La Paz, El Ted and Karen

Eddie, or “El Ted” to his friends (and bar staff) has been travelling since before Jude and I set out on our big trip, but got stuck in one place (managing a bar in a godawful vibrant backpacker’s hostel) for long enough that we were able to track him down.

Behold the Ted!

Ted

And his bird par excellence, Karen! (on the left)

Karen and pigs on the streets of La Paz

La Paz is extremely high, almost 4km, which is half the cruising height of a passenger jet (can you tell I’ve been reading Wikipedia?). This means that water boils at 85 degrees and even if you make tea according to the stringent British tea protocol I was brought up with (preheat the pot, add tea, pour in boiling water) it still tastes like you used hot water out of a tap. Apparently you can make good tea if you have a pressure cooker. It also means that you get altitude sickness really easily, the cure for which is Coca Tea:

Coca coffee

Coca Tea is made from the same leaves that they use to make cocaine, but is (apparently) non addictive and produces little effect except the magical vanishing of altitude sickness symptoms (nausea, tiredness, aching joints).

The main event of the trip was cycling the “World’s Most Dangerous Road ™” which used to kill about 300 people a year until they opened a new road in 2006 that doesn’t require heavily laden trucks to pass each other on a 6 metre wide dirt track with a 800 foot vertical drop to one side and no barrier.

The road involves a 3.5km drop in altitude over about 3 hours of solid bone-shaking vibration, so we were glad to get to the bottom and chill out for a few days in Coroico, which was initially beautifully sunny…

Corioco

and then beautifully cloudy

Clouds in Coroico.

We’ve been in La Paz for around 10 days now, and here I part ways with Jude – she’s going off round South America for a month, I’m going back to the UK early to help the folks with an opera they’re putting on. Your regular programme of jealousy-inducing blog postage will have to be maintained by her wifeliness.

Over and Out,

Bernie :o)

P.S. Since there was no more relavent place to put this photo, I’ll just drop it in here. A Bolivian extension cord, “fixed” by El Ted. Absolutely not a fire hazard:

Absolutely not a fire hazard.

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Things I’ve loved about Australia

Aaah, the familiar ordeal of intercontinental air travel. We’re currently queuing up to check in to our flight out of the country, having said goodbye to our hosts in Perth, the Simpers.

Airport

It’s 6am, and either the memory of entering the country in the same manner or perhaps the mild dementia brought about by pitting sleep depravation and caffeine against each other is making me all nostalgic for our trip. Jude has talked extensively about the oddities of Aussie culture but I’ve kept my mouth shut until now. So here is, in no particular order, the things that I loved about Oz.

Continue reading

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So long Sydney

We’ve now left Sydney for the final time on this trip. I miss the place already but my final thought on it is that it’s just a little bit, umm well, odd:

I realised whilst staring blankly at this sign on my way to work that I had fallen through the looking glass and woken up in a parallel universe.

Sydney: A parallel universe?

One of the most obvious oddities is that the seasons are backwards – winter is from June to August and the height of summer is from Christmas to the end of February.

There are also loads of streets and areas in Sydney with familiar names that have a completely different character to their UK name sakes. Canterbury is an inner west suburb filled with unemployed layabouts and there’s not a cathedral or fancy school in sight. There’s no train station in Paddington and the only bears there who like marmalade are the customers of one of it’s many gay clubs. New South Wales does not contain many sheep or coal mines and has recently experienced a 10 year drought. [Kings Cross is just like its London counterpart: soulless oversized boozers full of fake-tanned man peacock hybrids and aggro drunken whores – Bernie]

Sydney’s Hyde Park is definitely still a park, but it’s smaller and the pigeons are a bit scary looking.

Sydney: A parallel universe?

They don’t have the Salvation Army but an enigmatic institution called The Salvos instead. You’ll also find this establishment around the place:

Sydney: A parallel universe?

It is Burger King but I have no idea why it’s called Hungry Jacks here. In fact many of the things people say mean something different (see my earlier post for heaps more examples).

There are loads of things about life in Sydney that are familiar to a Brit but the city is patently not London no matter how much the original settlers (and some of the later ones) might have wanted it to be. It’s the same same but different, enough so that if you think about it for too long it starts to mess with your head. Personally I’ve grown to love the sense of unfamiliar familiarity and I now expect I’ll go through it in reverse when I get back to the UK.

But whilst I’m still in Australia I can at least console myself with a bag of sweets from Woolies.
Sydney: A parallel universe?

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Climbing in Railay Beach

Because the Australian government (arguably quite rightly) suspects that poms will carry on working illegally when their working holiday visas expire we have been forced, forced I say, to take a holiday from our holiday in order to reenter oz on a tourist visa.

We decided to take the opportunity to get some climbing in at one of the most stunning locations in the world: Railay beach on Thailand’s Andaman Coast. Railay has a tonne of climbing routes at different grades. They’re on limestone cliffs which either come right down to the sea or are surrounded by lush jungle. We had loads of fun over two days with our guide Kung.

We also spent a day deep water soloing – climbing without a rope on sea cliffs and diving (or falling) off when you’re done.

