Category Archives: Travel

Singapore Stopover Part 1

Back when I lived in London I visited Melbourne 13 times; since moving to Melbourne I have made the return trip a similar number of times. With a few exceptions I have always flown via Singapore – there’s no better airport than Changi for a transit stop. Until this year, though, I’d never set foot outside the airport.

Why change now? In late 2017 a good friend, Kate, got a posting to Singapore and I promised to visit her on my next trip. A further incentive was that I always suffer more from jet lag when returning home, so the hope was that the break of journey would reduce this (it did!).

So for once my case left LHR with a tag saying SIN instead of the usual SIN|MEL. 13 hours later I’m queueing up at Changi’s immigration counter – slow and not what I expected. And then on to the train. Those of us who live in Melbourne, where an airport rail link is just a dream, are regularly reminded that every city of note except us has a fast airport-city rail link. Singapore does have a rail link: to get to my city centre pad (Hotel Jen, Orchard Road) meant two stops on the green line to Tanah Merah, then nine to City Hall, and two more on the red line to Somerset, about half an hour. Far from fast. Next time I’ll try and find a hotel on the green line.

Lau Pa Sat hawker centre

Lau Pa Sat hawker centre

But once checked in I was keen to explore. The time shift meant I was wide awake although it was now dark. I’d been told to go to local hawker stalls, not restaurants. Good advice – I ate well for a few dollars. Back at the hotel I enjoyed a late-night swim in the rooftop pool.

Off to bed, and I didn’t wake until about 9.00. I deliberately didn’t set an alarm so as to take some sleep. It was raining hard so I took myself off to the famous Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre. More good food. Not so a coffee, costing more than a decent meal.

National Museum of Singapore (1887)

National Museum of Singapore

As it was still tipping down, off to the Singapore Museum, housed in a fine building opened by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1887 where I spent several educational and enjoyable hours. I’d always wondered why Malaysia had allowed Singapore its independence, given its prosperity. I was surprised to learn that at the time of independence it was viewed as something of a basket case and best got rid of. Now, of course, it’s anything but, home to arguably the world’s best airline and a massive trading and financial centre.

Then back to the hotel for a shower and change, ready to meet up with Kate for an enjoyable reunion over dinner. My first 24 hours in Singapore were over.

Brooklands London bus rally 23rd June 2019

Ian Allan London Buses

I had one of these!

Back in my mid-teenage days I was an avid collector of London bus numbers. I don’t how I got started but it might be that I was given a copy of the Ian Allan London Transport buses and coaches book which listed every PSV in the LT fleet.

I got started while nearly all LT buses belonged to the RT family (RT/RTL/RTW), RM family (RM/RML/RMC/RCL) or were RF single deckers, though my bus number collecting coincided with the introduction of a number of new one man operated types – principally the central London Red Arrows and Swifts. On a good few occasions in school holidays I bought a Rover ticket and took myself off to new places to collect numbers of buses which would probably never visit SW London.

Bus rally long view

Just some of the buses on display

I was able to relive some of my past enthusiasm when, happily, my 2019 visit to my family in UK coincided with the annual Brooklands London Bus Rally – since 2011 Brooklands has been home to the London Bus Museum. If you’re ever in this part of the world (NE Surrey)  a visit to Brooklands is highly recommended whether there’s a special event on or not.

Many of the museum’s own vehicles were out on display, some running, and, bringing the story up to date, several operators sent along current models including a ‘Boris Bus’ and several hybrids including this very impressive 100-seat (+30 standing) Enviro400XLB hybrid tri-axle bus currently being trialled (too many post-1960s buses haven’t been properly evaluated in London conditions).

London buses RTW185 and RT113

RTW185 (1949) and RT113 (1939), both privately owned

But a special mention belongs to the many privately owned buses whose preservation depends on the huge amount of work and money expended on them by their owners. Thank you.

These two fine examples are just the sorts of bus I was chasing after 50 years ago!

