Welsh Gaffer’s Log

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Welsh Gaffer

Welcome to the Welsh Gaffer’s log on watermarks. Here you can find comment on things nautical and not so nautical as well as plenty of encouragement to rummage through the photographs.

I have worn many hats through the days of my years, and none more suited than my ‘jarvel cap’. And what is that? A cap worn by a jarvel of course – “a rough type often to be found loitering around wharves and quays” But remember- it is often better to be on the quayside wishing you were out there, than being out there wishing you were on the quayside.

If you would like to leave a comment about this log or any of the photographs, this is the place to do it.

Four days in Snowdonia May 2018

It was a plan that had been emerging for some time. Three generations of Heads spent a few days camping in the mountains of Snowdonia. It came together at the end of May during Morgan’s half term break from school and when Ben was able to get time off work.

Tuesday 29 May 2018

After loading equipment and provisions, we left Birchgrove at twenty passed eight and headed north on the A470 to take us through the heart of Wales. Arriving at an informal farm campsite on the B4405 below the south west flank of Cadair Idris, a mountain of much myth and legend. We pitched camp using two small tents, a Vango Storm 300, well capable of withstanding the elements, for Ben and Morgan and a more simple tent for me, one I had used in Tasmania in 2003.

A little after 1pm we set off on the path to Llyn Cau, a long, steep, energy sapping ‘staircase’ that took us an hour and a half to negotiate. The lake is set in the bowl of Idris’s ‘chair’ and is quite magnificent with a towering rock face leading the eye up to the summit. Ben was keen to go on to the top via a narrow, steep path on the left ridge. I felt it was too late in the day for it and in any case, I didn’t feel up to the extra climb.

We noticed though, that there was the thin outline of a little-used path running around the lake and took that instead. It was a bit of a scramble in places often a hundred feet above the level of the lake, but a truly majestic circuit with only the noisy crows or rooks wheeling overhead for company. A little over an hour later, we were back where we started and ready to begin the descent back to camp. Ben and Morgan forged ahead while I found getting down the big stone steps particularly hard on almost seventy-three-year-old knees.

After an excellent spag-bol meal we added some twigs to a BBQ for a great little camp fire. A fine finale to a great first day- only the midgies spoilt things a little when they came out in force as twilight approached.

Wednesday 30 May

A good night’s sleep for all and the look of another fine day. We broke camp and paid our dues before setting off for the short journey to Glaslyn camp at Lake Bala. Although the site is huge there is plenty of room and we pitched camp close to the water’s edge without feeling crowded in any way. Two bacon rolls each for a welcome brunch before we got the Seymor kayak inflated and afloat.

Taking it in turns to explore nearby stretches of water, Morgan proved to be a bit of a natural in the kayak having not been solo before. After a couple of trial circuits in the shallows he was off across the bay til almost a speck in the distance. His dad later disappeared around a headland for over an hour exploring the early reaches of a river at the west end of the lake. What a great place this is.

A BBQ meal of hot dogs and bacon rolls was followed by a long round of boules that only came to an end when the onset of murkning made it difficult to see where the jack had landed. With no serious rain forecast, we had pitched the tents under the spreading limbs of a large tree.

Thursday 31 May

The disadvantage of camping under the tree even without any rain, became apparent at 5am when a murder of crows took up temporary residence on the first of several early morning visits. Their raucous, elongated screeching did indeed make one think of murder!

Happy Birthday Ben, 46 today. We upsticks and left after a quick breakfast, intending to climb Snowdon today. The car park at Pen-Y-Pass was already full, as we had anticipated. Three miles down the Llanberis Pass we found a park and ride site with plenty of spaces. £5 to park and another £5 for three of us on the bus back to Pen-Y-Pass to begin the walk up the Miner’s Track, the most scenic approach to Snowdon.

It wasn’t long before Ben and Morgan were way in front of me and when we next caught up we made a contingency plan in case my legs weren’t up for the summit. I gave the car keys to Ben in expectation of him being down before me,

I have been on this path several times but goodness it seemed steeper this time even though it has been significantly upgraded to cope with the inundation of summer visitors. There were plenty of people here today though not enough to be a nuisance. The only downside of Snowdon is that it is such a beautiful mountain from any one of half a dozen approaches, it attracts many thousands of visitors keen to take on the challenge. In many ways it is a victim of its own success. There is no denying that on a glorious day like today it is a stunning panorama. Glorious yes, and hot too, making it sap your energy all too easily. I must admit I struggled a bit the higher up the path I got. Soon enough though, I could see the point where it would meet the Llanberis Track and the mountain railway and I knew then that I would make it all the way.

