Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thirty – ‘til We Run out of Road.

Everything’s gone black.
I’ve panicked.
But I haven’t passed out, though that might have been a blessed relief. With the two tracks before me I couldn’t immediately see where the track was going, so I couldn’t anticipate the movement of the car. Closing my eyes really hasn’t helped (thanks for nothing Obi Wan!) so I open them again.
Breathe. Just breathe.
Soon I’m gasping like an asthmatic at Lamar’s class. It seems to help. The two tracks spread apart and I can see what’s coming next.
Hard left.
Hard right.
UP and down.
I’m mentally addressing the track. “Please don’t spiral. Don’t go upside down, no fancy stuff. We’ve all had a bit of fun here, now let’s just calm down and head smoothly back to the platform”.
Amazingly the track capitulates, and we slow down and pull back in. I’m gasping, I’m drenched in sweat, and there’s a tight band of pain attempting to form in the left side of my chest. I’m afraid that’s 3 for 3 in “me not enjoying roller coasters”, but at least I gave it a shot.
They’ve fixed the F1 simulator and it’s the same as the ones the real drivers use, so I’m looking forward to my go, but another person has thrown up in it. After my distress on the coaster I can understand people having uncontrollable reactions to movement, but it’s a simulator! You’re in control. If you feel woozy, stop and get out!
So Mark and I have to make do with the F430 simulator. It’s a laugh, but you’d have as much fun at home with your mate shaking your chair. (Doesn’t everyone have a force-feedback steering wheel, a ten foot screen and a bucket seat at home these days?)
We’ve done practically everything. They’ve finally opened the vertical slingshot ride, but the queues are ridiculous, so we leave. Right next door is the Yas Marina circuit so we head over to see what we can see. Not much today, but we sign up for a tour on Saturday. Awesome.
Back to the Holiday Inn, and a nice steak at the Vista restaurant next door, with a view of Dubai’s 7 star hotel. Tomorrow we have to be up early to go on a “desert safari”, otherwise known as “dune bashing”. After my experience of the roller coaster I’m worried about being driven off-road by some lunatic. However I’m reading Jenson Button’s book and he says it wasn’t so bad for him, and he’s a terrible passenger, so it should be OK.
“Oh my friend did that and got whiplash” says the lady at the next table. Great.
Though she does tell us an amusing story about life in Dubai: One night, with her husband in dire straits (medically, not musically) she calls the hotel reception:
“I need a doctor, and make it quick”
“Yes madam, right away”
Lady waits ten nervous minutes, her husband is very ill, but there’s no sign of the doctor, so she calls again:
“Where is he?”
“On his way”
Another ten minutes, then a knock at the door. Thank goodness. Relieved that her husband will now get some much needed medical attention, she opens the door to find member of hotel staff cheerfully brandishing a small plastic item.
“Here you go ….adaptor!”
But at breakfast I’m still worried about my reaction to the movement of the dune bashing vehicle, and wondering how much I can offer the driver to take it easy. Sarah’s looking worried, though she’s concerned about us hitting something. I don’t know why, there’s nothing to hit in the desert is there?
An Indian bloke called Dennis rolls up in his Toyota Land Cruiser, complete with high wheel clearance and roll bars. We drive for an hour to reach the dunes of the desert, then he pulls onto the sand and lets the air out of the tyres.
Here we go. He charges toward a dune and the strangling sensation wells up, then subsides! This ain’t so bad! On the soft sand he can’t get past 40mph, and I quickly understand which lines he’s aiming for. Soon I’m enjoying myself, though I’d still rather be driving, and Dennis isn’t wearing his seatbelt so he obviously isn’t worried.
“How long have you been doing this?” asks Sarah.
“Ten years” replies Dennis, missing an easy chance for a wind-up.
“…and have you had many crashes?”
“No crashes” comes the reassuring answer, especially after he’s told us there can be up to a thousand dune bashing cars out there!
“…but I’ve rolled many times”
Ohhhhhhhkayyy. But my discomfort is physical, not mental, so I’m happy to bounce around while the radio plays “Staying Alive”. We meet a few camels, then head out to the camp in the desert for our next dice with death.
Quad bikes are a good way to get hurt. Just ask Ozzy Osbourne. Obviously your helmet will protect your head, but they can roll over easily, and if you’re lucky, they’ll just break your leg. At least I’m in control, so I climb aboard my steed, ready to receive my safety equipment and instructional briefing.
“These stop. This go. Follow me”
…and he disappears off in a cloud of sand.
Mark follows him, and I try to follow Mark, steering wide onto the soft stuff to avoid getting eyes full of sand. A helmet and a visor might have been handy!
Mark slows and lets me past, shortly before the guide blasts up a steep slope, turns sharp left and accelerates along a sandy ridge. I chase after him, it’s tricky to be fast enough to make the climb, but slow enough to make the turn onto the ridge. I glance back but Mark isn’t up yet. I daren’t look back too long else I’ll fall off, so I hope the guide turns around soon.
Seconds pass. Do I dare risk another glance? Will the guide hear me yell anyway? Then he turns round and his psychotic smile turns to a puzzled expression. There are two possibilities. Mark ran out of power and stalled on the incline, or he’s rolled, pinned and screwed. The guide whips round a tree, drops off the ridge onto a path, and floors it. Thirty yards behind, I’m faced with a choice. If I turn round here I can probably get straight back to the slope and Mark, but if I’m wrong I’ll be lost in the desert. If I follow the guide I’ll have to go flat out to keep up, risking my own big crash.
I mull it over for several milliseconds before the answer springs to mind:
“Boot it!”
…and we zoom back across the dunes to find Mark sandy, but intact and upright, trying to start his machine.
Somehow Mark pulls off proud and embarrassed at the same time: “I rolled it!”
He’d stalled on the climb beginning the turn and fallen backwards. The quad had come for him, but Mark won the rolling race and survived with the odd bruise and scratch. The guide was very impressed. He got Mark’s quad going again with some magic tool, yelled
“Oh my God!”
…a couple of times and careered off into the dunes at full speed.
We made it back to camp, and I chastised Mark for his lack of judgement. “Why did you let me past and then fall off? I’d have loved to have seen that!”
We bashed our way back across the dunes and to the hotel. Enough time for a Sub and a shower before the next driving experience.
Dubai Autodrome is another modern racetrack facility, and my sister had decided that I might enjoy the chance to bomb around it in an Audi R8 V10. Oh, go on then.
I keep trying to avoid the adjective out here, but the place really is deserted. There’s me, Mark, and one other chap here to drive, I go first in case Mark rolls again, and I have the entire track to myself as I learn the lines in an Audi TT. Then it’s into the R8 and off to the moon. I stopped looking down at 240 on the straight and screeched through the corners, following the instructions of a bloke from Wigan. Three times past the pits and it was soon over. Awesome car.
Would I have one? Nah, too planted, too smooth, the Nissan GT-R was more fun. But then maybe I just need a few more laps to find the R8’s limit…
Out on the town for Friday night. We find a pub with a “live band” but it turns out to be two girls performing awful karaoke, with a backing track and some poor sod on guitar who I can only think is sleeping with one and related to the other.
After the excitement, a much needed lie-in on Saturday, before our tour of the Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi’s Grand Prix track.
We’re in luck, there are no cars running, so we get to ride the bus round the track, and stand on the grid.  We head for race control and then the podium, where the guide asks if anyone knows what the drivers spray to celebrate. Jenson finished third here in 2009 so I know this one:
“Rose Water” I shout, proudly. I’m so clever.
