Nov 06 2009

Sami’s UK Travel Tips/Photo of the Day

Category: photos,travel,unsolicited adviceSami @ 6:46 am

1) If driving, get a GPS.

Unless you’re going for a very short stay, buy it; hiring them appears to cost ten pounds a day, and if you buy it, you can get used to it and put in principal destinations in advance.

Some Brits will make snarky comments about how they just use maps, but they’re used to this country and its sodding awful road design. The reasons you want a GPS if you’re not from here are as follows:

i) The road signs here are bloody awful. With a GPS you will STILL sometimes go astray, because you’ll find that you have five metres warning that the lane you’re in approaching a roundabout is right-turn-only, or left-turn-only, or go-straight-only – and there are an absolutely stupid number of roundabouts, and their design has zero consistency. The Magic Roundabout in Swindon is no longer even in my top ten Most Horrible British Roundabouts.

i,a) Don’t even try to work out what they were thinking. Only a sadist or someone who had never, in fact, driven a car would think that combining a roundabout with traffic lights, or having two roundabouts in immediate succession, with traffic lights between them, could possibly be anything other than a terrible idea. Welcome to Britain.

2) You don’t know what time it is. Wear a watch.

When I arrived at the farmhouse in which I’m staying for the next several nights, it was dusk. Naturally, this makes it late evening… except it was a quarter to five. That’s late afternoon. Your subconscious calculations of light levels and ambient conditions to tell you what time it is are wrong.

3) The papers are as bad as their stereotypes say they are.

An example is clear in today’s headlines.

The Times: “A bloody betrayal”

I only wish I were kidding.

The Daily Mail’s entire front page is dedicated to two headlines. A smaller panel: “Why yesterday was a sorry day for Britain, democracy and the Tories”. The bigger panel has a photo and: “THis is the bloodied flak jacket of one of the five British soldiers murdered in Helmand. Their killer? An Afghan policeman they trained and trusted. What kind of war IS this?”

I couldn’t bring myself to buy the Daily Star or the Sun, and I can’t remember the Sun’s headline, but it was pretty histrionic. The Afghanistan deaths were the front page of all but one paper – that one was about MPs.

4) Irn Bru tastes better in Scotland.

I don’t know why. It just does.

5) Some of the best places you will see are the ones no-one told you about.

Today, on my way south from Edinburgh, I stopped in Coldstream. The museum was closed, but I needed to pee so I stopped by the Town Hall/Library, then, on the purest of whims, I wandered down to Walk the Walk, a government/military surplus and memorabilia shop.

Which, it turns out, is also the building where some of the Coldstream Guards officers were billeted during World War 2, and down a narrow flight of stairs, there’s a miniature WW2 museum that surprises you as you come around the corner. At which point the sound system starts rotating through WW2-era songs and radio broadcasts, like Churchill’s speeches.

I bought three things there. One of them was not, originally, for sale, but he invited me to make an offer on it, and accepted my offer. The reason? We’d been chatting about my grandmother, and it turns out he had a framed set of maps and army print releases from the time and place where she was stationed.

Had. Now I have them.

Today’s photo:

This is a small bridge over the Leithen Water, in the town of Coldstream.

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Oct 25 2009

Scotland Photos: Western Highlands and Isle of Skye

Category: photos,travelSami @ 7:54 am

So, the Highlands to the west are really quite phenomenally beautiful.

An interesting thing about this following one: The road tunnel is all of one lane through.

This is taken from the inner courtyard of Eileen Donan Castle:

Bogland on the Isle of Skye:

An inlet I thought was beautiful:

Sunset on the Isle of Skye:

And finally, at dusk, the Skye sky eats the mountains:

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Oct 09 2009

England, day 3: Hungerford and Portsmouth

Category: adventure,photos,travelSami @ 3:19 am

Full photo set for today is here.

This morning I trotted off to Hungerford, after a leisurely chat with my uncle, to go to a bank before I headed on for my day’s main adventures.

In Hungerford I discovered that Barclay’s Bank didn’t open until 9:30am, Lloyd’s TSB didn’t open until 10am, and Natwest got my custom because it was actually open at quarter past nine, when my wandering down the high street got me that far.

