Hello 2013: Les Gets

This is the third in a series of four blog posts which ought to have been published during January 2013, but ran late because I didn’t want to publish any of them before the first one.

I barely spent any of January in the office at all, between my week working in London and the week directly after it, the latter of which I spent in the French Alps!

Les Bruyères; our chalet in the Alpine town of Les Gets.
Les Bruyères; our chalet in the Alpine town of Les Gets.

Ruth, JTA and I had opted to make the entire journey from Oxford to Les Gets by land, because there had (up until recently) been the real possibility that Ruth would be pregnant (and air travel is somewhat riskier for pregnant women). Secondary reasons included the fact that flying is really, really bad for the planet, and that JTA’s a fan of staying on Terra firma as far as he can.

Ruth validates our tickets as we prepare to change trains, at a French station.
Ruth validates our tickets as we prepare to change trains, at a French station.

There were good and bad aspects of this kind of travel. Bad parts included having to be at a park and ride bus terminus well before the sun rose, in order to begin a mammoth journey that would take most of the day, and frantic dashes across the labyrinthine Paris metro. But on the upside, we didn’t at any point have to take off our shoes and get herded through backscatter machines, plus the fact that nothing makes you feel cosmopolitan quite like standing in the bar car of a TGV, rocketing through the French countryside, while you sip on a glass of pinot and watch the world fly by.

Ruth joins Becky, Harriet, Owen and Cat at the chalet's dining table.
Ruth joins Becky, Harriet, Owen and Cat at the chalet’s dining table.

We arrived, and met with the rest of our team: Ruth’s brother Owen, his girlfriend Cat and his friend Danny, JTA’s sister Harriet (who’d come over on the train from Lyon, where she’s studying right now), and my sisters Sarah and Becky. We also met our chalet host Dan, who – over the course of the week – put up with a great deal from us (not least our dinnertime conversations about duck rape, racial stereotypes, sex toys, self-defecation, and worse) and still stood there with a smile as he served us the most spectacular meals imaginable.

Owen shows Becky what it means to be "Double Bubbled". She remains unimpressed.
Owen shows Becky what it means to be “Double Bubbled”. She remains unimpressed.

And that’s without even mentioning “Double Bubble”, a game that Owen and Cat invented which seems to involve pinning people and tickling them. They claim that it’s the cause of the jumping, yelping, and screaming sounds coming from their bedroom on an evening, but I’m not convinced.

Looking over the valley from the summit of Chamossiere.
Looking over the valley from the summit of Chamossiere.

My first impression of the slopes of the Les Gets-Morzine area were that they were a little heavily geared towards intermediate skiiers, with lots of blue and red runs criss-crossing the mountains around the bowl-shaped valley, but before long I’d found my way out to some of the aggressively-mogul-ridden and steeper black and red runs that found out towards the edges of the resort.

Harriet, tangled around herself and buried in a snowdrift.
As a new skier, Harriet spent an incredible amount of time buried in snowdrifts, laying on her back, or tangled around a tree. It’s all part of the learning process.

It was particular fun to get out skiing with Sarah again, for the first time in years, and to finally prove to myself something that I’ve suspected for a while: that while my skiing ability is close to peaking, Sarah’s still continuing to improve and is by now a better skiier than I am. As we hammered our way down some of the roughest, fastest runs we could find on the final day before she and Becky returned to the UK, she’d pull ahead and it would be everything I could muster to keep up and keep control.

Sarah, about to try to egg me on to try another series of challenging runs, just as I'm getting my breath back from the last ones.
Sarah, about to try to egg me on to try another series of challenging runs, just as I’m getting my breath back from the last ones.

I also enjoyed finally getting to ski with Ruth, something that we’d wanted to do together for almost five years (during which we’d both skied, just – for one reason or another – never together). She’s one of those weird skiers who genuinely prefers to ski without poles, which I’d often quiz her about during our periodic high-altitude beer breaks.

Following one of my first proper tumbles in years - and damn, it was a spectacular one, snowballing down black run "Yeti" when I took a corner too fast - Sarah snapped this picture.
Following one of my first proper tumbles in years – and damn, it was a spectacular one, snowballing down black run “Yeti” when I took a corner too fast – Sarah snapped this picture.

In the video below (or watch on YouTube), she falls over at about 1m 19s, in case you want to skip to that bit.

