Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sha'ab El Erg - Carnatic - Sha'ab Abu Nuhâs

After a night aboard the Blue Seas at the marina, we began our Red Sea journey by moving to Sha'ab El Erg where I was to have my first open water scuba dive since 1989. I'd qualified for my PADI Open Water certificate in 1987 (the same year as our dive guide, Pia!)

As a refresher, I was completing my Advanced Open Water certification, which involves 5 specialty dives and some bookwork. I would be completing the compulsory Deep Dive and Underwater Navigation items, and the Boat, Wreck and Night dive options; three of them would be completed today.

Sha'ab El Erg was the site of my Boat dive, although it was not my first such dive, having completed a number of such during the 15 dives I'd done 1987-89.

After lunch, we moved to the Sha'ab Abu Nuhâs reef in the Strait of Gubal, where I was to do my first Wreck dive on the Carnatic, a cargo ship that sank in 1869. That evening I had a night-dive on a different part of the reef.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

I'm so worried about the check in system they've got at Gatwick...

Up at 6, at Gatwick by 8 for a morning of queueing. First 50 minutes were spent waiting to check-in and then 2 hours more in a Peano conga line wrapping around most of the interior space of the terminal. When we located the end of the line, we were told that we were unlikely to reach the security checks before our plane left, so we might as well just wander off and wait for a flight # to be called. As it happened, we got through to the security door during final boarding stages without the flight ever being called. The XL Airways staff at the gate seemed to be of the opinion that this wasn't their fault, and we sat on the runway for another 30-40 minutes waiting for other passengers, who had probably been queueing like us for 3 hours or more.

We touched down in Hurghada, an Egyptian resort town on the Red Sea at about 7.15pm local time, my first ever time on the African continent (aside from transiting through Dubai airport). Our party of 22 from the London School of Diving was met by a pair of buses and we were taken through the rather quiet but brightly-lit streets to the Marriott marina where our live-aboard was moored.

The M.Y. Blue Seas was much larger than I had expected, 38m long with spacious saloons and plenty of room on the rear of the main deck for us to kit up with our diving gear. Chris & I had one of two "luxury" cabins on the top deck.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006 signoff

This time tomorrow I'll be in the air, Egypt-bound, for a week of diving from a liveaboard on the Red Sea. So no blog updates till at least January 6. My best wishes to all for a prosperous & healthy 2007.

I dropped Bondi off at the boarding kennel this morning, which is never easy for me to do. After 8 years together, which is longer than I've spent with any creature outside my immediate family, and 3 1/2 years of being joined at the hip in our travels, I feel that a part of me is missing.

Yesterday I left him tied up outside a coffee shop near Ealing Broadway. As usual when I can't see him from inside, I can follow the sight-lines of people outside, which akin to perspective lines in a painting take you directly to where Bondi is sitting, in the centre of the picture.
End of year statistics #1

Countries visited since start of trip: 14 - England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, France (Paris link), Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, Spain, Egypt.

English counties visited and not just driven through (omissions struck out): Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, County Durham, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon, Dorset, East Riding of Yorkshire, East Sussex, Essex, Gloucestershire, Greater London, Greater Manchester, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Merseyside, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Rutland, Shropshire, Somerset, South Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Surrey, Tyne & Wear, Warwickshire, West Midlands, West Sussex, West Yorkshire, Westmorland, Wiltshire, Worcestershire.

Number of times I've said the word malamute over this trip, conservatively guesstimated at ~20 utterances/day : 12000

Longest walks:
  • Hadrian's Wall: Tynemouth to Bowness-on-Solway with diversions (100 miles, 160km)
  • Great Glen Way: Fort William to Inverness (75 miles, 120 km)
  • Capital Ring: (78 miles, 125km) completed to-date: 43 miles, 69km
  • Number taken: 6000 (last year: 2900)
  • Disk space taken by photos & movie-clips since commencement of this expedition: 20GB (approx 5 DVDs or 28 CDs)
Family Tree statistics:
  • Number of individuals: 1380 (includes ancestors, their siblings and miscellaneous descendants)
  • Earliest birthdate: 1541
  • Total generations: 15
  • Different surnames: 357
  • Countries of birth (ancestors only): Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Germany, Sweden
Favourite CDs of 2006:

I've been noticing posters up around London for a new TV series, Ugly Betty. This instantly recalled my Spanish lessons in San Sebastian last year, where my conversation teacher used the original Colombian soap opera Yo soy Betty, la fea as the basis for some classroom exercises.

My favourite show of the moment is BBC Three's Pulling, which does for singles and dating, what Ricky Gervais did for paper-supply companies in Slough. Writer/star Sharon Horgan was also part of the team behind Monkey Dust.

