Saturday, May 31

No more free lunch


Today's paper full of economic gloom. One story claimed that the era of cheap and plentiful food was over. It quoted a UN report declaring most agricultural commodity prices in the next decade would exceed the average of the previous decade by up to 50%. World food price have increased an average of 83% in the last three years.

A second headline reported that a typical basket of food in the UK has increased by 6% since January. Fresh fruit and vegetables are up almost 16%, with cauliflower up 44% and basmati rice up 33%. I was fascinated by the observation that the price of mouthwash had fallen by 10.2%

A third story predicts that UK house prices would fall by 20% over two years, following a record 2.5% fall in housing prices this month. A fall of this magnitude would throw one in six mortgage borrowers into negative equity. The price of housing in London has never failed to astonish me.

Meanwhile, the front page declared that the era of cheap airfares is over. Virgin Atlantic and British Airways announced increases in their fuel surcharges today. BA said that long-haul flights would attract a fuel surcharge of £218 for a return trip from next week. With oil prices at US$135 a barrel, surcharge increases were expected. However, this is the second increase in its surcharge in a month. At least one more increase is to come, possibly two.

Airfares have been extraordinarily cheap for years. I first flew to Europe in May 1990 with Royal Jordanian Airlines. At the time my return flight from Sydney cost A$1,860 (£885), a price considered incredibly good value. Fast forward exactly eighteen years. Tonight Air New Zealand is offering flights from London to Tauranga for £783. Incredibly, a trip requiring three separate flights, is more than £100 cheaper despite decades of inflation. It just doesn't make sense.

Wednesday, May 28

Post surgery

Dad has finished his operation. He spent less time in surgery than expected which was good to hear. The tumour in his lower colon has been successfully removed and the remaining sections re-joined without incident. Dad was thrilled to learn that a colostomy bag would not be required. I'm glad he had some good news to lift his spirits.

Unfortunately, rather than simply being inflamed by Crohn's Disease, the small intestine was found to be cancerous. The diseased section has been removed but secondary colon cancer was found in his liver. Test results from biopsies taken during surgery will be available in about ten days. We'll then have a clearer sense of what happens next.

Tuesday, May 27

In sickness and in health


I picked up a rather unpleasant dose of Giardia while in India last month. I suspected something was amiss shortly after I returned to London. A cluster of symptoms while in the USA left no doubt. I've contracted Giardia in India before, and several times in China, so I knew exactly what the problem was.

Giardia is a water-borne protozoan parasite that colonises and reproduces in the small intestine (that's it photo at the top of this post). It's symptoms are unmistakable. Bloating, flatulence and stomach cramps are the most common indicators, along with unbelievably foul smelling stools. I've also found that the bloating can induce vomiting at night as your stomach is progressively squeezed by expanding gases.

Over the years I've come to learn that such aliments are part and parcel of business travel. Diarrhoea and food poisoning tend to be the most common afflictions. I've experienced food poisoning in China more times than I care to recall. Surprisingly, booking myself into five-star hotels rarely reduced the risk. I've also endured bouts of food poisoning in New York and Paris. On each occasion I knew exactly which dish made me ill.

Thanks to a friendly doctor in San Francisco, a script of Metronidalzole has my Giardia on the wane. I'm also US$404 poorer. Unfortunately, such a simple cure isn't an option for my father. Tomorrow he goes into surgery to remove a malignant tumour from his lower colon, along with a section of his small intestine inflamed by chronic Crohn's Disease. He'll be in the theatre for four hours and remain in hospital for ten days of recovery. I wish him a comfortable and speedy return to full health.

Since his diagnosis last month I've discovered many friends and colleagues whose family members have also been diagnosed with colon cancer. It seems that this disease is far more prevalent than I've been aware. I am reminded of a period several years ago when three colleagues were diagnosed with breast cancer in the period of a year. A family friend also received a similar diagnosis last year. Once again, this cancer was far more common that I'd realised. My occasional bout of Giardia or Gout pales into insignificance.

Monday, May 26

Urban foxes


Several weeks ago while walking at dawn I encountered a red fox in the driveway of a house in Swiss Cottage. I'm not sure who was more surprised - me or the fox. This was last animal I expected to see in the heart of London. However, given that I spotted it on property bordering Primrose Hill, I imagine it lives in the surrounding parkland. Garry says he's also seem foxes in our neighbour's yard.

Urban foxes are apparently increasingly common. As scavengers they've adapted well to city life. National Geographic reports that up to 10,000 live in London, or 16 for every square mile of the city. Incredibly one such animal was recently found sleeping in the Houses of Parliament, while others have raided the gardens of Buckingham Palace. It seems my local friend has plenty of companions.

