Tuesday, February 27

On the road again

I have more business travel over the next few weeks. I'm off to Madrid for 48-hours on Wednesday evening, then off to Amsterdam two weeks later for another 48-hour dash across the channel. Then its away for Easter in early April to a secret location (I can't tell you or I'll spoil the surprise for Garry's parents), then I'm off to Paris for a week on business and finally finishing April with a 36-hour stint in Milan.

May already has a holiday booked in Turkey so the travel doesn't stop for a while yet. June also has a weekend away with my parents planned and then July has at least another two trips; one to Austria and then off to Australia via the USA.

Phew! I'll have every inflight magazine read from cover to cover for the next six months.

Monday, February 26

A victim of global warming

My return from South Africa has brought with it a dose of late-Winter flu. Since Tuesday I've had an alternating series of stomach pains, headaches and a phlegm-filled cough. The hotel air-conditioning in Johannesburg set off my sinuses last week so I wasn't surprised when it developed into something more by the time I flew home.

I read today that a mild winter actually increases the likelihood of illness in the Spring. A harsh winter typically kills off more microbes, bacteria and parasites that cause disease. Conversely the lack of a prolonged cold spell results in more aliments. How ironic. I'm ill thanks to global warming.

Of course everyone is telling me I've picked up a bug on the plane. I have my doubts about this urban myth. A well-ventilated aircraft has cleaner air than the average home or office. For example, we definitely don't have industrial-strength HEPA filters screening out patheogens at Swiss Cottage. Whatever is floating around the house sits there for quite some time.

Recent research indicates that the transmission of tuberculosis in-flight required people to sit within two rows of a contagious passenger for at least 8 hours. On Monday's red-eye flight I had a baby in front of me , a bulkhead behind me and a very healthy, tanned and athletic Italian sitting next to me. As a result, I'm pointing the finger at the Hilton's air-conditioning rather than British Airways.

Spring is coming!
Garry and I went for a walk in the neighbourhood yesterday. An increasing number of trees have burst into blossom. Winter is rapidly drawing to a close. With the start of March only days away, this should be no surprise. Spring is almost here.

Saturday, February 24

Bombers and burqas

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Much like global warming, extreme fundamental Islam is a prominent news topic in London. The debate provokes intense emotion from both sides. In fact, I’ve vacillated for months about whether to write a post on this topic. I worry that an extremist could take offense to my observations and subsequently harm Garry and I. It’s a tragedy that fear plays such a large part in the current multicultural debate.

This fear is fueled by some very sobering news stories. We all remember the July 7 suicide bombings in which 56 commuters were killed by extremist Islamic youths. The unsuccessful tube bombings of July 21, 2005 have also been back in the news this month as the accused are brought to trial. Since January 15, Woolwich Crown Court has been hearing evidence that six men conspired to murder by exploding homemade suicide bombs.

Coverage of the trial has been intense. We’ve seen footage from inside the tube carriages moments after one of the alleged bombers triggered his detonator. We also heard detailed eye-witness accounts of this incident. Last night’s news bulletins were screening video footage showing two of the accused being arrested by armed police. It’s both compelling and disturbing television.

The Islamic religion has a far higher profile in London than anything I’ve experienced before. For example, every day on the way to work I pass many women wearing headscarves and some in full length, black shapeless burqas. The sight of these women with nothing more than a narrow eye slit showing is very unnerving. Part of my discomfort is simply a lack of familiarity. I’m sure if I lived in Saudi Arabia I’d find their presence perfectly normal. However, until now, I've never seen women in full-veil burqas outside of the Middle East and North Africa.

I realize that my discomfort stems in part from my own cultural heritage. Covering the face is a symbol of deception in Western culture. For example, outlaws wore scarves, not law-abiding citizens. Conversely, surgeons wear masks, but their white or light green colour is associated with cleaniness unlike the black burqa veil. My culture also associates Islamic dress with the subjugation of women.

