Tuesday, April 29

Shaping up for summer

We're getting in shape for Summer. Garry joined the local gym yesterday while I've begun taking early morning works. We've decided that we need to get a little active and lose some weight before Summer takes hold. Garry spent an hour doing a cardio program at the gym tonight. He surprised himself with the ease that it took to get back into a steady exercise rhythm. I was equally pleased that I picked a sunny morning to stride around Primrose Hill. London's skyline looked particularly spectacular this morning.

Monday, April 28

Night lights

The inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament dominated the news as I travelled through India last week. The IPL is a Twenty20 cricket tournament consisting of eight city teams competing in 56 games over 44 days. The IPL works on a franchise-system based on the American style of hiring players and transfers. Every franchises were put up for auction in January. An astonishing US$723.59 million was bid by the time the final hammer fell.

The competition also has a surprisingly international flavour as each team can buy up to eight overseas players. As a result the competition is littered with familiar Australian names including Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting. Even Shane Warne has scored a coaching stint with the Rajasthan Royals (Jaipur's home team).

Everywhere I went live television broadcasts could be seen flickering on screens everywhere. On Tuesday, while in Mumbai, I watched the Chennai Super Kings defeat the Mumbai Indians on a giant TV screen at a local bar. The city's team lost on the final ball by six runs. The daily papers were also filled with IPL news including a controversy over the skimpy attire of the cheerleaders specially imported from Dallas.

In Bangalore we witnessed the local cricket stadium rehearsing a spectacular light show for the game played yesterday. As we ate dinner a swirl of spotlights lit the night sky, dancing in endlessly changing patterns and colours. Sadly it seems that the spectacle was of little value. The Bangalore Royal Challengers lost to Shane Warne's team by a healthy margin.

Sunday, April 27

Up in the air over India

Last week’s business trip to India was my first visit for almost three years. Much has changed since 2005. The impact of GDP growth in excess of 9% annually is evident everywhere. The traffic is clearly busier than ever in Delhi and Bangalore, while major infrastructure projects are sprouting in abundance. Delhi had many new highway fly-overs in place, eliminating the chaotic intersections I once negotiated between the airport and my hotel. Mumbai has an enormous elevated highway and stay-cable bridge under construction called the Bandra Worli Sea Link. This is the first phase of a new 16.9km highway being built offshore along the city coastline, linking its airport with the main business district.

All three cities I visited (Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore) also have new airport facilities under construction. The opening of these new facilities can’t come soon enough. Currently, India's air passenger numbers are growing at 25 percent a year. As a result, the volume of passengers has almost doubled since I last flew around the country. Its aging air transport network is clearly showing the strain. Transiting through each airport was a nightmare last week. Every domestic flight was delayed and at least two flights were forced to circle the airport until landing slots opened up.

The chaos began the moment we touched down in Delhi. After a red-eye flight from London we were directed to one carousel while our luggage was delivered to another. It took almost an hour to finally be united with our pocessions. The situation was no better at the domestic terminal. Regular announcements about flight delays were rendered illegible by static and shattered public address speakers. To make matters worse, my delayed flight eventually vanished from the departure screen without explanation. Enquiries at the help desk delivered one story. Asking the same question at any departure gate resulted in a different answer. My frustration was compounded by the fact that some gates had flight departure detailed displayed while other gates had queues of passengers departing without any flight details in sight.

Fortunately, relief is coming. Delhi has a US$2 billion expansion underway that includes a new runway and terminal. Both should open later this year. The international terminal is also one giant construction zone with hammering and hoardings everywhere. Further south, Bangalore has built an entirely new airport which was due to open in March. However, government authorities weren’t happy with the new airport’s air traffic control system and the scheduled opening was cancelled. A new opening date has yet to be finalised. Heathrow’s Terminal 5 nightmares pale by comparison.

However, not every aspect of flying in India was unpleasant. The inflight meals were the best I've encountered on a domestic flight in years - a large tray of hot, tasty food. My flight between Mumbai and Bangalore even had on-demand seatback entertainment. BA offers none of these perks on its European short-haul flights covering similar distances. Like Qantas, its inflight meals have morphed to nothing more than a tiny sandwich. How ironic. Cabin service pioneered in the Developed World is now only available in the Developing World.

