31 August 2008

Looking for the wizard, Part 2

The day after our evening of shooting cans dawned very cloudy. The cloud at least meant it had been warmer the preceding evening. I photographed a tree full of parakeets looking cold and puffed while the guys made breakfast and packed up. More great riding in the morning before we stopped for lunch. An interesting river crossing through a gorge (well 1 m deep) and some soft sand interspersed with hard ground covered in gravel.

We stopped about 11 for a planned detour. While chatting around the fire I had mentioned confluence points, where you visit the intersection of integer lines of latitude and longitude (eg 128S and 14E) then take photos of the point and post them on a website. Jen had heard of this and the others could, somewhat bizarrely, see the merits of visiting and photographing random points on the earth surface. So after a few false starts, a quick look at the map suggested that 29S/125E lay “just” 20 km of the track. How hard could it be?

Justin opted to stay at cars and let the bikes go cross country. Jen climbed on the back of Ben’s bike. There are a lot of thing you can say about KTM’s but they were defiantly not built for pillions. They don’t even have rear foot pegs. This was going to be interesting.

We plugged the details into the GPS and headed cross country. In the wrong direction. So we checked the GPS after a km and corrected our course and headed off again. In the wrong direction! It is amazingly difficult to keep a bearing while weaving through brush, bouncing over grass tuffs and dodging trees. After much diversion we eventually found some vehicle tracks which was a bit disheartening. Maybe somebody had been there before, out here? Twenty km from the track, surely not? We followed the tracks for a bit but they seemed to go in the wrong direction was we were encouraged again. Visiting a CP is obviously much better if you are the first!

After an hour or so we met a large vegetated sand dune about 25 m high. The bikes climbed it in good fashion although at this point Jen had to walk. While Ben was doing a sterling job of carrying her he didn’t think he could manage the climb up the loose sand two-up. From the top we had a fantastic view. The region is amazingly flat and gaining a bit of elevation really demonstrates how vast, expansive and empty it is. Dropping off the other side of the dune Ben said the immortal words to the camera “here we go” as he promptly dropped the bike and Jen – fortunately they were doing about 2km/h and it was soft sand – but it was very funny.

We crossed another dune and then into the final interdune corridor. The GPS said we were only 500 m away so we rode 1000 in the wrong direction before being corrected. We then dispatched Jen on foot and she quickly spotted a large orange bollard sticking out the sand. It was pretty unequivocal, someone had been there 4 years ago. We were a bit put out by such an aggressive mark, it somewhat detracted from the situation, but we took our photos and laughed about someone carrying all that crap, all the way out here.

We then headed back on the bikes, opting to go around rather than over the dunes. Most of the time we were riding through tufts of spinefex – a hard, spinny grass. It looks nice to drive through from a distance but the reality is pretty horrible, impossible to avoid and bone rattling bouncy. We pushed on, each suffering in our own private misery. It was much better for Gareth and I, we could at least maneuver the bikes and stand up. Ben and Jen were stuck sitting and had to endure the full pounding. It was very obvious why the aboriginals don’t use dirt bikes for transport!

Towards the end we got into a more forested area and rather than bouncy over spinefex we got to dodgy trees. That was easier, especially in areas were it was burnt. The only hazard was fallen logs, Ben and Jen did an impressive hop over one of those with a flying wheelie. The circus was calling.

Back at the car we had tea and snacks before heading off again. That eveing we stopped early as we had planned a treat for the bikes. They were going to get an oil change. KTM’s are so high maintenance that they are supposed to have their 3 (yes 3!) oil filters changed ever 500 km. We found a nice camp site and did the mechanics. It all went pretty much without a hitch and we were treated to an amazing sunset just as we finished.

Next day we started fairly late and refueled the bikes. The bikes were filled with petrol from a large tank in the trailer via jerrys every day. Gareth and I were notoriously bad at doing this job. In almost very case we managed to cover the bike with fuel and at one point later one I ended up with an eye full of fuel. Much to Ben’s continuing disbelief at our uselessness.

