Friday, October 30

1000 days to go


The national media are full of stories about the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games at the moment. Much of the news is focused on this weekend, which marks 1000 days to the Opening Ceremony. We've seen plenty of images of construction that's well underway, like that shown above. The emerging stadium isan 80,000 seat arena, that converts into a more easily maintained 25,000 seat venue after the Games.

I've been fascinated reading about the regeneration of canals around the Olympic Park. Many were built during the Victorian era, but have since fallen into neglect. They're part of the Bow Back Rivers system – which runs north from the River Thames to the Regent’s Canal. The last barges passed through these waterways more than 50 years ago. However a £19 million project of canal dredging and cleaning was recently completed, including the first canal lock to be built in London for at least 20 years.

Sunday, October 25

A splash of Autumn colour


Its Autumn! This afternoon's street scene left me in no doubt. Our clocks also go back an hour tonight as Summer Time finally ends, while tomorrow marks two months until Christmas. Where did the year go?

An odd twist of fate


Breast cancer is the most common form of invasive cancer among women in the USA, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. In the UK alone, an average of 125 women are diagnosed every day, or more than 45,000 annually. In New Zealand more than 2,400 are diagnosed annually. While it strikes all age groups, older women are at higher risk. In Australia the average age of diagnosis is 60 years. In the UK 80% of women diagnosed are aged 50 and over.

I’ve certainly known women afflicted by breast cancer. Thankfully, each was treated successfully and has gone on to live a healthy life. These experiences reinforced a sense that breast cancer is something that happens to other people – that is – until now. Two weeks ago my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s currently undergoing tests including biopsies and MRI scans, with surgery scheduled for November 6. Doctors believe the disease has been caught early and thus the prognosis is very promising.

Regular readers will know that my father had been fighting his own battle with cancer since April last year. Encouragingly, his most recent therapy has gone well. Follow-up tests confirm results in line with expectations and his quality of life is markedly better.

I really feel for my parents. In an odd twist of fate, my father has gone from cancer patient to primary care giver, while my mother has gone from primary care giver to cancer patient. I couldn’t have scripted a better soap opera plot if I tried. At a personal level, it’s taken awhile to reconcile the concept of both parents fighting cancer simultaneously. As I said to a colleague recently, “I know they’re mortal, but I'd expected them to remind me of this reality sequentially.”

As a result, December’s family reunion in New Zealand has taken on new meaning. The family diaspora is coming together for an early Christmas. My brother Hamish, is bringing in his entire family from Austria, while I’ll be flying in after working in California. We were last all together six years ago, also for Christmas.

Saturday, October 24

Cavtat


I travel a lot – for business and leisure. After a while one town starts to look much like the last; one local icon invites comparison with another and each hotel feels like the last. It takes something rather quirky and unexpected to make a lasting impact. Cavtat (pronounced "tsavtat"), a small village nestled on a narrow pine-clad peninsular, is one such place. We based ourselves here on the advice of my Uncle and Aunt (Thanks Dick and Jan). Without their tip I’m sure we’d have never bothered.

Cavtat consists of largely plain stone buildings, capped by bright, red-tiled roofs. Its sea-front plaza looks out across a small, sheltered bay dotted with simple fishing boat. It’s not fancy by any stretch of the imagination. However, the combination of simplicity in such an idyllic location is magic. My travel-wary soul was replenished moments after sighting Cavtat from the opposing shore of its postcard perfect harbour.


Cavtat is the original Dubrovnik. Like so many towns in the area it began life as a Greek settlement. Called Epidauros at the time, it fell under Roman rule in 228 BC and became a colony in the Roman province of Dalmatia. In the early 7th Century invading Slavs and Avars ransacked the town. Refugees who fled the violence eventually created a new settlement 17 kilometres up the coast. This new town eventually became the city of Dubrovnik.


Beyond bucket-loads of natural beauty, Cavtat is also an incredibly convenient location. It’s five kilometers from the airport, half an hour by bus or 40 minutes by boat from Dubrovnik and within easy reach of day trips to Montenegro. We stayed at Hotel Croatia, a rather uninspiring concrete hulk on a hill overlooking the harbour. Despite its ugly exterior the hotel bar offered stunning views of Cavtat. Our room ialso held a balcony looking out across small islands dotting the Adriatic Sea.