Sunday, April 20

Bahá'í House of Worship

Only eight Bahá'í Houses of Worship have been built worldwide. A ninth is currently under construction in Santiago, Chile. Perhaps the most stunning of these can be found in the heart of New Delhi. A total of 27 white, marble-clad petals rise to form the building's striking lotus flower roof. The design is not simply aesthetic. Many Asian religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrian - have special associations with the lotus flower.

Since opening in December 1986, more than 60 million people have visited the temple. Last year alone it received more than 4.6 million visitors. Today, I decided to add myself to the count after discovering the temple was a short 15 minute walk from my hotel.

It really is a popular place. As I drew near the main entrance a steady stream of people, many dressed in colourful saris, could be seen streaming through the grounds. This crowd never let up the entire time I was there. They say that no less than 13,000 people visit each day, with up to 150,000 attending on holy days.

All Bahá'í Houses of Worship are built for people from all religions to worship in as the Bahá'í believe that the world's religions come from the same God. New Delhi's temple is built on two floors. The upper level consists of a single Prayer Hall with seating for 1,300 people. The hall's interior is plain and white, with a ceiling that soars almost 40 metres at its central apex. Not one icon or religious symbol decorate its walls reinforcing its religious neutrality.

The building's lotus theme continues with a series of ponds around its lower floor. These help the building 'float' above its surrounding which includes a simple garden set in 26 acre site. The neat, tidy lawn lies in stark contrast to the rubble-filled, refuse littered streets outside it gates. After years of travelling to India, the constant juxtaposition between grime and serenity has become one of my most enduring memories.

Saturday, April 19

The airport is my friend

Tomorrow I catch an overnight flight to India for another week on the road for work. I'll be visiting three cities in five days; New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. This trip kicks off several months of heavy travel. However, most of it is for pleasure this time rather than work.

Garry and I are off to Helsinki in early-May for a three-day weekend getaway. This is another side trip on our round-the-world ticket. I'll then be off to the USA for another business trip, hitting both coasts before returning to London. Hopefully will be my last business trip until August.

In June I have a surprise weekend booked for Garry and I to celebrate our fifth anniversary together. My best friend, Brendan, then arrives from Sydney for five weeks of sight-seeing. We've already booked a long weekend in Berlin for July. Garry and I then make our way back down under via Panama and Mexico in early-August. Phew!

Friday, April 18

Good old-fashioned weather

It's hard to believe that this time last year we were enjoying temperatures above 25C. Twelve months on, the Uk's hottest April on record is nothing more than a distant memory. Despite several days of cloudless, blue skies the average temperature this week hasn't risen above 13C. In fact this month's average temperature has been 4C cooler than the same period last year while rainfall is already 25 percent above the average.

Long-term forecasts are predicting a warm but very wet Summer. We can expect regular sunny days followed by brief periods of rain. The Telegraph even went so far as to call this pattern a "return to good old British weather." The possibility of floods again this Summer also remain on the cards. I must admit that this is one tradition I'm not so keen to revive.

My recent business trip to Australia made me terribly homesick. I arrived in Sydney on a morning filled with sunshine and glorious blue skies. While waiting for my trans-Tasman flight I sat in the new Qantas First Class Lounge (which is stunning!), soaking up the sun's heat. Even at 7am its warmth was noticable. The city skyline looked magnificant in the distance, while service in the Lounge was friendly and attentive. Nothing could have felt more different to living in the UK. I had to ask myself what on earth was I still doing living in London.

Monday, April 14

Artic images

I've updated posts covering our Easter vacation in Iceland. Each post now includes photos of our Artic adventures. Click here to reach the first post then follow the links I've added. As I look back I realise that Iceland had its fair share of snow and ice. However, Garry tells me that it snowed again in London last weekend. Winter seems to be going on forever.

Friday, April 11

Steamy Malaysia

This post comes to you from the Departure Terminal at KLIA, Malaysia's largest international airport. I'm waiting for a shuttle flight to Singapore where I'll transfer to a Qantas flight for London. I've just completed a week-long business meeting in a resort near Putrajaya. It's my first trip to Malaysia for almost five years.

