.

We spent about 90 minutes being guided around the Acropolis. That was quite a thrill. We had seen images of this ancient structure so many times on TV and elsewhere. It was wonderful to finally see it in person.

Our tour also took us through the streets around Constitution Square. We saw some evidence of the recent ‘troubles’ in Greece over the government’s austerity measures. A small group of protesters were positioned on  a street corner, albeit not vocal when we passed. Some riot police vans were parked around the corner. Graffiti was splashed on some government buildings including the message: “Capitalism will kill you”.

However, the Greek Capital appeared to be at peace during our short city tour. Two major unions were, ominously, planning protests on the coming Thursday. Worryingly, that is the day we are scheduled to fly out of Athens on our long journey home. As we headed to the airport hotel we crossed our fingers and hoped that the protests would not interrupt operations at the airport.

Whilst the day of protest remained two days in the future, it turned out that the driver of our bus was about to stage a personal protest in the next 15 minutes.

When the bus pulled up at the departure hall of Athens Airport, we dutifully disembarked with the other passengers and collected our luggage which included three large bags and three small ones.  From where we stood, we could see the Sofitel. However, to get there meant dragging our bags across a road, down some stairs, across another road and over to the hotel.

We had told our guide that we were going to the hotel rather than the airport. Very helpfully, she approached the driver and asked him to drive us to the front door of the hotel, representing a detour of five minutes max.

Whilst we are illiterate in Greek, we are both fluent in body language.

It was obvious that the driver was resisting the guide’s requests. He looked at his watch and slouched his shoulders. Then we pointed to our bags, with the implication that he was not minded to put them back on the bus. The guide resorted to reaching into her pocket and thrusting ten euro towards him, however, his truculence triumphed. Thinking that our tour was over, I handed the guide our ten euro tip, comprising two five euro notes. She immediately took one note and handed it to the driver. Finally, his threshold of resistance breached – evidently valued at 15 euro – the driver angrily heaved our bags back onto the bus and climbed into the driver’s seat. As they say: ‘capitalism will kill you’!

Less than five minutes later we were at the hotel’s front door and our bags were unloaded again. The driver had the last say though. As he reversed the bus, the front swung around and knocked two of our bigger bags over. We’ll never know whether this result was achieved by design. Either way, the driver’s attitude and conduct certainly stood in stark contrast to the exceptional service we enjoyed on board Silver Spirit. It reminded us of our last visit to Athens when a taxi driver insisted on a 20 euro fare to take us the length of the cruise port.

A Birthday in Cyprus / Austerity Strikes Back

After a night in Athens, we rose early to fly to Cyprus. It was 16 October and my last day as a 43 year old.

We landed in Lanaca mid-morning and found our driver without any difficulty. Our luggage loaded, we set out – for the second time on this trip – on a journey to traverse the breadth of an European island. First it was Dublin to Galway, now it was Lanaca, on the east coast of Cyprus, to Polis, on the west coast. Our destination was the Anassa resort. When we arrived the view of the Mediterranean Ocean was stunning.

An afternoon swim, a beautiful dinner and, come the next morning, by birthday had arrived!

Unlike last year, I didn’t celebrate my birthday by swimming in the Dead Sea in the morning before being serenaded by Bedouins singing Arabic love songs in Wadi Rum in the evening. However, I remained a very happy, dimple-cheeked birthday boy whilst enjoying the day with Huckleberry B at the Anassa Resort in Polis, Cyprus. The location was stunning. Standing on our balcony on the second floor, we looked across a garden to some white washed villas with the azurre blue Mediterranean Ocean a short distance beyond.

Unfortunately, the mood of the day changed when, early afternoon, we received an email from Olympic Airlines which caused B to gasp in horror. The email said that our 10am flight back to Athens would now be leaving at 12.00 noon and arriving at 2pm. Ordinarily, the extra hours’ sleep in the morning would be welcomed. However, the problem was that our connecting Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi and then to Sydney was scheduled to leave Athens at 2.35pm and we had no chance of being their in time.

A google search of `Athens strike’ revealed that – amongst a large number of protests – the Air Traffic Controllers and firemen at Athens Airport were walking away from their radar screens and hoses at 10am and would not return until 1pm; hence the forced delay of our Olympic Air flight.

The rest of the afternoon was spent variously googling updates on the strike, checking whether our Etihad flight was also going to be delayed and calling Olympic Air and Cyprus Air to see whether there were seats available for us on an earlier flight at 8.10 am. After much frustration, Huck B finally convinced Olympic that we would miss our connecting flight if forced to remain on their flight and we secured two of the last seats on the Cyprus Air flight. Even then, we were not out of the woods, given that our driver was scheduled to arrive at 6.30 am to drive two hours across the Island of Cyprus to Lanaca airport. Thankfully, he was most accommodating and agreed to collect us two hours earlier than planned, at the horrific time of 4.30am.

Our revised plans now in place, all that remained was to enjoy my far from austere birthday dinner and brace ourselves for the 3.45 am wake-up call.

Moonriver

 

DUBLIN, IRELAND – October 2012

Good Irish Jokes

The Irish jokes began even before we even left our plane at Dublin International Airport.

After unbuckling our seat belts and retrieving our carry-on luggage, we stood and waited – with unrestrained anticipation – for the doors to be opened so that we could spill out of the plane and head for customs and immigration, Dublin-bound.

However, as the moments passed, it became apparent that something was amiss. Huckleerry B had the best view from her position by the window. She saw the airbridge jerk forward, stop, jerk forward again and come to a permanent halt.

Soon enough, the head purser announced that the airbridge was broken and the ground crew were looking for some stairs so we could exit onto the Tarmac.  Looking out the window it appeared confusion abounded. After an impatient minute or two, a couple of likely looking lads hastily wheeled a set of steps to the rear door of the plane…

Welcome to Ireland.

As our driver – who I would describe as both sounding and looking ‘typically Irish’ – explained;

“There’s two ways of doing anything. First there’s the obvious and easy way, which will get the job done. Then there’s the Irish way.”

He added later that, “the Irish are only good at two things; drinking and fighting!”

When Huckleberry B looked out the car window and saw some dark clouds gathering, she made a polite enquiry about what we could do in Dublin on a rainy day.

“It never rains inside the pub…“, came the inevitable reply.

So far, Ireland had lived up to expectation. And we weren’t even at our hotel yet.

Speaking of hotels, Huck B had booked us in at the Fitzwilliam, in downtown Dublin. She chose very well.

Standing opposite Saint Stephen’s Green and immediately adjacent to the bustling shopping mall in Grafton Street, the historic buildings of Trinity College and Temple Bar were a short stroll away.

Entering our room, I was immediately drawn to the view from our window on the third floor. Below  us, pedestrians approached a light rail station with varying degrees of speed and enthusiasm. Beyond, the scene was dominated by the trees lining Saint Stephen’s Green. To our left, we could see the stately buildings of Merrion Row and the colourful shopfronts below.

I suspect that, in the future, when I think of Dublin, that view from our third floor window, overlooking Saint Stephen’s Green, will come immediately to mind.

The Pub Crawl

As an Irish philosopher – of little notoriety – once observed; it never rains inside the pub

Soon after arriving in Dublin, we found that we could experience four seasons in as short a time span as one hour. One minute, we might be standing in brilliant sun light and feeling hot. Ten minutes later, a chill wind would bring with it some steady drizzle. Soon enough, the rain would pass and the sun would come out, but it would remain cold.

Given this constant threat of rain, we applied our new found wisdom and spent much of our evenings inside a pub.

We had come to Dublin for the annual International Bar Association Conference. One of the major attractions of these Conferences – other than the engaging speakers at the various sessions – is that there are a series of cocktail parties each night hosted by the local major law firms or the local legal societies.

Unlike Dubai, where most of the parties were dry, there was no risk of the alcohol running out in Dublin.

Shortly after arriving in Dublin’s early evening – and despite a serious lack of sleep – we hastily ironed our formal wear and headed to the opening gala dinner. It was there that we met up with our dear friends, DR, and his wife, Dr MD.

The following night we embarked on our first pub crawl. First was a reception hosted by local firm, William Fry, at the Mansion House (which, fortuitously was an easy stroll from our hotel). Thanks to a mumbled introduction, we failed to recognise that we were meeting the Mayor of Dublin at the end of the reception line. I suppose the heavy gold chain anging from his neck should have given away his identity. I thought he was just a rather extravagant sommelier.

We tagged along to two further functions, both hosted by local tax attorneys. The first was at the Shelbourne Hotel, where Oscar Wilde reputedly used to misbehave. The next (and last) venue for the evening was a short distance away in a local pub. It was there that Huckleberry B and I each downed a pint of Guinness. It seemed like the right thing to do!

The next night’s entertainment promised to be a highlight, but ended up being a disappointment. Another local firm, Mason Hayes, had hired the dining room at famed Trinity College for a cocktail party. I was looking forward to this event very much. I envisaged quiet and stimulating conversation in sumptuous surrounds, whilst wine flowed and canapés floated by in a continuous stream.

The moment we were herded into the wood paneled room, however, I realized my expectations were misguided. So many people had accepted the invitation issued by Mason Hayes that the atmosphere inside the dining hall more resembled the bar at a packed football stadium than a dignified cocktail party. The chatter was so deafening that we adjourned to an austere area adjacent to the dining hall of unknown purpose.