However, I appreciate that this dress code has an opposite connotation for many followers of Islam. For some it's considered an act of humilty or modesty. For others it's a symbol of respect for their faith. Finally, it's often considered a practice that protects women against harm. A immoral man is less tempted when his eyes have little to feast upon. It's clear that cultural norms distort the debate.

The fact that educated and well-traveled people like me are uncomfortable whenever women in burqas walk by also helps explain why the multicultural debate provokes such intense emotion. Of course the debate isn’t helped by CCTV images of one July 21 bomb suspect fleeing London dressed in a burqa. Such drama only fuels mistrust for women dressed in Islamic clothing and increases suspicion on both sides. The July 21 bombing trial is not just a news story about justice, it's also a story about fear – on both sides of the current debate.

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A typical shopping day in Egypt

Friday, February 23

In memory of the polar ice caps

No blog on life in London can ignore the threat of global warming for long. The topic consistently commands headlines here and across Europe. It dominates political debate, social commentary and stories on business ethics. I don't recall global warning ever commanding such attention in Australia - other than occasional commentary on the Kyoto Accord. I guess Australians are use to hot, sunny weather and endless droughts.

By contrast, Europe appears obsessed about the impact of global warming. I must admit that I was skeptical about the hype when we first arriving in London. However, in recent times I've encountered compelling evidence about the reality of global warming. Evidence that carries added weight simply because it appears in the oddest of places.

Take for example, the discovery I made at Cape Point last weekend. In this wind swept corner of the globe lies a global atomsphere watch (GAW) station. It's part of a network of 20 stations worldwide, managed by the World Meteorological Organisation. The network includes stations at the South Pole and mainland Europe.

The Cape Point station has a small public display summarising its day-to-day work. I learned that the site monitors trace gases like ozone, methane and carbon dioxide, as well as solar radiation and various meteorological measures. Having visited the Cape Peninsular twice now I can safely say that the air is incredibly clear and persistent winds blowing in from Antartica keep the area free of pollutants.

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As a result, it's an ideal location to measure atomspheric changes. I'd believe any measurement taken here. This has to be one of the world's cleanest locations. You can't imagine samples being corrupted by contaminants from Cape Town, Los Angeles or the urban world in general. In other words, trends measured at Cape Point must represent base line numbers for the planet as a whole.

At regular intervals throughout the day the station samples the atomsphere at two points; one 30 metres above the ground, another at five metres. The captured sample is analysed and the results transmitted automatically to a series of global databases. I was staggered to learn that the station has been reporting a steady increase in CO2 atmospheric gas levels for more than a decade.

The reality of global warning hits home when you see an uncontaminated site track such clear and irrefutal evidence. CO2 levels really are rising in our planet's atmosphere. For the first time since arriving in Europe I actually believe what I'm reading. I trust Al Gore's popular slide show. I can see that the media hype is based on fact. A very sobering thought indeed.

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The graph on display at Cape Point. The trend is hard to ignore.

Thursday, February 22

Cecil Rhodes, Dassies and Baboons

As I mentioned yesterday, I enjoyed several new highlights during my second Cape Town visit last weekend. Three immediately come to mind.

The first is the Rhodes Memorial. It sits in the foothills of Table Mountain, offering spectacular views across the western suburbs of Cape Town and False Bay. Surpisingly, I never noticed this granite, collonarded monument during my last visit. It's hard to miss. The monument's architecture is in stark contrast to its surroundings. It's neo-classical style has absolutely no link to traditional art and design on the African continent. I can't recall any object looking so utterly colonial and so totally out of place in all of Africa.

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It imortalises the memory of South African politician and businessman Cecil John Rhodes. This English-born man shaped much of modern South Africa up until his death in 1901. Among his many claims to fame is the founding of DeBeers, the world's largest diamond producer. The now defunct nation of Rhodesia was also named after him. This nation was largely crafted by the colonising activity of his British South Africa Company in the later half of the 19th Century.

Access to the site is by way of a winding, paved road. On approach a scultpure of a rearing horse draws your eye. One of the most prominent landmarks visible from here are the cooling towers of the nearby Athlone power station. This coal-fired utility sits in the middle of Cape Town's suburbs. It's a most unexpected sight from this location, and no less surpisingly during drive into town from the nearby airport.