Deep water soloing near Railay Beach

And we managed to fit in a spot of bouldering

Bouldering, Phra Nang beach

[This particular bouldering session lasted about ten seconds because the rocks are covered in little razor-sharp flakes. That was in two sessions of five seconds each: the first when I climbed on, wailed like a girl and dropped off, and the second when Jude made me get back on again because she missed the photo – B]

And some posing

Phra Nang Beach

Before chilling out and watching the sunset

Sunset, Railay Beach

We also discovered that our climbing guide Kung actually has two awesome jobs. He’s an instructor by day and a fire juggler by night. How cool is that?

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Crossing the Nullarbor

The Nullarbor is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to the Nullarbor.

It’s been looming large in this stage of our trip for weeks now. We’ve been telling people that “We’re going to cross the Nullarbor” in hushed tones and fancying that they start looking at us with new found respect.

Crossing the Nullarbor

Crossing the Nullarbor

As well as being big the Nullarbor is flat and the road is straight. Very straight.

Crossing the Nullarbor

Crossing the Nullarbor

Crossing the Nullarbor

That’s a photo of our Sat Nav telling us that we’ve got another 675 kilometres to go until the next turning (and we only thought to take the picture when we were half way across). No wonder the only people that live here work in the service stations that keep travellers of questionable sanity well supplied with pies and trinkets.

Crossing the Nullarbor

The Nullarbor is the largest piece of continuous limestone in the world. It’s flat for hundreds of kilometres, then plunges abruptly into the sea.

Crossing the Nullarbor

It’s riddled with caves called “blowholes”. These are huge underground caves with small mouths, so that when the outside air pressure drops all the air in the cave rushes out through the entrance allowing you to do some amusing things with bloomers.

Crossing the Nullarbor

More people lived here back in the 19th century when the main mode of transport was camels and the journey across the plain took months [these days the 4.5 litre V8 diesel Toyota Landcruiser seems to be more in vogue – Bernie].

Crossing the Nullarbor

But the most shocking thing about the Nullarbor (from the latin Nullus – “bugger all in the way of” – and Arbor – “Trees”) is that the western half has trees on it. Lot’s of trees. So many trees in fact that it’s much easier to see the blue haze eucalypts are famous for here than it is back in the Blue Mountains near Sydney.

Crossing the Nullarbor

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The day I got hooked on fishing

We arrived in Streaky Bay thinking it would be our last stop in civilisation before making tracks across the Nullarbor. We found the busiest campsite we have ever seen:

Streaky Bay fishing trip

We squeezed our tent into the last spot on the site and settled down to enjoy civilisation with half of Australia. We soon got talking to two locals Judie and Rob who told us that everybody was there for the superlative fishing. Rob’s an expert fisherman and offered to take us out with him the next day so we could see for ourselves.

First up we needed to acquire some bait. These things are known as razor fish – they don’t look particularly like razors or fish but the King George Whiting are mad for what’s inside them, which is a bit like a scallop:

Streaky Bay fishing trip

After some expert tuition from Rob we got cracking:

Streaky Bay fishing trip

And it wasn’t long before we hooked a couple of whiting each:

Streaky Bay fishing trip

After a while another boat motored slowly past, some 50 metres away. Rob said “Queenslanders, pah. They’ve got no fishing etiquette. Don’t let on that we’re catching anything or they’ll be over fishing in our spot.” No sweat I thought – I hadn’t caught anything for a while. 30 seconds later I felt an enormous tug on my rod and reeled in not one but two whiting at the same time. I admit that at this point I got a little over excited and turned round to show Rob and Bernie before I’d finished reeling the line in. The momentum sent my line circling round the boat twice as Rob and Bernie jumped and ducked to avoid a fishy slap. [There was an amount of whooping too – Bernie]¬† We were rumbled, oops!

After three hours or so on the water the fish stopped biting – partly because Bernie and I had fed them so much bait I think – so we headed back to camp to prepare supper:

Step one: scaling

Streaky Bay fishing trip

Step two: filleting

Streaky Bay fishing trip

Step three: feed the head and tail to the appreciative audience

Streaky Bay fishing trip

Step four: cook (this is Rob, by the way)

Streaky Bay fishing trip

Step four turns this:

Streaky Bay fishing trip

Into this:

Streaky Bay fishing trip

Nom, nom, nom.

It’s important not to let the whiting have all the fun. It turns out that humans find razor fish exceptionally tasty too:

Streaky Bay fishing trip

They taste like a cross between crab and scallop, are found only on the Eyre Peninsula and can’t be sold in shops or restaurants:

Streaky Bay fishing trip

Perfect.

In Streaky Bay we feasted like kings and queens, learnt some new skills and made some fab new friends. Thanks for giving us a perfect dose of civilisation Rob and Judie!

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Real Australiana

So we were driving down the Eyre Peninsula when we saw a sign. It was an impassible obstacle in our path – at once an invitation and a challenge. There was no chance of driving past and ignoring it. The sign said:

Ute Muster

What is a Ute Muster you ask?