After a day in the country – described below – we attended the final leg of our week-long Irish pub crawl; a function hosted by Allen Ovary at the Four Seasons Hotel.

We certainly enjoyed our pub crawl in Dublin. And our driver was right; not once did we suffer any rain inside the pub!

Galway

Wednesday,  3 October, saw Huckleberry B and I join DR and MD on a drive across Ireland to Galway. I was somewhat surprised to find that it only takes three hours to traverse the Emerald Isle. We were there by lunchtime.

After lunch we drove along the coastline of Galway Bay before heading north across the countryside.

Whilst the drive across Ireland offered us some pleasing views of rolling green hills dotted with sheep and other livestock, I felt, at times, as though we were driving  from Sydney to Bowral.  The landscape north-west of Galway, however, was like nothing we see in Australia. The land had now turned dark green and where once there had been grass there was now moss. The hills were more ragged than rolling and were punctuated by rocky outcrops. Streams gurgled hither and yon.

When we visited the Falkland Islands in 2010, I remarked to Huckleberry B that the  landscape looked ‘British’ and not ‘Argentine’. I am now able to provide evidence to back up my statement.  The landscape near Galway was very much in keeping with what we saw outside Port Stanley in the Falklands.  All that was missing was the rusty remains of a deceased helicopter.

 

Kings of the World

During our road trip, we observed a strange phenomena.

Perhaps we were unlucky; perhaps we simply came across every slovenly miscreant in Ireland. However, everywhere we went, men were treating the Irish countryside as their personal toilet.

The first such sighting occurred not long after leaving the heart of Dublin. Whilst at a set of traffic lights, we saw an oddly dressed gentleman approaching a bus stop. At first we thought he was simply engaging in an ‘adjustment exercise’. However, before we could look away, the man whipped ‘it’ out and relieved himself on the grass. The odd thing was that there were some trees and low lying shrubbery only five or so stumbling steps away. The disturbing thing was that there were some teenage girls waiting at the bus stop.

Later, whilst driving along the picturesque road north of Galway, we saw an ambulance parked casually by the road. Again, there was the driver standing nearby with a torrent streaming in a graceful arc onto the ground. There was much mirth in our vehicle at the second sighting of the day.

Minutes later, we rounded a bend and saw a man standing on a mound adjacent to the road, overlooking a small lake.

DRs asked, “what’s he doing up there?” before exclaiming, “oh no, don’t tell me…!

Yes, this brazen fellow had chosen the most prominent position possible to unzip and proclaim his dominion over nature.

For the record, none of those in our vehicle decided to adopt the “when in Ireland…” approach, preferring to prudently take advantage of the available facilities at each opportunity. Doubtless, you are pleased to hear it.

My Favourite Dubliners

On one morning during the IBA Conference, Huckleberry had some errands to run, whilst I embarked upon the 25 minute walk from the Fitzwilliam Hotel to the Conference Centre alone.

I took the opportunity of grabbing my iPod before I departed and listened to the distinctive sound of U2 as I walked. Dubliners all, their music never sounded so good.

On another afternoon, I went for a walk around Saint Stephen’s Green and Merrion Park. After a lengthy walk, I found what I was looking for. In a corner of Merrion Park sits a large rock. Lounging on the rock, in his iconic green overcoat, is a statue of my favourite Irish story-teller, Oscar Wilde.

Across from the statue were some columns upon which some of Oscar’s perfectly phrased quotes had been written, including my favourite; “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

I don’t know whether Oscar ever said “it never rains in the pub” , but I am sure that he wishes he had!

After bidding Oscar farewell, I walked across the road and saw the house he lived in before his move to London where he made is name as one of the world’s leading playwrights and satirists.

I don’t know whether the band members of U2 are Oscar Wilde adherents or whether Oscar would have been enthused by U2, but I like them both.

Moonriver

ALASKA, USA – September 2012

 

North to Alaska

As I write this account, I am sitting in our Stateroom on-board Sapphire Princess as our vessel cruises around Glacier Bay, Alaska.

Our voyage began five days ago in Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada. Joining us are our semi- regular cruise companions; Huckleberry B’s brother Y and sister ML and their spouses, C and D. We’ve had a rollicking good time; days full of food, trivia quizzes, food, laughter and more food. Huckleberry B and I have even made it back to the gym for some long overdue cardio- vascular exertions. If we disembark without having gained any weight, it will be a good result.

Speaking of food, I will long remember our welcoming dinner  when the six of us met up in Vancouver, the night before our cruise began. Huck B and I had been in town for about nine hours – and had slept for most of them – when we stumbled down to the lobby of our hotel to meet up with the others. Such a strange thing seeing familiar faces in an unfamiliar setting.

Huckleberry B had done a marvellous job making reservations at a restaurant lying a maximum of 25 meters from the front door of our hotel, called Cardero’s. Just as well she did because it was Friday night in Vancouver and the Harbour-side restaurant was packed.  We strode happily past a long queue of impatient would-be diners as we were shown to the table which had been sitting in wait for us since it was reserved some six months earlier.

Not long after sitting down, we were disturbed by a loud clanging noise and the sight of some nautical flags being hoisted towards the ceiling. After this startling event occurred a second time, we asked our waiter to explain the significance. It turns out this was the method Cardero’s deploy to advise those still languishing in the queue that their table was now ready. Upon arrival, waiting diners are given a flag to carry. Once he or she espies the replica flag hanging proudly on high, it’s safe to exchange the flag for the pleasure of a seat at a table and some eating utensils.

Having not eaten for almost 24 hours – desire for sleep having trumped desire for food both during the second half of our flight and upon arrival in Vancouver – I have rarely suffered such ravenous impatience whilst waiting to place my dinner order. My affliction was so obvious that Huckleberry was compelled to apologise to her siblings, on my behalf, for my restless fidgeting. The immense New York steak which eventually landed in front of me was, therefore, hugely welcomed and soon devoured.

My stomach full and my hunger sated, I looked forward to the week ahead. The Sapphire Princess would take us ‘way up north’ along the Canadian west coast to Alaska, where we would visit the ports of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan as well as fabled Glacier Bay.

Why Alaska?

There are two reasons.

Firstly, because we heard it was well worth the visit. Secondly, and more importantly, to silence our cruise-loving critics.

Every fellow cruise lover we meet – particularly American ones – react with limitless shock and unrestrained horror when Huckleberry B and I convey that we have never traveled to Alaska. Apparently, voyaging along the Beagle Channel and the Drake Passage in South America, on the way to the Northern Peninsula of Antarctica, is insufficient. The Fjords of Norway and the Island of Spitsbergen also, evidently, fall short of the wonders of Alaska in American eyes.

And so we finally embark upon the most popular cruise route on the planet. It will be interesting to see how it compares to the majestic wonders which have enthralled us elsewhere on the globe.

The Iceman Cometh…

Our Alaskan experience got off to a truly memorable start.

On 24 September 2012, we walked across the frozen expanse of a glacier.

That morning, we docked at Juneau, which we were surprised to learn was the State Capital of Alaska. We had always assumed that it was Anchorage. What makes this piece of trivia even more remarkable is that there are only two means of accessing the Alaskan Capital; by air or by sea. Even now – in the 21 st Century – there is no road access. In Alaska, no roads lead to Juneau.

Yet when in Juneau, do as her Juneau-ites do…

Actually, I have little idea what a Juneau-ite would do other than eat salmon, hunt bear or sell tacky gifts to tourists. So we did something else instead.

And that ‘something else’ was spectacular.

Huckleberry B had arranged for Y, C and I to travel 15 minutes by helicopter, over a nearby mountain, and land on an immense glacier. Once the helicopter made its somewhat tentative landing, we unbuckled and walked on the ice. Thankfully, we had been given some ice shoes which fitted over our sneakers to permit reasonably confident walking. However, even with the these shoes, there were some spots which remained slippery and careful treading remained well-advised. I concentrated on taking short steps and even ensuring one foot was secure before lifting the other.

The view was spectacular!

Whilst we had flown over the length of the glacier, we landed at the bottom, near ‘the toes’. Looking up, we could see a crest and the remainder of the glacier rising majestically beyond. We were told that the snow which fell at the mountainous peak would freeze into ice, join the remainder of the glacier, and then begin its immensely slow slide down the mountain to the valley far below. The entire process would take over 300 years.

The ice we were standing on, in September 2012, had fallen from the sky – as snow – at the top of the mountain over 250 years ago; before Captain James Cook sailed the seven seas.

The ice beneath us still had another 50 years or so to reach the bottom, before it would finally melt and be released as water. Unless I live to beyond my centennial year, it is unlikely to occur in my lifetime.

Looking around, the glacier was mostly a grayish white color. However, there were a multitude of blue streaks which emblazoned the vista. Not far from where our helicopter landed, a small river had carved a sharp ravine in the ice. Despite the fact that the ravine was just wide enough to accommodate a falling man and deep enough to make escape very difficult (but not impossible), we were not warned to stay away. Indeed, every man with a camera had congregated around this spectacular sight.

I, however, remained a safe distance!

After 15 minutes on the glacier, we were reluctantly ushered back to the helicopter to make our return to Juneau.

