Wednesday, August 17

Our polar neighbours

Having regularly critiqued English weather in rather unsavory terms, it’s been fascinating to watch a “once in a generation” weather event unfold in New Zealand. The entire nation has been smothered by frigid polar air sweeping in from Antarctica. On Monday snow fell briefly in downtown Auckland, something last witnessed in 1939.

Weather historians say that the 1939 event dropped 5cm of snow on top of Mt Eden. Snow also fell in suburbs like Ponsonby, Remuera. In 1939 it also snowed at the lighthouse at the very top end of the North Island. There was also three hours of snow in Gisborne, while Banks Peninsula and Otago witnessed snow drifts up to 10 metres deep.

On this occasion snow didn’t settle in Auckland. However, the city did record its coldest temperature ever yesterday; a chilly 8.2°C. Snow also fell for two days in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Even the hills around Whangarei in Northland got a dusting. It also came as no surprise to read that a record load was recorded across the national power grid yesterday. Demand peaked at 7098MW shortly after 7.30am; the nation’s third such record in less than a month. It’s clearly been a very cold winter in New Zealand.

New Zealand’s weather was definitely a factor that encouraged me to migrate as an adult. I felt the cold every winter and hated every moment of it. Throughout my entire childhood I wore a winter uniform consisting of shorts and socks held up by garters. This meant that I'd find myself walking to school in the midst of winter across playing fields covered in thick, crunchy frost.

I also recall school being cancelled when more than an inch of snow fell in Dunedin. It only happened once, in 1973, but my brothers and I enjoyed a day building snowmen on the front lawn. My artwork melted overnight. However, my brother Hamish packed his snow so firmly it took almost a week for his iceman to disappear. Of course he now lives in Austria and enjoys permanent snow cover for almost six months of the year.

Meanwhile, Sydney was blessed with bursts of sunshine and afternoon high of 18°C last weekend.  However, our overnight temperature is forecast to drop to 8°C by Friday.  Maybe London weather wasn't all that bad.

PHOTO SOURCE: NZ Herald, August 17, 2011

Sunday, August 14

Where to next?

This wouldn't be The Swiss Cottage blog without a few travel adventures on the calendar. Never fear; we have quite a few adventures in the works.  Next month Garry and I will be off for a two week road trip through New Mexico and Arizona. We fly into Dallas, non-stop from Sydney, where we then catch a commuter flight to Roswell, New Mexico.  From here we collect a rental car and spend ten days exploring a plethora of space, astronomy and science fiction destinations.  Of course, Roswell kicks off the road trip with its infamous UFO research museum. However, the town was also home to Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocket science. Many of his early experimental rockets are on display in the town's museum.

We then drive west to Alamagordo, home of the New Mexico Museum of Space History and on to White Sands, where the White Sands Missile Range Museum. This part of our journey will take at least two days. We'll then turn north and drive past Spaceport America, a new private space tourism complex that will become home to Virgin Galactic some time next year. Our next stop will be the Very Large Array, an impressive complex of radio telescopes stretching miles across the desert. The site featured in the opening credits of the 1997 science fiction movie, Contact, starring Jodie Foster.

Our itinerary will then focus on a host of natural phenonmeon in central Arizona including the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest and Meteor Crater, one the world's most widely recognised meteorite impact sites.  From here we'll head south to Tucson where more space and science sights await.  Our first stop in Tucson is the Titan Missile Museum where a former Cold War nuclear weapon remains on display in deep, blast protected silo.  We'll also be visiting the city's famous airplane graveyard where thousands of decommissioned US airforce aircraft are stored at the end of their useful life.  I'm also keen to visit Biosphere 2 where an unsuccessful experiment in closed-cycle ecosystem ran for several years.

We'll then head south again to the wild west town of Tombstone.  This is your classic frontier town of the Western movie genre. Here we'll celebrate my birthday with a visit to the world renown OK Corral, once home to outlaw, Billy the Kid. The final stop on our tour is Los Angeles.  I've been here several times before (see the photos above taken from Griffith Observatory in December 2009).  However, Garry's barely left the airport and so he's keen to experience the city's famous sights and sounds.  I've mapped out a three-day itinerary that will take us to Hollywood, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills among other attractions.