The biggest televisual disappointment of the year is the Doctor Who spinoff, Torchwood, unkindly but perhaps accurately described as Scooby Doo with sex. While its Cardiff setting lends itself to being spoofed as Under Torch Wood, the SD+sex description suggested Pwlling as more apt.

BBC Radio 4 continues to produce a ton of interesting entertainments and documentaries as one-offs or as series, e.g. Page to Performance traces the development of a piece of music (like Gershwin's I Got Rhythm) from its creation through various performing arrangements. All of these can be listened to for a least a week after airing via the Radio 4 website.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Cleadon or bust

Before savaging the hoard of parcels under the tree, Chris' family has a tradition of taking a very very very long walk to work up an appetite for the turkey and trimmings. The walk intersected with a section of (The Venerable) Bede's Way, and the villages of Whitburn and Cleadon. Charles Dickens spent a short time in Cleadon ,where he was supposedly inspired to create the character of Miss Haversham in Great Expectations.

While the walk may not have left me totally carb-neutral for the season, Chris did make sure that my wanderings this year were more eco-friendly via a dedication of some trees through CarbonNeutral.

The evening's lethargy was initiated by watching the traditional Doctor Who Christmas Message ( "do not exterminate thy neighbour" etc etc), which now outrates QEII's offering.

I finished off Charlie Stross' new Bob Howard book The Jennifer Morgue, this volume parodying the James Bond oeuvre (the first - The Atrocity Archive, is a pastiche of Len Deighton). I then buried myself in an advance reading copy of China Miéville's new novel, Un Lun Dun. Despite being aimed for younger readers, it showcases both Miéville's invention and a delightful subversion of the heroic quest fantasy. I did work out how it would end from the clue laid midway through the book, but it didn't spoil the fun getting there. NB the links above do contain story spoilers.

Monday, December 25, 2006

... not even a malamute

As a prelude to murdering a turkey over Xmas dinner, Chris' sister got out the carol book and together with her mam, brother and husband, murdered a few traditional pieces. Jokes aside, even Bondi was able to sleep in hea-ven-ly peace.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Some ancient misty morning

Most of this day was spent chugging along foggy motorways from London to South Shields. Since Bondi was going to be confined to the back of the car for at least 5 hours along with a mound of Xmas presents, I made sure he had a good run on Harmondsworth Moor before hand. I was reminded of similar wintry walks with Bondi and his brother in Seattle's Discovery Park.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


The temperature dropped a few more degrees today, the apparent chill factor being increased by the swathes of fog, and the realisation that my younger brother turned 40 today. That event seems to register more strongly than my own anniversary which I'd skipped over more blithely.

The forecast for the next two days is more cold and fog, and then we're off to Newcastle again to stay with Chris' mam over Xmas.
Here I've knitted together the route maps from the 6 days of Capital Ring walking we've done to date. I estimate 4 more days to complete the trail, and that will be after New Year and my return from Egypt.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Capital Ring: West Ham to Woolwich

A very cold, foggy morning for today's assault on the easternmost piece of the Capital Ring walk. We walked up to Ealing Broadway to catch a direct train out to West Ham. Our rickety District line train fetched up somewhere 10 stations short, and we were nearly returned to whence we came as the station announcement was an unintelligible whisper. So after switching platforms, we finally set foot back on the trail about 12.45pm. A lady on the second train was wide-eyed with enchantment when she saw Bondi join her carriage and said "Oh what a beautiful animal. I don't think I want to leave the train while he's here to look at."

We were back on the stinky old Greenway, which if it wasn't quite covered in pea soup fog, definitely reeked of some other pee. There was really very little of interest to see for some time, but we missed our exit by several blocks due to a lack of signage, so I switched on the GPS unit to get us back on the path. A park in Beckton had some Australian trees (labelled): a few eucalypts, including a young snow gum; and a forlorn branchless red cedar.

For the next hour or so we skirted some parks, the Docklands campus of the University of East London on Royal Albert Dock (top photo) and a lot of new apartment blocks around Gallions Reach. We saw very few pedestrians through this stretch, all very stark and uninviting.

[North side: into the tunnel][South side: tunnel stairs and Capital Ring official start]

After a final stretch of walkway by the Thames, punctuated only by the mist-muted greenery of the Royal Victoria Gardens, we reached the entrance to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel. With about 100 steps at each end, the tunnel extends for 500m under and across the Thames . I spared Bondi the stairs on the southern side and we took the wood-panelled lift up to Woolwich.

Now we were at the official start of the Capital Ring walk, having covered 43 miles (69km) since Richmond, with 35 miles (56km) remaining to complete the ring. We walked westwards along the Thames Path, with the Thames Flood Barrier (bottom photo) in our sights. We continued off the path for a while to visit the TFB's information centre, but it seems that the staff closed up early for the day, so we retraced our steps and finished up the walk at Woolwich Docklands train station.