We spent our first afternoon in Croatia wandering the shores of Cavtat harbour, dining at a simply water-front restaurant and venturing up a small hill to see the Racic Mausoleum. This popular local sight is a domed art-deco chapel built on the edge of the town’s cemetery. Designed by sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, it’s a striking white stone building that maintains a silent vigil over the distant seawall defenses of Dubrovnik. It’s a spectacular view that’s simply wasted on the dead.


Spectacular coastal views aren’t hard to find in Croatia. On our third day in the country we hired a car and made plans to drive south to the Montenegrin town of Kotor. Enroute to the border we took a detour to Prevlaka, a long, narrow peninsular that constitutes the southernmost tip of Croatia. This landmark location sits at the entrance of the Gulf of Kotor and thus provides a picturesque view of the coast. In 1991 the Yugoslav National Army captured the area and based itself her for the duration of the siege of Dubronvik. Signs of their presence remain today, including taunting graffiti painted on the walls of old Austro-Hungarian fort at Point Ostra.


Garry and I spent more than an hour at Prevlaka, walking 2.5 kilometres from the national park carpark to Point Ostra. As we walked I struggled to reconcile the peaceful view with the concept that this was a battle zone less than twenty years ago. The UN was still monitoring the area until 2002 when it was finally given back to Croatia. I still struggle with the concept this peninsular and Dubrovnik were both European war zone in my lifetime.

Dubrovnik


Dubronvik didn’t disappoint. This medieval walled city was everything I hoped it would be - and more. Built in the 11th century, its spectacular walls provide a stunning view of the Adriatic and unforgettable glimpses of the postcard city they surround. The present structures date from the rebuilding that followed a devastating earthquake in 1667. Everywhere you look, brown buildings and their red tiled roofs fill the view, window boxes adorn narrow pathways and boats bob in sheltered harbour.


We entered the old city by boat; just like merchants visiting centuries ago. As we passed the soaring six-metre thick walls of St John fort, a sky of dramatic rainclouds filled the horizon. The entire scenic was a true Hollywood moment. I was left wondering how any army could bombard such a beautiful location; an event that actually happened in 1991-92. For months the former Yugoslav National Armed Forces attacked the city with gunships and artillery during the Croatian War of Independence. While everything has long since been repaired, you can identify the dozens of buildings damaged using a map located just inside the city’s land-locked Pile Gate.


A new musuem dedicated to the Croatian War of Independence has been created inside the Imperial Fort. The fort sits on the 400 metre summit of Mount Srd, directly behind Dubrovnik. When our flight home was delayed Garry and I took time out to drive up to the fort. This massive concrete structure was built by Napoleon's occupying army in 1808. Inside we saw news footage of Dubronvik's old city under attack, including scenes of the fort itself being hit.

Getting to the fort took nerves of steel. Access is via a narrow single-lane road that winds its way up a steep rock face, before precariously tracing the cliff top. However, the spectacular view from the fort’s rooftop made the heart-stopping journey well worthwhile. From this vantage point Dubrovnik’s defensive cliff-hugging location becomes all too apparent. Below us the red-roofed old town dazzled as the Elaphite islands stretched off into the distance.


Its ancient walls are also clear to see. They completely surround the old town, a circumference of almost two kilometers, reaching a height of 25 meters in places. The wall is unique in Europe. Almost nowhere else is a town wall so well preserved. You can walk the entire length of the wall’s crest. Periodically your journey is interrupted by one of fifteen towers, all built in the 16th century. Some even let you climb higher to get a better view. We spent several hours watching the city’s landscape unfold, briefly interrupted by an unforeseen rain shower. The view of red tiled roofs is something I’ll never forget.


We then wandered through the old city’s cobbled laneways, including Stradun the original main street that dissects the entire area from north to south. We briefly visited the local cathedral (a poor cousin to some of Europe’s other houses of worship) and the Franciscan Monastery which includes a 14th century cloister. The Monastery also includes the oldest pharmacy in Europe still in operation. The locals claim it opened for business in 1317. I was a little disappointed by what I saw but subsequently impressed by two spectacular missile holes from 1991 still visible in the interior walls.