On the ride back I happily reflected that Alaska had already given us an experience which Antarctica and the Norwegian Fjord had not.

The Train to White Pass

The day after Juneau, we awoke to find ourselves in the gold rush town of Skagway.

Our port information sheet informed us that the original name of the small town was, in fact, Skaguay. However, the local post office unilaterally deleted the `u’ and substituted a `w’.

The town itself was very quaint and was reminiscent of the wild western towns seen in Hollywood movies, complete with buildings with pastel coloured facades and saloons with swinging doors. During its heyday, whilst the Alaskan gold rush was at its most rushed, Skagway boasted a population upwards of 30,000 people. However, the permanent inhabitants now number several thousand at best. Temporary residents arrive during summer – otherwise known as `cruise season’ – to man the jewellery shops, but head to the Caribbean during winter. Even during the height of the tourist season, the arrival of two or three cruise ships triples the population for the day.

Incidentally, during our voyage we were tailed, for the most part, by one  or two Holland America vessels. We were told that most of the Alaskan ports could accommodate as many as five ships at once, resulting in the small, isolated towns being swamped by as many as 10,000 tourists!

In any event, the six of us only spent a short period strolling along the streets of Skagway, before boarding a train to make the journey into the mountains to White Pass and the Canadian border.

Huck B and I had enjoyed a similar train journey last year at Flaam, in Norway. Once again, the view was spectacular as the train made its way slowly towards the heavens, past water falls, and through the pine forest.

On this occasion, we were tracing the path plodded by the gold rush pioneers from Skagway to the Yukon Territory. At the Canadian border, we paused whilst the engine of our train detached, chugged its way to the other end of the string of carriages, before being re-attached so that it could commence the long journey back down the mountain…

Sled Dog Training

Our afternoon in Skagway saw Huck B and I  head back up the mountains surrounding the  bay for a truly extraordinary experience.

During the Alaskan winter, the local sled dogs compete in long distance races across the unforgiving snow clad landscape. The most famous race is the Iditarod, which traverses a grueling  1,100 miles across Canada’s central territory to  the Bering sea and back.

During the summer, the sled dogs train for their winter racing season. Today, we gave them our assistance!

The sled dogs we met were not the beautiful, cuddly grey and black Huskies we had seen on television. They were lean and hungry beasts, mostly cross-bred with greyhounds and labradors. The ideal sled dog, we were told, had the long legs and strength of a racing dog and the coat of a Husky to withstand the cold.

At first I felt a little guilty making the dogs run. After all, we are used to our adorable, but lazy, CKCs, whose ideal afternoon was a long snooze after chewing on a big bone. However, it soon became apparent that our sled dog training partners were anxious to get the training underway…and not a moment too soon was soon enough…

Our job was to provide the weight for the dogs to pull. Upon arrival in the forest training camp, Huckleberry and I were hastily ushered onto a trolley with wheels and a number of seats. No less then sixteen sled dogs, coupled in pairs, were already strapped to the front of the trolley. It was clear from their restless and incessant barking that they were impatient for the fun to begin. Even their trainer was anxious for us to sit down and put on our seat belts as quickly as possible.

Suddenly we were hurtling through the forest at breakneck speed on a narrow dirt track which weaved its way through the tall pine trees. At first, I was alarmed to find that there was nobody steering the trolley as it proceeded at terminal velocity along the barren path. Remarkably, however, the female dogs at the head of the pack knew the way. They even knew how to adopt a `race line’ by cutting the corners and running the shortest distance to each bend.

Some of the sled dogs liked to gallop. Others preferred taking quick steps. Some dashed forward facing the direction of travel.  Others found it easier to pull at a forty-five degree angle. Most remained quiet during the run, but one dog, in the fourth pairing from the back, enjoyed barking at the dog next to him and to the rear as he ran. Faster! Faster!

Our four laps of the training track were a thrilling experience. At the end we laughed whilst the dogs panted and waited for the next group of training `partners’ to arrive. They wagged their tails as their trainer introduced us to them in pairs. Some wore a green badge on their collars to signify completion of the arduous Iditarod.

And, as quickly as it began, the training was over. Alaska had given us its second unique experience.

Now I’m wondering how I can implement what I have been taught at the sled dog training camp in Alaska. If only there was a way I could strap our four girls to my lawn mower and teach them to run in circles…

Misty Fjord

After a day of scenic cruising in Glacier Bay – where we saw two majestic glaciers – we arrived in drab Ketchican; the world’s salmon capital.

Our visit saw us, once more, take to the air; this time upon a sea-plane. B had arranged for us to enjoy a scenic flight over Misty Fjord, which proved to be another very enjoyable experience.

Given the noise created by the small plane, we were given headsets to wear during the flight, which allowed our amiable pilot to pump some music into our ears in between stints of commentary. His choice of songs, however, was both  intriguing and somewhat daunting.

As our sea-plane bumped across the water and bashfully took to the sky, we were listening to the 80’s classic ‘Forever Young’, the lyrics of which posed the timely question: ‘Do you really want to live forever? Forever  young?

Successfully airborne, and the outskirts of Ketchican below us, the wistful lyrics of ‘Life in a Northern Town‘ filled our ears.

Not long afterwards, as the small plane soared between two mountain peaks  – whilst being buffeted by a mischievous alpine air stream – Tom Petty began wailing about the joys of ‘free falling‘!

Finally, as our sea-plane descended and skipped to a landing on the surface of Misty Fjord, as song of unknown pedigree was heard to include a chorus about being ‘surrounded by cold water‘.

As I climbed down the stairs to stand on one of the sea-plane’s floats, I asked the pilot whether the remarkably apt playlist was designed on purpose to fit the circumstances and he gave every indication of having no earthly idea what I was babbling about. Huckleberry – who had independently reached the same conclusion as I – assisted to explain. The pilot just chuckled and said it was a coincidence.

We don’t believe him. It was such a stitch-up!

Standing on the float, we were able to enjoy the fresh air of the remote fjord and marvel at the beauty of the vista. Not far from our position on the water, a waterfall loudly disgorged a mountain stream into the otherwise tranquil waters. The surface of the fjord itself was so clean that it gave the appearance of being protected by a thin film of glossy black oil. Though tempted to dive in, I held on tightly to the wing of the sea-plane to avoid being immersed in the freezing water.

Before long – and inevitably too soon – the pilot politely asked us to re-enter the plane in order to return to Ketchican. I wondered out loud what music awaited us on the return journey; ‘Living on a Prayer‘ perhaps? ‘El Condor Pasa‘ maybe?

The End of the Journey

As our voyage nears its conclusion, and a return to Vancouver, I also return to the question I posed earlier; why Alaska?

Whilst the scenery from our stateroom balcony was pleasing, it was not as dramatic as what we saw in Norway. I even wonder whether Fjordland National Park in the south western corner of New Zealand’s South Island is more spectacular. Doubtless, Antarctica remains our most memorable cruise experience and is unlikely every to be vanquished.

Thanks, however, to Huckleberry B’s careful research, Alaska did provide us  with a number of new experiences, which we are unlikely to ever forget, particularly walking on a glacier and helping some very enthusiastic sled dogs with their training.

Greatly enhancing the experience was the company we kept. I am indebted to Y and C, D and M for their cheerful company and entertainment. The thought of parting at cruise-end makes my heart heavy.  However our reunion in Sydney will not be too far away.

Moonriver

 

INDIA – December 2011

The Road to Agra and Other Disasters

The roads in India are simply diabolical.

Our cheerful foursome (Huckelberry B, sister-in-law, C, niece, MC, and me) arrived in Delhi before midday and, after dropping our major luggage at the local Hilton, we set off for Agra – and the famed Taj Mahal – at around 1pm. Our intention was to visit the Taj that afternoon before driving to Jaipur for the evening. The local agent with whom we were dealing assured us that our plans were sound. With time, however, we were to learn that caution was wise when it came to listening to anything this fellow had to say.

The distance from Delhi to Agra is less than 250 kilometres. By driving standards we are used to, we should have been in Agra by 4pm at the very latest with ample time to visit the renowned mausoleum before closing time.

What we were not prepared for, however, was the chaotically slapdash, every-man-for-himself, Persian bazaar, anarchic whirlwind of frenetic bedlam which is the Indian highway system.

And we thought the driving in Kathmandu was hectic…

Indian drivers make their Nepalese counterparts look positively obsequious by comparison.

I observed in my previous journal, that the fundamental road rule in Kathmandu was that you won right of way by placing your vehicle (or your body) in a position where a competing driver has a choice of either stopping or running into you. In India, the rule is the same, except that once you have won right or way you then have to scurry away before the competing driver does, in fact, run you down.

It’s a dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself arena where only those who are willing to risk damage to their vehicle – or injury to their body – can survive.

Even where lane markings existed, they scarcely even held advisory status. An Indian driver will use any available square foot of bitumen (or accompanying dirt) to progress in a forwards direction. The results is that a road designed for three lanes will typically be occupied by two cars, a donkey drawn vehicle and a tuk tuk or two; with an array of motorcyclists trying to push their way through.