Morgan and Ben had been there for twenty minutes but I was pleased enough to make it at all. We asked a young French woman to take a photo of the three of us- one young, one middle aged and one old fella. This I think, is my sixth time on the summit of Snowdon and certainly one of the most satisfying. Cherish the moment.

I considered taking the train back down but didn’t like the thought of wimping out. But I did opt for the Llanberis Path which, although the longest route at five miles, I thought would be easier on the knees. But with a steep gradient and a lot of loose shale underfoot, it certainly had its own challenges. It was a weary pair of legs that brought me down into Llanberis. Ben and Morgan meanwhile had started back down the Miners Track but then diverted to the Pyg Track which proved to be hard going on the lower reaches.

The upper path is the PYG Track, the lower one the Miners Track

It was gone 6pm by the time both parties were down and by that time the bus had stopped running. So, it was a taxi each to return from opposite directions to the car at Nant Peris. Happily, we found a convenient camp site nearby and, even better, it was opposite the Vaynor Arms with decent fayre with which to celebrate Ben’s Birthday as well the end of our three days in the mountains. We had walked some nine hard, steep miles today and ascended or descended about 5,000 feet. Curiously, we had gone up one track and come down two separate and different tracks; so three different routes between us.

Friday 1 June

The only significant rain we experienced came just as we were striking camp- the sky emptied, ensuring the tents and everything else, including us, got thoroughly soaked. We paused at Capel Curig, largely to enjoy a traditional cooked breakfast. The only diversion on the rest of the journey was to call in at Llyn Clywedog where I have spent many a happy time sailing Fleur from the little clubhouse at the bottom of a steep drive. The lake was formed when the valley was damned in the 1960s to provide a reservoir used to top up the River Severn, itself a water supply for parts of England. It was a controversial and unhappy time because it drowned the local farming community.

Back home we unloaded and got things sorted and dried out and picked over the trip. I enjoyed it immensely and I know Ben did too. I asked Morgan how many he gave it out of ten? Nine point five he replied. It would have been ten if it wasn’t for the midgies. Quite so Morgan, quite so.

10 Days Around the South Island, Feb 2018

We had intended to have a trip up to the Golden Bay area at the north of the South Island. But fiercesome storms washed out some of the roads and made it impossible. Some communities were having to be re-supplied by boat for several weeks.

Heading south was a more realistic option and we picked out some places we had not been to before. It was a last trip before the camper-truck (BD2) went in for major surgery.

Overnight stop for BD2 at Pinders Pond near Roxburgh

Paddle boarder on Lake Dustan

Peddling hard but getting nowhere- Oamaru

New Zealand shag, Oamaru

Punk train, Oamaru

Kakanui fisherman’s wharf, South of Oamaru

You wait for a bus for ages then they come in threes, north end of Lake Benmore

Nearly where?

Taking a break in the Coach and Horses pub yard in Lawrence

Paddling :Lake Pukaki

 

Across Europe with a Caravan 2017

We had agreed to meet friends for dinner in Budapest- we thought we might fly but better still why don’t we drive? The accommodation problem was answered when I found a neat little two-berth caravan. A calm crossing and onto the motorway at Calais to cross Belgium, heading for Trier in Germany. Suddenly, we lost engine power and the foot brake was only about 10% effective. We limped off the motorway into the small village of Soumagne, it was 8pm on a Saturday evening. Luckily, with much gesticulation from three ancient Belgians, we found our way to a garage and the most helpful mechanic in all of Belgium. An hour later we were on hour way, driving into the night to park in a roadside rest area.  We arrived at Trier in time for breakfast.

On the banks of the Mouselle River, Trier is the oldest town in Germany; first occupied by the Romans in the 2nd Century and has no less than three World Heritage Sites. Besides, it is a town I was keen to visit for a different reason. My father’s brother, Reginald Head, was the victim of a gas attack in the trenches during the Great War; he was taken to a field hospital in Trier. When his father, my grandad, Harry Head, heard about it he set off to visit his eldest son in hospital. It was strictly against regulations to travel to the war zone but somehow or other he managed it. Reg was repatriated with his family but died seven years after the end of the war.