Another morning of great riding on fast, sandy tracks through forest. Just after lunch we arrived at sign in the road that said school crossing. This is 200 km from any children! Heading up a side track we came to a corrugated iron shack which announced itself as the “7 mmillers bar and grill”. Justin explained that it was built by some red necks who come out to hang out and cull camels. The name comes from the fact that they use 7mm rifles, of which they are obviously very proud, in an “I have a big gun” type way.

The view of the shack was stunning. It sits in a glade of trees overlooking a huge salt pan. To the guys who built it, the hut is obviously a passion. They must have figured they couldn’t stop people breaking in and staying there so they opened it up to any guests to use anytime – nice gesture. It was pretty easy to see the growth of the place as a series of construction projects. These are the kind of guys who like “making stuff”. There latest addition was a wood fired pizza over that had been fashioned out of a couple of oil barrels, some rocks and a lot of cement.

The hut is rough and ready, practical in a very masculine way. Stickers and juvenile graffiti adorn the corrugated iron walls, while bullet shells and car and porn mags are piled on the homemade, beer crate shelves. Recipes hacked from magazines are stuck to the walls and testify that these guys, who probably never lift a finger at home are actually, secretly domesticated. At least in their own space.

So we decided to stay there and hang out. We played the golf hole and Jen got the kite out. I took some photos of Ben pulling wheelies on the salt flat and we opted to go explore. Riding on the salt was strange, with speed the bikes glided across it but with no sideways slipping. It was like being on an awesome road bike on sticky tarmac.. If you want to far away from the edge of the lake you would start to sink and yo could feel the power being sucked out of it. Had a few unnerving moments were I though I wasn’t going t make it out. That would have been messy!

The edge of the lake was very indented and it was really easy to lose your sense of direction. We rode in and out of embayments for about an hour and a half with an unspoken plan to go around the whole thing. Then we rounded a headland and both stopped dead. The salt flat stretched further than the eye could see. It was fuckin huge. We admired the view for a bit and headed back to the shack.

Back at the shack the guys were shooting stuff again - when in Rome... We used the last of Justin’s shells and Jen started cooking up Pizza. I went off to take some photos as the sunset. Then when my bike wouldn’t start (battery flat – alternator trouble) I sat down to wait for rescue which came after about an hour in the form of Ben with a bottle of fuel. He assumed I must have run out. We bumped the bike and headed back for pizza.

Gareth, having lived in Oman for several years warned strongly of the effects of salt on the bike so we got busy cleaning. He said his friends chain had fallen to bits after going on a salt pan, so we spent about an hour on each of the bikes while Gareth watched, laughing in a knowing fashion. Jen cooked a set of great pizzas and we drank beer and spent our first night under a roof in a week. It was also our first warm night in a week – maybe there is a connection

Next morning we breakfasted and then headed back on the road. Within about 3 km Gareth pulled to a halt, indicating all was not well. A quick check of his bike revealed a broken chain! He immediately got a ribbing for not cleaning his bike and not going on the salt flat. The chain had actually stuck in the sprocket so it took a while to un-jam. Two hours later all was fixed and we were back on the road. Maybe this was part of Gareth’s plan to use up all the spares.

Another day of good riding and we came across some real hills. Mid afternoon we arrived at a strange rocky alcove. It was a hollow with vertical walls on three sides and a water hole at the back. The place was like a war zone with various animal bones strewn across the ground, it was really rather spooky. The wild dogs were obviously hunting there, a lot. Not wanting to camp in a grave yard we headed back down the track and found a good sheltered spot and climbed a nearby hill to watch the sunset.

Next day we headed into town and supplies. Justin and be building Laverton up to be somewhat less than desirable, with tales of drunken aborigines hiding children in the bushes so they could get more drunk etc. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. It was clean and pretty quite. The locals were friendly (and sober) and the police didn’t hassle us for having no tax or number plates on the bikes. We were in and out in a couple of hours, fully stocked and fueled up and heading out for the second half of our adventure.

Its that Spain time of year

Annual trip to Ainsa in the Spanish Pyrenees with group of students. Always great to be here, I love Spain. The geology is cool, the sceanary stunning and the people friendly.