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Last weekend's second highlight was an unexpected encounter with a group of Cape Hyrax. These fat little animals have more than a passing resemblance to giant guinea pigs. In South Africa they're commonly called "dassies" or "rock rabbits". I ran into several of them while walking out to an observation point at the Cape of Good Hope. At first I thought I'd spotted someone small dog on the lose. I spent several delightful minutes watching these lively herbivores frolick around me.

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The final highlight of my weekend was also at Cape Point. Here I encountered the local baboons. Last July I'd only seen these animals briefly while driving out the to Point. However, this trip they were out in force everywhere harassing tourists without hint of remorse. As I drove up to the parking zone, I came across two rather cheeky primates sitting on the roof of a parked car. My mind immediately ran through the clauses in my rental contract as I envisaged an insurance claim for baboon damage. As I drove on, more cars came into view littered with cheeky baboons. Definitely a road hazard I've never seen in Sydney.

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Table Mountain

The first recorded ascent of Table Mountain in Cape Town took place in 1503. Today, a 120 rand transaction gets you a ticket on the public cableway. Within minutes you're whisked 1067 metres above sea level to a stunning plateau approximately 3 km in length.

The mountain top is surprisingly flat. It's highest point is a small rock table called Maclear's Beacon. It's 1,086 m above sea level, about 19 m higher than the cable station. Last week I made the 45-minute trek from the cable station to this remote point. The becaon's most prominent landmark is a stone cairn built in 1865 by Sir Thomas Maclear. The surveyor used this location to calculate the exact dimension and shape of the Earth.

The views across False Bay from this location were stunning. I could even see in the distant haze Cape Point itself. Another wonderful Cape Town memory.

Wednesday, February 21

Ostriches on the beach

I've just returned from an intense week in Johannesburg. While much of my time was taken with business I did make another weekend dash down to Cape Town. It's currently the height of Summer in South Africa, making for a completely difference experience to that of my first visit last winter.

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I revived several favourite memories while finding time to add a few more. Old memories included another day trip up Table Mountain (this time without a cloud in the sky) and another encounter with ostriches on the beach at the Cape of Good Hope. I was astonished to find these birds in almost the same location as last time.

Watching them forge in the wind swept bushes, metres from the rolling Atlantic surf, was undoubtably as magical as last time. A new memory was made when they kindly wandered across the road, halting traffic and bringing faces of joy to every driver. Baywatch was never this riveting.

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I also added a couple of lighthouse encounters to my travel diary. The first was the bold white, cast-iron tower at Kommetjie. This structure was erected in 1914 and sits on a narrow ribbon of land between imposing cliffs and a white-capped ocean. There's something undeniably majestic about this lighthouse and its forlorn location, two-thirds of the way down the Cape Peninsular. Getting to the lighthouse is half the fun.

The best route is along Chapman´s Peak Drive from Hout Bay. This narrow, winding road was literally hewn from a near vertical cliff face between 1915 and 1922. In one place the 10km long scenic road is built into a deep groove blasted from solid rock. You can see this sight in the photo below.

Along its length heavy-duty steel nets protect drivers from falling rocks. The threat is real. Since 1987 there have been five deaths from rockfalls on this route. The road was even closed for several years in 1999 after a driver was killed by an unusually large rockfall.

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The second lighthouse encounter was Dias Point Lighthouse located at the tip of Cape Point. On Sunday a narrow track out to a nearby observation post was open to the public. Last winter this access had been blocked off. The 15 minute walk was well worth the effort. It's impossible to describe the sensation of standing on this narrow point of land as the wind roars in from the Southern Ocean. This really was the end of the world.

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This lighthouse is the second of two at the cape. The tragic loss of the Lusitania in 1911 forced authorities to approve its construction. The original lighthouse, located at the highest point on the cape (246 metres above sea level), was often covered by fog, thus diminishing its effectiveness. I can't recall any other location with a twin set of towers.

My jet lag has finally caught up with me this evening. More Cape Town adventuress tomorrow.