Days later, we happened upon a rural campsite some way south of Vienna; and there we met Leo who owns the site. In his younger days he had been an engineer on merchant ships and been into Newport, Cardiff and Bristol many times. His was a sad story from more than 40 years ago, he had met a girl in the seaman’s mission and formed a relationship. They met every time he came into port. One day though he sailed away and did not return. She wrote to tell him she was pregnant, but he never saw her again. Now, 45 years later, he has been trying to find Julie Saunders but without success. I said I would look for her when I got home- an all but impossible task. I did follow a trail but it inevitably petered out.

With poor timing we arrived in Budapest in the rush hour, crossing the Danube to the camp site six miles the other side of town. Excellent buses and a metro train got us into town to meet up with Kiwi friends, Jonny and Linda Pascoe and John and Mary Stevens. The six of us had spent time travelling together in Australia two years ago and here we were, together again in Budapest. We had a splendid evening meal in a pavement bistro café where the wine flowed and candles glowed. In the morning, we met at the Gellert Baths which are the most wondrous thing- Romanesque, elegant, genteel and multi-faceted including an outdoor pool. Afterwards, we enjoyed a coffee before the New Zealanders joined their river cruise boat for a ten-day voyage to Amsterdam. At over 300 feet long, the boat looks wonderful, but I am content with a wandering caravan and a slightly erratic car. We were tourists over the next two hot, humid and windless days.

Parliament Building on the Danube

Budapest is a beautiful, majestic and historic city, more appealing than Paris and sits astride one of Europe’s greatest waterways; the Danube rises in the Black Forest and empties into the Black Sea more than 1500 miles downstream. I enjoyed our brief time here, especially meeting old friends. Will I come back? Probably not.

We rolled on to cross into Croatia and after more than 300 miles, arrived at Plitvicke Lakes National Park, high in the hills and far from the sea. Camp Borje is a large, open campground and we settled in for three nights.  Plitvicke is an area of multiple lakes in close proximity, at different levels of altitude, connected by water races and waterfalls and inhabited by hundreds and thousands of fish. The water is crystal clear and an enticing green aqua. It is a spectacular, inspiring wilderness, except for the people, of which there are thousands. Some parts were fairly thinly populated but the boardwalks to the best sights were thronged by gawkers and sightseers, endlessly stopping to take photos. People eh? Still, a delightful place where we spent the whole day.

When we set out to leave camp, all was not right with the caravan. We pulled into a car park, the offside wheel was binding badly and Ivena from camp reception arranged for a mechanic. He quickly diagnosed a shattered wheel bearing. Milano had just two words of English, problem and kaput and in this case, both applied. What an excellent fellow he turned out to be. He took the hub away, sourced a new bearing in Zagreb and had it despatched the 100 miles to his village on the late bus. On a short evening walk we passed an open field with a small flock of sheep and a shepherd sitting on a log gently ringing a handbell. It was a scene of biblical peace and serenity. We raised an arm in greeting and the good shepherd waved back.

So, there we were, sitting in a car park with one wheel on our wagon on a rainy Thursday morning. True to his word though, Milano arrived at 9.15, re-assembling everything in twenty minutes. Once again, we have come out of a crisis smiling. Rolling again, over the mountains to the sea, we arrived at the small town of Senj and a camp site right on the beach. Passing through the countryside we noticed many farm houses and rural buildings with obvious lines of bullet holes from automatic weapons reminding us of the violence of this place not so long ago.

We wandered around Senj harbour and some of the narrow streets and squares of the old town- a few impressive old buildings are in a state of crumbling decay. On the highest hill overlooking the town, we walked around the outside of a 15th Century fortress, or rather lurched around it, the wind was super storm force making it difficult to stand or walk in a straight line. It was a wild night in camp! Gusts strong enough to rock the caravan- very heavy rain, incredible sheet lightening and prolonged thunder rampaging across the night. We lounged about the next day waiting for improving weather. The following morning the sea was flat calm and no wind or rain. I was in the kayak early for a paddle along the rocky shore. A shoal of fish in clear aqua green water that disappears underneath rocky shelves and a family of shags on a rocky point. So quiet, so peaceful, so out of sight and hearing of all of humanity.