“Wrong. Rose water is like a strong perfume. If we used rose water the ladies would have no fun at the party afterwards because all the men would be chasing the drivers. We use sparkling grape juice” …and he shows us the bottles to prove it. Thanks Jenson!
We also get to sit in the North Stand which has a clear view of a large amount of track. They don’t want to make a profit at this track, so there are only 44,000 seats, which means they’re all in good spots.
Sarah and Mark have a plane to catch, back to Qatar and the unpredictable construction industry. I fly home tomorrow, with no idea what will happen next. But sitting in the stand of this amazing venue, we’re sharing a thought for the future.
We’ve got to come back for a Grand Prix!

Twenty Nine – Back on Track

It’s hard to enjoy yourself when you’re not well, even in the best places in the world. On the upside I have a nice room with a view down the river to the Marina Bay. In the distance I can see a giant ferris wheel, and what looks like a ship balanced upon a sky-scraper – have I started hallucinating?
On Saturday I feel a bit better but my stomach’s still sensitive so I don’t fancy straying too far from the hotel. The sky is overcast and it’s the usual 30 degrees and massive humidity as I walk down the river, so like most people over here I head for a shopping mall. I wander round, pass on the karaoke, stock up on books and check out the “longest wall of HDTVs in Asia!” I’m in need of a sit-down when I spy a couple of massage chairs like the ones you see in British service stations. Only the Singaporeans are at a whole new level.
The chair automatically reclines. Cushioned clamps form around my lower legs and pin me in the chair. The sides squeeze me until I worry about the camera in my pocket. An unexpected pressure massages my, er… the base of my spine and, well, it’s very effective. As my five minutes are ending a Japanese lady sits on the other chair, peruses the instructions, fingers the money slot speculatively, then decides to have a go. Judging by her squeals I think she enjoyed it!
I’m finally staying put long enough to follow a Grand Prix weekend. Even better, Singapore has a Hooters, so I’m looking forward to plonking myself at the bar with a plate of boneless wings, watching the qualifying and hopefully meeting some interesting people.
“Welcome to Hooters!”
…chorus the girls at the door.
“I’ll have a seat at the bar please”
“Table for one?”, comes the confused, and confusing reply.
“No, a seat at the… er….where’s the bar?”
There’s no fricking bar!!!!!
Looking around in shock, I can see there’s a small one, outside in the sweaty uncomfortable world, with no seats to watch TV, but there’s literally nothing in here. I’m still hungry, so I’ll sit alone and have some..
“Where’s the boneless wings?!”
“We have chicken strips”
…which turn out to be unpleasantly gritty. Arggh. I don’t even get the trademark Hooters banter with a friendly waitress. I later read that Singaporeans don’t do small talk because it’s considered rude to ask a stranger direct questions. I don’t know if that’s true or if I just got a grumpy waitress, but I can’t get out of there fast enough! Feeling tired again I return to the hotel, but I pass an Irish pub which looks promising for tomorrow.
Sunday is race day so I head for the Irish pub. It’s 7.45pm but still hot and sweaty, so I luxuriate in the air conditioning inside as I look for a good seat where I can see the big screen showing football. Hang on, football?
“We’re showing the F1 outside, sir”
Well that’s just great.
I look around for an alternative venue, but the other sports bar is showing the footy as well. Returning to the Irish pub I can’t find an empty table outside but there’s a bloke sitting alone who turns out to be John from Holland. Well, I think he said John, though that doesn’t sound very Dutch. “John” is happy for me to join him. Being Dutch I wonder who he’s supporting in the race.
“Lewis, and then Jenson”
Good answer.
John says something about working as a taster, or maybe a toaster, which is intriguing, but we’re soon distracted by the race. We cheer on the Brits, argue about tactics and swap jokes over beer. It seems a long while since I’ve had some enjoyable company and we have a good laugh, especially when John tries to buy me a beer and the waiter keeps giving him my entire bill, cottage pie and all!
Monday was uneventful, partly because I’d begun reading “127 hours between a rock and a hard place”, adventurer Aron Ralston’s account of being trapped beneath a boulder. I couldn’t put it down and missed out on sleep, desperate to know how long he’d be trapped for, and whether he’d live to tell the tale.
It wasn’t the best preparation for Tuesday’s early start to catch a flight to Dubai. I was also disappointed that Terminal 1 in the legendary Changi airport doesn’t have a good brekkie place! But I enjoyed “Limitless” on the plane, and sat next to an Aussie from Brisbane who was flying out to surprise his daughter. He had annoyingly wide shoulders but was a laugh to talk to, which helped pass the time in the Dubai airport queues.
I met up with my sister at the Holiday Inn Express in the district curiously named Internet City. Sarah moved out here a few years ago when the UK construction industry dried up. She’s since moved to Qatar, but she’s come back because she’s loving and caring for her little brother (..and by the sounds of it there’s sod all to do in Qatar). She’s brought along her house-mate Mark and they’ve got some fun stuff planned. Or at least that’s what they claim, as they’re not telling me what it is, but I’m hoping it includes the Abu Dhabi GP circuit, Ferrari world, and an Audi R8 has been mentioned!
I’m excited but nervous about being in a muslim country. I don’t like the sound of restrictions on where you can get a beer, but I’m not so bothered about the lack of pork as I don’t really eat pork.
We start by heading to an ex-pat bar, and meet their friend Chris and his girlfriend. Chris is a real character, a cockney Geezer, with the appropriate tattoos and outlandish stories. He’s planning a party where the guests have to buy outfits from the Carrefour supermarket for less than 100 dirhams. Given that that’s about 17 quid, including shoes, it sounds like fun, but won’t fit in our schedule. After hearing some more stories, it sounds like it would wipe out more than an evening!
Wednesday morning and it’s busy at breakfast. A poorly designed buffet and the holiday of Eid make for a long queue, and I can’t find the sausages or the bacon. We have fun watching people from a wide variety of cultures, united by their efforts to burn down the hotel by stuffing the toast machine.
Mark drives us around Dubai and it’s unlike any place I’ve seen. Singapore, Hong Kong and Manhattan all have many sky scrapers, but here there seems to be nothing else. Few smaller buildings occupy the gaps. And because everything has gone up in the last twenty years, there’s no variety of age in the architecture, just gleaming towers of glass. Its 42 degrees in the shade, and baking in the sun, so there are very few people outside, giving the feel of a ghost town.
We visit the beach, but it’s too hot to hang around, so there’s nobody there either. We head to the mall, and find all the people. The top activity for the Eid holiday is not shopping, but window shopping. The mall corridors are packed, but the shops themselves reasonably quiet, since most of the immigrant workers don’t have the money to splash on a ten grand watch, even if George Clooney recommends it. Other popular activities in the mall include ice skating, skiing, snowball fights and watching sharks swim around a three floor aquarium.
But we’re heading for the top. The top of the world in fact. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest manmade structure in the world with over 160 floors so we jump into the lift and head for the “at the top” viewing platform on the 124th floor. You don’t need a fear of heights to feel wobbly up here. It’s in a different league to other viewing platforms, with a view I associate with helicopters, not balconies.
After the sun sets, we return to earth for a very nice Chinese, though there’s no beer. For that we’ll need to fight our way through the traffic back to the hotel. There’s no quarter asked or given out here. Rules are for fools. If you see an indicator it’s probably a trick. Signal your intentions and you’ll watch the traffic close up to block you. It’s like driving in India, (where most workers come from) but with more porsches.