An unexpected highlight of our visit was lunch. We discovered a delightful pizza restaurant tucked into a tiny cellar off a quiet laneway. Dining at rustic wooden tables in stone clad room made us feel as if we’d stepped back in time to an era when Dubrovnik was an independent city state commanding the entire Dalmatian Coast.

We were also pleased we’d chosen autumn to visit. The crowds were heavy in many places despite the inclement weather. It's clear that Dubrovnik is engulfed by tourist chaos at the height of Summer. Unfortunately for us, last weekend was unseasonably cold. More than one local told us the weather was highly unusual. However, even in the cold, Dubrovnik is magic. Visit if you can!

Walls, walls, walls


Dubrovnik isn’t the only spectacular walled city along the Dalmatian Coast. About two hours south, in Montenegro, lies the medieval town of Kotor. This wonderfully preserved town is surrounded by 4.5kms of impressive stone walls. Those facing the waterfront are the most impressive; 20 metres high and 15 metres wide. Kotor itself sits in s spectacular location, nestled at the end of a long fjord-like finger of the Adriatic Sea called the Boka Kotorska (Gulf of Kotor).


Kotor is reached by a scenic road tracing the dramatic shoreline. It takes more than an hour to drive this winding route, past soaring, barren limestone cliffs and villages populated by old stone buildings. Perhaps the most memorable sight along the way is the blue-domed church of Otok Gospa. While the building itself isn’t particularly note-worthy, its location is. The church sits on tiny man-made island in the middle of the gulf.


The old town of Kotor itself is a beautiful place. We spent more than an hour wandering its narrow cobblestone streets lined with all manner of magnificent stone buildings. The most impressive is its iconic postcard perfect Cathedral of Saint Tryphon. This venue’s twin towers stand above a spacious square, framed by a soaring stone cliff face. Unfortunately, the day that Garry and I visited, it was cold and damp; and the place was almost deserted. This left us with a sense of desolation rather than memories of a lively museum town that seemed to grace every guide book.


The other walled city we visited was Ston, and its neighouring port of Mali Ston. Both are located on the Peljesac peninsula, an hour north of Dubrovnik. Ston’s stone walls reminded me of another famous fortification, the Great Wall of China. At regular intervals, the wall’s narrow length is broken by a series of fortified towers. Each wall towers up to 15 metres high; first circling a small town of stone buildings before snaking dramatically up and around a nearby hillside.


Ston’s walls extend for more than six kilometres, ending on the opposite side of a narrow peninsular at the coastal village of Mali Ston. The village was completed in 1490 and clearly resembles the port of Dubrovnik with three arsenals, a round tower and a fortified port gate. As we walked down its narrow cobblestone lanes I was reminded of Mousehole, the Cornish coastal town we visited in May.


We later completed our visit by driving along the coast to Prapatna cove. This is a narrow bay with two distinguishing features; a ferry terminal for boats to the island of Hvar and small sandy beach. We stopped on the beach for a breezy autumn picnic lunch using produce we’d bought at a small local mini-mart in Ston. As with the drive to Kotor, the winding coastal road to Ston took us past some spectacular scenery. The Dalmatian Coast really is as rugged and picturesque as an atlas glance suggests.

Wednesday, October 21

Stranded in Croatia


We're back from a four-day weekend in Croatia. Our original itinerary involved a three-day break. However, stormy weather on Sunday evening resulted in British Airways cancelling our flight. Garry and I were forced to add another 24-hours to our trip, all the while accomodated at a five-star hotel courtesy of BA. We made the most of our extra day, taking in some additional sightseeing north of Dubrovnik.

While being stranded without warning wasn't ideal, I have to admit the weather was pretty appalling on Sunday night. Taking off in such conditions would have been a hair-raising experience by any measure. More about our weekend tomorrow including highlights from the pictureque town of Kotor, the stone walls of Stom and the truly majestic Dubrovnik.