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Sunday, February 18

Seven Dials

Seven Dials is one my favourite landmarks in the West End of London. At the intersection of seven narrow laneways lies a slender sundial pillar. The area was created in 1690 by Thomas Neale, a man who went on to become the first postmaster general of United States colonies. He planned to capitalise on popularity of the new Covent Garden Piazza area nearby.

The area's early residents were largely individuals from the city's more respectable endeavours; lawyers and skilled tradesmen. However, within a century the area had become one of London's most notorious slums. It remained in decay until the late 1970s before finally being regenerated.

Even the sundial is new. The current pillar was only erected in 1989. Apparently the original was removed in 1773 in an effort to discourage unruly crowds from gathering. Today, during the warmer months, its a popular weekend venue for people watching. Some of my favourite cafes and bars are also in area.

I find it fascinating that such a simple, memorable location has gone full circle over three hundred years. My earliest memory of Seven Dials dates back more than five years. I remember coming across the sundial and marveling at its unexpected presence. At the time I was in town for a Board meeting at the Convent Garden Hotel, situated 100 metres along one of the radial laneways.

I love this hotel. Its one of London's quaintest boutique establishments, serving a wonderful Sunday brunch in the sunny parlour of recently gentrified building. When the bill arrives, you'll have ample proof that Seven Dials isn't slumming it any more. These days Garry and I have brunch down the road at Box, a simple cafe bar reminiscent of those we love in Sydney.

Sunday, February 11

The Mousetrap

This evening Garry and I went to see The Mousetrap, the world's longest running theatre production. It opened in 1952 and has continued uninterrupted until today. It's clearly as popular as ever. Tonight's performance was a sell out crowd.

The play is staged at St Martins theatre. This is a small space with a beautifully restored interior. The walls are lined with heavy, dark-stained mahogany wood and dark crimson panels. The dress circle is framed by bold wooden banisters while the ceiling is capped by a striking glass panel dome.

The performance itself has stood the test of time surprisingly well. We found ourselves laughing out loud on more than one occasion. Tonight the role of Christopher Wren, a hyperactive young man, was played brilliantly. I found myself believing the authenticity of his character more than any other on stage.

In keeping with the tradition I won't reveal the murderer. However, Garry identified the guilty party during interval and was duly proven right. Sadly, I had no idea.

The day I went to North Korea

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A television documentary on the KTX, South Korea's high-speed train, brought back memories of my brief visit to North Korea. In September 2003 I found myself in Seoul for a business meeting. With a weekend to fill I booked a day tour of the DMZ (Demiltarized Zone) that separates North and South Korea. The DMZ extends across the entire Korean peninsular for 248kms. It's a strip of land 4km wide, largely devoid of a regular human presence.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall it's become one of the world's last remaining vestiges of the Cold War. Seoul is less than 56kms south of the DMZ putting it in range of North Korean artillery. As a result, the border remains a highly militarized area, with troops constantly on high alert.

I was able to secure a last-minute cancellation seat on tour into the Joint Security Area at Panmunjeom. Access to the JSA is restricted. Most Koreans are not permitted to enter the zone under any circumstance. As a result, on the day of my tour we were required to carry passports and dress smartly. We were warned that jeans were not permitted. Apparently North Korea has used photos of tourists in casual clothing as propaganda. It cites their casual dress as an example of Western disrespect for its status as a nation state.

As you approach Panmunjoem it becomes apparent that you're entering a war zone. Towering barbed wire fences line the highway preventing access to a river that marks the border between the two Koreas. At regular intervals, towers with armed guards monitor the surrounding area. Military vehicles, including tanks can be seen from time to time.

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Our first stop was the Freedom Bridge. This old wooden structure just outside the DMZ was the main transfer point for POW exchanges at the end of the Korean War. The experience is rather surreal. As you cross the trestle bridge you eventually come to a barbed wire fence barring entry into the DMZ itself. Here flowers, protest flags and banners are piled against the fence.