No Porsches on Thursday though, we’re off to Ferrari world. The world’s largest indoor theme park, resembling a red Millenium Dome and covering a space the size of seventeen football pitches. Home to the fastest rollercoaster in the world, which isn’t running. In fact nothing’s running when we get there, as the park doesn’t open til 12, so by sheer luck we’re the first through the gates twenty minutes later. Mark and I make a bee-line for the Ferrari simulator ride, and Sarah game-fully climbs aboard another hydraulic rig so we can race each other and five people unaware they’re about to get embarrassingly beaten.
The gangway falls away. Each of our rigs rises into the air, and I find myself in an F430 on the grid at the Abu Dhabi GP circuit. The red lights come on, the revs rise, the computer crashes and we return to earth with a jolt.
An engineer is summoned, he applies the level of deep knowledge of technical systems we’re famous for and turns the system off and on again.
“Sorry folks, can you come back later”
So we ask when we can go on the expensive, ultra-real F1 simulator
“Ah. That’s broke too. Someone threw up in it last night”
Great. But from then on things improve. We’ve come at the quiet time so there’s hardly any queueing. We move from attraction to attraction, and by good luck and good judgement, never have to wait. There’s car displays, movies, an interactive quiz, motion simulators that jiggle you around and even a live show with (as my old mate Wuz would put it) “angle grinders and the lot!”
…and a roller coaster.
Now I’ve ridden two roller coasters in my life, and I hated every second of them. I don’t get scared, or sick, but the physical sensation makes me massively uncomfortable. Imagine holding your breath as long as you can, then, just as you gasp for air, someone covers your mouth and nose. So I’m very glad the super-fast coaster isn’t running, but they have another one. …or two to be exact, as they have two intertwined tracks where 12 seater “F430s” race each other.
Oh crap.
Maybe it’ll be OK. I’ve had some luck fighting the sensation on racetracks, being thrown around at ludicrous speed by professionals. If I can relax, go limp, let it flow, maybe I’ll be OK. Who knows, maybe I can have as much fun as I would if I were controlling the thing.
We trundle forward from the platform. As we exit the huge dome, we’re hit by the outside temperatures, the air is thick with humidity, the sun is scorching, but I don’t even notice. All I’m aware of is the plummeting drop before us, and the tortuous, twisting, tangle of track ahead.
We pick up speed…

Monday, August 29, 2011

Twenty Eight - Under the Weather

Soggy morning on the Gold Coast, but I enjoy jogging along the sea-front in the rain and it gives me the appetite for a thirty dollar buffet breakfast. The usual target is five courses: Cereal, fruit, full English, toast, yoghurt, then enough coffee to get the energy to leave the table! Awaiting the caffeine buzz I make a plan. I’ve four days left in Australia, but Brisbane airport is only a hundred miles away. I’ll stay just another day in Paradise, then three in Brisbane.
My current room has been booked and I can’t take my paid-for internet with me, so I’ve half an hour to find a place in Brisbane, book it, and move room. There’s an apartment in Brisbane getting rave reviews, and it has a washing machine, so I don’t hang about! Booked it, Packed it, …ed off!
Being a soggy day at the seaside there’s not much to do, so I potter round the shops and find a massage place offering an Opening Week special. I head for the Hard Rock again, and enjoy the banter with the staff. I try to leave early, but it’s raining so heavily I’m forced to return to the bar.
Monday, a dull drive into Brisbane, notable only for the lack of traffic. I’m staying on Kangaroo Point, overlooking the Brisbane river. It’s a great spot, quiet and secluded, whilst straight across the river from the CBD served by lots of ferries, and a bridge. The apartment is like something from a catalogue. All clean lines, pretty furniture and stylish surfaces. With underground parking, a balcony view of the river, shared use of a swimming pool and even a cinema room I feel like this could be my home and open the fridge to discover a carton of “Paul’s Milk”!
With my own kitchen I can eat-in for the first night since, er, May? I nip to the shop for practically the last trip in the car. Leaving the shop I jump in, look around, whack it in reverse and whip it across the car park. The reversing sensor always starts with a long beep to show its working, by which time I’ve backed out of my spot, swung out and stopped. But the long beep immediately becomes a shrill tone. By more luck than judgement I’ve come to rest inches from a ridiculously placed, badly lit, steel bollard. (By the looks of it, many people haven’t avoided the bollard, it’s probably sponsored by the local garage) After ten rental cars, more than ten thousand miles in cities, forests, deserts and beaches, I almost come a cropper in the supermarket car park!
I’m up early and ready to explore Brisbane. I walk over Story Bridge into the city, shunning the Story “Bridge Climb”.  It’s a tiny bridge compared to Sydney, and the view of the river is hardly a match for Sydney Harbour. I’m soon amongst the bustle of city folk. I spot an approaching charity worker, they can’t sign foreigners up so I’m happy to talk, making her robot dance to get my attention even more amusing.
Kaycee is about to go on a world tour, so I’m able to offer my considerable experience in these matters. She explains that she’s heading to Thailand, England, then Peru, and has:
“…about twenty bucks a day”
“er… yeah, you’ll have great fun” I assure her, even though I spend more than that on breakfast!
Kaycee suggests I check out the South Bank, but it’s another soggy, grey day and the pleasure of ambling through the arboreta and botanic gardens is ruined by the frequent downpours. I hear a lot of excited yelling and round a building to find a large group of half-naked men in what could be a swimming pool or a large pond, playing some kind of impromptu water polo. It might give you some impression of how miserable the weather was, that the next shower caused this group of nutters to abandon the game because it was too wet!
Eventually, the showers subsided and I was able to continue along the river, looping back round to my apartment. It was a fair few miles, and my legs have become used to sitting in a car all day, so I was struggling and my legs were quite sore, so I went for a run.
In the evening the local bar was pleasant enough, and I got a decent pie, but no good opportunities to talk to strangers.
Wednesday was not so good. I felt absolutely knackered. Sure, my legs were sore but I was completely drained. Just sitting up made me feel ill, so I watched TV for a while. The trouble with pretty furniture is that it’s bloody uncomfortable in reality, so I went back to bed and read, and slept, and read, and slept..
I felt better the next morning, buoyed by the adrenalin of being on the move again. Off to the airport, and goodbye to another car. I’d managed to book an exit row seat, and was pleased to find that all five seats around me were empty. Mid-flight, I got away with cheekily placing my bag before me so I could use it as a footrest, and we were in Singapore in no time.
I arrived at the Grand Copthorne feeling tired, but happy to have made it without a hitch. I called it an early night, having eaten in the morning, at the airport, and on the plane.
But I still woke up with a grumbling stomach. It felt like I was really hungry, but at the same time full and bloaty. I could use a snack, but there was no sign of a room service menu and I was unable to think what I’d ask for. Besides, “all you can eat buffet” was only a couple of hours away.
At 6.30 on the dot I was ready for another five course meal. Only to be reminded that Singapore don’t do cereal. Well, they do, but it sucks. The cereals taste different, and the milk comes from a bean instead of a cow. There was plenty of other food so I made do with four courses and, went back to bed and waited for my strength to return.
By mid afternoon I figured I’d try a short walk, and get some much needed drinks and snacks. I found a 7 eleven and staggered back to my room with my haul. I remembered I had a fridge in my room, but I couldn’t fit the stuff in because it was full of drinks and snacks provided by the hotel.