I once wrote about the Desert Highway from Alexandria to Cairo in a previous journal. As hair-raising as that journey was, we were at least able to make good progress and, in fact, made it to the Egyptian capital ahead of schedule. The difference was that, on the Desert Highway, slow moving vehicles moved out of the way when our driver flashed his lights, allowing us reasonably unimpeded progress, as we hurtled towards Cairo at breakneck speed.

In India, however, every driver is only concerned with advancing his own position, without regard of any kind for others. So we found our progress frequently impeded by a slow moving bus in the outside lane, or even a cart drawn by an old, tired camel or, most absurdly of all, a stationary tractor or two.

As if all this were insufficient to create a tempest of ferocious mayhem, more often than can be believed our driver had to swerve out of the way of vehicles travelling along the inside lane in the opposite direction to the prevailing traffic!

It’s sheer pandemonium.

Due to this selfish, lawless and utterly anarchistic driving behaviour, nobody got anywhere in a hurry. Our journey of around 225 kilometres to the Taj Mahal took us almost 5 hours to complete and, by the time we arrived, the gates had closed and we were not allowed in.

Sadly, given that the Taj is closed on Fridays and there was no possible way we were going to risk being stuck in India’s diabolical traffic on the day we were to fly out, we had no opportunity to return on another day.

The Taj did not want us. Indian drivers are to blame.

Exactly and Approximately

Anybody who has seen the Indian movie, Monsoon Wedding – easily one of my all-time favourite movies and one of the reasons I was keen to visit India – will remember the event planner, P K Dubey. All of the quotes he offered for his services were stated to be “exactly and approximately”.

We found during our trip to India that our tour agent adopted a similar practice.

Our agent had agreed to provide us with a driver. The basic terms of the contract were that he would drive us to Agra, then to Jaipur and back to Delhi, concluded by a tour of the capital’s landmarks. However, during the course of our visit, the subsidiary clauses of our agreement – formed over a series of email exchanges – proved to be less clear. We found that either the sum we had to pay would increase or the inclusions would decrease. Suddenly, for example, our agreed sum only including picking us up from the airport  but excluded returning us there on our final day.

The total price in Indian Rupees also became a moveable Indian feast. It seemed to change from day to day in accordance with fluctuations in the exchange rate. However, the exchange rate which our agent applied was one personal to him; it was mirrored by neither the official rate nor the rate offered by the hotel. Of course, the variation was very much in the agent’s favour.

Then there was the Taj Mahal entry fee fiasco.

As we approached Agra, our agent contracted us on our driver’s mobile phone. He said that his information was that we were 10 minutes from the Taj Mahal gate and he suggested that his local agent buy us four entry tickets (to save time) on the understanding that we would pay him back 3,000 Rupees when we arrived. Moments after we agreed, we passed a sign saying that the Taj Mahal lay 17.5 kilometres down the road; a narrow road swarming with frenzied Indian drivers, all competing for the same square-inch of bitumen. It took us the best part of an hour to traverse that 17.5 kilometres and – as I have already reported – the Taj Mahal was closed for the day by the time we arrived.

We offered the local agent his 3,000 Rupees, but he declined; stating that if we did not see the Taj we did not have to pay. We offered to pay a second time and then a third time. The local agent refused each offer. At no point did he show us the tickets. To this day, we do not know whether he actually purchased them.

Be that as it may, our resolute Delhi tour agent contacted us the next day demanding repayment of the 3,000 Rupees. He asserted that the local agent was making demands of him. We do not know whether the tickets were ever purchased and we do not know whether the Agra agent was making any demands; but the whole episode left us feeling uneasy.

Victory at the MCG

Whilst travelling in Nepal and India, the four Test series between India and Australia was getting underway in Melbourne.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a 24-hour cricket channel on Indian cable TV, called Star Cricket. Much of its content, whilst we were watching in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Jaipur or Delhi, was devoted to the build-up to the series in Australia. There were in-depth highlights and analysis from prior India / Australia matches. Every ad-break promoted the telecast of the upcoming series, with the tagline: `Feel the Heat Down Under’. In one advertisement, former captain, Sourav Ganguly, said that in Australia, the players `talk about you’ and proclaimed that this is when the champion rises within.  In another, a local celebrity of some kind declared that when India plays cricket in Australia it’s `mind-blasting’.

I was somewhat bewildered, however, to discover that much of the promotion of the current series highlighted the controversy from the last series. The vision of Andrew Symonds and Harbajan Singh quarreling was replayed repeatedly, as were several other ugly incidents. As reprehensible as I found some of my countrymen’s conduct four years ago – and I truly believe we crossed the line too often back then – I wondered how offended the Indians really could be if they were using that conduct for the purpose of promoting the upcoming matches.

The rivalry between Australia and India on the cricket field is fierce. With the behaviour of Indians on the road and the practices of our tour agent fresh in our minds, Huckleberry B and I were keen not to lose to their national team on the cricket pitch. In these circumstances, the victory in Melbourne, by 122 runs, was particularly satisfying.

A Lovely Day in Jaipur

Our tour of India was not all bad!

We have, for example, loved the food!

There’s something about the mix of Tandoori chicken, naan bread and curry which is simply glorious!

After our disappointment in not being able to walk the grounds of the Taj Mahal, we drove to Jaipur where we stayed the night.

Little did we know the surprise Huckleberry B had in stall for us.

Our accommodation at Jaipur, the Shiv Villas, was a breathtakingly grand hotel constructed in majestic colonial style.

Upon entering, we were met by several hotel staff offering warm towels and cold champagne. The check-in process involved sitting at a lounge suite inside the central ballroom of the building, beneath a glorious painted roof complete with magnificent chandelier.  That night, we slept in a four-poster bed. In the morning we admired the heated pool surrounded by an impressive array of statutes.

Before heading back to Delhi, we embarked upon a tour of Jaipur; the `pink city’.

The highlight, for me, was the Amber Palace; a huge honey-coloured castle sitting above the town, surrounded by a forbidding wall which resembled – and was probably inspired by – the Great Wall of China.

A Day Tour of Delhi

After another hellish drive back to Delhi – which occupied over six hours but only involved a journey of 250 kilometres – we spent the night at the Delhi Hilton.

When we awoke we braced ourselves for a tour of Delhi’s highlights.

I have to remain honest and say that Delhi is a very unappealing city.

The first thing we noticed when we landed was the pollution. Even from the plane, we could see the brown smog enveloping the airport and its surrounds. We could barely see the terminal building through the haze. There was no possibility of viewing a blue sky.

The next morning, the pollution was mixed with a low lying fog, which allowed us to literally stand and watch currents of tangible smog wafting by.

On a previous trip to Xian – the home of the Terracotta Warriors – Huckleberry B and I were appalled by the pollution. However, Delhi’s putrid air is much, much worse.

Notwithstanding the smog and the ongoing battle to get anywhere on the roads, we actually had an enjoyable day Delhi.

First we visited Qutab Minar, the tallest brick and stone minaret in the world. Standing at 72.5 metres, the minaret rises from the ruins of an ancient Hindu temples.

Next, we went to the Lotus Temple, which bears a striking resemblance to the architecture of the Sydney Opera House. The Lotus Temple is a Baha’i house of worship and was completed as recently as 1986.

After another very pleasing lunch of various curries and naan bread – remarkably, despite it being our last full day on the sub-continent we were yet to tire of Indian spices – we toured Humayun’s Tomb. This proved to be a very impressive structure. Humayun, we learned was a Mughal Emperor who died in the 16th century. His wife commissioned his tomb in 1562. The mausoleum is somewhat reminiscent of the Taj Mahal – as if we would know (!) – albeit perhaps not as grand and cast in a pinkish colour. Apparently there is some debate amongst Indian historians as to which structure influenced the other.

Finally, we visited India Gate, which is Delhi’s version of the Arc de triomphe.

The primary purpose of India Gate is to commemorate the Indian soldiers who fell in World War I. However, its wider purpose is to mark those who fell during the fight for India’s independence.

We were impressed by India Gate. It’s an imposing structure and certainly a suitable memorial for all of which Indians are proud.

The End of the Journey

This evening, my beloved B and I will fly first to Kuala Lumpur and then home to Sydney. In the meantime, C and MC will return to Hong Kong for three days before returning to Sydney. After over two weeks of quite extraordinary adventure in Nepal and norther India, it was sad to bid them farewell. They were very good travel companions.

It’s been an extraordinary trip. Some of it was arduous and some of it was tedious; but all of it was memorable.

We will never forget walking along mountain trails in the Himalayas, majestic snow shrouded mountain peaks looking down upon us, cast against a radiant blue sky. Nor shall we forget the frustrations of India and the sheer difficulty in travelling from one point to another.

Huckleberry B and I have been most fortunate to be much traveled. Often our trips were memorable for the comforts offered by our trip. Our journey over the last 18 days will be unforgettable because it was hard.

 

Moonriver

THE HIMALAYAS (Part 2) – December 2011

For Those Interested in Detail…

Day One

What I have endeavoured to accomplish in Part 1 is a description of how it felt to trek the Himalayas.  My focus was on the experience.

I should pause to describe some of the detail.

We flew into Lukla on 18 December 2011 at around 9.45 am. We had arisen from bed at 4.30am in order to be at Kathmandu Airport in advance of the scheduled 6.30am departure. However, dubious weather delayed our flight – which Chet had stressed was `weather dependent’ – by over 2 hours. As detailed earlier, the experience of landing at Lukla was somewhat harrowing, but we survived it!