Local Koreans throng around these emblems of peace. This is as close as they're ever permitted to get to North Korea. The scene becomes increasingly surreal as US servicemen off duty, but still in uniform, stop to take their photo in front of the jumbled emblems. Their presence is sobering reminder that the area remains on a war footing.

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Our next stop was Camp Bonifas on the southern edge of the DMZ. Outside the camp we were greeted by a Military Police escort which remained with us throughout the tour. After a brief lunch and the ubiquitous multimedia presentation, we reboarded our bus and headed towards the JSA. At this point the sense of danger increases dramatically. First, our escort loads his weapon with live ammunition. Signs outside the bus remind military personnel to wear kevlar helmets. Our tour was then joined by an armed vehicle mounted with machine guns and filled with armed soliders.

A short ride takes you into the JSA itself. Here, straddling the border between the two Koreas, lies five UN-blue huts. The hut in middle is known as the Armistice Hut. Inside sparodic peace talks are held. The hut is guarded by Korean soldiers striking an aggressive closed-fist pose. Each man stands with half his body projecting from the side of the hut giving him partial protection from enemy fire. Bullets really have been fired across this space on more than one occasion.

Behind this string of huts loom two concrete Freedom Halls - one on the North side of the border and one on the South side. These were built in the 1990s after the introduction of South Korea's Sunshine Policy of engagement towards its neighbour. The North Korean building has a fake floor on top added after the taller South Korean building was completed.

Our tour was permitted to climb an observation tower beside the Freedom Hall. From here one could clearly see the border area, the soldiers on both sides and bright blue huts in between. It's an unnerving experience. Less than 200 metres away on the opposite hillside sit men with loaded weapons pointed in your direction.

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Approaching the Armistice Hut itself was another unnerving moment. Before exiting Freedom Hall we were instructed by our Military Police escort to walk at a steady pace, in single file towards the building. We were warned not to stray from the group. These instructions were repeated more than once. We were also reminded that the area was a war zone and that soliders on both sides have "shoot to kill" orders. I guess it doesn't get much clearer than that!

Armed soldiers then escorted our group across the open space between the Freedom Hall and the Armistice Hut. They flanked us on either side, motioning for the group to continue moving at a steady pace. Inside the hut sat a simple dark wooden table. It was placed exactly halfway across the border. On one side is South Korea, on the opposite is the territory of North Korea. A solider stood to attention at the end of the table straddling the border. A second solider stood guard at the opposite end of the hut blocking the doorway leading to the North Korean side of the DMZ.

Our tour group spent almost half an hour inside the Armistice Hut. After some brief instructions we were invited to walk around the table and enter North Korea. We were also permitted to take photos with the solider guarding the northern door. You can see me with him at the top of this posting. I spent more than 15 minutes north of the table visiting the hermit state of North Korea. Through the hut's windows you can see South Korean soldiers striking their pose, partially protected by the neighbouring hut. A line of concrete between the huts marks the border. It's clear you're north of this line.

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The remainder of the afternoon was spent visiting other infamous locations within the JSA. From a military vantage point you could see Gijong-dong in the North. The Americans call this Propoganda Village. This entire town is a fake. It was built to tempt soldiers north and is completely uninhabited. Timer switches light up its windows each evening to give the impression of villagers at home. In the centre of the village an enormous, ugly girder flagpole, said to be the world's largest, proudly flies the North Korean flag. Large billboards on the hillside proclaim the joy of living in the North.

The final stop inside the JSA took us past a memorial near a short bridge that crosses a stream into North Korea. It was here in 1976 that two American soldiers were hacked to death by axe-welding North Korean soldiers. The Americans had attempted to trim trees obscuring views of the bridge from a nearby observation tower.

Charles Jenkins, the renowned US serviceman, also defected to North Korea at this point. He finally returned to the West in July 2004, was charged with desertion and aiding the enemy, served 24 days confinement and given a dishonourable discharge. Today he lives in Japan with his wife, who'd been abducted from Japan in 1978 by North Korean agents.

After more than four hours inside the JSA our bus finally departed the DMZ, leaving its armed escort to prepare for another night on high alert. As we drove back in South Korea I paused to reflect. I'd actually visited North Korea and witnessed part of Cold War history still frozen in time.