Yesterday we got up at 4.30 (after 3 hours sleep) flew to Toulouse then drove across the mountains. We normally fly into Barcelona but when I tried to book back in June KLM said the flight was full! That's only 4 months in advance! So we flew into France and KLM only lost one set of bags, which by their normal standard is pretty good. Got the cars from Avis, who had decided that my booking of 5 cars must be a mistake and then ended up in a panic trying to find 4 more! Don't you love big organistaions. I picked up a TomTom to make sure we didn't get lost! I am highly scpetical of the route we took but it got us here.

I was then totally knackered so after dinner I headed to bed, about 9.30 and got 10 hours sleep which was only disturbed once, at 11.30 by KLM calling to say they had found the missing bag! Very glad to hear it!

Good day in the field today, Statoilhydro fund this course but couldn't get organised enough to send anyone along so it was just me. Big organizations! Fortuantly I have been here enough times that it doesn't really matter anyway, ended up with everyone swimming in the river - very pleasant.

30 August 2008


Was done in ONS, a big offshore oil conference in Stavanger, still feeling a bit under the weather but we had a big party for the whole company on a yacht in the harbour. It was really good to see everyone relaxing and having a good time. They are a great bunch of people – we are lucky to have put such a great team together.

I called Katharine pretty late on and she told me that she had some very sad news. Florence had been run over. I was a bit pissed but that sobered me up, I was shell shocked. We don’t even live near the road, I always thought that they would be safe from the traffic, but apparently not. My neighbour, Hege had found her and called Katharine who had to deal with it all. Apparently Hege had been really sweet, she’s a lovely lady, but it doesn’t change the fact that little Flo has gone.

We got the two cats as kittens about two and a half years ago. I was not so keen on having them but Katharine made me. Once we got them I was a total convert, they were so adorable that it was impossible not to love them. At first they were almost identical except for the bushy white tip of Lola’s tail. We were originally told they were boys and they almost got called Erik and Ernie, but we quickly noticed that they were lacking certain bits and they became Florence and Lola – Flo and Lo.

As they grew up they became very different, both in personality and in appearance. Lola grew to one and a half times the size of Flo and has always been very confident, demanding attention all the time, stomping around and behaving live a total tart when anyone came to the house. Lola has the looks and the attitude but she is also not especially bright. Flo was smaller and definatly more reserved. She loved to get attention, but on her terms. She would be aloof for days then suddenly just demand some lovin, she adored having the top of her head and then her chin tickled alternately. She was much smarter than Lola and was always the one that figured things out first, like the catflap and the ladder that replaced the stairs for a while. Flo was also the hunter, bringing in birds and mice. Generally as presents that you didn’t really want. They were a great double act and super company when ever I was in the house on my own.

And now Flo has gone. Its very sad! We were sat up last night talking about her and almost waiting for the clap flap to clatter and for her to skit into the room and demand attention. When I went to bed last night there was a space at the bottom of the mattress that was hers but as I turned in my sleep, the movement of my feet were not restricted by a small body taking up a large part of the duvet. Sad as it is we have to accept that she is gone and keep it in context. People suffer far greater losses everyday and many animals are abused and tortured so that they never know any love, only fear and brutality throughout their lives. We know that she had a nice life. She made us happy and we loved her very much.

I am not a spiritual person, not at all, but at times like this it’s hard to not to want to say “she’s gone to a better place” or something similar. But the reality is that she has just gone. Her legacy is the memories we have, the way she made us laugh, the feelings we have for her and the way in which she enriched our lives. Her passing also emphasizes that old adage “live everyday as if its your last” because you really have no idea what is around the corner or what will happen tomorrow.

25 August 2008

Life in Norway VI - The Norwegian Royal Family

If you thought the British Royal family were a disgrace, and they are, you should see the Norwegian one, less inbred and unpleasant but much more colourful. The elder royals seem ok, King Harald and Queen Sonja are fairly restrained and well respected, he is also pretty handy in a sail boat. The next generation however, is a different story. The crown prince, Haakon married Mette-Marite, who in the early 1990’s was a drug taking rave-chic, who has allegedly appeared in a few dodgy movies and had a child by a convicted drug dealer. She seems to have quietened down a bit in the last couple of years and slipped in to the role of demure royal quite well. So you might just say, good for her, at least she has a colourful past and is in touch with real people. A few countries around the world would be better off if they had a crown princess who had ”given it large” and popped a few e’s in their younger days.