We intended visiting Pula and one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. But the forecast was dire so we just kept going, crossing the border into Slovenia and on into Italy and so to Lake Garda. Malcesine is a delightful town, full of interesting alleyways and shops selling all sorts of goods, mostly tourist related. Dominating all is Castillo Scaligero an imposing fortress on a rocky outcrop, half staring down at the town and half imposing its will over the lake. Iain and Joan McBride are old gaffers, whom we know through sailing. They had mentioned being at Malcesine for most of September; well we might drop in we said, and so we did. On a balmy night, as daylight drifted away, the four of us sat at an open-air restaurant beside the inner harbour and enjoyed a lovely meal, sharing lots of stories and a decent bottle of wine.

A balmy night on Lake Garda

Moody Tuesday followed; the sky over the lake was as dark as a three day bruise; the deluge wasn’t long in coming. One lightning strike seemed to arc into a field just in front and to the right of the road. Visibility was very poor, making driving hazardous. On the Italian autostradas we began paying serious money in toll fees. Switzerland has a much better idea. €40 buys an annual Vignette which covers all of the autoroutes and two of the long tunnels through the Alps. It is about the only thing in the Swiss economy that appears to be good value for money.

The St Goddhart Tunnel has a reputation for long queues. It opened in 1980 as a single tunnel with one carriageway in either direction. Ever since a crash in 2001 causing a fire that killed forty people, traffic volume has been monitored. Trucks in particular are filtered to allow only so many per hour. We however, had no such delay, moving slowly for a few minutes but soon on our way through the ten-mile long tunnel.

We camped beside the lake about 2 miles east of Lucerne and took the Goldene Rundeahrt round trip to the summit of Mount Pilates. An hour’s passage by steamer up the lake to Alpnachstad, then a ride on the 1889 cogwheel train, with a gradient of 48%, it is the steepest railway in the world. At the top, at almost 7,000 feet, we were met by a blanket of white cloud and a raging icy wind. Visibility was barely a hundred feet but shortly cleared to leave a gloriously panorama of stunning vistas. Continuing strong winds prevented use of the cable car descent, so it was a return by the cogwheel train.

Mount Pilates cable car

Crossing into France we met up with Bev, an old friend of Betty’s, and her husband  Phillipe. Since returning from Chad where they were missionaries for many years, they have lived in a home full of character on the edge of farmland. Bev took us into Belfort in her rattly old Peugeot, almost as ancient as the town itself. It is an old city with a great deal of history; stunningly impressive fortress ramparts sit high upon an upthrust of rock dominating the town. Today, it’s most famous resident is the Lion of Belfort, a monumental beast carved in stone by Frederic Bartholdi, who created the Statue of Liberty later presented to the United States. It was our last call before the long drive back to Calais and the ferry to home.

The Beach Across the Road

New Brighton, Christchurch, South Island
It was blowing a stiff easterly as it seems to do more often these days. A Saturday morning in mid-summer with no more than a dozen people along the flat, sandy  beach stretching for miles in either direction. Among them, two olive-skinned women, chattering in a foreign tongue, carrying plastic bags stuffed with healthy greens from the nearby Saturday market.

We walked to North Beach surf club, splashing footsteps in the shallows that rippled away in a couple of breaths. Spent waves receding quickly, a mass of silver strands rushing to greet the next incomer. The tide was out, leaving behind bright wet sand reflecting our own figures as well as the blue sky above.  A few idle wisps of cloud hovered above the Port Hills, otherwise, only a couple of fading vapour trails from aeroplanes long since gone by, shaded the blue.
A week ago, the South Island had been hit by what doomsday weather forecasters were calling a weather bomb. It missed Christchurch altogether but a deluge of rain fell on the Southern Alps beyond the Canterbury plains, filling rivers to unseasonable levels. Landslides closed the main road through Arthurs Pass for a week; the mighty Waimakariri River carried volumes of tree trunks and debris into the sea. The beach here was littered with them. Yet now they have mostly gone again, washed back out to sea, leaving a pristine beach cluttered only with knots of thick kelp at the water’s edge.
According to the woman who knows, the surf was too messy for any good sport today but we could not resist the temptation to test the water… She was right; confused and boisterous rollers came at us this way and that, driven by the easterly from somewhere deep in the Southern Ocean. The water was relatively warm (for the South Island) and there wasn’t too much of a sideways pull towards the pier. It was a refreshingly short dip. It would be easy to take all this for granted yet we are careful not to; this often isolated place of long skies and ocean spray. We left it to the black-backed gulls searching for pippies to drop time and again onto the hard sand; eventually breaking the shell sending the big gull swooping down for breakfast. Speaking of which…