It turned out that the journey to London Bridge station wasn't covered by our Oyster travelcard, so adding quite a bit to the cost of the day's journey that wouldn't be covered by the daily cap on Oyster travel. Really this part of the journey is a bit of a stretch from the POV of public transport: there's nothing special about the starting point (stairs leading up from the Woolwich tunnel) and rather ugly urban surrounds, all of which are at least a 1/2 mile from a (poorly-serviced) rail station. All in all we spent as much time getting to and from our walk today as actually walking.

Found a first edition of Alex Garland's The Beach in an Oxfam store for a few quid: it can sell for £100 or more. On the train journey to West Ham, I finished off Mark "League of Gentlemen" Gatiss' The Devil In Amber. A sequel to The Vesuvius Club, this volume has his hero Lucifer Box caught-up in a parody of a 1920's Dennis Wheatley-style occult adventure (think of the Hammer Horror film of Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out).

On the family tree front, I had some news from a librarian in Cumbria giving marriage details for my paternal ancestor Samuel Jones, which properly identifies wife Jane Woolcock's Cornish family.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Frost Fair

For three days the Bankside area of Southwark puts on a Frost Fair, continuing an interrupted tradition of such events from the days of the mini ice-age when the Thames would freeze over each year. Huskie sledding, yurts and other icy festivity were promised.

Entering via the Borough Market, Bondi was mobbed by Santas, who seemed to be travelling in packs this year. We saw a small area near the Tate Modern where a small number of huskies were being petted and photographed, although naturally Bondi supplied the same benefits for free outside the enclosure. He was also about as a big as all the huskies combined.

The Xmas slug is out this year!(?)

Friday, December 15, 2006

Capital Ring: Finsbury Park to West Ham

While the last segment of this walk improved as it went, today's outing was marked more by its troughs. We caught the Tube out to Manor House, and after some muddy paths around some reservoirs reached Clissold Park and Stoke Newington. All well and good, especially navigating some of the very unkempt unconsecrated grounds of Abney Park Cemetery, full of Salvation Army luminaries like the founding Booths. At the library next door is Daniel Defoe's tomb, otherwise memorialized in the area by a street and a pub.

Continuing on through Upper Clapton, whose streets had a very noticeable Jewish and Muslim presence, we got to Springfield Park, with its eastward view over the Lea Valley. From there we got down to the Lea Navigation canal (with a big barge marina), which we were to follow for some time thereafter.

On our left (to the east) were the Walthamstow Marshes, and from around Lea Bridge, not far behind us was a man who appeared to be determined to expose himself to me, should I look around for more than a split-second.

I tried to ignore him and hurried Bondi along, being engrossed in a podcast about Dunbar's Number, which is a theoretical limit to the number of sustainable relationships an individual can sustain. Normally around 150, at this very minute I was being strained to extend it to any one further than a leash-length away. After about a mile I had to stop to give Bondi some water. The man passed me, only to attempt to reveal himself from behind some bushes not far down the canal.

Finally losing him, we resumed our walk by the canal. Curiously just as a radio newsbreak was detailing the findings of the inquest into Princess Diana's death, I passed the Princess of Wales pub. After that no more excitement, except a blip of memory as I passed the old Lesney factory where Matchbox cars had once been made.
Graffiti on the commercial buildings backing onto this stretch of canal began to build up in quanity and intensity, with some of the skull figures reminding me a little of hattifatteners with dentures. I may have been prompted in this memory by my purchase, last week, of a reprinted volume of Tove Jansson's Moomin comic strip. It's over 50 years since these began appearing in London papers. I could just imagine hattifatteners travelling through this urban canal-scape in their little boats (leaving aside the local trouserfauna of similar appearance). A little websurfing yields the titbit that there are moomincore bands giving musical interpretations of Jansson's creations. One can hardly wait for a Finnish Eurovision entry along these lines.

Now south of Hackney Wick, in the Stratford Marsh area, the gruesomeness continued to develop. We walked along the Northern Outfall Sewage Embankment, developed by Joseph Bazalgette, who featured in the Worms of Euston Square, a six mile walkway optimistically named The Greenway, possibly because it rolls off the tongue better than "Proving Ground for the 4 Horses of the Apocalypse". From around Pudding Mill Lane, the walking environment seemed like sewer crossed with warzone, with burnt out cars and seedy streets.

In the distance I could see lollipop-coloured apartment blocks being raised up - reminding me of similar constructions in Melbourne's Docklands - until I saw that the colour scheme was identical to the abandoned vehicles along the NOSE/Greenway.

Above is the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, the "Temple of Sewage" erected by Bazalgette. Nearby, some old nautiloid pumps stand, gazing forlornly over this horrible landscape.

Just put down Andreas Eschbach's fabular novel The Carpet Makers. A very nice read with echoes of its English-language champion Orson Scott Card, Brian Aldiss' Helliconia and maybe a touch of Lem.