Category Archives: Travel

Port Hedland winter holiday

With my annual visit to family in the UK trip being earlier this year, a space was left for a short winter break. Seeking somewhere warm, I decided on Port Hedland. Half my Australian friends looked blank when I told them of my plans: “where?”; a few in the know responded with “why would you want to go there? The only things to see are ships and trains”. Quite so, and that’s why I went there! In August the temperature gets up to about 30C, falling to the mid-teens overnight. The record summer high is 49C!

Winning Universe ore carrier

Winning Universe ore carrier

Port Hedland is up on the north coast of Western Australia, almost as far from Melbourne as you can go on the Australian mainland – about 2,000mi/3,200km as the crow flies. To get there took me a four-hour flight to Perth, then a further two-hour flight to Port Hedland. Port Hedland is the port from which most of Australia’s iron ore is exported, currently around 1.5m tonnes a day.

On day one (Sunday) I was made very welcome at St Matthew’s Church, then spent the rest of the day getting my bearings. I stayed at the Hospitality Inn motel, just across the road from the beach where I enjoyed peaceful early morning and evening strolls.

Mariners waiting for the launch

Waiting for the Mission’s launch

Day two was taken up with the first two of four tours. If you’re visiting Port Hedland do take these tours or you’ll miss out on a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise see.

In morning I joined the Mission to Seafarers harbour tour. After a talk on the port and the work of the mission we all went aboard the Mission’s launch for its trip round the harbour collecting seafarers who had been given shore leave – in most cases their berths don’t allow landside access. Back at the Seafarers Centre they have access to food, recreational activities, a shuttle bus to the local shops and, most prized of all, free wi-fi.

Port Hedland salt stacks

Port Hedland salt stacks

After lunch I was back on another minibus for the Eco Salt tour – the giant salt stacks on the outskirts of Port Hedland are the final stage of the salt production process. It starts with seawater being drawn into the first of eight concentration ponds, 7800ha in total. As the water evaporates under the hot sun, the remaining water is moved from pond to pond as it gets saltier and saltier.

For day three, realising that I wasn’t going to see much without a car, I went back to the airport to hire one. In contrast to some of the ‘phantom damage’ car hire ripoffs seen in UK, Avis’s policy shows a refreshing appreciation of driving in the Pilbara:
Please note our Fair Wear and Tear Guidelines are below. If there is damage to the vehicle that falls within these guidelines, we do not consider this chargeable damage.
– Stone Chips 25mm diameter without denting
– Scratches less than 25mm that have not penetrated the paint
– Dents less than 25mm in diameter and 2mm deep without paint cracking or flaking
– Wheel scuffs without cracking or gouging
– Minor scruffs that can be polished out
– Scuff/scrape marks under lower bumper

Day four, Wednesday, was largely filled with my last two tours. The first, run by the Seafarers Centre took us into Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) facility. Kudos to FMG for allowing the Centre to operate this tour as a way of raising funds. It was a enthralling experience to drive past the massive trains, loaders, conveyors and then along the quayside next to a ship about to be loaded.

Sunset

Sunset from Finucane Island

After lunch, taken in a 1930s US stainless steel dining railway carriage, my last tour: the Twilight Industry tour. This tour looked in on all the mining company sites from public roads finishing up with a drink watching the sun go down – which it does very quickly in the tropics. This and the Eco Salt tour only started this year, so I chose the right time to visit.

My trip to Port Hedland was all but over. I wish I’d stayed a little longer, but I went not knowing what to expect. Perhaps at some point I’ll go back, but there’s a lot of Australia I’ve yet to visit once.

Singapore Stopover Part 2

Singapore Maritime Gallery

Singapore Maritime Gallery

After a good sleep and late start I headed off on the Red Line to Marina South Pier so as to visit the Maritime Gallery, a small museum telling Singapore’s maritime story from the 13th century to today. There was lots to hold my attention so I ended up spending the rest of the morning there.

Singapore Flyer

The Singapore Flyer

Then back one stop for a second, daytime, trip to Marina Bay for lunch, much less interesting than day one’s hawker stalls. I didn’t have enough time to visit the adjacent Science Museum and Gardens by the Bay – next year perhaps.
Instead I took a leisurely stroll (too hot to rush!) to the Singapore Flyer, and a chance to see Singapore from above – it was the world’s highest ferris wheel when opened (2008: 165m/541ft). Needless to say I enjoyed this very much.
It’s interesting to note how ferris wheels fell out of favour – the Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna, was the world’s tallest from 1920-1985 – only to be rediscovered in recent years: I can see the (poorly situated) Melbourne Star from my window.

Pasir Ris Park

Pasir Ris Park

Back at the hotel I took a needed shower and change and headed east to Pasir Ris to meet up with Kate and see where she lives. Pre-visit my expectation was that Singapore would be wall to wall high-rises, but not here. The norm seemed to be blocks of around twelve storeys set in secure compounds containing various resort-style amenties  – pools, picnic areas, tennis courts etc – as compensation for a very small (by my standards) apartment. And, again not what I expected, a large park nearby.

Dinner over, we went our separate ways. The next morning I was back on a plane, looking forward (not) to the Melbourne winter. It was my first stopover, but won’t be my last. I enjoyed the change of scene and had none of the usual jetlag on my return home.

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