(PS: The photo in this post isn't mine. It was taken by an English couple called Lindy and David who've been sailing around the world. It seems that despite their global adventures urban foxes fascinate them as much as myself).

Saturday, May 24

Crazy Horse Memorial


Carving monuments out of South Dakota's mountains isn't just the preserve of Mount Rushmore. 17 miles down the road from the four immortalised presidents lies Crazy Horse Memorial. This sculpture of an American Indian Chief on horseback dwarfs Mount Rushmore. When complete it will be five times larger, carved completely in three dimensions.

The sculpture was commissioned by Lakota Indian Chief, Henry Standing Bear, to remind white men that the native American also have great heroes. Sculptor Korezak Ziolkowski accepted the Indian's invitation to carve their mountain in 1947. Work on the sculpture began two years in 1949. Incredibly, the entire endeavour is being funded by private enterprise.


To date the 26.5 metre face of Crazy Horse is the only recognisable feature on the mountain. Large painted lines further down the hillside create a rough impression of the sculpture's final dimensions. Currently, work is focused on blocking out the giant horse's head. This feature will take up an astonishing 66 metres of granite. A white plaster model at the nearby visitor's centre gives you a sense of the finished sculpture.


I rode an open-air truck out to the mountain's base where the sculpture's scale is far more apparent. From our vantage point we could see a film crew from NBC's Today Show at work in front of the granite face. Their presence underneath Crazy Horse's nose gave us the best possible sense of the sculpture's overwhelming size.


Later that afternoon as I drove past a helicopter tour centre I decided to throw caution to the wind and book myself a flight. As I was the only passenger I was given a cockpit seat along side the pilot. For the next thirty minutes we hovered around the Crazy Horse work site, past Mount Rushmore and over the most incredible series of granite pinnacles populating the Black Hills of South Dakota.


At one point the pilot pointed out the winding Needles Highway. This narrow road makes its way through the more dramatic pinnacles, passing through single lane tunnels and along precarious rock shelves. He drew my attention to several highway landmarks including the stunning blue waters of Sylvan Lake and a tiny lookout called the Eye of the Needle. This last sight is created by the highway narrowing to little more than a carpark surrounded by a dramatic rock amphitheatre.


Despite the aerial tour, nothing could have prepared me for the astonishing beauty of the Needles Highway at ground level. Sylvan Lake was breath-taking. It was so majestic and so perfect, I thought I'd wandered on to a Hollywood sound stage. Sadly, the photos I took barely do the scene justice. The Eye of the Needle was equally breath-taking. Once again my photos fail to capture the awe-inspiring scene I encountered.


In fact, along the entire length of the highway, I found myself constantly stopping to admire the view and soak up the sunshine. At one lookout a group of friendly Chipmunks came right up to my outstretched hands. I really was a world away from the noise and bustle of cold, wet London.

Mount Rushmore


As a child Mount Rushmore was one of the most iconic images of America. There was something rather grand, yet undeniably kitsch, about a nation carving the faces of four historic presidents on the side of a mountain. Four hundred men and women toiled for 14 years to sculpt 18 metre profiles of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

The first three men were obvious choices such a memorial. However, I could never understand why Roosevelt was chosen until last weekend. A plague at the memorial reveals that the four Presidents were chosen by the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, to commemorate the founding, growth, preservation and economic development of the United States. Each historic phase is represented by Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt respectively.


Roosevelt presided over America's ascendancy as a global economic power. His presidency resulted in the construction of the Panama Canal and the introduction of trust-busting legislation. He was also the first president to travel overseas during his term in office. I also learnt that President Coolidge, who signed the act authorising Mount Rushmore's construction, insisted that Washington be portrayed along side two Republicans and one Democrat. Both Roosevelt and Coolidge were Republicans.


Access to the memorial is via Highway 244 which gently winds its way through the Black Hills of South Dakota. As the famous hillside finally comes into view the first thing that strikes you is the size of the memorial. It's rather small. Published images of Mount Rushmore typically crop out the surrounding countryside. When seen in situ the granite Presidents aren't nearly as overwhelming you'd expect.

The site itself is centred around a grand viewing terrace that dramatically delivers the mountain's iconic view. Nearby a short track, known as the Presidential Trail, takes you up to the mountain's base, offering views directly underneath the giant sculpture. At this distance, the profiles are genuinely impressive. It's clear that each man's eye really is a deep 4 metre cavern.


