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.


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?

South to Antarctica

0001a Shackleton's Bow Wave 2Out of the ashes of the Christchurch earthquakes came the opportunity to join an expedition ship to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia. It began, with a winding journey from New Zealand to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost town in the world; Antarctica is not an easy place to reach. Joining ship, we set course south along the Beagle Channel, named after Charles Darwin’s vessel.

   Emerging into the Southern Ocean, Sea Adventurer turned hard-a-port to the Falkland Islands rather than her intended course to the Peninsula. With no suitable fuel in Ushuaia,  we were to bunker at Port Stanley just as the old steam ships of yore. We had only six hours ashore but it was an unexpected bonus. A further two and a half days steaming brought us to South Georgia. The change of direction meant we would be tracing Shackleton’s bow wave rather than following in the wake of his epic 1916 voyage in the diminutive lug ketch the James Caird. And what a place South Georgia is- on first sighting it in 1775 James Cook recorded- The wild rocks raised their lofty summits til they were lost in the clouds and the valleys lay buried in ever-lasting snow.

   Ferried ashore in sturdy black zodiacs, we wandered amongst thousands of king penguins, fur seals and mighty elephant seals. Giant petrels and wandering albatross wheeled overhead. The penguins and elephant seals were totally unphased by our presence but get too close to the fur seals and they would gallop towards you baring their teeth and snarling fiercely. But face them down and they would stop a few feet short, give a final snort and simply wander off. It took a bit of getting used to.

   We made six landings on South Georgia including at the old whaling stations of Stromness and Grytviken as well as making a four hour trek across the hills following a section of Shackleton’s crossing of the island. So much history at our feet; it was St David’s Day and I raised the Welsh flag in honour of those bravest of men. At Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave at Grytviken we gathered at 7pm as the light began to dim, to toast the great explorer in Jameson’s finest Irish malt whiskey.

   Sea Adventurer steamed for three more days to Elephant Island, the journey the James Caird completed in 17 days in the opposite direction. At Point Wild we stared in disbelief at the scrap of beach upon which 22 men spent four harsh winter months surviving on penguin and seal meat, living under two upturned small boats. It is hard to imagine their utter fortitude. The nearby South Shetland Islands provided several opportunities for getting ashore, although Deception Island, where the ship sailed into the heart of a flooded active volcano, alluded us. An icy 50 knot wind made it just too dangerous to launch the zodiacs. But later we were able to make the all-important landing on the continent of Antarctica. It was at the site of the Argentine research station Almiranta Brown in Paradise Bay. The station itself had just closed for the winter but a hard slog up a steep hill nearby gave a wonderful panorama of a landscape dressed overall in ice.

128 IMG_1603evThe Lemaire channel lies between the mainland and Booth Island and is barely wide enough for even a small ship like Sea Adventurer to navigate. Yet it must rank as one of the most spectacular places in the world. Great rock edifices flanked by magnificent glaciers rise up from the sea on both sides and icebergs litter the surface. A rolling mist cleared away as we entered the channel to give a spectacular vista of flat calm sea with the ice and everything else bathed in honey coloured light of a very special evening. A hump-backed whale mother and calf stayed two points off the port bow as the ship ghosted her way slowly forward. When the sun finally dropped below the icy horizon it sent a blaze of fiery light lingering across the sky. It was simply breath-taking and a privilege that everyone on board, including the crew, will treasure for a long time to come. 

   There was one more landing on a small island in half a blizzard before Sea Adventurer set a course across the notorious Drake Passage. She pitched and rolled a little but it could have been a lot worse. Yet whatever the sea might have thrown at us, it would have been worth it, because this whole voyage has been a unique and rewarding experience for everyone. For fifteen independent days in a fine ship, sharing the company of experts and friends, we have been living in our own Antarctic world. It was an extraordinary adventure.

Projects and Passages

A004 P1000924evI invariably have one or two photo projects on the go and have recently finished two long term ones. The first was a daily photo throughout 2013- happily concluded without missing a day. (It is refreshing now not to have a camera in my pocket wherevere I go!) What shall I do with them? I’m still thinking about that. The second, spread over two or three years, has been to make a photo-journal of State Highway 6 which at 1,000 kilometres or 600 miles, is the longest road in New Zealand. It begins at a roundabout at Blenheim, sweeps across the top of the North Island, becomes the Glacier Highway all along the west coast, crosses the Southern Alps at Haast to pass the adventure capital of the world at Queenstown, through rural Southland to finish at another another roundabout at Invercargill, the southernmost town in Australasia. It is a fascinating road with many different faces and people. I have covered it all at least twice and it has been a joy. The photo here is of a small live-aboard catamaran beached beside the road on the outskirts of Nelson.