However Haakon’s sister Martha-Louise is a different story – she is an absolute barking fruit cake! She is obsessed with fairies and claims to have clairvoyant skills which she got from communicating with horses in her younger years. Tales of her whakyness are abundant, most recently she has started a college, Astarte Education, were you can do a three year course in ”talking to angels” at the bargain cost of 24000 nok per year. To open a school for “talking to angles” you are either a nutcase or a con-artist, her constant breaches and twists of planning regulations indicates the latter more than the former, but if her general demeanor is anything to go by, she is just another delusional nutter, all be it with a royal background. Either way it does not paint a very good picture of the family or the country.

She is the elder child but fortunately when she was born the line of succession went to the first male born in the line. This was changed in 1990 but Harald was shrewd enough to see his daughter was not fit to run an egg and spoon race let alone a country and refused to back date the change. Smart guy.

Most Norwegians, well they are a pretty patriotic bunch and they love the King and Queen. The also love Haakon and Mette Marite, despite the fact that he has a beard and she has a colourful past, illegitimate child and tongue-twister of a name. As for Martha the loon – they are fantastically tolerant as only Norwegians can be.

24 August 2008

Looking for the Wizard, Part 1

Quick summary of my dirt bike trip down under. Have split it into 3 parts to make easier reading (and writing).

Arrived in Perth in style but a day late courtesy of KLM. Friday I was jet lagged to buggary but did get to meet the other folks joining the trip, Gareth, who I have know for years, Jen and Justin, who were doing most of the logistics and Ben, the other bike rider, mechanic and MrFixit. Was very pleased to see that they all seemed fairly normal but I am not sure what they thought of me?

Saturday was a busy day, had a mad dash shopping trip trying to buy last minute things such as video tape, 3 pairs of cycling shorts (the guy in the shop was so impressed he gave me an extra pair from free) and a new bivvy bag (failed). Was able to borrow most of the bike gear I needed which was a bonus – thanks to Rich Woods for boots, pads and goggles and to Paul for the helmet. In addition to manic shopping we loaded the bikes onto Justin’s trailer and had Ffion’s birthday party. They didn’t tell her it wasn’t her birthday until Monday, I guess when you are two it doesn’t really matter, so long as you have a cake.

The bikes and supplies were loaded and Jen and Justin headed off on Saturday afternoon for Kalgoorlie. Apart from Ben’s apprentice blowing up our petrol tank on Friday afternoon, everything was going to plan – scary. Sunday, Gareth and I collected Ben, only two hours behind schedule and drove up to Kalgoorlie to meet the others. It was a 7 hour drive but it passed pretty quickly. For much of the way we followed the immense water pipeline that was built to take water from the coast to the goldfields. Apparently the poor sod who designed it committed suicide before it was finished because so many people told him it would fail – which it didn’t.

Arrived in Kalgoorlie which is a clearly a mining town and meet up the guys and the bikes. Being Sunday it was pretty quite but there were a lot of bars and “hotels” along the main drag and chalk boards advertising the “skimpees”. Skimpees are young ladies who serve drinks while not wearing very much – apparently its very profitable! Didn’t see any but its good to know that the outback is a desert for political correctness as well as water.

We visited the “super pit” – which is predictably a very big hole in the ground, were gold is extracted at 0.1 ounces per ton! It made me wonder why? Gold is actually pretty useless. Sure in the old times it was required for currency, but not now? At least oil and coal have a use, they provide energy, but gold, its just used to provide nasty jewelry for Essex boys with no taste and very expensive speaker cable. I don’t really get it.

Pondering that we headed out to camp, just outside of town. At the camping spot we unloaded the bikes and I got to ride mine for the first time. It was emotional! It was potentially more emotional as I almost got lost on the maze of dirt tracks that cut through the bush, which would have been very embarrassing. Found my way back just as it was getting dark and dinner was well under way.

I quickly learnt that Jen and Justin know more about camping and bush living than Mick Dundee. They are awesome. The cars were totally organized with fridges and storage draws; dinner every night was cooked on huge open fire and was better than most restaurants. We had cooked breakfast, morning tea, sandwichs for lunch, afternoon tea, and then a hot snack and dips before supper. I had planned to loose some weight on the trip but that clearly was not going to be an option.

