Saturday, June 16

Golden Moments

We've returned from a week of business meetings in San Francisco. In the weekend we took some time out to explore the Marin Headlands. The weather played its part with blue skies and sunshine. We even had an impromptu show by the local Coast Guard putting out to sea.  Here's a few visual highlights.

Finally here's a panorama I've stitched together using my favourite software application.  This tool is amazing.

Filling the gaps

A weekend in Benbow gave Garry and I an opportunity to drive a section of California’s Route 1 coastal highway we missed during our West Coast Road Trip in 2012. At the time our itinerary had taken us inland to see Yosemite National Park.  We’ve now filled in the missing gap by driving from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach, then turning north through the idyllic town of Port Reyes Station and onwards to Bodega Bay.

We stopped overnight in Gualala before heading north through Port Arena, Mendocino, Fort Bragg and the rugged, isolated coastal town of Westport. Along the way we several stops to soak in the scenery and uncover some fascinating local history.  Highlights included watching sea lions frolicking in the surf at Goat Rock State Beach on the mouth of the Russian River, a whirlwind tour of a restored Russian Fort and climbing the historic lighthouse at Port Arena.

Fort Ross was a fascinating stop.  The State Park here preserves North America’s southernmost Russian settlement.  The Fort Ross Colony was founded in 1812 by members of the Russian-American Company.  Much of its initial infrastructure was built with the help of Alaskan Alutiiq natives.  The Russians eventually gave up on their colonial dreams and sold the settlement to an American, John Sutter in December 1841.

The Russians built numerous Redwood structures including a wooden stockade containing two cannon-fortified blockhouses, workshops and barracks.  A well in the centre of the fort provided water.  Today only one of the original structures remains.  However, the State Park has meticulously rebuilt replica structures that faithfully recreate the fort for modern visitors.   Garry and I arrived 20 minutes before the complex closed.  However friendly park staff allowed us to spend an additional 15 minutes inside the stockade before it was finally locked for the night.

The Port Arena Lighthouse was equally enjoyable.  We spent more than an hour soaking in dramatic coastal views and climbing the lighthouse itself.  Today’s 100-foot concrete tower is not the original lighthouse. The site’s first brick and mortar structure was damaged beyond repair in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.  However, the original spiral cast-iron staircase was preserved and still provides access to the lighthouse’s lantern room.

We also enjoyed a leisurely hour wandering the streets of picturesque Mendocino.  Its iconic village streetscape is popular with Hollywood producers; and was the location for television’s popular “Murder She Wrote” detective series.  Garry and I couldn’t resist selecting a gift box of handmade chocolates from a local artisan store.

However, nothing can beat a classic country breakfast in Queenie's Roadhouse Cafe in Elk.  This tiny hole in the wall in the middle of nowhere certainly lives up to its impressive TripAdvisor ranking. The menu was a roadhouse classic and the staff were as friendly and hospitable as those in any Hollywood blockbuster.

Perhaps the most unexpected highlight was the remote and desolate coast north of Rockport.  It’s here that the road turns inland to avoid steep cliffs formed by the western slopes of California's King Range. We briefly stopped to enjoy the view and were delighted to discover the area’s wildflowers in full bloom. It's no surprise to learn that this desolate stretch marks the start of an undeveloped coastline known simply as the Lost Coast.

Avenue of the Giants

The Coast Redwoods of northern California are world’s tallest trees. The current record holder, Hyperion, towers more than 115 metres and one of dozens that exceed 100 metres in height.  Coast Redwoods grow in a narrow strip of land on the Pacific west coast covering an area approximately 750km in length that stretches inland between 8 and 75kms.

The largest and tallest surviving population of trees can be found in Humboldt County in Northern California.  Most are now protected within the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.  Within the park a former Route 101 highway provides visitors with ready access to many of its tallest trees.  A four-lane freeway by-pass, opened in 1960, saw this wonderfully scenic route aptly renamed the Avenue of the Giants.  Its 51km length takes motorist through one towering groves of trees after another.  In places the road narrows and weaves to accommodate the trunks of mature trees along its verge.

Garry and I spent a weekend exploring the area earlier this month while on a business trip to San Francisco.  We based ourselves at the Benbow Historic Inn situated on a picturesque bend of the South Fork Eel River. We stayed in one of the Inn’s original rooms that included an expansive private balcony overlooking the hotel’s landscaped grounds, an old stone arch bridge and the river’s crystal clear waters.