Our new snowsportspeople – Cat and Harriet on skis for the second and first times in their lives, and Danny on snowboard for the first time in his – took to their sports like fish to water. Or, at their worst, like fish to waterfalls. But by the end of the week, every single one of them had made far better progress than I could have possibly imagined.

I'm sure that the hot tub was only meant to seat five or six, but that didn't stop us all piling into it at the end of a day's snowsports.
I’m sure that the hot tub was only meant to seat five or six, but that didn’t stop us all piling into it at the end of a day’s snowsports.

We worked ourselves hard, and by the time we were back in our hot tub on an evening, with glasses of gin in our hands, we really felt like we’d earned them.

Watch this space: a full gallery of all of the photos taken on the trip will be made available soon. Sorry about the delay.

Edinburgh 2012 – Day Five

After our attempt at a relaxing day off, which resulted in us getting pretty-much soaked and exhausted, we returned on day five of our holiday to the comedy scene for more fun and laughter.

Ruth, JTA, Matt and Hannah-Mae outside the Canons' Gait.
Ruth, JTA, Matt and Hannah-Mae outside the Canons’ Gait. Do I win a prize for being the first Abnibber to publish a photo of Matt’s new girlfriend?

After failing to get into Richard Wiseman‘s Psychobabble, which attracted a huge queue long before we got to the venue, Ruth, JTA and I instead went to RomComCon: a two-woman show telling the story of how they road-tested all of the top romantic comedy “boy meets girl” cliché situations, to see if they actually worked in real life. It was sweet, even where it wasn’t funny, and it was confidently-performed, even where it wasn’t perfectly-scripted. The mixture of media (slides, video, audience participation, and good old-fashioned storytelling) was refreshing enough to help me overlook the sometimes-stilted jumps in dialogue. I’ll admit: I cried a little, but then I sometimes do that during actual RomComs, too. Although I did have to say “Well d’uh!” when the conclusion of the presentation was that to get into a great relationship, you have to be open and honest and willing to experiment and not to give up hope that you’ll find one. You know: the kinds of things I’ve been saying for years.

Ruth & JTA in the Voodoo Rooms, waiting for Owen Niblock's "Codemaker" to start.
Ruth & JTA in the Voodoo Rooms, waiting for Owen Niblock’s “Codemaker” to start.Ruth & JTA in the Voodoo Rooms, waiting for Owen Niblock’s “Codemaker” to start.

We met up with Matt and his new girlfriend, Hannah-Mae, who turns out to be a lovely, friendly, and dryly-sarcastic young woman who makes a wonderful match for our Matt. Then, after a drink together, parted ways to see different shows; promising to meet up again later in the day.

"Codemaker" Owen Niblock presents Google Image Search pictures that come up when the search engine is presented with a picture of his wife.
“Codemaker” Owen Niblock presents Google Image Search pictures that come up when the search engine is presented with a picture of his wife. The audience member who’s half-standing didn’t laugh throughout the entire performance: this might not have been the right show for him.

We watched Owen Niblock‘s Codemaker, and were pleased to discover that it was everything that Computer Programmer Extraordinaire (which we saw on day two) failed to be. Codemaker was genuinely geeky (Owen would put up code segments and then explain why they were interesting), funny (everything from the five-months-a-year beard story to his relationship Service Level Agreement with his wife was fabulously-crafted), and moving. In some ways I’m sad that he isn’t attracting a larger audience – we three represented about a quarter to a fifth of those in attendance, at the end – but on the other hand, his computer-centric humour (full of graphs and pictures of old computers) is rather niche and perhaps wouldn’t appeal to the mainstream. Highly recommended to the geeks among you, though!

Ruth discovers a police box and is inordinately excited.
Ruth discovers a police box on the way back to the flat and is inordinately excited. Apparently she’d somehow managed to never see one before.

Back at the flat, we drank gin and played Ca$h ‘n’ Gun$ with Matt and Hannah-Mae. JTA won three consecutive games, the jammy sod, despite the efforts of the rest of us (Matt or I with a hand grenade, Ruth or I as The Kid, or even Hannah-Mae once she had a gun in each hand), and all the way along every single time insisted that he was losing. Sneaky bugger.

Hannah-Mae, Matt, JTA and I with Richard Wiseman.
Hannah-Mae, Matt, JTA and I with Richard Wiseman. JTA was aware that a photo was going to be taken at some point, but was distracted by talking to another comedian, off-camera.