The trail then descends into a valley where the Sculptor's Studio is located. It was here that Gutzon Borglum directed the memorial's construction. Inside is a plaster cast used to calculate measurements for carving the mountain's final form. As I stood looking at the mountain, it was difficult not to admire the skill and determination of a nation hell-bent on celebrating the glory of its republic.


Later the same day I drove on down Highway 244, stopping to marvel at George Washington's profile. The scene is surreal. Through the crevice in the hillside, a ghostly white face suddenly appears. I was reminded of The Phantom, a comic book crimefighter from the 1930s. Perhaps not the image Congress had in mind when spending US$989,992 to build the memorial? Only in America.

Devil's Tower


Steven Spielberg secured his first Oscar nomination for Best Director in 1977 following the release of his science fiction film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film received seven Oscar nominations in total and went on to win two. It was Spielberg's second box office blockbuster, grossing an impressive US$435 million in two separate releases.

The film portrays the UFO obsession of Roy Neary, a character played by Richard Dreyfuss. Roy is drawn to Devil's Tower, a remarkable land formation in Wyoming, by a premonition he cannot explain. The unusual granite butte adds an air of mystic to the film and forms the backdrop for its climatic finish. In the closing scenes an alien ship lands at Devil's Tower and establishes contact with the human race.


Last weekend I stood at the foot of Devil's Tower myself. I could hardly believe I was seeing it with my own eyes. Without a doubt the tower is as dramatic in real life as it is in Spielberg's movie. Technically, Devil's Tower is geological formation known as an igneous intrusion. It's effectively an ancient volcanic bulge that formed 65 million years ago. Once buried deep underground, erosion has progressively exposed its form. Today it rises 386 metres above the surrounding area.


I spent several hours at the tower last Saturday enjoying gloriously warm, sunny weather. The base of the tower is an alternating cascade of fallen rocks and sweet smelling pine forest. A paved track provides a wonderfully refreshing trek around its base. As I walked, the smell of pine and and dappled sunlight playing through the trees did much to restore my soul. It was easy to understand why Devil's Tower became the USA's first national monument in 1906.


The tower also draws a steady stream of climbers. I spotted dozens and dozens of people scaling its heights. A local rancher, William Rogers, is the first recorded person to climb Devil's Tower. He reached the summit on July 4, 1893 after erecting a ladder of wooden pegs driven into the rock face. While remnants of the ladder are still visible, today's climbers make the ascent using ropes.


While the climbers were fascinating to watch, I was more captivated by prairie dogs that lived on a nearby open field. In the shadow of the mountain these energetic creatures were hard at work grazing on spring grass. I watched them for ages, laughing each time they scurried for cover whenever a car drove by.

Monday, May 19

The Black Hills


I've just finished the most remarkable weekend touring the Black Hills of Wyoming and South Dakota. This post is coming to you from Denver Airport where I'm in transit for my flight to San Francisco for work. The weekend has been glorious all weekend with temperatures briefly touching 30C today.


I hired a car from Gillette, Wyoming (the town does exist - look it up - I had to) and drove to Devil's Mountain, site of Steven Spielberg's epic movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. From here it was on to Rapid City via Spearfish Canyon and a beautifully preserved mining town called Deadwood.

This morning I drove through the Black Hills of South Dakota; stopping to visit Mount Rushmore and the incomplete Crazy Horse memorial. I found myself ahead of schedule mid-afternoon. A spontaneous decision saw me book a 30-minute helicopter flight over Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills for some stunning aerial photography.


I finished the day with winding, scenic drive along the Needle Highway. The views were astonishing. The road itself was quite an adventure. At times it narrowed to a single lane bored through towering fissures in the mountain side. I'll write more details shortly and post a few photos.

Saturday, May 10

Kiwis in town


I discovered a delightful new pub in Hammersmith last night. The Queens Head is located in a classic red-brick building overlooking a large, tree-filled park. The narrow, rather modest street-front hides an enormous beer garden and some of London's friendiest bar staff. It's somewhat ironic that I was introduced to this venue by a pair of kiwi tourists who'd flown in hours earlier.

Bob and Phillipa are long-standing friends of my parents. Phillipa is often mistaken for my mother's sister, as well as acting as my second mother during high school. They've just completed a tour of Turkey and are about to join a second tour through Russia and the Baltic States. Last night they dropped into Hammersmith for drinks and dinner with Philippa's nephew, Chris. I joined them after work as my office was barely five minutes away.

As the conversation progressed it became apparent that Chris and his wife have enjoyed just as many excursions across Europe as Garry and I. We spent a wonderful evening comparing travel notes and sharing news from Aotearoa. Bob and Phillipa clearly loved Turkey. I viewed their photos of Ephesus with envy. They arrived before the crowds and saw the ancient town's famous Library without a soul in sight.