Queen Elizabeth mini cruise 2019

Main staircase

Main staircase

This year I went somewhere new (to me), Brisbane, getting there in style on Cunard’s MS Queen Elizabeth. She’s one of eleven Vista-class ships, built by Fincantieri in 2010 and accommodates 2000+ passengers .
On the outside QE may look like many other cruise ships, but inside her decor reflects her Cunard ownership: top class Art Deco throughout the main public areas – I’m not known for my life of fine art, but I couldn’t help but enjoy such wonderful design and craftsmanship.

Queen Elizabeth at Circular Quay

Queen Elizabeth at Circular Quay

The cruise was just four nights: we left a cold wet Melbourne on Saturday afternoon, then spent Sunday at sea, docking at Circular Quay, Sydney on Monday.
After a good relaxing day with a friend – riding Sydney Harbour ferries! – it was back on board for another two nights and a day at sea before arriving at Brisbane on Wednesday morning.

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea

This was only my second Cunard cruise and again I was upgraded to a suite! This meant dining in the more exclusive Princess Grill restaurant instead of the main dining hall. In my younger days I would have been scared stiff at having to dine with a group of ‘strangers’ but now I see it as something to look forward to – the chance to meet up with people I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered, meeting them over several evenings. My dining companions were very good company.
I did sample the famed afternoon white glove tea once, but you can only eat so much!

Music for our pleasure

Music for our pleasure

Filling the two sea days was no problem. As is the tradition, the captain conducted a well-attended Sunday morning service. An ad-hoc Christian Fellowship meeting was held on Tuesday morning which gave me a chance to meet another group of people. The QE has a large theatre used for stage shows in the evening; during the day it hosted a series of lectures. I went to two on whales and dolphins, and one on Captain Cook’s voyage mapping Australia’s east coast. Various types of music were offered around the ship. Much else to do as well, but not enough time. In no time we’d arrived in Brisbane and it was time to say goodbye … until next year’s cruise!

Warrnambool mini break

Warrnambool, ocean in background

Warrnambool, ocean in background

Christmas here marks the start of the summer holiday so not too much happens in January. With the forecast for Friday Jan 4th correctly predicting 42C in Melbourne, I hit on the idea of a mini-break to Warrnambool, a small city on the Southern Ocean, 265km/165mi SW of Melbourne, not somewhere I’d previously visited.

Why Warrnambool? The decider was that it’s at the end of one of our few surviving regional rail lines so I could sit back and let V/Line drive.This section of the coastline is known as the ‘shipwreck coast’ for good reason and as you look south the next landfall is Antartica – just the place to go if you’re escaping heat!

V/Line carriage reversible seats

V/Line carriage reversible seats

The comfortable trip took 3½ hours from Melbourne. I opted for first class, A$94 (about £50), v. $77.20 for economy, a no-brainer really. First class carriages have 52 seats v. 88 in economy – why V/Line set their pricing so as to make much less per carriage off their premium passengers I don’t know?

The first class seats are on swivel mounts and are rotated to face the direction of travel at each end.

Warrnambool station

Warrnambool station

The railway line from Melbourne reached Geelong in 1856 and was progressively extended, reaching Warrnambool in 1890. A fine station building survives.

With two nights and one full day there, I couldn’t see everything but I had a good time. I certainly escaped the heat: the forecast 30C for Friday was reached about 10.30 and then the temperature dropped sharply, making me wish I’d taken my cardigan.

Thursday evening was spent walking down to the beach and back through to city centre in search of a good dinner. Friday morning started off with a walk in the sun by Lake Pertobe – between 1974 and 1980 what was a swampy area was turned into a recreational lake surrounded by parkland.

Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village

Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village

Then off to one of Warrnambool’s main attractions, Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village. The museum is laid out like an 1870s period village and incorporates the original lighthouses and Warrnambool Garrison. A period-costumed guide gave us a really interesting and informative tour. Friday evening was spent at the huge summer market next to the lake, then on Saturday it was time to come home.

There’s much more to Warrnambool – in the winter, whale watching is a big tourist draw, and the city has also been brought to prominence by the film ‘Oddball’, in which trained Maremma dogs protect the fairy penguins from marauding foxes. It’s well worth watching.