We all reconvened at the afternoon repeat of Richard Wiseman’s show, where he demonstrated (in a very fun and engaging way) a series of psychological, mathematical, and slight-of-hand tricks behind the “mind-reading” and illusion effects used by various professional entertainers. I’ve clearly studied this stuff far too much, because I didn’t end up learning anything new, but I did enjoy his patter and the way he makes his material interesting, and it’s well-worth a look. Later, Ruth and I would try to develop a mathematical formula for the smallest possible sum totals possible for integer magic squares of a given order (Wiseman’s final trick involved the high-speed construction of a perfect magic square to a sum total provided by a member of the audience: a simple problem: if anybody wants me to demonstrate how it’s done, it’s quite fun).

Thom Tuck wants to be where the people are. He wants to see... wants to see them, dancing.
Thom Tuck wants to be where the people are. He wants to see… wants to see them, dancing. Walking around on those… what’s what word again? Seriously: what’s that word again?

Finally, we all went to see Thom Tuck again. Matt, JTA and I had seen him earlier in the week, but we’d insisted that Hannah-Mae and Ruth get the chance to see his fantastic show, too (as well as giving ourselves an excuse to see it again ourselves, of course). He wasn’t quite so impressive the second time around, but it was great to see that his knowledge of straight-to-DVD Disney movies really is just-about as encyclopaedic as he claims, when we gave us new material we hadn’t heard on his previous show (and omitted some that we had), as well as adapting to suggestions of films shouted out by the audience. Straight-To-DVD remains for me a chilling and hilarious show and perhaps the most-enjoyable thing I’ve ever seen on the Fringe.

Edinburgh 2012 – Day Three

On the third day of our Edinburgh Fringe Festival Holiday, Ruth, JTA and I… saw more Free Fringe comedy. Are you spotting a theme, here?

Matt R with Helen Arney of Domestic Science, explaining why he's drawn a silicon lattice onto an iced bun.
Matt R with Helen Arney of Domestic Science, explaining why he’s drawn a silicon lattice onto an iced bun.

First up was Domestic Science, with “real life – for now – partners” Helen Arney and Rob Wells. This pair brought science to life, opening by re-enacting an event from one of their first dates when they discovered that turmeric contains curcumin, a pH indicator, and demonstrating how this can be used (by first dying noodles with turmeric, and then dipping them into acidic and alkaline solutions to observe their colour change). Later, they’d go on to perform audience-participation demonstrations of gravitational wobbles (as a mechanism to detect extrasolar planets), AM radiowave reflection off the ionosphere, and more. They also used us as a live experiment, having us listen to jokes written by comedians of different genders (but recorded in both male and female voices) and rate them, in order to see if the gender can be determined by the listener. All in all, a really enjoyable first show for the day.

Helen Arney retweets my message "New day, new #EdFringe shows. Starting with @DomesticScience. Looks like there'll be a test at the end", adding "Congrats! You passed!"
Helen’s response to my tweet that there must be going to be a test, after finding a sheet of paper with numbers on it, on my seat (it later turned out to be for the engendered-joke study).

Ruth and I took our lunch in David Bann’s vegetarian restaurant, here in Edinburgh, which was delicious, although I probably should have stopped at two courses and not also had desert, as I then spent most of the afternoon waddling around like a fat penguin. I can particularly recommend the aubergine, chick pea and cashew koftas.

David Bann, Edinburgh.
David Bann, Edinburgh.

Next up, we went to see Yianni‘s new show, Numb and Number. We’d first seen Yianni in 2006 (we had him take a photo of us with Peter Buckley Hill), and he was even more brilliant now than he  was back then. In this new show, he talks about autism, numbers, and rainbows, in exactly the right order (any other order would be wrong, right?). Poor JTA was picked on and tricked into coming across as racist, but in the most hilarious possible way.

Matt R and JTA enjoy a quick after-dinner whisky, before it's time to go out for more comedy.
Matt R and JTA enjoy a quick after-dinner whisky, before it’s time to go out for more comedy.

You might remember that yesterday, Matt was invited on stage to separate currency for magicians Young & Strange? Well: coincidentally, Yianni asked Matt what was significant about the sum £88.88, and quick as a flash Matt responded that it was the sum of all of the denominations of currency (1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1, £2, £5, £10, £20, £50). He denies it, but I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t have been able to pull off this trick if he hadn’t have been reminded of this just the previous day.