In the evening I ventured out again, still feeling woozy. The hotel is on the river, and it’s a pleasant, though humid, walk along the bank. I found a pub and had a good juicy burger while watching Aussies beat each other up on the TV. I’m not too glum, I’ve seen Singapore before, and wasn’t expecting to do much during the days, but was hoping for a couple of fun nights out.
After the feed I felt better, but didn’t know how long it would last, so returned to bed. TV was showing Wipeout USA, which is far better than the UK version, and had me in tears of laughter. I hope it is the best medicine.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Twenty Seven – Oh. Think twice…

Before I left Singleton I visited one of the town’s many claims to fame. The largest sundial in the Southern Hemisphere. It was a sundial, and, er …it was quite big.
The sun is peeking through the clouds as I head north through rolling hills and fields of green.  With some relaxing music playing (Anjunadeep for anyone working on the soundtrack) it’s a lovely drive through the countryside, and for once I’m not  hurrying,  I’m taking my time and enjoying the day…
(Sorry to interrupt, but If you’re squeamish you may wish to jump ahead to Friday!)

…when a small dark animal scurries out into the road. As I brake, it begins to flutter – just another bird – so I only brake gently, expecting it to take-off. But instead of taking flight the bloomin’ thing flutters into the middle of the road like a chicken. There’s no room to get round it so all I can do is aim for it and hope the chicken knows how to duck.
I watch the rear view mirror to see how it survives but nothing appears. That’s odd. So I pull over and wander round to the front of the car. At first I just see feathers. Then, poking out of the radiator grill, I realise it’s the bird’s head, with one cold dead eye staring up at me.
The eye blinks.
Somehow the bird has gone through a tiny gap in the grill, until its head wouldn’t fit. In its effort to escape, one of its legs has poked back out through another gap in the grill. It’d be bad enough pulling a dead bird out, but pulling away feathers, feeling muscles and tendons squish as I try to extricate the poor thing …eeeuggh. Also, what can you catch from a wild bird in Australia? So I’m avoiding the claws and beak and worrying about germs and fleas!
Eventually I untie the mangled bird and plonk it on the ground. Bereft of most of its feathers, its sense of balance, and probably half its brain cells, it staggers away. At this exact moment a Rentokil van pulls up and a lady leaps out. She gives an impression of the scale of the decimation by asking:
“Is it a bird?”
(Well, it ain’t Superman!)
“It was, but it’s pretty screwed”…but she’s not listening as she scurries after the mangled chuck. Relieved to have avoided the dilemma of whether to leave the poor unfortunate animal to die of its wounds or reverse over it, I straighten the number plate and leave, breathing a sigh of relief that there’s nothing for the folks at Hertz to get upset about.
Maybe the bird belonged on a weather vane, because soon after the weather took a turn for the worse. I was gaining altitude and losing temperature. It dropped to 2 degrees C and the rain began to pour, turning a lovely road trip into a miserable slog. I hoped that the country town I was heading towards was big enough to have some motels. The GPS said yes, but also warned of unpaved roads and offered me a route around. Battling with the unfamiliar and unintuitive GPS I didn’t realise it was taking me the wrong way round until I’d gone thirty kilometres out of my way. (Who hides the zoom buttons in a sub menu?)
Finally back on track and a few kilometres from the Best Western at Armidale, the rain was pouring and the sky was darkening at 4.30 so I was relieved to be almost there. Out of the gloom emerged flashing lights and a detour sign. Great! …and of course a detour in the Aussie bush means several kilometres out of your way just to get to the next road over!
My crappy GPS is yelling at me for going the wrong way. I don’t know when I can start listening to it again because I can’t zoom out to see if it’s taking me back to the same stretch of road. I’m detoured through so many country roads I have no idea where I am and its chucking it down and cold.
There’s quite a few people being detoured, and our line passes a couple at the side of the road changing a tyre.
“Oh well. Things could be worse”
After passing through Armidale I eventually arrive at the other end of the road closure. The Best Western is 3 miles outside town and I have to be allowed through the barrier of the closed section of road to get into the motel. I later learn from the news that the road was closed after three people were killed in a crash involving a car and a truck.
Yep, things could be worse.
The motel is quiet, and it’s a nice change to open the curtains to frosty countryside, especially as I expect to be at the seaside or in the city from now on. It’s another nice morning for a drive and I’ve picked a great road. All the roads look the same on the map, but you can find yourself sailing along an open freeway or wiggling through a twisty ravine on any one of them. There aren’t many options so I’m amazed that I chose a road where I didn’t catch anyone for over an hour! It was a fantastic drive, only blunted by the huge car I’m lugging around. Once I joined the Pacific Highway however, I was able to enjoy my luxury vehicle again and waft towards Byron Bay.
Byron Bay can only be described as a hippy town. But it has a beautiful beach and a lighthouse which marks the most Easterly point of Australia. After an hour at the lighthouse I’m happy to get a room in town, though it’s pretty scummy and the wifi’s broken (The BW had wifi, but not strong enough to reach my room, so I’m feeling cut off!). For the first time in ages I get to run on the beach, and it’s a wonderful beach to run on. Wide and flat, with the sun setting in the distance. Despite being the East coast, it’s probably the best sunset I’ve seen on this trip, with the sun shining through the clouds, across the distant mountains, the North side of the bay, the ocean, and reflecting off the South side of the bay. It’s spectacular, and I smile at the bride and groom posing for what would be the most magnificent wedding picture ever, where it not for the sweaty bloke jogging past.
Once again I fail to find a decent bar to eat at, at least there’s my regular backup option of a Subway.
“We’re closing”
“…at half past six!!??”
“Yeah, the toaster’s broken, it’s quiet and the manager told us to close”
I pulled out my sad face, and the other guy agreed to make me a sandwich before they shut, which saved me from a lawsuit for assault.
Afterwards I found a reasonable duo playing guitars in a bar…and listened for a while.
Saturday dawned grey and wet. That was always going to be a problem coming to Australia in August. As I drove up the coast peering through the rain I was wondering what the hell to do. There’s not enough time to drive up to the sunshine in Cairns. I’ve been here before so it’s not that novel, and I haven’t much I want to see.
“Just keep rolling” I thought, and soon I reached Surfers Paradise. What would be a great place to stay in Summer was wet and horrible, but my head was aching so it was time to try another fallback  option. I asked GPS for a Holiday Inn and it was just 2km away! It wasn’t even 1pm but so what? I didn’t even get discouraged by the price and went for the better view and buffet breakfast.
It was a great move. A nice hotel by the beach, and loads of pubs within walking distance. It’s a wet weekend by the sea, but there’s enough live music, merry people and stag and hen do’s to make for an entertaining night.
…and there’s a Hard Rock Café, where you can eat at the bar, the barmen have time to talk and I finally got to chat with some Aussies!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Twenty Six – Where women blow and men chunder?

After resting on Kauaui it was time to get moving again. To avoid an epic day I’d booked the flight back to Honolulu for the Saturday, with the long flight to Sydney on the Sunday. This meant a stop at the Ohana Honolulu Airport Hotel. I figured I’d just get a taxi but the woman wouldn’t let me in the taxi line:
“There’s a free shuttle bus, comes by every five minutes”
So I hang around for ten minutes, thinking this is going to be a waste of time, when a bus with Ohana on the side, but Great Western on the front shows up. I ask the driver and he says:
“Oh no, the shuttle won’t come unless you phone up”
But he’s a typically helpful Hawaiian and calls the other shuttle bus for me and the assembling group. When I reach the hotel I’m oddly excited. It’s a dull hotel, just a useful spot for a stopover and an early start, but I’m travelling again. I have a clear purpose.