Cock o’ the Bristol Channel Race 2016

The 2016 Cock o’ the Bristol Channel Race

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Working Yacht 1 at the start

Since 1936, Barry Yacht Club has been organising the Cock ’o the Bristol Channel passage race. In 2016 the race began on the 30th of April; it was a long course taking the boats to the edge of the Celtic Sea. Starting from Barry, leaving Lundy Island and the West Helwick Buoy off the Gower coast, to starboard and back to Barry. 125 miles as the seagulls fly but sailing boats are not gulls; with much of it into a headwind, it was more than 200 miles. As always, a handful of the remarkable Bristol Channel pilot cutters were taking part. Many OGA boats have entered over the years, a few, a very few, have even won it. In this the 80th anniversary of the race, John Laband had entered Working Yacht 1, the 50ft gaff ketch, aboard which he is to be found cruising the Bristol Channel and beyond, often single-handed.

On this occasion John had taken on a crew of three to help get the boat get around the course. Les Willis, who was press-ganged from a Cardiff pontoon, Pierro Tassinari and me. The start was set for 12 noon on Saturday; skipper John Laband tried to take WY1 around to Barry on Friday afternoon but was turned back by some ferocious weather off Lavernock Spit. Still, the forecast was said to improve for tomorrow and so it did.

The big ketch left Cardiff at 0800 on Saturday morning and we made the 7nm passage to arrive off Barry Harbour in plenty of time for the 12 noon start, an hour before high tide. Seven boats competed including five pilot cutters- Agnes, Alpha, Dolphin, Mascotte and Olga. That left the beautiful gaff cutter Jan Roelan and ourselves to complete the fleet. Conditions were good with only light NW winds predicted for Saturday (ha!) and increasing SW on Sunday but still reasonable. Jostling for position in the calm before the start it was a spectacular parade of sail, glistening in the sunlight.

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Mascotte leading Olga just before the start

First tack was across channel to the English coast in fairly light winds. Then the breeze quickly turned  into half a gale at 20 plus knots and with wind over tide conditions, short steep 3-4 metre waves became the norm. (It was not long before a serious bout of mal-de-mare meant I apologetically spent most of the night hours in a bunk but recovered reasonably well the next day.) Then came endless beating against the flood and into a headwind, tack, tack, tack and tack again. With 12 metre tides being routine, dealing with them is always a challenge in the Bristol Channel. At last came the return of the ebb; it was an all-out push to get around Lundy Island but we were almost beaten by the tide once again. We just scraped around the south west corner, admiring the wonderfully close and menacing outline of Black Rock protruding from a turbulent sea! The skipper murmured more to himself than anyone else, Why is it that all these evil slabs always seem to be known as Black Rock? It was now 20 hours after the start.

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We careered across channel on a reach to round the West Helwick cardinal with Working Yacht 1 making ten knots over the ground. It was raining by now, that nice, damp, all embracing ‘Welsh’ rain. Some of it even found its way inside WY1’s ferro hull, bless it. But it was nothing a man with an old paint pot couldn’t handle. As we closed on Nash Point, the expected stronger winds gave way to a calm, even though the inshore forecast was still giving F5 to F7 for the Bristol Channel. Some of the fast cutters spent several hours at anchor here waiting for the wind and at one time we and three other vessels were in sight of each other after some 32 hours of racing. The three of us late arrivals found a zephyr and managed to keep moving, creeping past the brightly lit Aberthaw power station that seemed to take half the night to finally slide astern.

When the wind died away completely, we were at the mercy of a tidal drift taking us towards Barry, albeit much of it stern first! Then the tide turned and the beginnings of the ebb set us drifting back down channel. No more than a mile and half from the finishing line we dropped anchor and lowered sails prepared to wait for some wind or the flood in another six hours. The pilot cutter Dolphin half a mile astern of us, did the same. Just as we were settling into bunks, the ship heeled a little- we had some wind at last. Not much, but enough to send the crew scurrying on deck to raise anchor (with some difficulty) get some sail up and slip lazily over the finishing line a little before 4am. We sailed on, straight back to Cardiff- three hours sleep (after next to none the night before) then to Barry Yacht Club by road for the prize-giving lunch on Monday.