This is a Ute Muster:

Ute Muster

Ute Muster

Ute Muster

Ute Muster

A Ute Muster is camping in the bush with 500 other 4 wheel drive parties

Ute Muster

A Ute Muster is keeping beer cold in very classy stubbie holders:

Ute Muster

A Ute Muster is dancing badly into the night to the tune of a country band playing out of an 18 wheeler who introduced one song with “This here tune gots to do with selling vegetables off the back of a truck”.

Ute Muster

A Ute muster is awesome.

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What exactly it is that I do all day

So this is it. 10 months living in Sydney has ended and Jude and I are on the road again in our trusty battered old 4×4. More on that story later, but first I want to show off what I’ve been working on for the last few months.

GE is building some “experience centres” in China to showcase a few of their five bajillion products. Being a technology company, it’s not enough to have a big paper catalogue or perhaps a video playing on a projector. Nope, to keep up with the Jonses (or the Mitsubishis rather) you need a number of multi-touch tables with swishy animated graphics and particle systems.

Best I can tell I was hired largely on the back on having built the software for inamo. Well I certainly wasn’t hired for my total absence of prior experience with the technologies we were using (“C++ & OpenGL” for the geeks reading, “Hardcode graphics programming” for everybody else). Fortunately I got to work with two extremely good developers (helpfully named Stephane and Stephen) and got up to speed in no time. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’m thinking of a career adjustment when I get back to the UK to do more of this kind of work. Four months of coding, animating, debugging and arguing with designers later, and we’d built these:

(if you have a fast connection, click the bottom right button to make them full screen)

The videos really don’t them justice – they’re big, smooth, responsive and generally sexy. Just like Jude. [Note to readers – I have been appropriately slapped for that comment]

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Rafting on the Rangitata

The main purpose of our trip to Nieu Zarland – as the local’s pronounce it – was to catch up with the Rice-Grubbs. We spent a lovely three days with Phil, Rich and Sam at Rich’s parents house being rather spoilt by William and Elizabeth (thanks guys!).

IMG_1907

Phil and Sam both looking rather splendid at the Moeraki Boulders

But we couldn’t spend a week in the world’s adventure sports capital without doing something silly so we decided to test ourselves by going white water rafting down the Rangitata river’s grade 5 rapids.

It turned out that the white water was a piece of cake – neither of us fell out and we both managed to acquit ourselves adequately with a paddle. For proof of this please see the pictures below. Bernie’s at the front of the boat in a blue helmet and I’m on the second row in a green helmet. The lovely looking fellow in the gold helmet is our guide Duncan. When Bernie asked him if he could drink the water, he replied “Sure you can drink it. You’ll get savage fatal diarrhea, but you can drink it!”

But the ordeal wasn’t over – the most terrifying bit came at the end. ¬†After watching everybody else do it there was no way I could chicken out of the 10m cliff jump at the end of the course!

You would be able to see the fear in my eyes, if my eyes were open…

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Central Christchurch, one year after the earthquake

This is going to be a somewhat depressing post. But then again, central Christchurch is a somewhat depressing place right now. Besides, the post will lighten up towards the end, I promise. On 22 Feb 2011, an earthquake destroyed much of the city centre. Some buildings collapsed completely, many more were rendered uninhabitable. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I decided to visit Christchurch almost a year later. I had been told that there “wasn’t much to see any more”, which is true if you like historical buildings, and false if you like spray paint and cordons.

The whole of the city centre is cordoned off as reconstruction work has begin in earnest. This is Kilmore St near the centre, according to Google Street View:

This is the same view now:

IMG_0198

The whole of the town centre is cordoned off, and accessible only to construction workers:

Christchurch

It took over two hours to walk around the circumference of the cordon. So much of the city looks as though time just stopped on the day of the quake. Through the dusty windows of cafes you can still see the coffee cups broken on the floor where they rolled off set tables during the quake. Most of the buildings still have a spray-painted sign saying which team checked them for survivors and when. This apartment building was checked by NSWTF (New South Wales Taskforce, a group from Australia) at 5.50am, 6 days after the quake:

Christchurch

The older buildings seemed worst affected:

Christchurch

Christchurch

And there are sobering reminders of the human cost:

Christchurch

However, there are things to be optimistic about. Famous for their ingenuity, the Kiwis have found a way to keep commerce going even in the stricken areas: shipping containers. When I first heard that there was a “container mall” in the town centre, I imagined a bleak corridor of metal bearing BP and Monsanto logos like some illegal Hong Kong gun market from an action film. The reality was pleasingly well executed (and unlike most inner city malls, there’s no shortage of parking space because of all the demolished buildings):

Christchurch

The cafe in the above pictures is light and airy, with sofas and cushions inside. There are banks, a food court and plenty of international clothing brand shops. Across town there was even a container bar with a passable whisky selection:

Christchurch

Yes, that’s a shipping container, heavily remodelled. The bar was full of locals and tourists and could have been in any world city. There was even a group of men in pink leotards pouring beer down the throat of their soon-to-be-betrothed friend.

Life goes on.

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