Friday, February 9

Allow 30 minutes between stations

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As predicted London received its heaviest snow fall in seven years today. We woke this morning to find the neighbourhood under more than 7cms of snow. The ground cover was signficantly heavier than two weeks earlier. Heavy flurries continued falling as we left for work. Once again the scene was magical.

It's incredible to see exactly the amount of snow predicted, at the very hour predicted, two days after we'd first been warned. I'm impressed. On Tuesday we had cloudless skies and as late as 10pm last night it was still crystal clear. The science behind each forecast is impressive. The Met Office says it now makes three-day forecasts that are as reliable as its one-day forecasts were in 1980s.

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Once again, as predicted, transport chaos was this morning's theme. Swiss Cottage tube station is two stops north of Baker Street, the interchange where I transfer trains. The journey normally takes five minutes. Today, it took 30 minutes.

I knew I was in for an adventure as my escalator reached platform level. A train sat in the station. Its doors were open and every carriage crammed with irritated passengers. A crowd was progressively gathering on the platform. A further eight minutes passed before the waiting train finally departed. The next three trains were a string of sardine cans, to the point that people fell out as the doors were opened.

Finally, twenty minutes after arriving at the station, a train pulled up with empty carriages. However, with so many packed trains ahead, our journey down the line was slow. Upon arriving at the next station we were held at the platform for another five minutes. With the doors open and the train stationary, people continued to pile in, making for yet another sardine can. I was relieved to finally reach Baker Street.

Baker Street was a scene of total chaos. The platform was packed with people from train to side walls. To prevent more people reaching the platform, the downward escalator had been closed off. This closure had its own cascading effect as people waited in the vestibule above. The crowd continued to grow as passengers from other train lines disgorged and discovered their onward journey was delayed.

The tube wasn't the only victim of the weather. One in four regoinal trains were also delayed. Four out of five London airports were closed. Three motorways were blocked by jack-knified trucks. More than 2000 schools closed for the day. It's staggering how poorly London copes with snow when places like Munich have semi-permenant cover on the ground. I've never seen Munich's underground rail network falter, or its trams stop running.

Our personal snow adventure continued this afternoon when our cleaner called in a panic. Melting snow on the roof had found its way under the tiles. Water was steadily dripping onto the bed in our bedroom. The leak finally stopped about 9pm this evening. It's no surprise. We'd noticed a small damp patch two months ago and reported it immediately. Sadly nothing was done. We're now being promised a builder will be out to investigate it tomorrow.

Winter life in London certainly has its moments.

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Wednesday, February 7

Heart attacks forecast for Sunday

Snow! Heavy snow! A 70% risk of disruption due to Heavy Snow!

The Met Office issued a severe warning this evening. A period of heavy snow is expected across Southwest England on Wednesday night. We're being told to expect up to 5cms on the ground by Thursday morning. Traffic chaos is also predicted given that the snow volume will peak just as the morning rush-hour gets underway. Oh the anticipation. Snow was never part of the weather forecast in Sydney (where they're forecasting a high today of 27C while we rug up for a chilly -3C overnight).

The Met Office also issues a number of handy tips about preparing for heavy snowfalls. However, I was caught off guard by the following statement, "When temperatures fall to sub-zero, the number of deaths from heart attacks peaks three days later, from strokes five days later and from respiratory infections ten days later."

I'm now preparing for train delays on Thursday and a heart attack by Sunday. Life in London is clearly more risky than I'd ever anticipated.

Monday, February 5

The Regent's Park

The Regent’s Park was first appropriated by Henry VIII for use as a hunting ground. Back then it was known as Marylebone Park and was pretty much left in its natural state. Today’s familiar layout is a comparatively modern. It was designed in 1811 by popular architect John Nash. The park covers 166 hectares and consists of sports fields, lakes, planted gardens and pavilions.

Garry and I went for a wander through the park yesterday, exploring almost every corner. I hadn’t appreciated how vast and varied the grounds actually were. One place that really captured my attention was Queen Mary's Gardens in the Inner Circle.