Will I go back? Definitely as there’s lots more to see. I’ll either hire a car once down there or drive so I can go further afield. But I’ve got a few other Victorian train lines to check out first.

 

Arrested for spying again!

Extract from Harare tourist map

Extract from Harare tourist map

Harare, November 1997, a city laid out as a grid with many fine buildings and beautiful parks and gardens. On consulting my tourist map, publisher The Surveyor-General of Zimbabwe, I decided to go and see the Prime Minister’s residence, just as in past times tourists to London would go to see 10 Downing Street.

I wasn’t the first British tourist to do this. Alexander Chancellor records “In 1982, when I was in Zimbabwe, I took a stroll down Chancellor Avenue in Harare. I made a point of visiting this particular street because Chancellor Avenue was called that after my grandfather, Sir John Chancellor, the first British governor of Southern Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was once called). I was surprised that it still bore his name, because it was already two years since independence and the new government had been busy eliminating the last vestiges of colonial rule.^

So one bright morning I took the short walk from the Bronte Hotel to Chancellor Avenue and peered through the gates – from memory the residence was well screened so not much to see. In next no time a couple of young men (cadet soldiers?) came over and arrested me. Fortunately I hadn’t taken my camera – this was still the era of colour slides so pics were carefully rationed. I wasn’t carrying any ID either, which was less helpful. Progressively I was passed up the ranks to soldiers with more and more stripes, one of whom then drove me back to my hotel to confirm my ID.

At the hotel my passport details were noted. I was told that I was free to leave the hotel during the day but must be back by 6.00p.m. in case they needed to take things further. By now I was a bit worried: could I please phone the British Consulate, I asked. No, need I was told.

So after a pleasant day I returned to the hotel. Shortly after six the phone in my room rang. “Reception here, there’s two gentlemen who want to talk to you.” Now I knew I was in trouble! I walked across the garden in some trepidation. Two well dressed men greeted me. “We’re from the Prime Minister’s office. We’ve been told what happened to you this morning and have come to apologise. We hope it won’t spoil your visit.” In reply I thanked them, also pointing out that the residence was shown on a government-produced tourist map that was on sale in the city. “Not any more!”, came the reply!

And, yes, I did enjoy my stay. I was fortunate to be visiting just before Zimbabwe really spiralled downhill.

My first arrest for spying!

My first taste of Africa was a memorable one. My good friends John and Mary had gone out to Zambia to work with the church and I offered to go and visit them. I decided to record my visit on slides (remember them) so I could give an illustrated talk on my return – John had grown up in the church which I attended and where his parents were still members so a good few people would be interested.

So – this was April 1987 – we land at Lusaka. As I walked down the steps on to the tarmac I took a photo of the airport terminal, thinking it would a good intro picture for my talk. At the bottom of the steps I was promptly arrested and taken off to an interview room. As we went through the terminal one of my escorts pointed out the ‘no photography’ notice, a bit late for me! Thankfully I had the presence of mind to pull the film out of my camera and hand it over – otherwise I might have had my camera confiscated. With a check of my passport and a warning, I was free to go.

Years later at a UK church gathering I met the person who had been responsible for looking after those sent to work in southern Africa and recounted my tale. “Ah, so it’s you!” she said, “That story has gone right round the mission circuit,” everyone no doubt laughing at the innocent tourist who didn’t know that in Zambia photography of all public and government buildings was strictly off limits.

After that I went back to Zambia three more times, fortunately staying out of trouble!

I’d always wanted to go on a Boeing 707 …

I didn’t make my first independent overseas trip until I was 32, though since then I’ve made up for it by flying more than a million miles. For years it was a matter of regret that I’d left it too late to be a passenger on the icon of the jet age, the Boeing 707. And then ….

In November 1997 I made a short trip to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The flight from London to Harare used a 767, and I was expecting a 737 for the short hop from Harare to Bulawayo. But no, to my surprise and delight this flight would be on a Boeing 707.