The Redwood groves are truly magical.  Nothing can prepare you for the majesty of these unique trees or the wonderfully serene and relatively open forest that surrounds them.  Highlights of our visit included the Founder’s Grove where the 112 metre long Dyerville Giant rests after falling in 1991. Nearby the Founder’s Tree still stands at almost 100 metres.  We also did the inevitable tourist thing and drove our car through the impressive Shrine Drive-Thru Tree near Myers Flats.

However, the most impressive grove we visited would have to have been the Tall Trees Grove on Mattole Road, a side road that winds for miles through the State Park’s densest concentration of mature trees.  The Tall Tree Grove was filled with dozens of mature fallen trees that were simply breath-taking in size and scope.  The grove is also home to the Giant Tree whose girth exceeds a staggering 16 metres in circumference. (Oh yes – it’s also the world’s 18th tallest tree.

The last line of defence

Last Saturday Garry and I visited the Nike Missile Defence Museum. I’d stumbled across this unique site by chance during a Google search a few months earlier. I was surprised to learn that until 1974 the San Francisco region has been surrounded by a defensive ring of nuclear missile batteries.

The museum, located on the Marin Headlands, tells the story of hundreds of similar sites that once protected cities throughout the USA from the threat of nuclear-armed Soviet bombers. In recent years, declassified records have revealed that the Soviets had made plans to explode at least one 40 megatons nuclear weapon in front of Alcatraz; just below the surface of San Francisco Bay.

The resulting fallout of contaminated water and debris was designed to render the entire region uninhabitable for more than a century. The strategic value of such an act is clear when you learn that the Bay Area is the only significant sheltered harbour on the US west coast for more than 1000 kilometres.

The Nike-Ajax, and its successor the nuclear-capable Nike-Hercules, were medium range antiaircraft missiles. Guided by a complex system of radars and tracking computers, they had ranges of up to 37 miles (Ajax) and 87 miles (Hercules) and could shoot down planes travelling at two to three times the speed of sound. Nike-Hercules could achieve supersonic speeds within a couple of seconds of launch and reach its target in less than a minute.

We learnt that the Nike system was not only the most expensive missile system ever deployed, it was also the most widespread (300 sites in 30 states) and longest-lived (25 years nationwide). Around the Bay Area alone 12 permanent launch sites and their associated control, housing, and command sites were constructed.

However, after an investment of US$1.16 billion this defensive network was ultimately decommissioned as Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) ICBM missiles superseded the role of long-range bombers. ICBMs could fly at altitudes and speeds beyond which defensive missiles could reach, effectively leaving them without targets to hit. The Nike missile system was declared obsolete by 1974 and the last missiles were taken out of service in 1979.

The Nike Missile Defence Museum was created to preserve a lasting record of this period. It’s the last surviving site of its kind. We were lucky enough to visit on a day when former army veterans were conducting on-site tours. It was fascinating to hear their stories about maintaining the missiles, preparing them for launch and living with the ever-present threat of nuclear Armageddon.  It was also rather terrifying to learn that a 19-year-old Army recruit was ultimately responsible for pushing the button.

Our veteran guides explained that, in the San Francisco area, the Nike antiaircraft defences oeprated at a continual high state of readiness from 1954 and through to the implementation of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) in 1974. This state of readiness meant that one or more Nike batteries in the Bay Area were always ready to launch missiles with three minutes of positively identify an incoming Soviet bomber more than 150 miles away.

Our tour of the site took us into a range of facilities that included the ordinance shed where nuclear weapons were installed in each missile, into one of two underground bunkers where six missiles were stored and into the mobile radar tracking and missile firing control centre. However, the highlight of the tour was watching a missile being raised from the underground bunker on a hydraulic lift and then erected into a vertical position for launch. Despite its age, the technology remains impressive!

Saturday, May 12

Flying high

Garry and I are just a few weeks away from celebrating the third anniversary of acquiring our fast growing small business.  The time has simply flown by.  We’ve been incredibly busy renewing its systems and infrastructure to sustain its growth.

Projects we’ve completed to date include rolling out a new accounting system and customer relationship management system, rebuilding its website on a modern e-commerce platform; and refreshing its sales and marketing program - an exercise that’s included a new catalogue, new email marketing campaigns, online advertising and a new custom-built trade show booth.  We‘ve also refrshed its corporate identity and added four new suppliers.

Our outsourced warehouse has also relocated to larger premises and we’ve taken on dozens of new customers nationwide.  We’re now focused on a second phase of projects that enhance the foundations we’ve put in place.  This includes a software automation project that will ultimately see orders flow from our website into our business systems and then on to our warehouse with little or no human intervention.  We’re also adding new functionality to our upgraded website and building additional websites designed to enhance our customer service.