Then, barely a week after we return to Australia, I'll be off again for a business trip that takes in Hong Kong, London and Madrid.  While in the UK I'm hoping to take a weekend excursion up to Northern Wales.  Several years ago I mapped out a road trip for Garry and I to Telford and Llangollen.  Why here?  Telford is the gateway to Ironbridge, home of the world's first metal bridge; while Llangollen is famous for the magnificant  Pontcysyllte Aqueduct built by Thomas Telford between 1795 and 1805.  This waterway, rising 38 metres above the valley floor, carries canal boats across the Dee River in Wales. The town also has a wonderful steam railway that follows the Dee upstream for several scenic miles.

Finally, there's the Christmas/New Year period.  We've had numerous debates about what we should do.  We've already debated taking a road trips to Tasmania or through the southern half of New Zealand's North Island.  However, we've yet to finalise our plans.  Of course we may simply stay home as we'll be off to port Douglas in early-April next year for a family wedding.  Garry's already talking about hiring a four-wheel drive and making our way to Cape York.  It seems there are no end of holiday destinations still to be experienced.

Saturday, August 13

Health care; up close and personal

It’s been my turn in hospital this week. I went into surgery on Tuesday afternoon for a submucous resection septopasty, turbinectomy and concha bullosa resection; or as some would say, I’ve had a nose job. Over the last few years my nose has become progressively blocked by swollen nasal membranes and a deviated septum (the piece of cartilage that separates your nostrils). The condition was seriously aggrevated by chronic hayfever I suffered annually in London. In more rece3nt years things had reached a point where was breathing from one nostril during the day, then snoring loudly all night.

In case you’re wondering, a submucous resection is an operation where they separate the mucus lining in your nostril from the underlying cartilage. The cartilage is then reshaped and the lining restitched. A turbinectomy involves reducing the size of three internal nodules, or turbinates, that line the nasal passage. The last bit of surgery had every nurse completely stumped. A concha bullosa is an air cavity that often develops inside one or more turbinates. These can swell over time, blocking the nasal passage. The surgery took just over an hour and all seems to be healing well.

This was my first time under general anesthetic. Despite my apprehension, the experience wasn’t particularly unpleasant. In fact, I find it rather fascinating to awake in a brightly lit room surrounded by fancy machines and attentive nurses. I cannot recall being so pampered and fussed over for a long time. Nor were they the least bit bothered that I had a large blood splattered tampon-like bandage strapped under my nose.  If I'm honest, the entire experience of being in hospital gave me a fascinating insight into the world of modern medicine.

Perhaps the most surprising observation was the number of people I dealt with during my brief 20 hours as a patient. Each had a distinct role, performed professionally and efficiently. Before surgery I met at least seven people including my doctor and anesthetist. Six separate people attended to me in my first hours after surgery, then the following morning another six people visited me in quick succession bringing newspapers, breakfast and paperwork to sign. In all I counted at least 19 different people who came to my bedside at various times.

I had no idea so many people were involved in the running a hospital from administrators and cleaners, to doctors and nurses. The volume and variety of roles I encountered was fascinating. All were polite, caring and consistently put me at ease. I’ll never fear going into hospital again. However, the bills now arriving in my letter box are a shock to the system.  It seems that such attentive care comes at a cost.  I'm left pondering how to reduce headcounts and thus the spiraling cost of health care without sacrificing its quality.

Tuesday, August 2


Since 1990 I’ve passed through the city of Innsbruck in Austria at least three times. On each occasion I’ve been in transit by train and have never left the station. Innsbruck is located in the Inn Valley, a broad valley that takes traveler north to the Brenner Pass, one the Alp’s main gateways to Italy; or west across the Arlberg Pass into Switzerland. Both are spectacular journeys through truly stunning, snow-clad alpine landscapes. Given its mountainous location, the city has twice host the Winter Olympics; first in 1964 and again in 1976.

Last weekend, my brother Hamish took the entire family for a day trip to Innsbruck. Our one hour journey proved the ultimate test of his family-sized people wagon. We successfully crammed seven of us into the vehicle; Hamish and my sister-in-law; their two children, my parents and I. Our itinerary for the day saw us experience three of the city’s most popular sights; the Bergiselschanze (Olympic Ski Jump), the Innsbruck Riesenrundgemalde (a giant panoramic painting) and the famous Golden Roof, located in the centre of the old city.

