Friday, April 30

Going up the wall

I spent a relaxing weekend in Austria with family. The weather also played its part. Each day was blessed with wonderfully warm sunny conditions, providing an ideal backdrop to Kitzbuhel’s postcard-perfect snow capped alps. It’s days like these that make me envy my brother’s life in Europe. Just look at these photos. Wouldn’t you want to be greeted by these scenes your local neighbourhood?

With the weather in such fine form we spent plenty of time outdoors. Lunch on Saturday was spent at a café on the shores of the local Schwarzsee. Sunday afternoon was spent visiting Krimmler waterfall, followed by the year’s first delicious BBQ. Krimmler is said to be Europe’s largest waterfall, cascading more than 400 metres in three separate sections. You climb to the highest fall using a well marked trail. However, we elected to take the more leisurely walking path to the base of the bottom fall.

We also stopped in at the Hohe Tauern National Park museum. This stunning building, nestled in the shadow of the alps, has some terrific exhibits about the geology, flora and fauna of the surrounding area. I particularly enjoyed a short 3D film explaining the tectonic history that formed the alps millions of ago. I've never seen a clearer, more compelling explanation of plate tectonics anywhere.

Saturday night saw us venture out to watch the finals of the national indoor wall climbing competition. For several hours we watched some incredibly athletic men and women climb walls fitted with impossibly small hand grips and overhangs. At times the finalist swung on nothing more than tips of their fingers, high above the stage. Some even tied themselves in knots, making the most unlikely gravity-defying maneuvers look routine. It was an impressive sight.

Sunday, April 25

Mountain moments

I'm back in Germany for business. It's been more than two years since my last trip to Munich. I've flown in a couple of days early to spend the weekend in Austria with my brother and his family. I left home at 5.30am to catch Lufthansa's first flight of the day, thus ensuring that I made an early train connection to Kitzbuhel. All went according to plan and I arrived in plenty of time for lunch on the shores of the Schwarzsee. I couldn't have picked a better weekend to visit as the skies are blue and the high tomorrow will be a cozy 20+C.

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Wednesday, April 21

The Great Debate

Source: Guardian newspaper

As volcanic ash throws the UK travel and aviation industry into chaos, the nation's political landscape is also in turmoil. Last week's historic television debate among leaders of the major parties unexpectedly transformed the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. Polls taken immediately after the television debate declared Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems leader, as the overall 'winner'.

As a result, the Lib Dems, typically the nation's third largest party and the home for traditional protest votes, were vaulted into the limelight. New polls out today suddenly show them overtaking the Labour Party as the UK's second most popular party. Labour is currently the party in Government. Overnight, the Conservatives, currently in opposition, changed their advertising strategy in a desperate attempt to derail the Lib Dem's popularity. The general election just got interesting!

A backlog worse than 9/11

The unprecedented shutdown of UK airspace is finally drawing to close this evening as authorities announce the resumption of flights, albeit with some limitations. Restrictions or total flight bans remain in place across more than a dozen nations. The shutdown is a result of volcanic ash from an eruption in Iceland spreading across the UK and parts of Northern Europe.

The ash is considered a danger to modern jet engines. More than 90 incidents over the last two decades have found that a jet engine's high operating temperatures can turn ash into molten glass, crippling the engine. Ironically, the prevailing winds currently blowing ash across the UK are also bringing wonderfully clear skies and sunshine. However they’re forecast to change direction this weekend, finally clearing the local sky of the uncertain danger.

I must admit that I’ve been looking at the sky every day and have to say I’ve yet to see any noticeable change in its colour. However, continuing test flights and scientific monitoring report unpredictable variations in the concentration of ash over the UK. Authorities have consistently erred on the side of caution, banning commercial flights in and out of most UK airports for six day. Here and across Europe the disruption to modern life continues to grow. Each day brings headlines with more and more mind-numbing statistics; more than 95,000 flights have been cancelled since last Thursday and airline losses across Europe exceed £650 million.