And the Passages? I am leaving New Zealand in a couple of days for a four day flight passage to Ushuaia on Tierra Del Fuego to await the arrival of the expeditioin ship Sea Adventurer. Then another journey, of a different kind will begin. A sea voyage to the South Shetland Islands, the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia in the wake of Ernest Shackleton. All being well I will be home to Wales in the middle of March. Is not the world such a small place?

The New Adventure Begins


Tomorrow I will be catching the 1545 hours Arriva Trains Wales service to New Zealand, calling at Cardiff Central, Paddington, change at Heathrow for Dubai, change at Dubai for Sydney for a connecting service a little over a week later for Christchurch New Zealand and a re-acquaintance with a certain sturdy little camper-truck.

The return service will leave Christchurch towards the end of February and call at Sydney (again), Santiago, Buenos Aries, Tierra del Fuego, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula where refreshments with plenty of ice will be available. Back soon.

Nutmeg in the Solent

P1090674evThe 19ft Shrimper Nutmeg, some times known as Gumnut, spent a few days exploring the Eastern Solent after the Old Gaffers Association festival weekend at Cowes. Up the Medina River to Newport on the Isle of Wight, across to Southampton Water and the River Itchen, then hugging the mainland coast to Portsmouth.

Coming out of Portsmouth single-handed against a spring flood tide provided a moment or two of high interest. I could tell it was going to be a challenge when we began to slow well before the narrows. I increased the revs of the 8hp outboard bit by bit until there was no more to give. The GPS unwaveringly read zero speed. There is I discovered, nothing quite like standing dead in the water with the engine howling at maximum revs against a flood tide in a narrow channel. I was wary of larger boats inching passed me on the starboard side, close to an imposing stone wall. Then over my other shoulder appeared a towering car ferry, overtaking not twelve feet away on the port side. Pushed along by its wash in the sea’s turmoil, we crept agonisingly slowly towards the mouth. Just as I could see that, brick by stone brick, we were making a tiny bit of progress, a forty-foot yacht appeared from around the fort on the corner. Entering the tidal stream she was tossed around in an on-coming rush of tide over wash. We were bows on and a collision looked ominous; I turned to starboard as much as I dared to offer my port side. She answered with a turn to port (!), changing the odds of a collision to almost a dead cert. At the last second her helmswoman seemed to grasp the collision regulations and she turned away to miss us by two coats of anti-fouling. A collision in that situation and at that velocity would be unthinkable.

But safely out in the Solent it turned into a great day to be on the water. Up went full sail and with the tide under us and a SE breeze, Nutmeg raced the 19nm to Keyhaven on one tack in an exhilarating four hours. We just beat the ebbing tide to get back on her swinging mooring to spend a glorious evening sitting on the mud, conjuring up a meal from left-over tins.

The Abandoned House

IMG_6882evTwo and a half years after the first Christchurch earthquake in September 2010, there has finally been some progress. With time running out on the red-zoned condemned land, a new house was purchased at auction. A packed room, full of expectancy, uncertainty, back stage negotiations, then SOLD! to a round of applause.

Ten days later there was more drama when a ‘big cheese’ from the insurance company flew in from HQ following our  intent to commence legal proceedings to recover adequate re-building costs for the earthquake damaged house. Hastily arranged meeting with ‘BC’ and our lawyers- more negotiation, then suddenly the deed was done. Nobody’s expectations were fully met but everyone walked away reasonably satisfied – and happy it was all over at last.

Betty’s son Ariki, daughter Ceri, and four granddaughters Anikah (8), Talia (6). Bella (4) and Jemima (1) came for a last visit to Grangi’s house on the edge of the sea; the children gleefully painted and crayoned on the lounge walls. We all left our handprints too- evidence of the life of a family.

Two days later we locked the door of a much loved house- now empty, sad, broken, desolate, abandoned. The next visitor will arrive in a bulldozer.