Dear England,

What the hell.


A local I chatted to commented that he supposed they were lucky to have a branch in such a small town; I feel this is not quite the attitude.

Still, Hungerford is a very pretty place, and in addition to getting hold of some actual cash, I got some snacks for the day’s travels, too: strawberries, blueberries, and some gluten-free chips. I also bought copies of the Times and the Guardian, though I’ve not yet had time to read them.

A brief digression on my accent: Apparently, my tendency to absorb accents has not abated. Around my uncle’s house I find myself using occasional South African-isms; amongst the English, I’ve had an odd progression in people commenting on my accent. The first was a woman in the bank, who heard it from their back offices and came out to ask me what time it would be in Sydney. The second was a woman in the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth, who detected no Australian in my accent but picked up the American touch I don’t seem to be able to lose.

The third was another gentleman in another part of the museum, a couple of hours later, who thought I sounded entirely English.

Anyway, after I left Hungerford I headed for Portsmouth. Quite a long drive, but Radio 4 continues to be highly entertaining and the English countryside continues to be beautiful – and their’s something heart-stoppingly wonderful about seeing castles perched on hillsides in the distance.

Finally I reached Portsmouth, and I even found my way to the Historic Dockyards carpark, and then to the Historic Dockyards themselves. My booking on the tour of the HMS Victory was fairly soon, but on the way to it I had the chance to stop in one of the musuem galleries and see the honest-to-goodness actual, genuine Enigma Machine.

As a history buff of the period I follow, I assure you, this was terribly exciting.

After that, I took the tour of the Victory. Note: The Royal Navy still owns the Victory, and forbids photography, so I have no pictures of this. But I do have a picture of me, standing in front of the great ship, taken by the best photographer ever.

Apparently the best estimate is that about 25% Trafalgar materials remain in the Victory; in addition to the extremely heavy damage she took in the battle itself, it’s been an awfully long time, and since she’s now being kept in dry-dock, a number of the original cannons have been removed because she can’t take the weight, and replaced with fibreglass replicas.

That said, I saw, and touched, one of the cannon she carried at the Battle of Trafalgar. (As historic artifacts go, several tons of painted cast iron are on the list of those I do not feel it inappropriate to touch. I’m not sure I could damage it with a hammer beyond maaaybe chipping the paint.)

Walking on the lower deck where the original boards remain, I felt almost light-headed, thinking that my twenty-first century boots were tramping the same decks trodden by the crew – that I was walking where Admiral Nelson once walked.

We stopped in the area of the lower decks where the wounded were taken, and where Nelson himself died. The famous painting of Nelson’s deathbed scene is woefully inaccurate; it features people standing around, instead of hunching, because the ceiling is about five feet high there, and one of the men pictured standing tall with space above his head to spare was in fact six foot seven.

The low beams and the dim, windowless area give the deck a very claustrophobic feel, and the footsteps of people walking on the deck above are loud. It’s hard to imagine what the scene must have been like at the time he lay dying, with the cries of the other wounded, the battle still raging above, the thunder of footsteps amid the deafening blasts of the cannon fire.

After the Victory tour, I went to the museum, and saw the Battle of Trafalgar Experience, and checked out the display of figureheads and the miniature exhibition on the Royal Navy’s role in the ending of the slave trade; I noted that they do, at least, also acknowledge the Royal Navy’s role in the establishment of the slave trade.


After that, it was time to hustle down to the waterfront to board the ferry for the harbour tour. My photos from the tour are limited, as what I mostly did was video the whole thing – at some points the picture from the video gets terrible, because I was taking pictures with my still camera, but the tour speech from the driver was really good and I didn’t want to miss it.

Some highlights -

The white cliffs of Portchester Downs:

Roman fort turned English castle, Portchester Castle:

I disembarked from the ferry at the Gunwharf Quays, and went up the Spinnaker Tower. I’m not sure it would be at all worth it on a day with less clear skies, because for all that you can see for 27 miles, the tower is not that well-designed for good viewing. Nonetheless:

Finally, I wended my weary way back to my car, and drove back to Wiltshire. My plan was originally to have a nice bath and rest a bit before going out this evening to get petrol and do some shopping for winter clothes, but apparently I’m not quite over jet lag yet, because I’ve found myself feeling very, very tired and completely unfit to drive.