An estimated 400,000 Britons are stranded overseas, while another 40,000 Americans are grounded in the UK. Replicate this experience across a dozen European nations and you start to gain a sense of the scale of disruption. I've seen reports that 6.8 million people are affected worldwide. Some passengers are being told that once the airspace is opened it could be ten days before they can fly. In response, British authorities are sending 100 coaches to Madrid and more to other destinations in an attempt to repatriate nationals stranded across Europe.

Within my own company we have two Americans stranded in London; London-based employees stuck in Singapore and Turkey; and a Danish employee stuck in Paris. Other staff have shared stories of nightmare 30-hour coach and ferry journeys as they struggled home from ski vacations in Europe.

Stranded passengers aren’t only victims of the flight ban. The role of air freight in modern life is also coming to the fore. A shortage of parts has forced car-makers in Germany and Japan to temporarily halt production. Blocked shipments of goods are reportedly stacking up in China, while South Korea is stuck with hundreds of thousands of mobile phones. Exporters of fresh flowers and vegetables in Africa are throwing away tonnes of rotting stock.

I even read a story today of a salmon farm in New Zealand reporting record orders. Apparently fish wholesalers and restaurants in Asia and America have turned to alternative suppliers while access to Scottish fish stocks remains cut off. Flower growers report similar trends. It’s hard to imagine that a volcano in Iceland is generating a mini-export boom in New Zealand.

Saturday, April 17

No fly zone

Flights have resumed over Scotland and Northern Ireland this evening following the unprecedented closure of UK airspace yesterday. Restrictions remain in place for England until at least lunch time tomorrow. More than 17,000 flights have now been cancelled across Europe, costing airlines a mind-boggling US$200 million per day.

The volcanic ash cloud has even impacted my employer. This morning I made arrangements for a stranded UK colleague to work from our Singapore office, as well as helping a New York colleague stranded in London. However, the current volcanic disruption has a silver lining. This evening’s sunset was more spectacular than usual.

Friday, April 16

A deadly cloud of ash

Source: BBC news photo

Today’s big news story was meant to be an inaugural television debate between leaders of the nation’s major political parties. Instead, headlines are dominated by another unprecedented event. For the first time in living memory the nation’s airspace has been closed to all non-emergency flights. Similar restrictions are also in place for the Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and France.

This unprecedented action was taken after an erupting volcano in Iceland blasted clouds of deadly ash more than 16,764 metres into the air. The eruption under a glacier in the Eyjafjallajoekull area is the second such event in less than a month. As it continues, a growing ash cloud is progressively making its way across northern Europe. As you can see from the Met Office's warning map below, by morning the entire UK is forecast to be covered. As a result, from noon today, all flights in the UK’s airspace were cancelled and will remain grounded until at least 1.00pm tomorrow.

Volcanic ash has proven deadly to aircraft in the past. Perhaps the most famous incident in 1982 involved a British Airways plane flying to Perth, Australia. As it flew through a fresh ash cloud high above Indonesia, all four of its engines failed and the aircraft began losing attitude. The pilots struggled for more than ten minutes to restart the engines. A similar incident occurred above Alaska in 1989. Again, all four engines shut down and disaster was narrowly averted when one was successfully restarted minutes later.

Tonight’s news reports claim that more than half a million passengers have been affected by the grounding of an estimated 5,000 flights. Ash has already started falling on the ground in northern Scotland. The eruption under the Eyjafjallajoekull glacier is still intensifying, and the wind direction is expected to bring further ash clouds into UK airspace until the weekend.

In 2008, Garry and I stayed a hotel least than 20km away from Eyjafjallajoekull. From our hotel room we could see the massive ice field crowning nearby mountains. You can see this spectacular sight in the image above. It's hard to imagine this pristine scene being dominated by a enormous black ash cloud.