After a break for coffee (and acclimatisation), we set out at around 10.30 am on our first day’s trekking to Monjo. Whilst mostly downhill to begin with, the final stages were uphill. Both Lukla and Monjo are 2,800 metres above sea level.

It was during the afternoon of this first day that Huckleberry B injured her right groin. When darkness fell at around 5.30pm, we were still over half an hour from our destination. Kercha produced some lamps which could be strapped around one’s head. Others had hand held torches. Somehow we staggered, mostly across rock strewn ground and predominantly uphill, through the darkness for 45 minutes until we finally reached the Everest Summit Lodge at Monjo.

Kercha told us that the walk from Lukla to Monjo extended over a distance of 16 kilometres. Including rest breaks and lunch, the journey took us around 7.5 hours.

At this stage, I seriously contemplated whether the trek would continue and was apprehensive about our immediate future.

Despite her injury, however, and notwithstanding a poor night’s sleep, Huckleberry decided to continue.

Day Two

The second day saw us walk from Monjo to Namche Bazaar. The latter village is 3,445 metres above sea level. As such, our second day of walking required us to climb a further 645 vertical metres above sea level.

Whilst 645 metres does not sound very far, consider that it’s a measure of height, not distance. If you imagine climbing the stairwell of a building 645 metres tall, you will have a better idea how gruelling our ascent was.

For the first couple of hours, we traversed the rocky bank of a river before our climb commenced. One of the highlights was crossing the Hillary Bridge; a suspension bridge perched several hundred metres above the river below. After crossing the Hillary Bridge, we headed down before finally commencing the true ascent to Namche. About half way up, we paused for our first photographs with Everest in the background.

After walking – slowly but steadily – uphill for over two hours, we finally reached Namche Bazaar at around 3pm. We had been slogging away for around 5.5 hours and covered over 10 kilometres.

After lunch Huck B and I retired to a warm bed for an afternoon nap. However, we ultimately slept through until morning; Huck B because her right groin was causing unremitting pain and me because I was dead beat from our laborious climb.

Whilst B and I both skipped dinner, it was not that much of a sacrifice. One of the strange peculiarities of walking at altitude is that you lose your appetite. I do not know why this is so, however, we each had a similar experience.

Day Three

Day three saw us walk from Namche to Tashinga.

This proved to be the easiest day of walking. Not only was it the shortest walk – occupying some 4 hours – but it was also notable for the absence of any steep climbs.

Namche sits at 3,445 metres above sea level, whereas Tashinga is just 5 metres higher at 3,450 metres.

Most of the journey involved traversing a track which meandered around the side of a mountain with occasional rises and falls. Everest was in view for much of our journey, as were several other majestic mountain peaks, including Lhotse and Amadablam.

At one point in our journey, we  looked down to the Hillary Bridge a vast distance below; so far that it was a mere speck above the distant river. We marvelled at how far we had climbed.

In order to give her groin a rest, Hucklberry B opted to ride a horse for this leg. However, whilst it assisted her to avoid walking, the use of the horse resulted in a harrowing experience as it walked perilously close to the edge of the dusty, narrow trail. One false step and both horse and Huck B would have tumbled down the cliff face into the ravine far below.

Given the choice of carrying me or committing suicide, this horse may opt for suicide”, B remarked at an early break in our journey, with a nervous laugh.

I could tell that Huck B wasn’t kidding. She would later tell me how petrified she was as her left knee brushed the cliff face and the horse’s right hoof stepped within centimetres of the edge of the path. It scared me just to close my eyes and picture B’s terrifying journey.

Ultimately, the owner of the horse decided to take Huckleberry B to Tashinga without stopping so she arrived long before us.

This prompted me to do something foolish.

Without any conscious decision, I  began walking ahead of Kercha, C and MC. Before long I rounded a corner in the path and could see a lodge which was built in similar design to the Everest Summit Lodge at Monjo. Whilst some distance away, it was obvious that it was where we were staying for the night. This only encouraged me to stride further ahead of my group until, when looking back, I could no longer see them.

Sometime later I caught up with our two porters who were enjoying a break in their journey. They confirmed that the red-roofed lodge I could see in the distance was where we were heading. I walked briskly on; determined to be reunited with my wife as soon as possible.

It was during this solitary journey that I paused to roar with joy at the majestic beauty of my surrounds. It was one of the moments in our epic trek which I will always remember. I was exhilarated.

After several hours walking I arrived at the Everest Summit Lodge at Tashinga and found Huckleberry B enjoying a mug of tea in the sun.  She told me that Laksman had just left in a hurry after receiving a satellite phone call.

Little did we know that the call which caused Laksman to abandon his tea and scurry away was from Kercha. As it transpired, Kercha thought I had gone the wrong way and was heading away from our destination. He had called Laksman to ask him to go and find me!

Upon reflection, whilst I was always confident I knew where I was heading – and had the assistance of our porters – it should have occurred to me that Kercha did not know whether I was heading in the right direction. It was irresponsible of me and I apologised to both Kercha and Laksman when I had an opportunity. In my defence, I was keen to catch up with my beloved and make sure she was okay.

Day Four

The fourth day of our trek involved an optional tour to Tangboche and back to Tashinga.

The walk was probably the most difficult of our journey. Tangboche sits 3,870 metres above sea level and, therefore, 430 vertical metres above our starting point at Tashinga. However, before climbing to Tashinga, we had to walk downhill for 45 minutes to river level. The climb was, therefore, well over 500 metres in altitude.

At one point, on the way up, I looked down on the red roof of the Everest Summit Lodge at Tashinga and saw that it appeared tiny, in the vast distance below us. I held up my hand and observed that I could hide the entire lodge behind one quarter of my pinkie finger.

It took us over 2.5 hours to climb from the river to the monastery at Tangboche. It was a very difficult ascent, first zig-zagging up the side of the mountain before a straight, steep climb to the top. To make it more difficult, the path was alternatively dusty or rock strewn and often in direct sunlight.

Whilst it took over 2.5 hours to climb the mountain to Tangboche, it only took 65 minutes to descend, albeit with thighs of jelly by the time we reached the bottom.

The monastery at Tangboche presented a majestic sight. Nestled at the top of the mountain, with commanding views of Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse, with Amadablam towering directly above, the monastery of white and burnt red sat in harmony with its surrounds. The only thing which spoiled the perfection of the moment was when a Monk engaged in ritual chanting suffered a spontaneous coughing fit!

Day Five

The final day of trekking took us from Tashinga to Mende.

This is the day when Huckleberry B’s selfless courage truly shined. We could have stayed in Tashinga and waited for the helicopter. Alternatively, we could have taken a relatively easy route to Mende with only limited uphill heart-thumping climbs and downhill, knee-aching and thigh-trembling descents. Instead, B insisted on taking the more difficult route along the high road to Mende.

The journey involved walking some 15 kilometres and a `net climb’ from Tashinga at 3,450 above sea level to Mende at 3,700; an ascent of a further 250 vertical metres.

We left Tashinga at 8.30 am and did not arrive at Mende until around 4.30 pm. The final stages were the most demanding. The Everest Summit Lodge essentially sat at the top of a very steep incline and involved us trudging, clambering and scaling the steepest ascent of our trek.

At times, I looked up and wondered how we would ever make it. Notwithstanding our previous laborious climbs, I was seriously daunted by the steep climb to Mende.

Yet B, to my amazement – and despite her injury – kept on scampering up and up and up until she made it to the top. I told her she was amazing and she responded that she was determined to reach the top before night fall. I pointed out that she had achieved this goal with an hour to spare.

The Flight of Angels

The 23rd of December saw the arrival of a helicopter to take us to Lukla and then to Kathmandu.

I was surprised at the emotion welling up inside me as the helicopter rose from Mende and traversed, in minutes, the path which had taken us days to cover. I looked down and saw Namche Bazarre, the Hillary Bridge and the river which ran all the way to Lukla.

As we flew across the mountain range, I reflected upon the emotional roller-coaster I had ridden over the previous five days.

For far too often I was daunted by the journey ahead of us. I was driven into apprehensive silence early in our trek, a mindset not helped by Huckleberry B’s injury on the first day.  I was frequently worried about whether she could continue, not to mention saddened by her obvious suffering. I worried about the options available to us if she – or any of us – could not proceed any further. I suspect it was the sense of isolation which promoted these negative emotions.

However, I also experienced long periods of profound joy. I was most happy when we were walking at a good pace and making progress to our daily destination. Frequently, my joy was elevated to a feeling of genuine elation. When my mind was uncluttered, I was overwhelmed by the majestic beauty of our surrounds and my spirits simply soared.

My scrambled emotions continued as the helicopter landed in Lukla. Whilst relieved that we were now safe, I simultaneously felt deep regret that our adventure was over and that, in all likelihood, we would never again return to the extraordinary place which we had just experienced over five remarkable days.

I am sure none of us will forget our trek through the Himalayas. Both the anguish and the delight we experienced along the way will long live in our memories. Doubtless, the bond which has developed between the four of us, forged by the extraordinary nature of our shared experience, shall also prevail.