Air Zimbabwe’s Boeing 707

Even better, in contrast to the usual African prohibition of taking photos at airports, the security officer was more than happy for me to take pictures of the plane (this is a scan of a slide, and so not the best quality).

The question I didn’t ask myself was “Why is Air Zimbabwe using a four-engine transcontinental jet for a flight with a duration of about 40 minutes?” – I was too excited at my wish coming true.

I found out later (assuming my informant was correct). The plane had failed its airworthiness checks so Air Zim couldn’t take it out the country! Apparently a couple of weeks later the pilots refused to fly it. But at the time it seemed fine to me, one air trips I will always remember.

Random memories of living in Mexico City

Not many people know that I spent two years living in Mexico City, 1957-59. I was three when I went and five when I returned so my memories of this period are very vague. Looking back I now wish I’d pumped my parents for information but it’s now too late. Here’s a summary of the little that that I do know and remember:

  • We went to Mexico because my dad was posted to the British Embassy as Labour Attache, one of six diplomats working under Sir Andrew Noble, Ambassador.
  • We went as a family (dad, mum, my younger sister and me) on the Cunard RMS Media, sailing from Liverpool to New York, then getting the train from NYC to Mexico. The Media (not that I remember it) was an interesting ship, the first built for Cunard after WWII. She entered service in 1947 and was a combination 250-passenger/cargo ship.
  • My dad was not a total stranger to diplomatic life as he’d worked in the British Embassy in Venezula in the late 1940s (he and my mum met through a penpal club – the immediate postwar version of internet dating!), but for my mum, coming from a working class background, it was an enormous challenge, but one she rose to. Not only was she expected to accompany my dad to diplomatic functions, but was expected to host them too.
  • Our home in Mexico City

    Our home in Mexico City

    We lived in two embassy-provided houses. I don’t remember the first, but would instantly recognise the second if taken there – looking from the road, at the right hand size there was a steeply dropping drive down to a double garage. To the left of this was the house, entered from the street by walking across a ‘bridge’ – the principal entertaining rooms were at first floor level. At the bottom of the garden, over the fence, was some sort of stream or small river.

  • We also had an embassy car (a Ford Consul or Zephyr Mk.1) and driver, Augustus. It was in Mexico that  my mum learned to drive.
  • My sister and me with our maids

    My sister and me with our maids

    We were assigned two Mexican maids, Dolores and Mercedes. Apparently I quickly became a fluent Spanish speaker but lost this just as quickly on returning to UK.

  • I went to an English-speaking nursery school run by one Mrs Bone. I remember nothing of it unfortunately.
  • Our best friends were the Wade family: David Wade was a Shell executive so presumably met my dad via the embassy. We and their two (at the time) children were good friends and maintained contact for years after we returned to Twickenham and Sidcup respectively.
  • Dad was awarded an MBE in the 1957 birthday honours list. He was presented with it when Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent visited Mexico in 1959.
  • We returned to UK in 1959. To get my dad back to work in London asap, they put him on a plane (then the more expensive option), leaving my mum to cope with two small children on the long train journey back to NYC, then the transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary – not half as enjoyable as it might have been for her with two small children to look after and no spouse to share the load.

Postcript

  • Queen Mary at Long Beach 2010

    Queen Mary at Long Beach 2010

    In July 2010 after visiting Dallas for a software conference I took a stopover in LA so I could finally achieve one of my great ambitions, revisiting the Queen Mary. I booked a three night stay and in special requests put ‘returning passenger’. When I checked in, I was given a room upgrade! See Two Queens and me

Visiting the McKean Rehabilitation Center, Chiang Mai

I’ve been a supporter of the Leprosy Mission (TLM) for something like 20 years and I’ve made an annual visit to family in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand each year since 2013.This year I made the connection and was able to visit the McKean Rehabilitation Center in Chiang Mai, one of TLM’s associates. Many thanks to TLM Australia for arranging my visit and to Ling for showing us round.