Five am start to catch the 8.15 Jetstar flight. The shuttle bus driver drops me off and directs me to:
“That great big line over there”
But I’m travelling business class – Jet star is Australia’s low cost airline so it’s more like premium economy, but it means I get to waltz past the queue! Gold Lane means I’m through security so fast I almost get busted for forgetting to ditch my highly dangerous water bottle!
Normally I wait ‘til last to board the plane, but with a comfy seat awaiting I was happy to board first  and not have to wait for dozens of people to cram their armfuls of carry-on into the overheads.  However the seat is not that great, the legroom’s good, but the seat must have been designed by a person with the legs of a child. Fortunately I’m sat next to an interesting guy, though I didn’t get his name. Originally from London he moved to Sydney eight years ago and sells medical equipment. Hawaii is apparently a convenient place for their conferences!
I watch Battle LA and Paul, then the pilot episode of Magnum PI as my last Hawaiian Hurrah. The pilot gives a time check, but fails to mention that we’ve crossed the date line and it’s now Monday!
First off the plane, straight through customs, I’ve just time to grab some Aussie dollars out of the machine before turning round to see my bag emerge on the carousel! No queue at the Hertz desk and my car’s parked across the road. Now that’s a good trip!
It’s weird climbing in the right hand side of a car. This is rental car number ten, but the first right hand drive. I also have a new GPS unit to get my head around, although it does have a sexy Aussie accent.  So I plunge into the Sydney traffic, and hope to end up somewhere near the big bridge.
Thanks to my devotion to Holiday Inn, I’ve managed to earn two free nights at their place on George Street. There’s a nice atrium, triangular and open through six floors, it’s like being inside the Luxor pyramid. The girl on reception looks like Hannah from S-Club, and the room has the usual Holiday Inn trimmings. Oh yeah, and the hotel has a rooftop area and pool, overlooking the harbour, midway between the Bridge and the Royal Opera House!!
After taking in the view I need to check something with Hertz but I’m not paying 30 bucks a day for internet so I pull out the 1026 page phonebook and open it on exactly the page with Hertz’s number!
Perhaps I should buy a lottery ticket as I’m going to need a fortune down under if Sydney’s anything to go by. 2.40 for a Fruit and Nut bar, 5.50 for a 1.5 litre bottle of water, 24 bucks for brekkie and the Aussie dollar is about 66p at the moment!
Hannah, aka Jess, suggests some pubs so I wander down George Street to the CBD. (“Central Business District” – Aussie equivalent of “downtown”, or “The City”). There’s lots of young people filing out of the offices so I’m hopeful for a good night out. Hope soon fades when I discover the usual city problem. It’s not that people are unfriendly, they’re just not excited by meeting people from elsewhere because it’s nothing new.  The bars are more like English pubs than American bars, which means not many places have a line of bar stools, and the chance to sit with other individuals. I’m happy to find an Irish pub serving steak and guiness pie, and showing a rugby league match, but there’s nobody to talk to except the barman, who’s not very chatty, though he does give me a pair of socks.
Four hour’s time difference from Hawaii, so it’s early to bed and early to rise. I visited Sydney in 2003 and we climbed the bridge and sailed the harbour, so this time I want to tour the Opera House. I find a discount token in a guidebook, and remember to take it to the ticket office:
“Tickets are 29 dollars”
“A-ha! I have a 20 percent off token”
“OK with that the ticket is 28 dollars”
“The tickets are normally 35 dollars, they’re on special at 29 but you can’t double discount”
Bargain. Still the tour guide is another pretty Aussie girl and we start the tour by walking past some bloke with a horse. (Reading the paper the next day it turns out it was the winner of last year’s Melbourne cup, there to show off the trophy – yawn – and later joined by two former Miss Australias – D’oh!)
The tour’s not particularly revelatory, you can see most of the good stuff from outside, but the highlight is another element of chance. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra are practicing in the main concert hall and we’re allowed to sit in for 10 minutes and listen to them play. It’s fantastic to hear a full orchestra play without amplification in a silent hall and a shame they haven’t a show before I leave town.
My feet and legs have an aversion to standing still, and after an hour I’m in more pain than if I’d run for the same time so I hobble back to the hotel. After recovering I go for another wander around the CBD in search of a good pub. On the streets I find painted blokes playing didgeridoos, a trio singing daft songs like “it’s fun to dance with a kangaroo”, and a bloke giving a solo rendition on his sax, but no great sports bar.
I settle for an English pub and get Shepherds’ Pie. But it’s also English levels of service, so the barmaid doesn’t return to ask:
“How are you enjoying that pie, sweetie?”
I enjoy a chat with a charity worker in the street, and an older guy in the newsagent helps me get a map and gives me tips on my trip up the coast. But in the pubs nobody wants to talk to a strange English bloke on his own.
Time to hit the road.
I’ve got a Ford Falcon and in a shock move I’ve gone for the swanky G6E over the sporty XR6. It seems unlikely I’m growing up, but I did choose the comfy seat and ipod control over a “sporty” setup.  I’m heading for the Blue Mountains, but as I pass through Parramatta I can’t resist a stop-off at one of only three Hooters in Australia, though it’s too early to eat.
Disastrously, the crappy Aussie GPS doesn’t know anything about Hooters and I only know that it’s somewhere in Parramatta. I pull in to a petrol station to think what to do next when something orange catches the corner of my eye. Of all the petrol stations…
Another unlikely result is spoiled when I find they haven’t opened yet! Oh well, it’s not quite the same popping in for a coke.
On to the Blue mountains, but the weather’s terrible. August is mid winter, but it’s like a typical English day in April. 16 degrees C and wet, wet, wet. I arrive at the Three Sisters view point but thanks to the deep fog the only way to see them is to close my eyes and remember back 8 years. As I drive off Mark Knopfler sings:
“These mist covered mountains, are home now for me…”
I’m back amongst my road trip Nemesis: Trees. What little view they afford is blocked by the mist. But I’ve found a winding road, and enjoy spells without traffic. I’m amazed at the pace of an eighteen wheeler, and I only manage to pass him with the use of a hairy overtaking lane, snaking it’s way up a hill. The reason the lorry can keep up with me is that he doesn’t have to worry about encountering wildlife, as it won’t make a dent in his front end. So when I round a corner to find a kangaroo in the road I’m pleased to stop easily in time with no drama. However, as I watch it hop out of the road I wonder whether the truck driver has considered if a Ford Falcon will make a dent!!
In the forest I spy a roadside café and stop for a bite. There’s just one old codger in the place, and the two old ladies working there, so it seems odd that the TV is blaring out the equivalent of Cbeebies, with two shouty women in gaudy dresses singing songs about fairies. I decide to be very English and order tea and scones, and she agrees to bring the scones over. But she forgets when another customer returns his ham sandwich
“This has cheese in it, I’m  allergic to cheese, you could have killed me!” He says with a straight face.
I finish my tea with no scone in sight and have to remind the old dear, and acquire a free cuppa. Meanwhile the singing fairies are “doing my head in”. Thankfully, the scones are lovely.
Glad to escape the twilight café I drive on to Singleton. In the gathering gloom I don’t want to mess around with finding the best hotel so I pull up to the first one I see, and figure I’ll take a room, so long as it’s not over, say, 180 dollars.