Helsinki


Many people told us Helsinki wasn't much of a tourist destination. "It's a sleepy town," they warned. After last weekend's excursion I have to agree. It's not especially pretty and has few sights of note. All in all it's the perfect place to simply kick back and relax.


The locals clearly have the same idea. After a lazy morning in our hotel we ventured out into a sea of people, all intent on enjoying the unusually warm spring weather. Every outdoor cafe table and park bench was occupied. Even the grassy expanses of the city's central park were smothered by picnic blankets and sun-soaking locals. The scene was delightfully simple and wonderfully relaxing.


The centre of Helsinki is dominated by Esplanadi Park; a narrow, tree-lined park stretching several city blocks. It leads to the harbour and a large cobble-stone plaza. On Saturday the plaza was home to a colourful temporary market. It's also home to Havis Amanda, a fountain erected in 1908 to symbolise the city's youthful spirit.


The fountain's centrepiece is a brass woman perched on rocks, surrounding by dolphins. On Saturday it's water was filled with foam. We assumed this was the aftermath of a juvenile prank until we later learnt of a popular tradition. On May 1, local students celebrate the end of their university year by washing the naked maiden and crowning her with a white cap.


The remainder of the afternoon was spent wandering along the city's waterfront and back streets. Two buildings stood out. The first was Helsinki Cathedral, a Lutheran building of majestic white marble that sits atop a broad, stone pedestal. The second venue of note was Uspenski Cathedral. This is an ornate Russian Orthodox building situated on a bare rocky outcrop overlooking red-brick warehouses the line the waterfront.


Helsinki's top tourist attraction is the sea fortress of Suomenlinna. Like much of the city, this is a relaxed, low-key affair. Its a former military base covering four islands, offering relaxing walks and refreshing sea views. The site is defended by towering stone walls and largely squat, functional 18th Century buildings (as well as a pretty white church whose bell tower doubles as a lighthouse).


All in all Suomenlinna offered a pleasant afternoon outdoors and so it was here that we spend much of our last day. For several hours we wandered along old stone paths, past a restored WWII submarine, a working dry dock and several rows of canons guarding the entrance to Helsinki harbour.


Perhaps the city's most surprising highlight were it restaurants. We dined at several memorable establishments, some formal and others decidedly so less. Yet every where the food was universally good. I loved Kappeli; a restaurant located in a Victorian-style, cast-iron pavillion on the edge of Esplanadi Park. I enjoyed a plate of tasty peppered Reindeer, much to Garry's horror. Rudolph never tasted better.


Click here for our day trip to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

Friday, May 9

Waste not!


Fly tipping is on the increase across the UK. This illegal dumping of rubbish costs taxpayers about £50m a year in clean-up costs, and landowners another £50m. The nation's councils currently clear up 187,500 tons of illegally dumped waste each year. Lobbyists claim the problem will only escalate as the Government forces more and more households to reduce their annual volume of waste.

Under EU law the Government must reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) being sent to landfills. BMW includes materials like paper, plastics, metals (such as aluminium cans) and tyres. In 2005/06 the UK landfilled an estimated 12.4 million tonnes of BMW. This volume is inflated by one of the EU 's lowest rate of recycling.

The UK currently recycles about one third of its glass. Switzerland and the Netherlands have recycling rates as high as 80%. The UK has a plastics recycling rate of 3%. In Germany the rate is 70%. When Garry and I arrived in London we were surprised to find that our Council didn't collect recyclable waste from local households. We'd been use to weekly collections in Australia for more than a decade. Weekly collection finally began in our area 18 months ago.

To met EU targets, the Government introduced the Waste Emissions and Trading Act in 2003. The Act set allowances until 2020 for the annual volume of biodegradable waste sent to landfill by every Council. A penalty of £150 is imposed on Councils for every tonne of waste dumped in excess of their permissable allowance. In response, Councils have been introducing a range of new policies including bin taxes, smaller bins and a shift to fortnightly collection.

These measures are having an impact. The proportion of municipal waste recycled or composted climbed from 27.1% to 30.7% last year. The Government hopes to increase the nation's recycling rate to 33% by 2015. As Councils tighten up their waste collection practices, incidents of fly-tipping are said to be on the increase. I've certainly noticed more bags of rubbish piled around public bins - particularly towards the tail end of the weekend.

These changes have also proven controversial. Boris Johnson, the new mayor of London, even campaigned this month on a promise to reverse local plans to introduce a bin tax. Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has also promised to rethink such taxes. It seems the UK has a lot to learn about the virtues of recycling and waste management.