So, though it’s only a quarter past eight here in England, it is bedtime for Samis.

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Oct 07 2009

England, Day 1: Stonehenge, Longleat, the Vale of the White Horse, Avebury

Category: travelSami @ 4:30 am

So. This morning I woke at 4am, and headed out in time to get to Stonehenge before dawn. Driving through the countryside at dawn is kind of amazing for seeing small creatures at the edges of the light.

Sadly, I did discover that nowadays, Stonehenge kind of sucks, and it’s “closed” until 9:30am. Still, since nowadays you’re not allowed to walk close to the stones or anything, I’m told you see it just as much from the side of the road.

Especially if, as I did, you have a telephoto lens for your camera:

I will say, Stonehenge is a pretty awe-inspiring sight when you come around a curve and suddenly it’s right there – I nearly pitched into a ditch.

So, having walked about a bit, and started the truly impressive collection of mud the footwell of my car has already acquired, and also wanting to get some munchies, I went to the nearby village of Amesbury and did some grocery shopping. My munchies for most of the morning: A pound of the most delicious strawberries I’ve ever tasted, along with a bottle of gold top Jersey/Guernsey cow-sourced milk that was also utterly delicious.

Oh, I also got some delicious local cheese.

After that, I headed for Longleat, the estate and stately home of the Marquess of Bath.

After that I headed back towards my current home base. I went past Stonehenge again, but it was raining really hard so I wasn’t very tempted to stop. However, my trip was temporarily delayed by encountering something I had to stop and photograph – and the rain had by then abated.

This is one of the White Horses around the Vale of the White Horse. Not the coolest, but the one I suddenly found out ahead of me.

After that I went on to Avebury, which is rather one of the world’s best-kept secrets. You see, where Stonehenge is a church, Avebury is a cathedral – two stone circles *and* a whole lot of other stones, that wrap through and around the village centre.

This stone has been there for six thousand years.

This is the path along the hill above the Sun Circle. The surface is chalk. Wet chalk, it turns out, is hideously slick and slippery – I pitched down hard into the hillside, but fortunately didn’t land on nettles or sheep poo.

The rest of the day is rather less interesting, although after a delicious dinner with my uncle, aunt and cousin, I also spoke first to my cousin Mary and then to my cousin Hilda, and have confirmed arrangements for my visiting Scotland next week. I’m going to Edinburgh from Sunday to Wednesday, then to Aberdeenshire and the historic family farm until I head down to Newcastle to catch the ferry to Amsterdam.

Anyway, the full set of today’s photos is here.

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Sep 29 2009

D minus 6 days

Category: adventure,travel,website metaSami @ 1:12 pm

I’ve added a lot of functionality to the Gallery page, including RSS feeds, a nicer look, options for rating and commenting on pictures, etc. I still want to go through and fix up all the existing photos – tags, captions, etc – but I’m a lot happier with it than I was just a couple of days ago. (Functionality changes also include some stuff that makes it easier to add photos and so on, which helps.)

Trip planning things continue – but I’ve had the sudden realisation, of late, that I will regret it if I don’t properly factor into my plans that I can be back in Western Europe on the 11th of November this year…

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Sep 24 2009

D minus 12 days

Category: if only you have your health,photos,travelSami @ 10:13 am

So, on the 10th of September (so says the file dating), Chas and I were passing through town when I spotted an odd sight. As I exclaimed to Chas: “There are mans on the building!”

So I pulled out my camera, and then my telephoto lens, to take pictures of the mans.

In case anyone’s wondering at the tendency for my pictures to have the slightly odd dimensions of 475 pixels in one direction and 713 in another: that’s a 15% resizing/resampling from the base image size my camera takes.

Travel preparations of late have been… well, pretty much nonexistent, for the most part, but the last week’s been occupied by an aggravating dose of acute vertigo triggered by a severe adverse reaction to medication. Fortunately that’s finally passing, because I do still have a couple of things to get done before I leave.

Primary items:

1) Acquire International Driver’s Licence
2) Buy some relevant foreign currency
3) Buy some warm socks

No, really. I own no warm socks, this is a problem. I barely own any socks that are longer than ankle-height, at that. I have a warm climate approach to sockdom.