“We’ve one room, and it’s 180 dollars” (I’m not making this up!)
I pull a sad face and put on my best puppy dog eyes.
“I can do it for 156”
At least the Aussies include tax, so that’s like 140 US. Not cheap, but at least there’s no more messing around today
“I’ll take it”
“OK. To get to the room, you have to drive back out to the street. Turn left. Across the roundabout. Turn right up George Street. Do a U-turn. Turn left. Unload here. Here’s the remote fob for the alarm. Then you can drive back round and park on George street.”
It’s a nice big apartment with a reclining sofa, and I’m in town so I can walk to the pub. But once again I’m stumped. There’s three pubs, but none of them have seats at the bar so I’m just pleased to find a Subway and return to my sofa, TV and blog.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Twenty Five - Ker Why Ee

I couldn’t find a direct flight from the Big Island to Kauai, the fourth and last Hawaiian island on my list. This wasn’t helped by Hawaiian airlines not accepting non-US credit cards. Through a third-party website I booked a flight to Oahu and another on to Kauai.
Big Island airport at Kona is impressively small, and I always enjoy walking out onto the tarmac to climb aboard a plane. Unwilling to join the scrum to sit in a chair that bit longer I managed to be the last person to board the plane. As we approached Honolulu airport the pilot announced that anyone continuing to Kauai on flight 313 should stay on-board.
That’s a new one on me, so I sat and watched as the other passengers deplaned one-by-one, until I was left alone as even the flight crew got off!
For about 20 minutes I had an entire Boeing 717 to myself. I was tempted to prance down the aisle, or sneak into the open cockpit, but I figured they’d be back any second and I’d end up in airline jail. So I sat and revelled in the stillness of a plane without the hubbub of a hundred passengers. I watched out of the window as my bag was separated from the others and put back in the hold, then I buried my head in my book. Soon, the moment passed and I was returned to the real world as people one-by-one invaded my space.
At Kauai airport in Lihue I collect rental car number nine. I manage to grab the last Mustang between a pair of Sebrings, check the roof works and drive to my hotel. For the first time in weeks I arrive at a hotel after dark. The Kauai Sands is in a scruffy looking side street and has an unappealing entrance, but then it is cheap. Unsure if Hawaii has rough areas I’m glad not to be driving a zip-up Jeep as I hit the lock button on the remote.
Nothing happens.
Try again - nope. OK, well, I can use the key for that, I just hope I can open the boot. Nope.
Eeurrgh. How many things do you have to check on a sodding rental car?! Worse still, they charge two hundred dollars for damage to the key fob. So if I put up with it for a few days will I get charged as well?!
But just as I’m getting annoyed I round the corner and discover that the rest of the hotel is quite nice. There’s a lawn with a pool in the centre, a reasonable reception and the Pacific Ocean washing up fifty feet away. I chat with the receptionist until she gives me the best room available and half an hour later I’m relaxing on my balcony with a Spicy Italian.
The beach is too soft to run on, and it’s chucking it down. But I’ve found KVIC, a local TV channel which loops a guide to the island. It must be three hours long and after a while I wonder if I need to leave the room, but the sun turns up and I’m off clockwise.
Kauai has only one major road, and it doesn’t quite join up to circumnavigate the island. This means everyone on the island seems to spend most of their day on the same road. Despite some rapid work from Alamo to swap my fob battery, it takes me an hour to get twenty miles down to the south coast, before the traffic eases and I can head North West to Waimea Canyon.
The guidebooks quote Mark Twain describing it as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, but that’s both an obvious description and quite misleading. I’d seen both canyons on TV before seeing them in real life. When I stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon I could hardly catch my breath. It’s overwhelming, so huge you can’t take it all in, nothing like you imagine from pictures. The Waimea canyon is far more colourful, the red dirt contrasting with the plush greenery and the black rocks. But at the same time, it looks like the pictures.
In fact, that’s my overall impression of Hawaii. It looks like the pictures.
The clouds are descending into the canyon, and my attempt to go for a hike is thwarted by the lack of a view other than billowing white. I head back out to the coast and reach the end of the road. In many senses.
After eighty four days in the USA, I’ve gone as far West as I can drive. I’ve met many interesting people, seen many incredible sights and had many wonderful times. With three days to go, I’m done. There’s no bars near where I’m staying, if there’s any on Kauai. The vast majority of holidaymakers are couples, so I’m unable to hang out and make friends in the evening. The next day I take a drive round the North of the island, but it’s one long busy road.
No road trips and no sports bars. A couple of restaurants promise “live music” but it’s just a fat bloke with a ukulele. I could sign up for an “activity” but I can’t be bothered joining honeymooning couples. It’s hot and humid, so I retire to the hotel pool for my last couple of days in the States.
Sipping a cool drink under the palm trees, with the warm sun on my back and the waves splashing onto the beach, I grumble to myself about how harsh life can be.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Twenty Four – The Longest Day

The chopper hovers thirty feet above the rim as the blazing volcano spits fire twenty feet into the sky. Bright red lava flows in a river down the mountainside and pours into the steaming ocean below. It’s incredible, it’s unbelievable, it’s …a video. I’m still standing in front of the concierge desk and Amanda the expedia rep is trying to talk me into the helicopter tour.
“After the earthquake that hit Japan a plug formed, blocking the top of the volcano. On Wednesday that plug fell in, and there’s now lava spewing out of the side. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see it”
“But my friends and the guidebook recommended I take the tour on Kauaui instead”
“Yes, but Kauai doesn’t have an active volcano and after the volcano you get to see the scenic valleys and waterfalls, just like Kauai. It’s so good at the moment that people are flying across from the other islands for the chance to see the lava flow and there’s only a couple of slots left.”
“What the hell. I’ll take the 2 hour flight”
But with a cheeky question from Amanda to the tour operator she gets me a free upgrade to the 3 hour tour including a valley landing, still at a discount to the 2 hour price, and says:
“You must have good Karma”
I don’t know about that, I’d settle for a good car. The Sebring’s brake pads are definitely on the way out, and the hard seats are uncomfortable as I head for the airport at oh crikey hundred the next morning.
Actually since this is 24 I should probably be writing:
Ker-chunk, Ker-chunk, Ker-chunk
The helicopter takes off and slews alarmingly to the left. We straighten and fly up the rise between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea (which roughly translate as Big Mountain and Frickin’ Big Mountain), passing observatories and weather stations. The pilots commentary is battling with the effect of air pressure on the eardrops in my dodgy ear, and the other earpiece ain’t working. A quick self-repair to my cans and I’m binaural, though the open talkback with the Hungarian family sharing the chopper makes me wonder if I’d have been better off breaking the good side.
The first 20 minutes is basically commuting to the good stuff, and the reason you need to book a long flight on the Big Island. But soon we’re approaching the Volcanoes National Park. Danny, our pilot, is happy to announce that the weather on this side of the island is clear, and we can already see smoke spewing from the Kilauea caldera, where I stood on the rim on Wednesday, cut off from the excitement down the road.
Black lava is oozing it’s way down the hill towards us. Rain clouds are forming in the distance over Hilo, America’s wettest city, but here we have a clear view of the eruption.
Except eruption is probably the wrong word. It’s more of an oozing. The crater is hundreds of feet wide, but the vent is more like tens of feet. It’s hard to get a sense of scale from several hundred feet in the air, but safety first means we can’t get closer. Mind you, we can feel the heat from this height, so perhaps melting the electronics at ten feet and crashing into a lava-field wouldn’t be too clever a way to go(but very cool!)