The pilot cutter Mascotte was first over the line but the Cock o’ the Bristol Channel cup was awarded on corrected time to Dolphin, the pilot cutter astern of us as we drifted so lazily back to Barry and who was in fact the last boat to finish. Delighted to report that Working Yacht 1 was awarded the Tern Cup for the best non-pilot cutter finisher. This was the 80th year of the running of this race- both cups were first awarded in 1936 and there are many famous names engraved upon them. It was indeed a memorable experience, in company with some fine vessels, skippers and crews. Just to participate was an honour and justifiably worthy of an entry in the sailing CV.

Ash Wednesday

P1150797av2In the car park of the small South Australia town of Millicent there is an evocative tree trunk carving of a firefighter standing beside a kangaroo. The plaque beside it gives the explanation-
To commemorate the volunteers who gave willingly of their time and service on a day of devastation ASH WEDNESDAY 16th February 1983 “The day when a fiery inferno enveloped hundreds of houses and farms, thousands of sheep and cattle, pine plantations, even family and friends” Project by Millicent Community Builders
In a few words it is a compelling description of a day etched into the history of Australia and I was intrigued enough to want to find out more. The opportunity arose sooner than I expected.

An hour later, at nearby Mount Gambia, at the behest of my brother Malcolm, we called on John and Cheryl Kestle for a cup of coffee; we stayed for two and a half days, they are that sort of people. Packed into an incident-filled life is the story of John’s part in Ash Wednesday of 1983. John worked in forestry for most of his life and became a senior volunteer fireman. On that particular Wednesday, he was at his office in the small milling town or Tarpeena when he heard about the fire. John had been called to many bush fires over the years and he was keeping a wary eye on this one. A strong wind was blowing, gusting to 55 mph, and it seemed at first as though it would pass to the north of Tarpeena. But then, with a sudden 90 degree wind shift, the fire began bearing down on the town. John organised for the residents, around 350 people, to gather on the cricket oval and he placed fire trucks around the perimeter to provide a curtain of water when the fire passed through. With a young volunteer fireman driving, he set out for the oval to see the arrangements for himself. He describes the smoke as being so thick it was impossible to see through and worse than the blackest of nights. Negotiating a hill, the young driver went off the road into a gully but they were able to regain the road without too much difficulty. They passed between a motorcycle and a car that were both on fire but did not find anyone with them. At the oval, the people waited and prayed. The fire trucks around the edge were fitted with a small insulated compartment, just large enough for the crew to squeeze into for a short period while a wind-driven fire flashed over. In a sustained fire, it would not protect the crew for long. In the event, the strategy to save the people worked, with all town’s people surviving safely though many homes were destroyed.
Elsewhere, it was a different story, seventy-five people lost their lives including seventeen volunteer or full-time fire fighters, and 800 people were injured. More than 16,000 fire fighters were involved in fighting the blaze which also killed 350,000 farm animals. It was a day that will be forever known as Ash Wednesday.

Crossing Australia: The Horse Family

P1030522av2From time to time, you come across people who have done some quite extraordinary things. Carol Geraghty is one of these; with her two teenage sons and four horses she has journeyed from her home in Guildford, Victoria to Cooktown in the Far North Queensland. She had not quite reached the end of the journey when we met them, but it had by then taken them sixteen months across more than 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles) of Outback Australia using old pack horse and bullock tracks and the Cobb & Co. coach trails of yesteryear.
But Carol’s journey has not just been about crossing Australia. About the time her youngest son was born on 2001, her husband was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him with severe spinal injuries and brain damage. Later, she was attacked by an intruder in her home which left her physically injured and suffering from depression, and she still had two young boys to bring up.
The idea for the journey went back to 1990 when Carol read that some of the old stock routes were being opened up. It was a thought she nurtured for more than twenty years until, when Jacob was fourteen and Walter-Luke was twelve, she decided the time had come. Yes the boys would miss some schooling but she felt that the experience of the life they would have on the trail would be of far greater benefit.
They were camped at Rifle Creek rest area near Mount Molloy when we met them, their four horses corralled in their single strand circular electric fence. Beside it, was their small orange dome tent where mum and the two boys slept and beside that a small mountain of saddles, bridles, horse packs and cooking gear. It must be a nightmare when it rains. They carried all their equipment with them but were sometimes reliant on station owners for food for their horses. What is perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that two of the horses were pack horses to carry all their gear, while the boys rode the two saddle horses. Carol herself has walked every step of the way.