In case you're wondering, the photo gracing this post was taken on our first day. The only time we saw blue skies and sunshine. The scene shown here was a sheltered bay in Cavtat, a postcard perfect town we made our home base. On Sunday evening even this sheltered bay was churned into a scene of white capped waves and wildly rocking boats.

UPDATE
I've added links to this post that take you to more recent posts about our time in Croatia.

Monday, October 12

Haste makes waste?


At last count there were 3.03 million vehicles registered in Greater London, of which 2.6 million were cars. These cars represent about 9.2% of the nation’s total count of 28.4 million cars. In 2008, private cars, clocked up an average of 8,130 miles each. That's almost more miles than our own car has done in the last five years. We're clearly not doing our bit!.

However, as more and more cars pour on to local roads, average vehicle speed in London has fallen below that of a horse-drawn carriage. In 1903 traffic in central London travelled at a speed of 12mph. By 2007 the average had fallen to 11mph. I’ve even seen statistics that claim London drivers spent around half their time in queues, incurring 2.3 minutes of delay for every kilometer they traveled.

Today Garry and I got a taste of this congestion driving to the supermarket. Traffic was backed up everywhere as we drove north forcing us to take an winding route on back road bordering Hampstead Heath. Things got even worse coming home. Traffic was backed up in the supermarket carpark, as the local access road was chocked in all directions. It took us 15 minutes to travel just 400 metres, a journey that should take less than two minutes from the Supermarket exit to the nearest A road. According to the Government this sort of congestion poses a very real long-term economic threat. If left unchecked, by 2025, it could cost an extra £22 billion a year in wasted time in England alone.


The City of London’s answer to this problem became a globally renowned case study in traffic management. In 2003, the city introduced an 8-square-mile congestion charging zone in the central city. From Monday to Friday, between 7am and 6pm, a daily charge of £8 is paid by every vehicle entering or travelling within the zone. Their presence is detected and monitored by 688 cameras at 203 sites scattered across the city.

The cameras can record number plates with a 90% accuracy rate using sophisticated number plate recognition technology. Every day they tracks and photographs the license plates of more than 250,000 cars. Travel in the zone without paying the charge and they’ll ensure you attract a fine of between £60 and £180.

The system’s success attracts considerable debate, even more so given its £130.1 million annual running cost. In 2003, six months after the congestion charge was first brought in, traffic speed rose from 8.5mph to 11mph, cutting journey times by 15%. However, more recent analysis suggests that this modest 1.5mph improvement has since disappeared. By 2008 traffic speeds were virtually back to their early 2003 levels. It’s no wonder 43% of people living in London do not own or have access to a car. Walking is probably faster.

Saturday, October 10

Out after midnight


London has a fantastic system of night buses. These travel on special routes across the city throughout the night, offering reliable public transport long after the last tube train has departed. The cashless Oystercard system we use on the tube and regular buses is also valid on on a night bus, which tend to run at 10-15 minute intervals. The entire system makes it incredibly cheap and easy to get home after a late night out - no matter what the hour.

Last week Garry and I attended a party in Stockwell, a suburb several kilometers south of the Thames. We got there on the tube about 8.30pm. The last of us eventually left about 2am. Thanks to two night buses we got home in less than hour at a fraction of the cost of a cab (and probably not much later than a cab across town. Not too bad for an 11km trip across the city in the dead of night.

London’s night bus service has been running since 1913. Today, more than 102 separate routes are in operation, with more than 30 million passenger trips taken every year. This equals almost 15% of all bus journeys taken in London. We normally catch the N13 which takes us right to the entrance of Swiss Cottage tube station, leaving a short five-minute walk home. Despite tracing one of the city’s oldest tube lines, this route only started operation in 1984. Incredibly, two early routes dating as far back as 1934 still operate today. This includes the network’s shortest route; the 10km N97 bus route.

Tuesday, October 6

Where has all our money gone?


Overnight the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) raised interest rates by 0.25%. Australia is now the first G20 country to increase interest rates since the global recession took hold. Its base rate also remains above that of many nations. This means Australian banks typically offer a higher interest rate on regular savings.