It’s been an astonishing ride filled with Plenty of highs and lows.  Highlights to date have included winning four industry awards; Supplier of the Year, two Toy of Year awards and more recently Best Stand at the annual industry Toy Fair.  We’ve also watched sales double and at least one of our brands establish itself as an emerging market leader.

However, perhaps the most transformative change in recent times has been the much-anticipated appointment of a part-time business manager.  Sue has come up to speed quickly.  In her first three months she’s progressively freed Garry and I from an increasing array of administrative tasks.  We’ve suddenly found ourselves with free evenings and weekends; along with the ability to finally plan a few business trips and vacations that were previously impossible to take without closing the office.

Qantas must love us!  Over the next seven months we have no fewer than six trips scheduled.  This includes a ten-day business trip to San Francisco to meet with two of our largest suppliers, a week’s vacation in Fiji to celebrate Garry’s 50th birthday and a Christmas vacation in New Zealand. We also have our regular trip to Melbourne in August where we exhibit at an annual Gift Fair, plus flights to Hong Kong for its annual toy fair and our annual trek to Nuremberg, Germany in January next year to meet with our suppliers.

Our trip to Nuremberg next year has been routed via London.  This gives us an opportunity to attend the London Toy Fair and hold planning meetings with one of our key suppliers.  We’ll be flying on the new non-stop Qantas route from Perth to London in its uber comfortable Dreamliner.  Then while on our way to Nuremberg we’re spending a weekend in Krakow, Poland.  This will give us an opportunity to experience firsthand the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

This flying visit to Poland, and our week in Fiji, will add another two countries to my travel map and bring my count to 70 countries (if you include three very fleeting visits to countries where we briefly crossed the border but didn’t stop for more than a few minutes).  Garry worked out that by Christmas both of us will have done enough travel to finally renew our Platinium status with Qantas.  It's been more than five years since I lost my Platinum status and even longer for Garry.  Garry recently celebrated achieving lifetime Gold status with Qantas, a milestone I achieved several years ago.

While in New Zealand for Christmas we're planning a week-long road trip through the Taranaki region.  This will be my first visit to the area.  Once completed I'll have effectively visited every corner of the country for the first time in my life (with the exception of Stewart Island - which is on my travel bucket list!).  Finally, we're taking a weekend off while in San Francisco to spend a few days trekking through the Redwood Forests of Northern California.  We drove through the area without stopping six years ago so it will be fun to spend quality time among the forest giants.

After three years of hard slog its wonderful to finally find ourselves with the time and flexibility to travel again.  Thank you Sue!  Long may it last!

Wednesday, May 9

Tilba Surprise

Our new business manager is already making a huge difference.  With another person involved in the business we finally have a little flexibility in scheduling time away from the office.  Last weekend Garry and I took a day off to enjoy a three-day weekend in Central Tilba.  Friends invited us to join them for the annual Narooma Oyster Festival while enjoying the comforts of their spacious holiday home on the outskirts of Central Tilba.

Tilba proved to be a wonderful surprise.  This village of fewer than 300 people is protected by the National Trust.  As a result, it’s historical country cottage buildings and picturesque village atmosphere has been carefully preserved.  The town is filled with all manner of adorable tourist stores including a traditional candy shop, cheese factory, art galleries and a double-storey pub with a classic balcony fa├žade.

The locals also maintain flower gardens, herb gardens and orchards that give the entire village a postcard-perfect look and feel.  It’s no wonder the Australian edition of River Cottage was filmed here for four years from 2013 to 2016.

It took us almost five hours to drive 370kms down the south coast on Friday morning. We left home shortly after 7am, stopping briefly in Milton for a hearty vegetarian breakfast at Pilgrims, before finally arriving shortly after noon.  We couldn’t have picked a better weekend.  The weather was warm and sunny for the entire trip. 

The festival the following morning was a bustling affair with plenty of oysters, live music, local artisan stalls and country food stalls.  Afterwards we visited the ocean mouth of the Wagonga Inlet to watch sea lions frolicking and relaxing on the local breakwater’s rocks.  Our final day in Tilba was spent walking the shore around the delightfully scenic and picturesque Mystery Bay; located a short 10-minute drive from Tilba.

We then finished our weekend with a late Fish & Chips lunch on the waterfront at Bateman's Bay before heading home via the inland route of Crookwell and Goulburn. We arrived home shortly before 8pm on Sunday feeling wonderfully refreshed. Tilba proved well worth the drive.  We hope to return again before the year ends.