P1030547av2We watched them pack up the next morning, a process that took the best part of two hours, then, as they strung out along the path, we saw that one of the boys was also walking his horse. It had swollen withers and they were heading across the Great Dividing Range to the town of Mossman to find a vet. They camp in the bush whenever they can and navigate with a map and compass but no GPS; they do however carry a mobile phone and a Personal Locater Beacon (PLB) in case of real emergency. One of Carol’s greatest worries in the final stages of the journey was crossing the Daintree River especially with the horses, it is a place where crocodiles abound.
Ten days later, they walked into Cooktown, their journey at an end. Both the boys are quiet by nature and it will be back to school for them when they get home. But has Carol says- The hands-on experience and all the things they have learnt along the way has made them grow in confidence, learn life lessons and become even better people, something no classroom can ever teach. P1030551av2
Many of the friends they have met along the way chipped in to get the family home and a specialist horse transport company generously supported them in getting the horses back to Victoria. Carol is an inspirational person and a dedicated mother; her sons should be proud of her, and of themselves, for what they have done. It is something even beyond the imagination of most ordinary folk. Well done the Horse Family.

In Outback Australia: The Road to Cloncurry

P1050057evThere are longer and lonelier roads in the outback but the 230 mile (380k) road from Normanton through to Cloncurry is lightly travelled for sure. Mostly, it is a good two lane sealed highway, but there are some long stretches of single lane tar laid in the centre of a two lane dirt road. Hog the middle tar when you can, which is most of the time, but when an on-coming vehicle does appear, move over to put the nearside wheels on the dirt and share the tarmac; unless, that is, the on-comer is a 120ft road train- then head for the dirt and leave the tar seal vacant, the mammoth will probably devour it anyway.
The road is a narrow strip in a vast savannah that is at once uniquely the same yet so different and so full of life; we slowed for an emu that was crossing the road in front of us and took avoiding action to miss the many carcases of unsuccessful kangaroos. (We have learnt from experience not to straddle and bounce them with the undercarriage, the smell has a tendency to linger…) We crossed the Flinders River on the old, disused road and watched a flock of fifty tiny green birds darting and diving in perfect choreographed formation, a performance that denied understanding. Then there are the termites. There are millions of square miles of savannah in the outback and a thousand termite mounds in each, with ten thousand termites to the mound. How many termites is that?
Although careful about leaving food around, we found that some of those pesky tiny ants that can gather into a hoard in the blink of an eye had made an unlawful entry into an opened packet of dried fruit and nuts. We (Betty!) decanted the contents into a zip-lock bag, picking out most of the critters in the process. The new bag went into the freezer so that any remaining little blighters would suffer a fatal dose of hypothermia to end up as crunchy as the rest of the contents and pass unnoticed.

Burke & Wills Roadhouse pan 2text Somewhere over half way, is the only sign of habitation along the road’s entire length. The Burke and Wills Roadhouse is an oasis of activity, serving fuel and food and a place to lay your head. But it is an outback set up; every night the red earth pull-off areas are lined with road trains of three or four enormous trailers, rolling to a stop breathing a cloud of dust, red brake lights and hissing air brakes. The food is simple, beef burgers are good and the camp ground is more drovers camp where power is scarce and there is no fresh water. A Drovers kitchen textgang of a dozen musterers had set up a base camp- trucks, horse-boxes, dogs, a big camp kitchen and a tree draped in motorcycle helmets. It is hot and dusty and scavenger birds lurk everywhere. The place wouldn’t get many stars from the caravan club but it had a certain appeal, though that may have had much to do with the fact that there wasn’t anywhere else.
Nevertheless, we did not rush away in the morning, but wandered around what is after all an interesting place, taking photos and leaving footprints in the dust and the cow pats. When we turned south again, we took a short diversion to explore a side road that became a reasonable airstrip before reverting to a road that led towards a mine in some distant hills. It is a dedicated emergancy airstrip for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, a service held in high esteem by all of Australia.