First night was a bit chilly, sleeping out without a bivvy bag, especially since there was a heavy dew. Next day we breakfasted, loaded everything up and rode east, out of the goldfields and into the desert. Most of the days riding was on pretty good tracks and graded roads. This worked well for up as a I got the feel of the bike. Riding a dirt bike is nothing like riding a road bike, you have to get used to everything sliding and slipping under you. Its somewhat disconcerting at first but you quickly get used to it. I ploughed through a few large puddles, almost drowning in one and earned myself the nickname Nemo, much to Ben’s amusement. By the end of the day my ridng had improved although the gravity monster had scored his first point in some deep sand.

We camped the night by some aboriginal water holes, not much more than small depressions in a limestone pavement but the water was obviously enough to attract some wild life and I got to see my first Kangaroos. Next day and the riding got a lot more interesting, off the graded roads and on to tracks. The scenery was changing as well, its amazing how much variation you can have on the theme of red desert with green scrubby bush. In the afternoon we stopped at an amazing salt lake. The first of many. This was small, about 1 km across and looked like ice. In the center there was water standing on the hard, crusty salt surface. It was beautiful. Jen found a spider that was trapped in the salt – he looked pretty fierce, even though he was clearly very dead.

Sometime that afternoon Ben, who was in the lead saw some wild dogs and headed off cross country to investigate. He latter confessed that while he was trying to get closer to one he actually ran it over. He spent the rest of the trip wishing he hadn’t confessed and getting constant flack for persecuting poor Fido! Feral dogs are a real problem out there as the kill all the indigenous mammals which have never had to deal with predators. The dogs are actually poisoned; there are signs in some areas warning that there is dog bait down. Justin told of a trip he ran where someone’s pet dog wandered off, ate some bait then died, frothing at the mouth, in front of the kids. Nice! Maybe Fido got off lightly after all.

The quality of the camps was also improving and we were starting to get a bit of a routine together. We would stop about 3.30pm and Justin and Jen would park up and arrange the camp while the rest of us collected wood. There is so much dead wood there that a huge pile generally takes about 10 minutes to accumulate. Then we would light the fire and set up the camp beds and chairs while Jen rustled up the afternoon appetizer. This would generally correspond with the first beer being cracked and dinner would follow. Bike maintenance under the watchful eye of Ben the master mechanic would ensue.

KTMs are probably some of the best offroad bikes in the world. They are certainly amongst the most iconic. We had three 450 EXCs , light, easy to handle, very tough and ideal for this sort of terrain. They did have one problem though, the tend to lose bits. All the rattling and bouncing about results in bolts working loose and bits dropping off. We lost several nuts and bolts in the first few days before we restored to checking everything each time we stopped and using locktight to actually glue the bolts in! And yes it works.

That night, our third under canvas it was brutally cold! By the morning the thermometer was reading a min. of -5. The wok which had been soaking from Gareth’s rather excellent curry escapade the night before was frozen solid! Nobody told me it was going to be cold. Well actually they did but I just ignored their advice and figured that they were all light weight aussies who didn’t know what cold really meant! After that night a was a firm convert to the “hot water bottle” club – of which Jen and Justin had obviously brought 5, one for each of us!

Took a while to warm up but eventually we got going. More great riding to the Plumridge Lakes nature reserve. Here our well organized guides had ordered some wild life and I got to see my first camels, emus and some more kangaroos. I knew that the trip was close to perfect as I rode along a dirt track with two large red roos bouncing along beside me.

Great riding as the track got tighter and more bendy. Constantly changing from soft sand, to gravel to hard packed mud. Whizzing through the trees and dodging fallen trunks, pot holes and termite mounds at 70 – 100 km/h. It doesn’t get much more fun, until you fall off! Even that doesn’t hurt too badly. The other guys were much better riders than me but I was managing to keep up (ish) on all but the most bendy sections.

Lunch time Jen managed to stake a tyre on a fallen tree. She received a mild ribbing but nothing to great. Justin dived in with his puncture kit and plugged the hole in about 2 minutes. Very impressive, I have never seen that done to the side wall of a tyre before and it lasted until the end of the trip.