It’s only bright red at the very edges of the vent, we circle the giant crater, and see the black lava oozing away down the slope. Danny throws in some S turns, so we get a great view from every seat, and we stick around for several laps, dodging the other choppers full of gawping people, until it’s time to go and see some waterfalls.
This is 24, so first we fly past Jack’s house. A local nutcase has a house in between the lava fields. The roads have all been wiped out so he has to trudge in and out for supplies, and every eruption he prays to the Volcano gods for safety. I’m not sure if Danny is kidding when he says you can stay with Jack for a hundred bucks a night!
We fly on past the waterfalls of the East coast, where tourists flock for pictures, but Danny ain’t stoppin’.
“Pah! They’re only a coupl’a hundred feet tall”
So we admire the cliffs of the coastline, then tour the valleys to the north, which are inaccessible by road.
This is more like it. Danny takes the chopper into the valleys and fights the updrafts to hold her steady so we can capture the view. The waterfalls here are thousands of feet high. They fall from the tops of the cliffs to the valley floor, broken up by pools, carved into the cliff. Because this is one of the wettest places in the world the valleys are lush green. We’ve still got the weather gods on our side (maybe Jack had a word) and the waterfalls are glistening in the sunlight.
After touring a few valleys Danny takes us into the one we can land in. This will be the one with the football-field-sized landing strip at the bottom no doubt. But peering around all I can see is trees, a small hut and a river. Danny heads for the river. As we’re below a hundred feet a small rocky ledge emerges, Danny’s aiming for it. He has the chopper completely under control, and hovers incredibly slowly down the last few feet before touchdown.
We emerge from the chopper, there’s no need to worry about the tail rotor. Before you’d get to it you’d fall off the thirty foot drop to the river below. There’s a big rock six inches to the side of each runner, and we have to clamber down a slope to get round the front of the chopper. No wonder Danny brought it down slowly!
With the engine and rotors stopped, we’re in a tranquil valley. Inaccessible by anything but helicopter. Time for a picnic, and time to absorb the journey. I’m very glad Amanda got me on the landing tour.
We’ve 45 minutes in the valley but it feels like three. All too soon we’re taking off, whizzing above the cliffs and heading back to Kona – the sunniest city in the USA.
There’s 13 climactic regions in the world and the Big Island has 11 of them. (My fact’s are probably not spot on but they should be pretty close, and I’m not doing research on my holiday!) So as we fly out of the rainforest, we cross green fields, green hills and then there’s a visible line where the scenery changes to desert.
A quick tour of the posh resorts on the North West coast and we’re back at the airport. I’m a bit dazed. I don’t think I’ve blinked for three hours. Danny asked if it would count as one of the highlights of my trip and I paused.
“Well, it’s outside the top ten, but in the top twenty”
 It was an incredible sight, but that’s all it is. I want my senses to be overwhelmed. I want incredible sights with incredible sounds while being thrown around.
I want to drive down a twisty road through eye melting scenery in a fun car with my favourite music blasting.
So first the car:
Sebrings suck. How we managed 32 states in 23 days in 2004 in a Sebring I don’t know, though I do remember the back aches. So I was very happy when I exchanged my Sebring with the scrapey brakes for a Mustang.
Funny thing, a Mustang on Oahu, after the Camaro SS in Vegas, felt cheap and nasty. This Mustang felt wonderful, I dropped the roof, and I had my stash of CDs ready to go.
Now the road:
Amanda warned us about Saddle Road.
“Don’t drive it. 80 percent of all accidents in Hawaii happen on Saddle Road. It’s tight, twisty, and full of small bridges”
Sounds perfect!
My road trip buddy Craig came here on his honeymoon, and has always regretted not driving Saddle Road, just by it’s reputation. But the rental companies won’t insure you, with specific clauses forbidding driving up there.
Well, that didn’t stop me on Maui, but I read the agreement just to see what risk I was taking. Then I re-read it.
“Thou shalt not drive on unpaved roads.”
…was the only clause, no mention of saddles! I’ll drive to the edge of the pavement, then decide. Probably no fun taking a Mustang off-road anyway.
Half an hour up into the hills and I make the turn. It’s motoring Nirvana, just as described. Screw helicopters looking down from a thousand feet, safely in the hands of a guy paid to take no risks. This is where it’s at, scenery flying by, tunes blasting, sun shining, and my attention fully occupied in making sure I anticipate every sharp turn, blind crest, tight bridge, oncoming innocents, while allowing for that which can’t be anticipated: animals, mechanical failure, fly in the eye!
But suddenly it was all over. With only 5 miles done and 45 to go the fun stopped.
The road straightened out, and widened! Surely some mistake? But that was it. I continued across the island, over the “saddle” between the two aforementioned big mountains, to the soggy city on the other side, but the road was nothing to write home about (What do you mean most people don’t write home about roads?).
I think it’s a conspiracy. Saddle road is the quickest way across the island from Hilo, where the locals live, to Kona, where they work. I think they spread the scare stories to keep the traffic off the road they need to commute down.
I cruised onward up the North East side of the island, cut off from the coast by the secluded valleys, thankful to AC/DC for keeping me awake, sad to have my fun cut short. But the Big Island had an ace up its sleeve. The Kohala Mountain Road doesn’t carry a reputation for being dangerous, but it does for beauty. However the sign at the start warns of “17 miles of twisting mountain road with no shoulders”. Awesome.
A clear road and a clear view. Great bends and great scenery. The V8 bellowing as the Mustang and I climb into the sky, battling for aural supremacy against Brian Johnson repeating the refrain “Well give me highhhhhhhhh……”
Now that’s what it takes, to make the top ten!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Twenty Three – Grinding to a Halt

I’d only booked 4 days on Maui, as I was considering the cruise on the Pride Of America, but what I read online put me off. It’s the exact opposite of the QM2. The ship sails at night and spends every day moored off an island. So it doesn’t sound like a good way to see the islands, instead it’s a quick way to get around, and cheap – unless you’re a solo traveller, then they’ll charge you for two!
So I decide to give it a miss, and finish the week in Maui. Extending the hotel stay was only a question of rates – the manager said it was normally 240 a day(!), but she could offer me the “owner’s rate” of 148 a day. I’d found it for 121 a day online. The manager couldn’t offer that rate, but was happy for me to go back to my room, book online, and let her know so I could keep my room!
Meanwhile, Alamo had run out of cars, so I had to return their Jeep, then wander across to Avis and collect my new machine. Although I was pleased to have mastered the Jeep roof, I still wasn’t comfortable leaving my stuff in a tent on the high street so I figured I’d just get a runabout. (Like that was ever going to happen)
But for 5 bucks more than the crummy runabout I could get a “premium fullsize” car. So I ended up with a Chevy Malibu. I christened it “The Fridge” because it was big, white, and after the airy Jeep it felt like I’d been sealed inside! Typically American it was big and smooth, and wonderful to waft back to the hotel in comfort. It also had a decent stereo and I began to re-evaluate my car criteria – instead of “wow” to look at or drive, is it OK if it makes you say “Ahhhh”?
On Sunday morning I made another attempt at the ascent of Haleakala. (Pronounced Helly Ackerler) Again there was a lot of traffic trudging up the hill, but this time it was a sunny day and I could enjoy the view from my comfy seat. There were still clouds around the mountain, but as I climbed, I found myself above the clouds (…or “taken by the sky” as Stevie Nicks was singing) and the view was like looking out of an airplane.