Moonriver

THE HIMALAYAS (Part 1) – December 2011

By The Numbers…

Criteria Fact
Length of runway at Lukla Airport 500 metres
Height of Kathmandu above sea level 1,300 metres
Height of Lukla Airport above sea level 2,800 metres
Maximum height above sea level during trek 3,870 metres

(Tangbouche)

Minutes taken to ascend mountain to Tangbouche 185 minutes
Minutes taken to descend from Tangbouche 65 minutes
Maximum climb in single day 645 vertical metres

(Monjo to Namche)

Time taken to walk from Monjo to Namche Over 5 hours
Total kilometres trekked in 5 days Over 60 kilometres
Total number of hours on foot Over 30 hours
Approximate weight loss Approx 5 kilograms
Number of breaths we took Countless
Number of moments which took our breath away Infinite

 A Merry Band of Himalayan Wanderers

The four of us met up at the Yak & Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu on the evening of 16 December 2011.

Huckelberry B and I had traveled from Sydney to the Nepalese capital via Melbourne and Hong Kong.

Our sister-in-law, C, and our niece, MC, had spent a week in Hong Kong and arrived in Kathmandu eight hours ahead of us. They said they had trained for our Himalayan trek by walking constantly – and spurning the MRT – during their stay in Hong Kong. Only time would tell whether this training regime would prove effective.

Meeting us at Kathmandu Airport was our cheerful guide, Kercha. We liked Kercha immediately. He was eternally patient when we made slow progress on our trek. Any question was met with a lazy smile and a carefully considered answer.

We were joined, at Lukla, by our assistant guide, Laksman.  With a slight resemblance to Rahul Dravid, I can easily imagine Laksman as an Indian middle-order batsman. Short in stature, but both hard-of-muscle and loose-of-limb, I can picture Laksman whipping a cricket ball from outside off stump to the square leg boundary, before lazily walking down the pitch to shake his batting partner’s hand and raising his bat, acknowledging the applause of the crowd.

Laksman’s assistance during our trek would prove invaluable. More about that later.

Our merry band was rounded out by two porters. Both were of moderate build, but of limitless stamina. How they carried 30 kilos each for distances exceeding 15 kilometres defies understanding.

Because It’s There

Fifty-eight years earlier, in 1953, another band of adventurers gathered to make a serious assault on the Everest Summit.

Standing over 8.5 kilometres above sea level, Everest was yet to be conquered, although many brave souls had tried, including George Mallory who, in the 1920’s, famously said he would climb Everest `because it’s there‘.

Whilst our trek would take us to less than half the height of the world’s tallest mountain, I decided to prepare myself for the journey by reading Sir Edmund Hillary’s autobiography.

I knew that Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first men to reach the Everest Summit. What I did not previously know was that two other climbers from Hillary’s extended team made an assault on the Summit several days earlier but failed. Those men were considered the A team, whereas Hillary and Tenzing were the B team.  Had Hillary and Tenzing failed, a third (and final) team would have made one final attempt.

Hillary describes, in detail, how difficult it was to carry loads of supplies to strategic points near the peak, to find a sufficiently large area of relatively flat ground to pitch a tent and to simply get some sleep in conditions extremely short of both warmth and oxygen.

However, once at the Summit, Hillary details the satisfaction he felt at being the first man in history to accomplish such an extraordinary achievement. When Sherpa Tenzing joined him, Hillary offered a handshake – in `Anglo-Saxon fashion’, as he described it – only to have his comrade step forward and hug him in unrestrained joy. Tenzing, Hillary wrote, felt it important that a Sherpa be a member of the party to first reach the Everest Summit given the support Sherpas had given both this and previous Everest campaigns.

Whilst at the Summit, both Hillary and Tenzing performed rituals relevant to their differing religions. Remarkably, much like Neil Armstrong sixteen years later, Hillary photographed his triumphant partner but left the scene without a photograph of himself.

Once back at an altitude where ordinary men might walk, controversy raged as to which of Hillary and Tenzing had reached the Summit first. Tenzing, at the time illiterate, had been pressured by his countrymen to sign a document which proclaimed that he was the first to the top; before assisting Hillary to join him. Local Nepalese political activists produced a poster which depicted Tenzing on the Summit dragging a fatigued and prone Hillary behind him.

Faced with both sensitive political and cultural issues, Hillary and Tenzing agreed to say that they reached the Summit simultaneously. That line was adopted during the official lecture tour which followed their triumph. Hillary clearly describes in his autobiography, however, that he was the first to take the final steps to the top of the world. That said, I observed during our tour of Nepal that where both names were employed – in posters or place names – Tenzing’s name customarily came first. For example, the airport at Lukla is called the `Tenzing – Hillary Airstrip’.

This controversy was one of the topics which rattled around my head during the long hours on foot in the days which would follow. My conclusion is that it matters not which man took the final stride to reach the Everest Summit. The fact is that neither would have made it to the top without the assistance of the other. The honour is deservedly shared.

Landing on a Wing and a Prayer

We have heard that the airstrip at Lukla is the second most dangerous in the world.

Having now experienced it, we can readily understand why!

Cut into the side of a mountain – 2,800 metres above sea level – the runway is only 500 metres long. At the end of this shortest of short runways, stands a very solid rock cliff face. As if these danger factors were not enough, the runway has been built so that it runs uphill.

I have never landed an aeroplane.

However, even if I was an experienced pilot, I anticipate that I would be daunted by each of the following factors which I would have to take into account whilst executing a safe landing at Lukla.

First, I would be anxious to avoid coming in too low and crashing into the side of the mountain below the airstrip.

Second, I would be vigilant in ensuring that my airspeed was `just right’; namely slow enough to allow me to bring the aircraft to a safe halt on the short airstrip yet fast enough to avoid stalling and crashing into the said mountain.

Third, I would want to set the wheels of the plane down as close to the start of the airstrip as possible – to give myself maximum stopping range – whilst, again, avoiding coming in too shallow and crashing into the cliff face below the airstrip.

Fourth, I would endeavour to keep the nose of my aircraft up, even whilst landing, in order to avoid the nose cutting a canal through the centre of the upward slopping airstrip.

Fifth, even after safely setting the wheels of the plane onto the tarmac, and avoiding the nose ploughing into the incline, I would be keen to hit the brakes at the earliest opportunity, and maybe even fishtail somewhat, to avoid careering into the cliff-face lying in wait at the end of the 500 metre airstrip.

Finally, I would keep a watchful eye for the sharp right hand turn in the L-shaped airstrip and to come to a final safe halt.

Considering each of the above factors, it is little wonder that each of the passengers in our small aeroplane – including the hostess and the co-pilot – applauded upon safe landing.

Whilst we were frustrated by a prolonged delay at Kathmandu airport – extending over two hours – as we waited for the weather at Lukla to clear, we were ultimately grateful that this safety measure was taken. I can’t imagine how dangerous it would be to try to land a plane at Lukla whilst that precarious airstrip was shrouded in clouds.

A Hard Slog

Let’s face it. Trekking the Himalayas was tough going. I don’t think any of us truly understood what we were getting ourselves into. Like George Mallory, however, we trekked the Himalayas because they were there.

It was a thrill to walk in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Reinhold Messner, Ed Viesturs, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer; following the same route Everest climbers throughout the decades had followed on their way to Base Camp and beyond.

But it was hard work. In the last two years, I have completed five half marathons. Thanks to a weakness to foods I should avoid – most notably milk chocolate and blue cheese – I remain on the tubby side. However, after countless solitary hours running the hills around home, I have attained a good level of cardio-vascular fitness. Yet it wasn’t long into the first day of our trek that I knew that our tour of the Himalayas was going to be even harder than I had feared.

For most of our five days on foot, we were walking over three kilometres above sea level and, quite often, well over three and a half. At that level, the air is thin and the oxygen is precious. Any physical exertion causes the heart to thump violently against one’s chest.

Walking downhill or on level ground was easy enough, but even the slightest incline was arduous. When ascending the side of a mountain – as we did on three of the five days – we purposefully and consciously slowed our walking pace. Even then, however, we had to stop every five minutes or so to catch our breath, before proceeding, once more, towards the heavens.

After the first day, MC asked me which was more draining; a day trekking in the Himalayas or running a half marathon. My spontaneous response to her then is the same I would give if asked now; I’m not sure.

The Heart of a Warrior

I must pause at this point to pay tribute to my wife.

Huckleberry B started training, in earnest, for this trek in August. We both knew that we had to be physically fit to walk five hours or more every day for a week at altitudes over three kilometres into the sky.

However, B’s training was curtailed when – whilst running during her lunch break – she twisted her left ankle. Since then she has been hobbling around, at the best of times, making training next to impossible. Whilst I urged her to consider very carefully whether to proceed with the trek, she was determined to go. I suspect that she didn’t want the others in our group to miss out due to her own misfortune.

Several hours into the first day of our trek, from Lukla to Monjo, Kercha mentioned that because our morning flight to Lukla had been delayed, we would probably not reach our destination before nightfall. From that moment on, Huck B was determined to forget her sore ankle and her lack of optimal cardio-vascular training and steam towards Monjo – whether downhill or up – at maximum speed.

It was during this period of elevated exertion that B strained forward with her right leg to accommodate a large step and tore a muscle in her groin.

At this point we were still several hours from Monjo with no alternative than to press on.