  Nearing our destination, we spotted a name on the map- Quamby. In fact it consists P1040696av textsolely of the Quamby Hotel, a quirky looking place that describes itself as ‘the pub in the scrub’. We were keen to give it our custom. A small two-roomed, single story corrugated tin hostelry, where the word Hotel was an exaggeration even in its heyday. Regrettably, it had closed its doors a year or more ago and had since been broken into and ransacked. A shame that another out-of-the-way pub has bitten the dust. Cloncurry was but a few miles away and a virtual metropolis with a population of more than 2000 souls.

New Zealand en route to Australia

I arrived in Christchurch in late January in time to get organised for our continental drift around Australia. We found a campervan on the internet that we liked and arranged for envoys to inspect it on our behalf. Emptying the piggy bank we took a deep breath and bought it without seeing it, arranged for some modifications and made copious lists of whatever else we needP1020149eved.
There was just time to fit in a week’s trip in the faithful Kiwi campertruck and we headed south via Dansey’s Pass and many miles of unsealed roads to reach the Moody farm near Gore. Leaving Betty to fly back, I took off for a visit to Mount Cook (photo is Lake Pukaki looking towards the Mount) before going on to Arthur’s Pass to meet up with Jonny Pascoe and a couple of other friends. First on the list was a traverse of Cave Stream, a 560 meter long subterranean clamber against the flow of water, sometimes waist deep. Very wet, not as cold as it might have been and great fun.

There is a short video here:

P1040162ev After a night spent at the Alpine hut at Arthur’s Pass, three of us headed for the west coast to the mouth if the Fox River north of Punakiki. Three hours walk over some rocky ground and many river crossings brought us to the Ballroom overhang, an enormous rock shelter gouged by the river over millions of years. A pre-historic and ethereal place for an overnight camp.

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First time I have backpacked with a tent in 16 years- the legs survived!. And we were rewarded with a swim in the sea after the return on the second day. Back at Christchurch, it was time to clean the van ready to put away until who knows when?
Thanks to Jonny Pascoe for two of the photos here.

So What Led Me to the Antarctic?

P1020253ev2Well it was a two pronged attack. Growing up in Cardiff I was well aware of Captain Scott’s connection to the city because of its fundraising for the 1910 expedition and the provision of coal for his ship, the Terra Nova. We were brought up on the heroic failure not least because the Welshman Edgar Evans was one of those who died with Scott. And there was a nationwide collection in schools for the 1957 Vivian Fuchs expedition for the first Antarctic crossing. We stood in scruffy line to hand in our pennies, all part of the Welsh connection. For me, it led to an enduring interest in all things Antarctic, illustrated by a large map on the wall at home and fifty books on the shelves.
So that was the impetus but the reality of the financial outlay and the remoteness meant that actually making the journey south remained an unlikely prospect. But then came the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011; a tragedy that brought an unexpected twist. I been visiting New Zealand for some years, spending half of every year there from 2008 onwards, living with my partner Betty in her beautiful waterfront house on the estuary. The first earthquake effectively demolished the city centre and destroyed thousands of homes. Betty’s place was badly damaged but we continued to live there putting up with the cracks and the gaps. The second earthquake took 183 lives and compounded the damage of the first; we had to evacuate for a few weeks. Two further significant earthquakes finally did for the house and the land and led to protracted negotiations with the insurance company. Meetings, lawyers and threats of court action eventually brought a satisfactory resolution. It had been a long road that led a new, slightly smaller house and a few dollars left over in the kitty. The reward was a ticket to the ice.

If I learnt about the Antarctic from Captain Scott, it was Shackleton’s Endurance expedition that fired my enthusiasm, particularly that incredible boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia. After a lot of research I settled for a voyage of my own aboard the Sea Adventurer, a ship built for the Russians, owned by the Americans and chartered by Australians. And, as it turned out, almost entirely populated by Aussies as well. But that was OK. You can do all the planning for a trip like this but once it has begun, you are in the hands of the weather Gods and other people. Sometimes, if you are lucky, they conspire to be in your favour and so it was for us. The ship, the weather, the places and especially the people, could not have been bettered.
It is difficult to pick out the best of a trip that had everything, it was simply a journey of enlightenment. How lucky were we to have so much polar expertise on board? Alex, Laurie, Christine and all the other guys and gals of the expedition team shared their experience and passion in ways that made it such a memorably special experience. Perhaps more than anything else, they were the X Factor. Those who were there will know. Anyway, how did the penguin get its name?