Thursday, April 15

Every vote counts

Gordon Brown, the UK’s Prime Minister, has finally announced a date for the nation’s next General Election. We go to the polls on May 6. As fate would have it, Garry and I will be on vacation in Greece on this date. We’ll miss one of the most pivotal elections since the Second World War.

For the first time in a generation, polls suggest the vote will result in a hung parliament. A poll out today reveals that 32 per cent of the public actually want a hung parliament (as opposed to expecting one). In other words, no major party will receive enough votes to secure a governing majority. Instead, one of the two largest parties will be forced to lead a minority government and govern in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, traditionally the nation’s third largest party. The Lib Dems received 22.6% of the popular vote during the last election, which translated into 62 seats in the House of Commons.

Tomorrow also marks another historical milestone. Tomorrow evening, for the first time in a UK election, a televised debate will be held between the leaders of the major parties. I find it fascinating that a major democracy has never had television debates. They’ve been a regular feature in Australia for several decades, and the first such debate in the USA was broadcast fifty years ago.

An estimated 20 million viewers are expected to tune in for tomorrow’s 90-minute debate between Labour leader Gordon Brown, Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Two more debates will follow on April 22 and April 29. Months of negotiation has generated 76 specific terms and conditions on the conduct of each debate. For example, cameras aren’t permitted to film close-ups of individual audience members while a leader is speaking. Applause is also not permitted during the debate.

Another poll out today found that 42% of those contacted expect David Cameron to win the debate, compared with 22% who thought Gordon Brown would be the winner. As the Times said today, “Mr Cameron faces a real problem: It is all for him to lose. He may perform very well but that is what everyone expects and so he may not gain any great bonus from his performance. On the other hand, such are the low expectations of Mr Brown that he need only deliver a decent performance to come across as a relative Emmy award nominee.”

Australian research has shown that television debates in that country influenced the final vote by up to 2%. With Labour and the Conservatives more than three points apart in current polls, television debates could make all the difference in this election.

PS: I was interviewed by the BBC today for a lunch time busines show. The segment that went to air positioned my company as a progressive employer.

Monday, April 12

Friends and family

Swiss Cottage blossom in full bloom

We drove down to Woking last night for dinner with Garry’s Australian boss (or is that his boss’ boss?). Jane is currently home alone while her husband and children are on holiday, visiting family and friends Down Under. The three of us went for dinner at a local Japanese restaurant, Oisi. The name is an English language twist on the Japanese word for delicious. Since opening ten months ago, it’s been getting rave reviews. The praise is well earned. We enjoyed some of the most heavenly Goyza dumplings I’ve ever tasted. The restaurant even had Takoyaki (baby octopus dumplings) on its menu, a dish I’ve rarely seen outside of Japan.

After one warm Sake too many we decided to stay overnight. This morning we took advantage of our proximity to Fernhurst and drove over to see my extended family. My cousin Hilary, her husband David, and my Aunt Shirley were all at home. We sat in the garden for more than hour enjoying an afternoon coffee while soaking up the Spring sunshine. It was wonderful to be outdoors again in the UK.

Stockholm Highlights

Stockholm proved to be the ideal location for our Easter vacation. We were blessed with three straight days of sunny and relatively warm weather. We also cashed in some credit card loyalty points which secured us a harbour-view room at the Sheraton Hotel for £38/night. This was a smart move as the hotel’s central location meant every sight was a short walk away.

Our first day was largely spent wandering the streets of Gamla Stan, the old town, followed by a leisurely alfresco beer in the afternoon sunshine. Our second day saw us walk along the picturesque Strandvagen waterfront to Stockholm’s world famous Vasa Museum. The Vasa is an immaculately restored 17th century wooden warship. It sank during its maiden voyage on Sunday, August 10, 1628 and lay undetected on the floor of Stockholm harbour for more than three hundred years.