Not only did Huck B make it to Monjo – the last 45 minutes by torch light in complete darkness – but she persevered for four more days.

For most of those four days, I was walking behind B whilst our dutiful assistant guide, Laksman, held her by the elbow and assisted her as she shuffled along, I could see that she was often in pain and that each step was difficult. Rather than stride forward she would take a small step with her left leg and swing her right leg forward, often hitting a rock along the way. At times Laksman would stand in front of B and hold both her wrists in order to assist her by essentially pulling her up a steep incline.

I have never been prouder of my wife’s determination.

After several days, it became obvious that Huckleberry would not be able to complete the scheduled 8 days of trekking; at least not without causing herself a permanent injury. We jointly decided that we would, at some point, call into aide a helicopter to take us back to either Lukla or Kathmandu. After some discussion with Chet, the tour guide operator, a helicopter was arranged for 23 December.

It was at this point that my beloved B’s courageous heart became most self-evident.

After four days of trekking we found ourselves in Tashinga, in the shadow of Mount Everest. We could have easily stayed there an additional night and waited for the helicopter to pluck us to safety.

However, B knew that there was one more day’s trekking in front of us before we started to retrace our steps back to Lukla. In other words, there was one more day of new unforgettable sights which we would never again have the opportunity to see.

With that knowledge in mind, Huckleberry resolved to cover the 15 kilometres from Tashinga to Mende – a journey of over 7 hours – rather than take the vastly easier option of resting until the helicopter arrived. She even insisted upon embarking upon the more difficult of two optional routes.

And so it was that Huck B set off – one arduous step after another – on her painful trek.

I have never been prouder to be Huckleberry B’s husband.

Stairway to Heaven

I have already described the pain we all experienced – except, perhaps, youthful and exuberate MC – in long days of trekking along a meandering path of either dust or stone, up and down (mostly up) steep mountains and across only relatively stable suspension bridges.

I must also emphasise the profound pleasure we each experienced.

There is something strangely uplifting – even spiritual – about seeing our planet at its most majestic.

From our second day on foot, soaring mountains kept a watchful eye over our progress. They were our constant friends. For the most part, we were walking along paths which either cut through a pine forest or zig-zagged up the side of a mountain. Our immediate surroundings were frequently of a greyish-green colour.

However, beyond the peaks in our immediate vicinity stood towering, snow covered mountains which were – literally and without any hint of exaggeration – the highest in the world. The tallest reached over 8 kilometres above sea level. Given that we were typically standing between 3.5 and 4 kilometres above the level of the sea, the highest peaks which dominated our view rose a further 4 kilometres or more above us into the heavens.

Of course, Mount Everest was the highlight. Seeing Everest so close that you felt like you could reach out and touch her made the heart soar. I paused to contemplate, once more, the enormous courage and sense of conquest which took men like Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay up the Lhotse Face, across the South Col and all the way to the distant Summit.

But Everest was not alone. To her left stood the Nuptse Ridge leading to Lhotse on the right, with Everest’s south-western ridge peaking over the top. But my favourite peak was probably Amadablam – which towers over Tangbouche Monastary – with it’s twin secondary peaks sitting in beautiful harmony with its central tooth shaped peak.

Thankfully, we were blessed, throughout our journey, with ideal weather. Once we started walking we were rarely cold. Moreover, the perfectly crisp winter days allowed us an unimpeded view of the snow clad Himalayan mountains set against a deep blue sky. Truly spectacular!

At times all I wanted to do was stand, with arms outstretched, and a let out a primal roar of unrestrained joy (which I actually did when alone more than once).

Whilst often short of breath and tired of limb, the experience of walking for hour upon hour also had its pleasures.

During these times, I would allow my mind to wander from one subject to another. Somehow, the experience allowed my mind to become uncluttered and free. At times I simply daydreamed. At other times I developed strategies for files I was working on back in the office. I even refined some of our strategic business plan. Given another day of so, I would have given global warming a crack… followed by a stratagem for world peace.

Moonriver

 

THE ADRIATIC – October 2011

The Ten Euro Tip

It’s remarkable where good looks will get you.

Regrettably, I am talking not about myself but of the aesthetically pleasing, female driver who transferred us from Venice’s Marco Polo Airport to the cruise terminal adjacent to the Grand Canal.

With wild brunette hair which cascaded across her shoulders, Ray Ban Aviator sunglasses, a healthy tan and pearl white teeth – not to mention shapely legs beneath her denim jeans and upon her stiletto heels – our driver cut a striking figure.  Heads were seen to turn as she walked on by…

By contrast to the lazy, disheveled reprobate who drove us to Istanbul Airport earlier in the day, the goddess who met us in Venice was a true delight.

We begrudgingly gave our Turkish bandit the extra five Turkish Lire (around A$3) he demanded for making him place some of our luggage in the front seat of his slovenly vehicle. I was, therefore, taken by considerable surprise when Huckleberry B instructed me to give our Italian supermodel a tip of ten Euros!

As I said, it’s remarkable where good looks will get you in this world!

Onboard Seabourn Spirit

Our home for the forthcoming week would be suite 108 of the Seabourn Spirit. Whilst much smaller than some of the vessels upon which we have sailed, the Spirit was one of the most gratifying.

We have joined the throng on a number of cruise ships carrying well over 1,000 passengers. The Diamond Princess, for example, was home to over 2,000. By contrast, Seabourn Spirit’s maximum capacity was a mere 200 guests.

The reduced passenger list corresponded with an increased level of service from the ever-attentive staff. We were astounded to be continually addressed by name moments after we stepped onboard.

The eating venues were, of course, more limited than what would be expected on a larger vessel. However, the loss of venue options was more than compensated for by quality. The food was outstanding and easily the best we have experienced at sea.

After the mandatory lifeboat drill – remarkably tedious regardless of the cruise line – Seabourn Spirit pulled away from its berth, performed an elegant u-turn and headed down a broad waterway to the south of the Grand Canal. The sunset views of Venice, as they drifted slowly by, were stunning and will long live in our memories. Before long we were sailing by famed San Marco, where a lively horde of tourists swarmed about, some of them waving to us as we headed out into the Adriatic Sea.

It was wonderful way to commence a week-long voyage.

The Pearls of the Adriatic

Our journey would take us to six ports along the Eastern coast of the Adriatic; one in Slovenia and five in Croatia.

The week we spent in Jordan and Turkey had been particularly draining given the constant travel, long periods in the back seat of a car and frequent highlights; this on the back of a seven day working week at home and a long journey to the Middle East.

We, therefore, jointly agreed that our week in the Adriatic would be more leisurely. We did not feel compelled to examine every corner of the ports we visited or learn every aspect of the site’s history. We relished the chance to relax and even take an afternoon nap.

It was a good plan and we stuck to it.

Each day onboard Seabourn Spirit adopted a similar slovenly pattern. We would sleep until 8am before enjoying an unhurried breakfast after most had already gone ashore on their organised tours. After breakfast we would head out for a seldom rushed stroll around the town – savouring the main attractions but banishing any road which appeared uninteresting – before returning to our vessel for lunch. In the afternoon, we relaxed with no fixed plans.

It was a great week!

In order, we visited the Slovenian town of Koper, followed by the Croatian ports of Zadar, Dubrovnik, Split, Hvar and Rovinj.

The Choral Singers of Koper

Like each of the sites we toured in our week onboard Seabourn Spirit, Koper was a sleepy – but picturesque – seaside town.

Despite its tranquil exterior, Koper is Slovenia’s largest commercial port. The city also boasts the main road route from which rental cars, stolen from Italy, can be driven to a safe haven in the Balkans.

For us, however, there were two highlights in Koper, both completely unexpected.

First, we stumbled on what appeared to be a local radio station hosting a charity event by the marina on the far side of the Old Town area. For reasons which were not totally apparent to us, the event featured pairs of runners competing in a one hundred metre dash along the paved shoreline. The runners came in all shapes and ages; some barely possessing the motor skills to run and others with well-coached running styles. The scene was completed by loud music – most of it (strangely) from the 80’s – being pumped out from loudspeakers adjacent to a tent featuring the radio station’s logo. Strangely, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were also in attendance, dancing in a disturbingly provocative manner in time (sort of) to the music.

The second highlight of Koper, was Tito Square and the adjacent St Mary’s of the Assumption Cathedral. We assumed that the Square was named after the famous World War II Yugoslav partisan. However, what made our visit memorable was that we happened to visit the Cathedral whilst a clearly professional choir and orchestra were rehearsing for a performance. As soon as we entered the Cathedral we heard the sublime music and knew that the performers were not mere amateurs. We were treated to a wonderful free concert which we enjoyed immensely.

The Cobbled Streets of Zadar

Zadar, we were told, is the fifth largest city in Croatia. Whilst populated since pre-historic times, the city gained its urban structure whilst part of the Roman Empire. The city wall which the Romans built is still partly in evidence, as are some of the important civic buildings.

Much like Koper, the old town of Zadar is quaint, sleepy and picturesque. The buildings, painted in pale pastel colours, are separated by narrow streets of cobbled stone. Church spires peak over the tops of the buildings whilst fishing vessels bob in the adjacent harbour.

Indeed, Zadar is so tranquil that visiting tourists feel like taking a nap; which is precisely what Huck B and I mutually agreed to do.