In the UK most savings accounts current pay zero interest. In desperation banks here have taken to offering one-year introductory rates of up to 3% for new account holders. This practice forces savers to bank hop annually in search of a modest return. Given this dour savings scenario, international investors are pouring money into Australia and thus the value of its dollar is steadily rising.

On the back of today's RBA news the value of the Australian dollar soared against most major currencies. This morning the dollar is worth almost 89 US cents. Meanwhile the British pound plunged in value and is now buying A$1.77. Regular readers of this blog will recall that we were getting A$2.58 for the same pound this time last year (as the chart above shows all to painfully). It's hard to fathom that money we earn in London is now worth one third less than it was a year ago.

Garry and I regularly transfer money to pay our Australian mortgage so the pound's plunging value definitely hurts. However, on a slightly more positive note, later this month Garry and I pass a critical milestone with our mortgage. We officially repay half of our loan with our next regular payment. It's comforting to know we now own more of our Sydney apartment than the bank does. We'll take our economic good news wherever we can find it.

UPDATE - October 8
Today the Australian dollar climbed to its strongest level against the British pound since May 1985. One pound is now buying less than A$1.75. Where has all our money gone?

FURTHER UPDATE - October 13
The forex fell to A$1.71 this morning. I nearly wept.

Monday, October 5

Cold kakapo memories


It’s cold tonight. I’ve even put on a sweatshirt - a first for the season. This evening's temperature has already dropped to 15°C, heading for an overnight low of 11°C. Even this is rather balmy compared to last night when temperatures fell in single figures. I’m sure we’ll have the central heating permanently on within weeks.

As the weather turns cooler I’m reminded of my childhood. Like most homes in New Zealand we never had central heating. My bedroom was cold at night, warmed only by a faithful electric blanket. Even worse, my winter school uniform always consisted of woolen shorts and long woolen socks. I recall more than one morning walking to school across playing fields covered in a deep, crisp layer of heavy white frost. As a result, New Zealand winters seemed to last forever.

Ok - it's my cub scout uniform - but you get the picture

Of course, not all of my New Zealand memories are so gloomy as the BBC reminded me earlier tonight. Garry and I were watching British comedian, Stephen Fry, and naturalist, Mark Carwardine, trekking through damp and cold New Zealand bush as part of the documentary series, Last Chance to See. This evening Stephen and Mark went in search of the Kakapo, a large, iridescent green, flightless parrot. It was considered all but extinct until 1973 when 18 males were found in a remote, rugged valley on the southwest coast of New Zealand's South Isaland.

The BBC also broadcast footage of the Chatham Island Robin this evening. This small black bird was once the world’s rarest animal. In 1979 there were only five still alive, four males and one breeding female called Old Blue. As a result, throughout my teenage years, the Chatham Island Robin was the poster child of New Zealand’s conservation movement. I even wrote a poem about this bird that was published in the local newspaper. Incredibly, three decades later, more than 200 birds are now thriving on Little Mangere Island – each a descendant of Old Blue and her offspring.

The Kakapo's fate has been equally progressive. In 1980, the first female bird seen in more than 70 years was found on Steward Island. This sighting led to the discovery of a colony of more than 200 birds on island. However, soon after feral cats began destroying this final population and by 1995 numbers had dwindled to just 51.

Fast forward 24 years and, incredibly, 125 birds are now alive – all on Whenua Hou (Codfish) Island and Anchor island off the coast of Steward Island. Their numbers were further boosted this year by the arrival of an unprecedented 34 chicks. We learnt tonight that the birds only breed if more than 11% of neighbouring Rimu trees are in flower. The birds love their seeds. In 2009 more than 34% of the local trees flowered leading to a bumper breeding season. The numbers were so large that twenty-one chicks were moved to Invercargill and hand-reared by scientists.


Last Chance to See certainly kept Garry and I captivated this evening. We marveled at the beauty of the majestic Kakapo and the stunning scenery of Fiordland’s remote, rugged valleys. We both noted how much these southern valleys reminded us of the equally scenic Na Pali Coast of Kauai in Hawaii (above). I was also reminded once again of New Zealand’s unique beauty and just how fortunate I was to be raised in such a beautiful nation.