On the day of its launch, the beaches around Stockholm were filled with spectators, among them foreign diplomats. The Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, had intended the maiden voyage to be an impressive propaganda display. His nation was at war with Poland and the Vasa was to be one its most fearsome warships. However, the ship spent less than half an hour under sail before keeling over as strong gust filled its sails. Of the 150 people on board, 30-50 died in the disaster.

Remarkably the ship was rediscovered largely intact in 1956. A meticulous salvage effort successfully lifted the Vasa to the surface on April 24 1961. The event was broadcast live on Swedish television; a spectacle that rivaled its first and only voyage. A purpose built museum was opened in 1990 to displayed the restored vessel. Garry and I spent several enjoyable hours exploring the museum’s many exhibits.

On our final day in Stockholm we booked ourselves onto a lunch time boat tour of Stockholm’s inner archipelago. For three hours was dined as just a few of Stockholm’s hundreds of islands glided by. Our boat, the SS Stockholm journeyed out to Vaxholm, a quaint Summer resort town. The town once sat at the entrance to Stockholm’s main shipping channel leading from the harbour to the Baltic Sea. The impressive Vaxholm Fortress, sits opposite the town, built on a small island.

I was fascinated to learn that Vaxholm’s building are all built from wood, with only the exception of the church and the customs house. This building practice was intentional as it meant that the town could be quickly demolished in the event of war or impending invasion.

Our tour route also took us past many of the city’s most famous Summer homes. The Swedish all love to abandon the city during Summer, heading off for a month of leisure at their Summer residence. Some of them are spectacular venues that resemble fairytale castles, while others cling desperately to rocks on the smallest of islands.

Saturday, April 10

"Once in a life time - if you're lucky"

On Tuesday evening this week, Garry and I witnessed a breath-taking display of the Northern Lights. We were incredibly lucky. The night before had been overcast, as had most of the following day. However, by the time we came to board our snowmobiles at 8pm, the sky was clear in every direction. Our local guide took seven of us out into the night, across frozen lakes and rivers to a quaint pine hut wilderness camp where we dined on Moose soup (delicious).

As darkness fell, the night sky came to life. What a show! Several years ago, Garry and I saw the Northern Lights in Iceland. However, this didn't prepare us for the scene that unfolded on Tuesday evening. As we watched the entire sky progressively filled with more and more sheets of dancing, glowing aurora. They appeared from every direction, becoming brighter and brighter, until blinding white, green and even orange swirling bands began sweeping across the inky blackness.

At this point, even our seasoned guide gasped. He claimed he’s never seen anything like it in his entire professional career. He then excused himself and began calling friends, urging them to go outside. You know you've experienced something unique when even the locals are filled with awe. No photo will ever do justice to what we've seen.

Reindeer games

Dog sled riding is so passé. It's the ultimate cliché Arctic tourist activity. It's also incredibly expensive. The savvy tourist always chooses a reindeer sled ride. First, it's cheaper and your sled experience feels far less artificial. Reindeer live outside in the snow, they don't come to your hotel packed in a rusty kennel trailer. Second, you always set up your own sled, which includes catching your own reindeer with a lasso. They don't stand around waiting for you. Finally, they're largely silent unlike those dogs. This means you're able to truly enjoy the icy wilderness, soothed by sound of your sled sliding through the snow.

Garry and I booked ourselves on a tour that took us reindeer sledding through snow-clad pine forests and across the flat, white expanse of a frozen lake. As luck would have it, we were the only booking and thus we had the entire pristine Arctic landscape to ourselves for more than four hours. Well - almost to ourselves - we had a guide and three patient reindeer with us. Half of our time was spent sleding; the rest saw us camped around a fire in the snow, dining on traditional Sammi reindeer soup and flat bread.

Garry was a master with his lasso, while I struggled to catch anything other than thin air. When I finally did lasso myself a reindeer, the stubborn creature refused to budge an inch and I eventually had to let to go. Once our reindeer were captured and harnessed, as with all tours, our guide patiently explained what to do should we fall from our sled, or if our reindeer were to veer off course.