The Walled City of Dubrovnik

For many of the passengers on Seabourn Spirit, one of the reasons they chose the cruise was to allow them a visit to Dubrovnik; probably the most celebrated town on Croatia’s Adriatic coast.

The Old Town – enclosed by a very high city wall – became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Dubrovnik, we were informed, was an independent merchant republic for 700 years until captured by Napoleon in 1806. It had diplomatic relations with Queen Elizabeth I. Even the denizens of Venice was jealous of Dubrovnik’s status.

After Napoleon’s fall, Dubrovnik became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War II, it became part of Yugoslavia. Most recently, in 1991 and 1992, Dubrovnik was subjected to a seven month siege at the hands of the Serbs. The constant shelling caused considerable damage, but has since been restored.

Against this history, it was a thrill to board our tender boat and approach the walled Old Town by sea. Once inside the city we explored its narrow streets before climbing a steep stair case in order to walk along the top of the city wall. Much like the Great Wall of China, the Dubrovnik city wall is sufficiently broad to accommodate a path on its apex. In most places, the path is wide enough to allow two people to walk side by side. I would estimate that it took us an hour to circumnavigate the Old Town from atop the city wall.

The view from the top of the wall was spectacular. Looking across the city, we could see the red tiled roofs of the town, punctuated by church spires and the occasional town square. On the western side of the city, we could turn around and gaze across the sparkling Adriatic Sea, whilst sailing boats drifted by and seagulls squawked.

We decided that Dubrovnik’s reputation is well deserved.

Looking for Fish in Split

Prior to this journey, the only reasons I had heard of Split were (a) because it has a somewhat silly name, and (b) because I remember seeing a news item of Goran Ivanisevic returning to a hero’s welcome in this, his home town, after winning Wimbledon. I think I remember seeing the adoring crowd go wild when Goran took his shirt off and posed like a body builder.

From this day forward, however, I will remember Split for a fun visit to the fish market with Seabourn Spirit’s chef, Graeme.

When we heard to it was possible to go shopping with the chef, we immediately signed-up to register our interest.

Thankfully – after tactfully checking the progress of our polite enquiry twice per day for three days – we were selected to join Graeme on his quest for fresh seafood and vegetables. I should make it clear that our ship was not short of food. The purpose of the exercise was to obtain some speciality items to add to the existing menu.

And so it was that we set out on foot with Graeme – the charming Scot with the cheeky smile – and half a dozen other passengers to walk along the seafront, from where Seabourn Spirit was berthed, to Split’s fish market. Huckleberry B and I have, of course, been to our local fish market many times. So we are accustomed to seeing recently dead fish staring at us through bulging eyes. However, it was fun to make the visit with an expert.

Graeme taught us that the freshest fish are still curled up whilst waiting to be purchased. It’s only when rigor mortis sets in that the fish flatten out. So if you happen to see a fish in your local store which continues to boast a graceful curve; snap it up!

The other tip Graeme gave us was that fresh fish have clear eyes. They become murky with time.

After poking and prodding the produce, Graeme decided to purchase some calamari, white bait and sea bass. However, the biggest talking point was a 26 kilo king fish. I immediately remarked to B that the fish weighed more than twice as much as an adult Cavalier King Charles.

The king fish was unceremoniously strapped to a trolley and Graeme’s helper wheeled him back to our vessel. It was fun watching tourist and local alike look casually towards the trolley as they passed only to suffer whiplash when they snapped their heads back to make sure their eyes were not deceiving them.

Whilst the king fish trundled back to our vessel, Graeme and the rest of the party visited a vegetable market where some aragula leaves were purchased and some bread.

The following day, we duly saw the fruits of our labour appearing on the daily menu onboard Seabourn Spirit. The calamari was stuffed with lobster mousse, which I ordered and found delicious. The king fish was grilled in individual portions.

Unfortunately, Chef Graeme’s plans did not go completely to plan. His intention was to cook the king fish whole. However, before he could stop him, a dutiful assistant chef, with a misguided sense of initiative, filleted the fish and cut it into portions. We heard that otherwise amiable Chef Graeme was irate when he returned to the galley and saw what had befallen his pride and joy.

Cooling our Heels in Hvar

Another day; another quaint fishing village on the Adriatic Sea.

Hvar was certainly picturesque and every photograph was worthy of a post card. Our visit was initially dominated by a steep climb up the hill towards a fort which commanded views across the town and out to sea. After leaving the buildings behind, we found ourselves in a forest environment. We half expected to see seven dwarfs marching by, spades and shovels slung across their shoulders.

However, once back to the dock, we decided it was time to return to our boat for lunch. Seeing that both of the available tender boats were bobbing in the water, and no other tourists in sight, we expected to be back on board within moments. We climbed onboard and took a seat and were thankful when the tender boat master headed out into the bay, rather than wait of more passengers to arrive.

Our good fortune, however, came to a sudden end.

We heard the words from Seabourn Spirit’s Captain over the walky-talky but hoped we misinterpreted his words. We head the tender master’s calls of `ma-am’ and `sir’, but chose to ignore him. It was to no avail. We were heading back to land.

The Captain had decided that the tender boats should remain on standby whilst Seabourn Spirit lifted anchor and looked for a new place to rest. The wind was high and the current was strong. Seabourn Spirit had been drifting across the bay and the Captain decided that there should be no more passenger movements from the shore until his vessel was secure.

And so we returned to land.

We stood at the dock for ten minutes, then twenty and then the half hour mark came and went. Meanwhile we could see our ship traipsing this way and that across the bay; weighing anchor several times and hoping that she’d hold; all to no avail. As time passed more passengers arrived and demanded a return to their vessel, only to be denied. Suddenly an hour had passed since we first returned to shore. We saw our fellow passengers jockeying for favourable positions in the informal queues which had been developing adjacent to each of the two tenders. Having been one quarter of the way back to our vessel, only to return to shore, we held our ground.

Finally, the call came that Seabourn Spirit’s anchor was, once more, secure. A Japanese lady stepped forward and said `Watashi wa ichiban des’. I whispered `Iye’ under my breath and stepped in front of her. We should have been back onboard over an hour ago and were in no mood for nonsense.

Roaming Rovinj

Our final port, for this cruise, was Rovinj.

This destination proved to be a delight. As had been the case all week, Rovinj presented as a picture perfect fishing village. However, it had an extra element of charm which appealed to us.

The Old Town was built on a headland adjacent to where we berthed. Some of the three storey dwellings were constructed right on the edge of the water so that they were reminiscent of Venice.

Not knowing which we to go we headed left and followed one of the narrow cobbled streets which meandered through the town to a headland which looked over the ocean. We then followed the headland around until we re-entered the town. Suddenly we rounded a corner and found ourselves in the commercial centre of the Old Town; complete with yachts and fishing vessels, a church and restaurants with outdoor seating. The town square was dominated by statue of a boy very proudly holding a large fish under his arm.

Our tour of Rovinj was a nice way to end our journey along Croatia’s Adriatic coast.

An Afternoon in Venice

The next morning Seabourn Spirit returned to Venice. Our plan was to explore Venice’s enchanting canals in the morning, have a pizza for lunch and rest in the afternoon.

Little did we know that nature would conspire against us.

I was just waking up when Huckleberry B opened the curtains of our stateroom to look outside. We had heard the anchor drop and assumed that we had docked already. However, all I heard was B saying, “Venice is gone…”

I looked outside – shortly afterwards – and agreed. All I could see was fog. I was amazed that I could not see the buildings on the other side of the broad canal. As it transpired, this was because we were not yet in the canal. Whilst having breakfast the Captain announced that the heavy fog sitting over Venice had prevented us from entering. We were sitting off the coast, waiting for a Pilot to guide us in.

Thankfully, our only plans were to re-acquaint ourselves with Venice. If we had a plane to catch, our anxiety levels would have been rising exponentially with the passing minutes. Looking around the dining room at breakfast, we could see from the tight lips and strained foreheads that some of our fellow passengers were already in that unhappy state. We could see brains reluctantly recalibrating travel plans.

B and I were supposed to leave Seabourn Spirit by 8.30 am. Incredibly, it was not until after twelve noon that we picked up our hand luggage and trundled of our vessel for the last time.

But Venice awaited…

Huckleberry B had booked us in for one night at the Molina Stucky Hilton which, we had discovered, was directly across the canal from where Seabourn Spirit was docked. This was a godsend. B and I still tell friends about our last visit to Venice when we booked a hotel near the railway station and got lost; not mention how difficult it was to wheel our heavy bags up and down the bridges which traversed the canals which lay in the way. On this visit, all that was required as a quick water taxi ride across the canal.

We adhered to our lunchtime pizza plans before heading off to explore the unique town. Whilst we had previously visited Venice in 2004, we never got to view the video we took during that visit because our house was robbed shortly after our return home and our video camera (and bag) was stolen. With this in mind, one of our tasks on this happy afternoon was to capture Venice’s highlights, once more, on video and photograph. It wasn’t difficult to become enthusiastic about this chore.

After several hours visiting the Academia Bridge, the Rialto Bridge and San Marco Square – together with countless alleys and gondola laden canals – we returned to our hotel for dinner and sleep.

Moonriver