The weather has been hot and steamy all week with regular tropical rain showers falling most days. Sadly, I've had little time to explore the immediate area. I did catch glimpses of Putrajaya when en route to the airport. It's a planned city located about 40 kilometres south of Kuala Lumpur. We drove along the shore of the equally planned Putrajaya lake where several local landmarks were clearly visible.

The national convention centre was notably prominent on the opposite shore. This large, grey flying saucer-shaped building is perched on a low hill affording spectacular views of Putrajaya. It's hard to believe that this entire city was nothing more than a rubber plantation less than twenty years ago. Today it's home to more than 78,000 people, with plans to accommodate another 400,000 before its completed.

Earlier in the week we drove into Kuala Lumpur itself for dinner at KLCC, a mall located at the base of the Petronas Towers. These towers were the world's tallest buildings until the completion of Taipei 101 in Taiwan. The building was flooded in light when we arrived, making for an impressive and memorable sight.

Wednesday, April 9

Family matters

Two weeks ago my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. Since then he’s undergone a series of tests to determine the extent of his illness. At this early stage only one thing is certain, Dad will require surgery. We’ll know more following his first consultation with the surgeon this coming Tuesday. Given this unexpected turn of events I brought forward a scheduled business trip to Australia by several days.

The last minute change let me carry on to New Zealand and spend three days with my parents before returning to Sydney. Qantas also came to the party. I successfully upgraded my flight using frequent flyer points all the way to Auckland. I then caught a commuter flight to Tauranga, arriving mid-afternoon on Sunday.

This final flight was quite an adventure. Our plane was little more than a small tin can fitted with a single row of rather flimsy looking seats on either side of the fuselage. The airframe was clearly visible along the walls and my hand luggage had to be stored under a vacant seat at the front of the plane. The pilot greeted us at the door before sitting down in the open cockpit for take-off.

Mum and Dad recently relocated to Mount Maunganui to continue their retirement plans. A cozy two-bedroom house they’ve owned for almost a decade is their new permanent home. The beach itself is a brief, five-minute walk away, making for a sunny, relaxing lifestyle. I can recall many wonderful moments as a child wandering along this stretch of white, curving sand.

The area’s most dominant feature is an extinct volcanic dome, rising 232 metres above the beach. The Mount, as it’s affectionately known, sits in splendid isolation at the far end of a long, broad sand spit. It comes as no surprise to learn that the local Maori tribe once lived in a fortified Pa on its summit. They called the peak Mauao. This trip, while in town, Mum and Dad took time out to join me for a casual walk around the base of Mount Maunganui.

Some of my earliest childhood memories involve walking the same track watching foaming ocean waves wash along the ancient lava coastline. Much of the route is shaded by tall, craggy Pohutukawa trees. These native character-filled trees are often called the New Zealand Christmas tree as they burst into bright, red flower during the Yuletide season. I was always fascinated by the 3-metre tall bronze statue of Tangaroa, Maori god of the sea, that guards the harbour entrance.

It was wonderful to be outdoors, enjoying the sea air and the company of family. Sadly, while I was in town Dad was stuck by another bout of illness. These reoccurring episodes of poor health have plagued him for more than a year. Their persistence eventually prompted him to schedule the tests that revealed his cancer. We have some challenging months ahead.

Wednesday, April 2

Nature at its best

Finally, a series of posts on our adventures in Iceland. Do come back and revisit these posts as I'll be updating them with appropriate photos at a future date. This post covers off the events of our first day in Iceland - then scroll down to read about subsequent days...

We reached our hotel shortly after midnight following an uneventful flight to Keflavik, Iceland’s main international airport. The airport is some distance from the capital, Reykjavik – at least 48 km west. Given this distance and our late arrival I had booked us into the Northern Lights Inn, a simple bungalow-style hotel located about 12kms from the airport. The hotel also offered a free shuttle service, making the late night transfer quick and simple.

Complimentary breakfast the next morning was offered in sunlit atrium. We dined while overlooking jagged lava fields and snaking pipes feeding searing hot water to the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power plant. In the distance steam could be seen rising from the island’s famous Blue Lagoon, a bathing complex filled with hot milky blue geothermal water. The hotel also supplied a free shuttle back to the airport for us to collect our rental car, and towels for to use at the lagoon itself.