Thursday, May 8

Graham Norton


When my parents were in town last year we secured tickets to watch Graham Norton record his popular BBC television chat show. The studio typically invites more people than required to cover for inevitable drop-outs which means late arrivals can miss out. This proved to be our experience last July and we were sent away disappointed.

I must confess that I'd never heard of Graham Norton until we arrived in London. However, we quickly became fans. He's an incredibly funny Irish comedian, who entertains in an excitable, flamboyant manner. He's forever mocking the royal family and peppers his dialogue with some of the funniest, smuttiest humour I've ever heard. It's rumoured he earns in excess of £5-6 million pounds annually as an television entertainer.

Graham is currently taping a new season of his show. Garry and I duly applied for tickets a second time. Tonight we were in luck. After a nail-biting thirty minute wait were ushered into the studio and found ourselves seated directly above Graham's chair. We couldn't have asked for a better view. His guests were Minnie Driver and British comedian, Jimmy Carr.

Minnie is currently starring in a television show we've been following called The Riches. She's also remembered for her starring role opposite Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. Minnie was both six-months pregnant and hilarious in her own right. Garry and I laughed continually for more than an hour while she and Graham discussed celebrity greetings, baby names and excepts from a children's book about Willie the Sperm. The year-long wait was well worthwhile.

Tuesday, May 6

Tallinn


Finland has Europe's second highest suicide rate and some of its most visible incidences of public drunkenness. It's hard to sympathise. Less than 24 after arriving in Helsinki, Garry and I were rapidly running short of sights to see. Sunday threatened to be a particular dull day. We were warned that most shops and restaurants would be closed leaving the town centre all but lifeless.


Sunday dawned sunny and warm. On a whim we caught a boat across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, capital of Estonia. We couldn't have chosen a better day to travel. The Baltic Sea was a still as a mill pond with hardly a ripple in sight. Our ferry raced across the 60 kilometre stretch of water, reaching Estonia in less than 1:40 hours. The medieval old town's skyline of church spires and towers hinted at the many sights that lay in wait.


Tallinn is a remarkably well preserved city. Tall, slender homes, painted in bright and inviting hues, lined gently winding cobbled streets. The old town itself sits on a rocky hilltop surrounded by towering stone walls. These remarkable three metre thick structures rise up to 16 metres in height. The wall once stretched more than four kilometres with 46 towers along its length. At least two kilometres remain intact today, along with 26 impressive towers.


We entered the town via a gate at the northern limits of the old city wall. Within seconds we found ourselves transported more than half a millennium back in time. We may our way towards the Town Hall Square, dominated by a surprising simple stone town hall. The hall's only decorative feature were a pair of drainpipes sculpted in the shape of a green dragon's head. The square itself was encircled by cafes and bars, each with its own lively outdoor dining area.


We wandered the narrow streets, climbing steep stone stairs until we reached the town's highest plateau, known as Toompea. From here, sweeping views of the old town and its harbour had our cameras clicking at a frantic pace. Toompea is also home to the city's oldest church, the Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin; and the city's most spectacular church, St Alexander Nevski Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church festooned with bold brown, onion domes.

I soon spotted people in the tower of St Olaf's Church and insisted we climb its 60 metre spiral stone stairway to the roof. The effort was worth it. From the edge of its weathered, green copper roof we were greeted by a sea of red tiled roofs stretching into the distance. Since the Middle Ages, the church's impressive weathered copper spire has varied in height. The current construction rises 124 metres. However, an earlier spire reached 159 metres, making it the world's tallest structure from 1519 until 1625.


Lunch was our next highlight. We chose Olde Hansa, a restaurant located in the basement of an old merchant's home. The venue risked being a terribly cliche tourist trap. However, nothing could have been further from the truth. While tourists were being shoe-horned into tables on modern wooden decking mounted on the pavement, we chose to dine indoors. Our candle-lit meal consisted of traditional Hanseatic dishes including Wild Boar, Elk and even Bear. We washed it all down with dark, honey beer flavoured with herbs. In the quiet, stone-walled cellar it was easy to imagine life in 14th Century Tallinn.


Our final stop for the day was the Okupatsioonide Muuseum, otherwise known as the Museum of the Recent Occupation. It offered a glimpse of life in the Estonian Republic during the Soviet and Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1991. During the Cold War little was ever heard of the Baltic States. Garry and I were both surprised to learn how brutal the Soviet annexation had been.

Our day in Tallinn adds Estonia to the list of countries I've visited. That's country number 53.