Statue of James McKean

Statue of James McKean

The centre is named for Dr James McKean (1860-1949), an American missionary. With his second wife, Laura Bell, he arrived in Chiang Mai in 1889 to join another American missionary. With a Thai assistant they set up a dispensary which became known as the American Hospital.

Helping those suffering from leprosy, then untreatable, was one priority. In 1905, Dr McKean gained the support of local dignitaries to create a home for lepers on Koh Klang, a river island off Chiang Mai. By 1908, there was an embryonic leprosarium, consisting of three cottages and six adults. Over the next twenty years, under the care of McKean and his team this fledging operation would grow dramatically.

A bio records:

… Dr McKean retired from the mission in Chiang Mai on March 10, 1931. At By the end of his career McKean had made substantial contributions to public health in Chiang Mail. He had helped to build up the American Hospital (and directed it for 24 years). He had also established a vaccine laboratory and the leprosy asylum, as well as 4 churches and over 45 leprosy villages. the leprosarium, there were more than 500 inhabitants, including 350 leprosy patients, in 143 buildings, including 116 cottages, 9 dormitories, a church, an impressive administration building, recreation center, a road for most of the island, a school, sewing factory, tool and furniture factory, and a form of self-government^.

McKean Center resident's cottage

Residents cottage

After WW2 effective drug treatments for leprosy became available and it is now all but extinct in Thailand, though periodically cases are detected in those who have come from neighbouring countries. McKean continues to treat such cases.

By the early 1970s more than 5,000 patients had been treated in McKean, nearly 1,000 still living there.  The emphasis shifted to making it possible for residents to return to their former homes. For some this is not possible, and McKean will be their permanent home. McKean extended its remit to supporting all disabled people both at the centre and through community outreach.

Church

Church

Our ninety minute tour took in the museum, cottages, the two churches, the outside of the 1993 hospital, hostels for those who cannot look after themselves and, of course, the beautiful grounds. All a great testament to James McKean and others who, inspired by their Christian faith, gave (and continue to give) their lives to serve others.

Leprosy Mission Australia   CityLife Chiang Mai visit to McKean

 

Riding the Overland

History

Overland crest

Overland crest

From the beginning both South Australia and Victoria used broad (Irish) gauge (1600mm) for their main lines, so providing an inter-capital connecting service was just a question of joining the lines. The Melbourne-Adelaide train has operated since 1887 when South Australia’s Adelaide-Wolseley line was extended to meet Victoria’s broad gauge line at Serviceton. The service was given its current name, The Overland, in 1926. Diesel locos took over in 1953.

In 1995 the line was converted to standard gauge, finally enabling through running between all the mainland state capitals.

Today

The Overland ready to leave Adelaide

The Overland ready to leave Adelaide

The Overland now operates a twice weekly daytime in each direction, the journey taking about eleven and a half hours.

The train departs at 0745 with passengers asked to check in from 0645. Checking in is more like airline checking in, though thankfully without security scanning. Checked baggage travels in a baggage van and is collected at the journey’s end.

Enjoying the Overland experience

Enjoying the Overland experience

Most  passengers travel in standard class carriages, 15 rows of seats with 2+2 seats per row. I paid the $100 extra for a Red Premium seat – these seats are in a separate carriage, arranged as 12 rows of 2+1 seating, each seat having a retractable tray table. The additional fare also includes meal service at your seat – breakfast, morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea. For lunch I opted for camel curry and it was very acceptable.

Look below the seat armrest and you’ll see a small foot pedal. This lets the seat be turned round to face the direction of travel, or you can set two rows to face each other as you can see behind me.

The first part of the journey leaving Adelaide includes some demanding climbs, the rationale for Shea’s ‘big engines’ but after this it’s through open country, with grain stores giving way to sheep country. The last section of the journey is arguably the most interesting to rail enthusiasts, the standard gauge line following the broad gauge line from North Geelong to Newport, then diverting round the Sunshine freight line and back through the Footscray Bunbury Street tunnel to arrive at South Cross platform 2.

All in all a very pleasant trip and one I’d do again.