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Sep 18 2009

A miscellany

Category: if only you have your health,travel,web-loggingSami @ 4:11 pm

I just watched How Not To Write About Africa. A couple of things leapt out at me:

1) “Make sure you show that Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls.” My thought process: I wouldn’t say that about Africans, specifically, but I do kind of believe it about all humanity. Especially rhythm. Rhythm is one of the deepest things in the brain – by which I mean it’s something that it’s almost impossible to lose, through brain injury and the like. It’s also one of the things that makes us stand out. Most animals have no sense of rhythm.

And rhythm is part of the general human tendency to perceive patterns – which, to me, is what’s behind an awful lot of what takes us to the place of being human – to crib from Terry Pratchett (in Hogfather), to being the point where the falling angel meets the rising ape. Science, art, literature – our most rigorous critical analysis and our wildest and greatest creativity (and sometimes those are the same thing) all, ultimately, start with the rhythm and music that are deep in our souls.

Obviously, though, the comment people make about Africans is patronising, racist crap.

2) “You also need a nightclub called Tropicana…” I’ve been to a place in Africa called Tropicana. It was a restaurant. A nice one.

3) I am realising that I have a curious confluence of capacity for travel. I can enter the United Kingdom on United Kingdom ancestry, if I go to the trouble of application; I have not one but two grandparents born there. Australia is reasonably well-liked in Europe; I don’t have to get special visas to go anywhere I’m planning to visit.

In that video, Binyavanga Wainaina talks about a stereotype of Westerners on their way to trying to Save Africa being denied visas – but if I wanted to go to any part of Africa, I suspect I could do it easily, because I could just get a South African passport. I was born in South Africa and left it as a young child; as of a couple of years ago, this meant that I retain the right to citizenship under South African law.

I don’t have a South African passport, because I have yet to plan travel anywhere where I won’t be far more welcome on an Australian one, but I could get one.

4) I have long known that I am somewhat chemically sensitive. Today this came to a head when I discovered that my recent mild vertigo isn’t as much a byproduct of poor sleep in the course of switching antidepressants as an adverse reaction to fluoxetine.

According to my psychiatrist this is incredibly rare.

This morning, though, I woke up feeling pretty much fine. I had breakfast. I had my medication. A little while later, I headed out towards my appointment at the Perth office of Passports Australia (a division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), and found myself feeling fairly profound vertigo and mild nausea.

I tried to call my psychiatrist’s office, but there was no answer, so I called Dean, because, apart from being, you know, my best friend and all, she works in a hospital, and has access to doctors, and even if she didn’t, she has about as much medical knowledge as it’s possible to get without actually having a degree in Medicine.

I got her voicemail, left a message, and by the time she called me back, mere minutes later, I could barely tell up from down and was in a cold sweat. She assured me that this was an adverse reaction to medication, her office deals with them all the time, and promised to chase up my psych’s office for me.

It was established before long that my psychiatrist was to be having lunch between 1 and 2 this afternoon and I could speak to him directly then.

I staggered in to the Passports office, only to discover that in my state of wrecked physical wellbeing I was a few minutes late and had missed my appointment. I was advised to go to the counter and see what they could do.

However, I was feeling so intensely miserable that this was the last straw, and I started crying uncontrollably in the line.

So the woman at the main counter excused herself from the people she was dealing with then, and came out and around to see if I was okay. Through my sobs and apologies I explained that I was having a bad reaction to medication, and I was feeling very sick, and I’d missed my appointment.

They took me into a meeting room where I could sit down (I think I was swaying a little), where I was supplied with cold water and tissues, and someone came and did do my passport application for me.

By then more contact had been made, and Chas was on his way to meet me at the passport office, because I was very very sick. This was fortunate for everyone when I collapsed in the office – not quite unconscious, but unable to stand unassisted, barely able to sit.

A woman who’d just been going up to the counter herself interrupted her own dealings to come and make sure I was okay. She was very nice – and will return to this tale.

Chas arrived to find me lying on the floor of the office of Passports Australia – where the staff had fetched pillows for my head and someone with a managerial air about him to try and look after me and make sure I was okay.