The Bergiselschanze is hard to miss. It sits on a low hill overlooking the city. The hill, called Bergisel, was once the site of four battles fought between the forces of Napoleon and the Kingdom of Bavaria against local Tyrolean militiamen in 1809. Today a soaring ski jump dominates its crown. The jump rises 50 metres above the surrounding area. A short elevator ride takes you up to an observation platform offering an uninterrupted view across Innsbruck and the surrounding valley.

The jump track itself runs 98 metres down a 35 degree incline. Jumpers reach more than 98 kmph by the time they’re launched into the air. Ironically, the view directly ahead takes in the cluttered graveyard of Stiftskirche, an ornate 17th Century church on the edge of town. I’m sure more than one jumper has lost their nerve thanks to such a sobering sight.

Nearby is the recently constructed Riesenrundgemalde building. Inside is an impressive life-sized panorama painting of the final battle of Bergisel. The giant 1000 square metre canvas took Munich artist Michael Zeno Diemer three months to complete in the early 20th Century. The completed artwork is impressive. It’s incredibly life-like, bringing the tragedy and triumph of war into stark relief. For most of its life the painting was housed in an aging rotunda on the banks of the Inn River. A delicate and controversial relocation to Bergisel was completed in 2009.

After lunch our final destination for the day involved a leisurely stroll through the heart of the old city. Our route inevitably led us to the Goldenes Dachl, or Golden Roof, a famous local landmark. This an ornate three-story balcony capped by a dazzling gilded copper tiles. It was built in 1500 for Maximilian the First, the regining Holy Roman Emperorn as a royal box from which he could sit in state and enjoy tournaments in the town square below.

Monday, August 1

Five days of sunshine!

The last few weeks have been an extra-ordinary period for weather in Sydney. While I was travelling for business Garry says we had a week of extremely heavy rain. The downpour was the perfect test for leaks repairs recently completed on our apartment. The repairs have passed with flying colours. We’ve had no repeat of leaks we've typically experienced during previous episodes of heavy rain.

The wet weather has subsequently been replaced by a blast of warm, sunny conditions that have left Sydney basking in the warmest end to the month of July for six years. Temperatures hit a minimum of 20°C over the last four days. Tonight the forecast is for the sunshine and warm temperatures to continue until Friday. Today we enjoyed a high of 23°C, tomorrow is forecast to dip to 22°C before rising to a high of 24°C on Thursday. Other parts of Australia are also enjoying some of the warmest July weather for more than 100 years.

Did I mention that temperatures soared above 37°C for several days while I in New York?  I arrived in town at the perfect time.  For several days almost 50% of the US population found themselves sweltering under a heatwave advisory.  The heat in mid-town Manhattan was incredible.  Stepping outside was like walking into a giant sauna; with the heat just as oppressive in the shade.  Thank goodness I packed a few short sleeve shirts.

I’m sure regular readers will have noticed my often unhappy musing about the UK’s weather. Sydney’s current bout of winter sunshine has done little to dispel these memories. On several occasions last week temperatures in Sydney were warmer than those I was enjoying in London.  The forecast for London on Thursday is 22°C, two degrees cooler than Sydney.  Sadly, this constrast is isn't as unusual as it seems. 

Last week The Times newspaper noted that the last five years in the UK included some of the wettest July months on record. In particular, June 2007 was the wettest on record as was July 2009. In fairness, the article also noted that July 2006 was the hottest on record. Sadly, this abnormal July gave Garry and I a rather distorted sense of the UK’s regular weather pattern during our first six months in London.  The contrast did little to prepare us for the next four years.

UPDATE: August 2, 2011
I've just read that published weather forecasts celebrated their 150th anniversary yesterday.  According to the BBC on 1 August 1861 the Times newspaper published the world's forecast.

UPDATE: August 5, 2011
Today’s temperature reached 25 degrees today, seven above the average for August. It was also the ninth consecutive day of temperatures at 20 degrees or higher. Forecasters are predicting a top of 22 degrees tomorrow, equaling Sydney’s winter record of 10 consecutive days at this level.