Here we saw dozens and dozens of spectacular rose beds. Of course, at this time of year the bushes are bare and heavily pruned. However, it’s clear that this area is stunning when everything is in bloom. We’ll definitely be back in Spring for another look. The same garden is also home to a dramatic fountain of Triton which shoots a jet of water several metres into the air.

Winfield House, the official residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, stands in private grounds in western section of the park. This is one of several villas that John Nash originally created for use by the Regent and his closest circle of friends. The immediate area is heavily guarded. I must admit that machine-gun totting cops were the last thing I'd expected to see in the park today.

Nearby is the gold domed London Central Mosque, which is visible from large sections of the park. The mosque was completed in 1978. Its main hall holds almost two thousand worshippers. The muslim community appears to be far more visible in London than any other European city.

Sunday, February 4

Herons in the park

Regent’s Park is home to more than 20 nesting pairs of Grey Herons. These large birds build equally large nests from sizable sticks and branches. They also nest in colonies, making for a spectacular display of nests along the park’s Boating Lake.

I was fascinated by their nests while walking in the park today. It’s incredible how large they are and amazing how they defy gravity, sitting precariously in each tree. Their presence is all the more remarkable considering how close they are to the heart of downtown London. Oxford Street is less than a mile away.

Saturday, February 3

Stairways to heaven

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Australia is a flat country. There's also plenty of space for everyone. As a result cities like Sydney are far more horizontal. London on the other hand feels like an endless series of stairways and stairwells. I can't recall walking up and down so many stairs in my life. They're every where and largely unavoidable. It's clear easy access for the elderly and infirmed was never a high priority in previous centuries.

On a whim I counted the number separate stairways and escalators that I climbed today. Stairs = 16. Escalators = 6. Several stairways were climbed more than once. Add these repeats to the mix and I climbed a total of more than 25 sets of stairs.

This total is all the more staggering when you consider how geographically flat actually is London. Hampstead Heath, 15 minutes walk from home, is one of the highest points in the city. It's a mere 112 metres above sea level. A typical day in Australia would see me climb six steps of stairs and one escalator. Half of these stairs were part of our Sydney apartment complex.

Basically, there are days when London feels like one giant StairMaster. Just getting from the street to our apartment every day requires climbing four separate sets of stairs. First there's a short step up from the street to the entrance path, a set of stairs from the path to the front door, then two flights of internal stairs up to our apartment. Inside the apartment we climb another set of stairs to reach our main bedroom. I also work on the top floor of my office building. This means climbing two floors to reach my desk every day, another four sets of stairs.

A trip on the tube is no different. I have to descend three sets of stairs to reach the main ticket gates at Swiss Cottage, then take an escalator down to the platform. The station I transfer at has another four sets of stairs and an escalator. Pretty much every tube station requires negotiating several sets of stairs. Every theatre has them, as do most pubs and restaurants (the toilet is almost always in a basement or on another floor) and a surpising number of stores.

I'm convinced that every tourist attraction is automatically designed with stairs in place. St Pauls has stairs, so does Westminister Abbey, Trafalger Square and the Tower of London. If you're coming to London, leave your wheelchair at home.

Thursday, February 1

Making plans, saving money

Our last holiday convertible - Hawaii 2005

Garry's permenant job has an unexpected silver lining. I've mentioned previously that he's booked his holidays well in advance this year to ensure we'll have time off together. This forward planning has enabled me to surf the web, grabbing a fistful of early deals for our impending whirlwind vacation through America's Deep South.

I'm having fun mapping out a brilliant vacation at half the regular price. To date I've secured a convertible rental car in Florida 30% cheaper than normal, seats near the stage for Circus du Soeil in Orlando and free hotel rooms in New Orleans through the Sheraton's guest reward program.

We've also decided to extend our time in San Diego and take a day trip across the border into Mexico. I've found the perfect tour offering a lobster lunch and plenty of scenic highlights. We'll be in need of a vacation by the time we reach Sydney!