I was turned over to Chas’s custody, and, leaning heavily on him and my walking stick, made it to the lifts. There we encountered the woman who’d been concerned before. She asked if we were driving back, and, learning Chas and I were planning to bus home, offered us a lift, as she was going back to Campbell Barracks anyway. (Which is a fair way off, and it’s not a huge detour.)

I remain desperately grateful to her, because I was still sick as a dog. We talked a bit on the way – she’s military, in logistics and deployment – she spends a lot of time dealing with the passports office on behalf of our soldiers. (She’s heading back to the Middle East herself soonish, where, she says, the boys are doing a lot of good that’s just not reported in the media – I can believe it.)

She deposited us in our driveway, where Chas helped me to the couch, where I’ve remained since, drinking diluted juice and playing Yes Minister DVDs to pass the time. I’m feeling much better, comparitively, though still pretty terrible. Chas has been very good to me – fetched me my arrangement of bottles of drinks, made me lunch, even helped me to get to the loo and back.

It’s a terrible thing to lose the ability to get from one room to another without someone else’s assistance, it really is.

I’ve cancelled my appointment for a haircut this afternoon, declined an invitation for this evening, and am now planning to spend the rest of the day keeping my fluids up, keeping warm, and avoiding collapsing. It does mean I have to let people take care of me more-or-less completely today, which sucks. Chas and Dean are going out tonight, but our friend Oliver is coming over in the evening and can keep an eye on me then.

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Sep 16 2009

Departure minus 19 days

Category: adventure,travelSami @ 1:53 pm

Critical Preparations for my trip are approaching completion – I’ll be getting my passport sorted today, and my plans for the first few weeks I’m overseas are firming up: after I land at Heathrow, I’ll be staying a few days with my uncle in Wiltshire, then heading up around the weekend towards Edinburgh. I may spread the trip over a couple of days to do some sightseeing on the way, since it’s a six-and-a-half-hour drive – which is doable but not exactly fun, plus I want leisure to stop and photograph the flowers, I’ll be on holiday.

I stay with my cousin in Edinburgh for a few days – spending time with her when she’s up to it, sightseeing when she’s resting (she’s 95, and her stamina is limited), then the plan is for me to head onwards to the family seat in rural Aberdeenshire. This is around a three and a half hour drive, which I vaguely plan to do over the course of a day – meandering a bit and taking time to admire the scenery, and such.

After a few days there, it’s time to head south, to cross the Channel to Newcastle and then take a ferry to Amsterdam. (Apparently the ferry to Stavanger is no longer running – I suspect it’s too late in the year.)

This saves me the trip from Newcastle-latitude to Dover, then from Calais to the Netherlands. From Nederland I drive up through Germany to Denmark, and take the ferry from Copenhagen to Oslo. Things may be quite serendipitous – looking up things like ferry timetables, I can conveniently go from Newcastle on the 22nd, arriving in Amsterdam on the morning of the 23rd; have a full day to go from Amsterdam to somewhere in the vicinity of Hamburg, then get to the Copenhagen ferry port in time to for the Oslo ferry that leaves on the evening of the 24th; that gets me to Oslo on the 25th, and from there I go north towards Karasjok.

I want to see Karasjok not least because it’s the capital of the Sami people. The indigenous population of Norway, but also: THE SAMI PEOPLE. I am compelled to seek souvenirs of the Sami People.

It’s also a good stopping-point from which to travel to the North Cape.

It took me some time of looking wistfully at stuff around Finnmark before I realised that no, actually, this is a holiday, and my lack of Norwegian kin or affinity for Scandinavian history doesn’t mean I can’t go to Scandinavia just because I’ve always wanted to. Because I have – I want to see the fjords, I want to see the mountains and I want to go to the Arctic.

So I’m going to. I’m going to Norway, and I might well take a snow machine tour to the three-border point, or along the Russian border. (I don’t have a visa to visit Russia, but hey, I can go where I can see it.)

Things to get in advance:

- How to ask for gluten-free food in Norwegian.

- Seriously warm clothing.

After that, I’ll go southwards again, and perhaps visit some places in western Europe, before heading back to Britain and my plans to explore that green and pleasant land.

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