We decided to take a leisurely drive along the southern coast toward a hotel we’d booked for our second night – about 120 km east of Reykjavik. Our first stop was Bláa Lóniõ, as the Blue Lagoon is called in Icelandic. The complex itself is nestled in amongst barren mounds of purple-grey lava. You reach it by walking along a meandering path laid in trench dug through the lava itself.

The water is kept at a constant 38C making a cosy, relaxing respite from the cold, local climate. Buckets of pure, creamy white silica mud can be found around the bathing lagoon. Guests are encouraged to smear on the mud for a refreshing spa experience. We gave it a go. Our skin was left tingling with fresh exfoliation.

From here we made our way to the coast, experiencing the first of many stunning scenic moments. Before us the bold southern coast stretched out into the misty distance, rugged, snow-capped and wonderfully desolate. We one point we drove down to the shore to witness Atlantic waves sweeping across a gravel beach at Selatanger.

The road then wound inland towards a series of frozen lakes. We stopped briefly to enjoy a remote, one-room wooden chapel perched on a hill overlooking a vast, snowy plain. Its simple red roof stood in stark relief against the blue skyline. Garry commented that it was probably the first time he’d ever been to church on Good Friday.

We stopped for lunch on a deserted bluff looking out across Kleifarvatn, a dramatic lake filling a barren volcanic fissure. Ice on the lake shore had begun to crack, creating the most stunning picnic vista I can ever recall. As sunlight glinted off the ice as we quietly communed with nature. Our next scenic stop was Urridafoss, powerful waterfall just south of Iceland’s island-circling main ring road. Here a mighty, roaring 360cu metre of water flows per second, tumbling over a short 6 metre drop.

We based ourselves for two nights at Hotel Ranga, a luxurious log cabin hotel set in an isolated rural location. The hotel boasted a classy restaurant, outdoor hot tubs and a cosy loft bar. Each morning we woke to a back drop of snow-capped mountains and sunlight glinting off the nearby river.

Click here for more Iceland adventures.

Tuesday, April 1

The Golden Circle

It’s almost impossible to visit Iceland without experiencing the popular Golden Circle. This route takes in the country’s three most popular tourist destinations; Gullfoss, Geysir and Pingvellir. We spent our second full day on the island completing this near-compulsory tourist pilgrimage. Despite the hype, each sight genuinely delivered on expectations.

Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall, was our first stop. This fall plunges over an awe inspiring double cascade before disappearing into a narrow ravine. The surrounding landscape was coated in a smooth white blanket of snow, while the fall’s rocky outcrops and opposing shore were layered in the remains of frozen spray and mist. I braved the icy conditions to make my way out to the edge of the falls where the sun, deafening sound and snow made for a truly memorable moment.

From here it was on to Geysir, a compact thermal zone of bubbling mud and hot water spouts. Geysers worldwide actually take their name from this location. Garry and I were captivated by Stokkur, an impressive geyser that explosively erupted once every ten minutes, sending scalding fountain of water 30 metres into the air. Surprisingly, the entire geothermal area was accessible free of charge.

Our last stop of the day was perhaps the most dramatic of all. Pingvellir is an immerse rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly drifting apart. The landscape is littered with fractured, rocky fissures; created as the land literally tears itself apart. The largest of these fissures is Almanagja. For almost a kilometre this narrow rock alley slices its way through the plain. Here stark, vertical rock walls soar more than 50 metres overhead bearing silent witness to the jaw-dropping power of relentless tectonic motion.

The scene was made all the more dramatic during our visit by a blanket of snow. This soft white cover made the surrounding dark lava cliffs all that more dramatic. Even better, we had the entire scene largely to ourselves. The image of our walking track zig-zagging through the snow, between ever narrowing rock walls will remain with me for the rest of my life.

One final sight completed our classic tourist day. As darkness fell, Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights came out. We were presented with a dazzling display than can only be described as a shimmering curtain of green light dancing across the sky from horizon to horizon. This proved to be the last clear night we had in Iceland and thus were lucky to see the aurora in action.

Click here to read about our magical ice cave experience.