That evening Justin got his rifle out. He figured after some many days of not washing and messing about with bikes and cars we were red neck enough to play with guns while drinking beer and shoot the cans. Much fun was had by all. There is something compelling about shooting stuff – I am not sure what it is, weather it’s the satisfaction of the well oiled mechanical workings of the gun or the challenge of hitting the target or what. Say what you will about guns, but you have to admit that they are fun! Especially when the targets are only empty beer cans and rocks. After we eventually tired of killing beer cans we settled in for another great camp, another big fire, another top dinner and another cold night. This was getting into a rhythm.

21 August 2008

Awesomely stupid, religous americans

These people are depressingly stupid...


Unfortunatly their equally moronic leaders run the most powerful country in the world.

18 August 2008

Back in the land of sit down toilets

Just sitting in Gareth and Sue's living room having got back from the outback last night. The final part of the journey included 9 hours of road driving - this is a big country! It was really interesting to see the gradual transition from untouched outback, through the gold-fields with all the mining activity, into the wheat-belt and then across the escarpment into Perth and the sea.

The second part of the trip included more fantastic scenary, great riding and lots of animals. We ticked another conflunce point, which was a bit easier than the last, and rode about another 1100 km. The weather stayed kind to us although it was still cold at night! Saw a lunar eclipse very early on the last morning.

Took one fairly big spill which involved clipping the edge of a hidden termite mound and me and the bike parting company mid-air. The result was a broken panel on the bike, a shattered boot which could have been a broken shin (that's what the gear is for) and a soar shoulder for me! Could have been much worse. Apart from the the riding was great although I never quite managed to keep up with Ben and Gareth on the really bendy bits.

Now back in Perth having slept in a bed for the first time in two weeks. It was very pleasent to have a shower, loose the beard and sit on a toilet. Now sorting through 1200 photos and wondering what to do with 8 hours of video tape! Great trip, lovely people, fantatsic riding, awesome country, basically everything I hoped for and probably a bit more.

Will post some pics etc as I get things sorted.

11 August 2008

Quick update from the outback

We left on Sunday, drove 7 hours to Kalgoolie in the car. There we meet up with the bikes and headed out into the outback proper. It's now day-8 of the trip and we have just got back to something vaguely resembling civilisation.

Seven days of great riding, camping under the southern sky, cooking on big open fires and seeing the country. The weather is cool and pleasent during the day and very cold at night. We have covered about 900 km so far, all of it on dirt tracks and off-road, my dirt bike riding is getting better every day and the gravity monster has only got me a few times! The bikes are holding up with only limited mechanical problems to date and nothing we couldn't fix in the bush. We have ticked a conflunce point, which someone else had beaten us to and have seen Kangeroos, camels, wild dogs and dingos almost daily.

I have never imagined that there could be so many variations on "red desert with green scrub" but the sceanary is constantly changing - its a truely amazing place and I am lucky enough to be seeing it with some fanatstic people.

Just stocking up on supplies before heading back out now for another 7 days. Will post more when I get back

01 August 2008

Mixed start to the tour

Made it to Amsetrdam ok, then when I went to board the flight to Kaula Lumpa at 8pm it was delayed till 10pm. No big deal. Then it was delyaed again to 11pm and then it was cancelled, until the following day! Lots of pissed off and stressed people!

KLM stuck us in a chessy hotel at the airport which has probably been used as a set for more special interest movies than Hugh Hefners mansion. Nice!

Next morning back at SkiPole, and this time the flight left on time. During the boarding was a bit worried that they might have reassigned the seats and I would have lost my exit row! The alarm went off as I was boarding and the lady said, oh you have a new seat! Shit - 12 hours cramped up surrounded by screaming kids. She then wrote 74f on my ticket - things were looking up, that is upstairs in a jumbo and potential business class.

This was confirmed on boarding the plane and KLM were instantly my favorite airline all over again. Very pleasent flight, re-wrote a big chunk of a students thesis until the battery on the laptop died and then watched a couple of movies. Its the only way to travel.

Now sat in KL waiting for the next flight which will not be business class and I will most probably be stuck in a middle set surround by screaming kids but such is life...

Should arrive only 16 hours late!