The highest Alpine pass is 2810 metres, but this road tops out at 3030 metres, with a climb that starts at sea level! I was full of respect for the cyclists who were battling their way up, trying to pull oxygen out of thin air.
Haleakala is not a classic cone volcano, so there’s no distinct bowl to look into, (nowhere to hide your evil lair!) instead the entire far side of the mountain has been worn away by lava. It’s been extinct since 1738, but the result is still an incredible array of colours and textures. Well worth the climb.

As I descended I was beginning to feel a bit drained. Then I realised my mistake. After protecting myself so well in three convertibles, I’d left my bonce exposed in a saloon with a sunroof! By now I’ve got a decent tan, so I wasn’t burning, but with no hair up there it’s easy to get overheated and a touch of sunstroke. So I had to take it easy on Sunday and didn’t take up the invitation to re-join Gray and Danny at the bikers’ club.
Most of Monday was spent online. With the rest of my trip requiring flights and hotels I needed to spend a lot of time booking. It’s not easy cobbling together several weeks travelling whilst you’re on the road, but somehow I managed (Frequent breaks in the pool helped) – until I was rudely interrupted by the Tsunami alarm.
Er, should I be running for the hills? Is this a test?
Amazingly, I’d read the welcome pack so I knew where our meeting point was, but I don’t recall a test schedule. So I did what any normal person does in these situations… I looked to see what everyone else was doing. Of course, what they were doing was sitting with puzzled expressions, looking around to see what everyone else was doing. One guy got up and started wandering towards reception, then the sirens stopped. Phew. I found out four days later that the first of the month is test day – well, thanks for the warning guys!
Finally I’d booked practically the entire journey home, so I headed to another sports bar, but it was pretty quiet. The main entertainment was Wii Bowling, and the regulars were worryingly good at it.
Tuesday was time for leaving, on a jet plane, heading to Hawaii. Helpfully, in Hawaii, there’s an island called Hawaii, which is the biggest island in Hawaii, but not the most populated and doesn’t hold the capital, it’s known as “The Big Island”
Unhelpfully, it was cloudy and very grey as I picked up my convertible. However, if there’s one thing I learned from the Jeep encounter, it’s check the operation of the roof before you leave the rental place. But they’d given me a Sebring, not a Jeep – you just hold a button down, that can’t go wrong can it?
The roof stuck halfway!
So I called the “greeter” back over and he tutted:
“What have you done? That’s going to be expensive!”
I see we have a comedian. Just what you need after a flight. Lucky for him it was a short flight!
Turns out the previous renter had divided the trunk divider inappropriately, and Alamo hadn’t bothered to check, or clean it!
(At least they insured it. Other companies like Avis wait until you’re good to go, then announce that you’re liable for anything that happens to the car, up to its full value, and the insurance will be 30 bucks a day – a small price for peace of mind, they say. Oh yeah? How many people would pay ten grand a year car insurance? “But my credit card has Mastercover for that” will get you a scare story about how much hassle it will be. I usually say no, and I’m 540 dollars ahead of the fear peddlers on this trip, but we’ll see!)
I’m staying at the magnificent Keahou Beach Resort. It’s right over the water, with some incredibly important historic stuff next to it that I’m ignoring. I’ve an ocean view, and can watch the sun set from the bar each evening. The only thing missing is a damn beach!
Having resurrected my running in Maui, I’m disappointed to find all the beaches around here are about 50 yards long. Enough to snorkel from, but sod all use to a runner!
With a Big Island to explore it’s time for a mini road trip. Actually, with a lap of about 250 miles and lots of 30 mph zones it’s not so mini, but I am returning whence I started. There’s some great scenery across the island, then a “4 mile scenic drive” down into the soggy city of Hilo. Kona, on the West gets a bit of cloud in the afternoon, Hilo gets all the rain – that was lucky! Although Hilo does have a nice park to run in, d’oh!
Onwards to the Volcano National Park and I escape the crowds to find a lovely quiet spot, with a fantastic view across the moon-like crater of the Kilauea Caldera. This is an active volcano, with clouds of sulphur spewing into the air. Sitting their alone, staring at one of the great sights of the world, all I can think is… “meh” (an expression of abject ambivalence).
Maybe I’ve seen too much. Is there a limit to how much amazement you can take in? Eventually does the extraordinary just become, well, ordinary?
The volcanoes are particularly active today, a knock on from the earthquake that hit Japan months ago. Unfortunately the result is that a large part of the park is shut! Bloomin’ Health and Safety types spoiling our fun just to keep us alive.
As I complete the loop of the island I’m diverted around a forest fire, which rages against the road, and up to a beach where the sand is completely black.
“Meh. What do you expect at “black sand beach”?”
For several miles the road cuts through lava flows from years gone by. Acres of black countryside. It’s an incredible landscape, a reminder of the fleeting nature of human existence against the epic timescales of geological advances and… are we there yet?
The next day I do some more local exploring, and find a jogging track. I also find the Kona brewery, where they make the ubiquitous Island Lager “Longboard”. (They drink it on Five-0!). I’m missing the Great British Beer Festival for the first time in ten years so I have my own festival and acquire a Kona pint glass to fill the hole in my collection – hope it survives seven flights!
I hope I survive too as the car brakes are making a scraping, grinding sound as I head down the steep hill to the hotel.
I ate a Kona pizza (Hawaiian, of course) and  don’t need to eat for 18 hours so it’s a quiet night in, but I make it to the track for a dawn run.
Breakfast is like a Hitchcock movie. The predators circle us, waiting for a chance to swoop for the kill. A mother turns her back on a young girl and they seize their chance. In a flash it’s too late. The birds have ravaged her breakfast.
At first it’s charming, but it soon gets silly. The breakfast area is open to the elements, so you can appreciate the wonderful sea views, but the birds appreciate the free food more. Still, there’s plenty to go around!
After brekkie I’m invited to listen to the Expedia Rep peddle some boring tours. I’d rather explore for myself, but I toddle along and discover I’m wrong. Amanda’s very enthusiastic and knowledgable, and provides lots of handy tips, many I’ve learnt the hard way – like “don’t attempt to lap the island in one day”.
But despite her enthusiasm I’m struggling to summon up the desire to do anything. It’s a real effort to sign up for a helicopter flight tomorrow, despite her claims that right now the lava is as “amazing as you’ll ever see!” and “don’t wait ‘til Kauai”. I spend two hours in my room trying to have a decent skype chat with my friends Craig and Kat but once again we’ve technical problems. However, by the end we’ve solved the problems, and gone from not being able to complete a sentence, to being able to watch TV together, across half the world.
There’s something else I need to fix. My ear’s been driving me crazy. It started itching weeks ago, but I’ve been hoping it’d sort itself out. I know what it is, it’s just inflammation caused by staying damp at so many swimming pools, but the cure requires a prescription. All I need is a small bottle of drops, but it means finding a doctor, probably paying a fortune, then trying to claim it back. ..and how to get an appointment when you’re on the move?
But there’s an “urgent care facility” at the shopping centre, and for a mere 165 bucks and a 30 minute wait I get my prescription. The drops are a not astronomical 29.50 and I have the cure!
The car brakes still seem to be scraping so I arrange a swap at the airport after my chopper flight.
Tomorrow I can begin to fix my ear, get my sense of wonder back on the chopper ride, and get my car swapped. Maybe then I’ll stop grinding to a halt.