However, we weren't told what to do should our guide fall from her sled. Naturally, this happened and for several hilarious minutes we watched our reindeer dutifully chasing after an unmanned sled. I did begin to wonder if we were destinated to sled our way across the entire width of Sweden. However, in a moment of pure Hollywood stunt craft, our guide commandeered Garry's sled, rode up alongside her emply sled and lept from one to the other.

The next funny moment occured when Garry stepped off his sled to rescue our guide's mobile phone. He swiftly discovered that the surrounding snow cover was more than a metre thick. Within seconds he found himself buried up to his waist and remained entombed until I came to his aid. The entire hilarious incident was then given a final slap stick moment as Garry's reindeer stepped back, pinning our guide's phone under its hoof.

Friday, April 9


The Swedish town of Kiruna can be found nestled in a broad river valley, more than 145kms above the Arctic Circle. It’s the largest urban area at this latitude for thousands of kilometers. Its claim to fame includes being home to the world’s largest underground iron ore mine. It’s also home to the nearby Torre River, the largest of four highly protected river courses in Sweden. As a protected river it will never be dammed or diverted for its entire length.

The Torre River is a strategic waterway. Half its 522km length forms the border between Sweden and Finland. Its waters are also considered some of the purest in all of the Sweden. Every winter it freezes solid, forming a broad expanse of ice thick enough and strong enough to drive a truck on. Contrast this with the fact that every summer, it’s bathed in perpetual daylight. The sun never sets between May 30 and July 15.

On the banks of Torre River, near Kiruna, lies the small village of Jukkasjärvi. It’s home to 520 people. At first glance there’s little here to distinguish it from any other riverside location. The oldest building in the village is picturesque wooden church, built in 1608. However the newest building in town will always be the newest because it’s rebuilt every year without fail. This is the world famous ICEHOTEL.

From mid-December, for an all too brief four and half months, the hotel hosts more than 30,000 overnight guests. Many chose to sleep overnight on beds built from ice, as the indoor temperature hovers at -5°C. Those who know me will also know I have a list of travel destinations I’m determined to see before I die. Sleeping at the ICEHOTEL is one of these. Last week Garry and I finally joined the hotel’s guest list, spending one night in an ice room and one in a warm timber cabin.

Construction of the ICEHOTEL hotel is a fascinating exercise. Every year several tonnes of crystal clear Torre River ice and compacted snow are used to build this temporary venue. Ice is typically harvested between mid-March and mid-April after its grown to be at least 80cms thick. Incredibly, customised heavy machinery is used to harvest the river ice. On our last day in Jukkasjärvi I watched a harvest in action. First a giant chainsaw on the end of a long tractor boom cuts the ice into large blocks. These are then lifted from the river by a small crane, before being stacked by a regular forklift inside an enormous cold store building.

I later learnt that this ice would form the foundations of next year’s ICEHOTEL. In other words, ice from the previous winter always forms the building blocks of the hotel. The ice is also graded. Crystal clear ice is used for ice glasses and dishes, while veined ice is used for scuplting. Every year 150 artists and designers are invited to create several dozen elaborate ice-sculpted hotel suites. Over the years photos of these rooms have become the hotel’s most enduring iconic images - and this year was no exception.

The experience of sleeping on ice proved far cozier than I’d anticipated. Each guest is given a large arctic sleeping bag and each ice bed is topped by the thick foam base and luxuriously soft reindeer skins. I slept remarkably well. Garry complained that the foam base wasn’t thick enough and he hated the restrictive sleeping bag. I got at least seven hours of solid sleep; Garry much less.

Fortunately, Garry loved the rest of our ICEHOTEL experience. We spent our time enjoying several Arctic adventures including snowmobiling and riding our very own reindeer sleds. I’ll share more about these experiences in a separate post, including our jaw-dropping Northern Lights encounter. Stockholm seemed rather plain in comparison.