We retreated to the flat for a haggis dinner and a round of whisky before heading out again. My stomach was already bloated from my huge lunch, and I’m not sure that a large dinner really agreed with it: I almost required help to roll me up the street to the next show.

Phill Jupitus leaps around in front of JTA.
Phill Jupitus leaps around in front of JTA. Unfortunately, my camera wasn’t quick enough to catch him in the dim light of the Canon’s Gait basement, so you’ll probably have to take my word for it that it’s him.

We finished our day with Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians, still probably our go-to Free Fringe show. This evening, his line-up featured Phill Jupitus of Never Mind The Buzzcocks fame, who talked about the week that he met a Beatle and two Rolling Stones, leaving the audience laughing themselves to tears. Also in the line-up was Wil Hodgson, a heavily-tattooed former wrestler with a shaved head, who talked mostly about his hobbies of collecting My Little Pony toys. He won JTA over, I think, when he finished his set shouting “Fuck Laughing Horse!”

And then, at last, it was time for bed.

Edinburgh 2012 – Day One (was: On The Fringe)

As I indicated when I made a map of Free Fringe venues the other week: Ruth, JTA and I are this week back in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival.

JTA and I on Preston train station (platform 4), waiting for the train to Edinburgh.
JTA and I on Preston train station (platform 4), waiting for the train to Edinburgh. We drove as far as Preston, briefly visited my family, and then took the train the rest of the way, in an example of perhaps the most-eccentric “Park & Ride” concept ever.

This is the first time we’ve been up here together since 2007, a year in which we watched a lot less comedy than we’d intended but did end up coming home and having to explain that somewhere along the way that Ruth, JTA, Claire and I had transformed from two couples into four couples in a complicated but fun polyamorous way. Later, I compiled some of the reactions we’d had to that news, in case you’re feeling nostalgic and want to see.

The flat we're renting towers above most of the surrounding buildings.
The flat we’re renting towers above most of the surrounding buildings. It’s reasonably quiet for its very-central location, but it makes up for this by having a narrow spiral staircase and no elevator…

Wasting no time, we arrived, hooked up with Matt R (who’s also up here for the Fringe), and went off to our first show: Peter Buckley Hill, of course, with his new the repeat of his 1994 show, titled “It’s Shite, Not Sh*te”. Buckers was on form again, of course, and we laughed and sang along with all of his classic shite.

Matt, JTA and Ruth in the front row at a Peter Buckley Hill show.
Matt, JTA and Ruth in the front row at a Peter Buckley Hill show (although, admittedly, not the one that I just mentioned but one in which the photo came out better…).

Later, Matt and I caught Tesco Chainsaw Massacre, a comedy piece billed as “spoken word”, which had some funny and clever ideas but could perhaps do with a little refinement, and a remarkably wonderful queer performance poet named Sophia Blackwell, from whom I later bought two books.

A quick booze-up break back at the flat.
A quick booze-up break back at the flat, and then we’re on the move once more…

We were rejoined by JTA for Thom Tuck‘s Free Fringe show, Straight To DVD. This… was simply spectacular. Perhaps the best show I’ve ever seen at the Edinburgh Fringe, Thom’s encyclopaedic analysis of straight-to-DVD Disney movies (interspersed with tales of his sad and tragic love life) is one of the best things that I’ve ever seen at the Fringe.

So yeah: that was Day One for us at the Edinburgh Fringe. An epic start to the holiday.

Edinburgh Free Fringe 2012 Venue Map

After a few years break, I’m once again heading up to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival. As on previous ocassions, I expect to spend a lot of time enjoying Peter Buckley Hill‘s Free Fringe, which is just about the best thing to happen to the Fringe ever. And this time, I’m going to be better-prepared than ever. I’ve made a map.

Map of the 2012 Free Fringe.
You can be better-prepared, too, because my PBH Edinburgh Free Fringe Map 2012 is here for you, as well.

Sharing is caring, so I’ve made the map available to you, too. Click on the picture to see the map. Because it’s in Google Maps it ought to work on your mobile phone. If you’ve got GPS then you can get lost in Edinburgh in high-tech ways you never before thought possible. Click on any given venue for a web address where you can find a list of events that are occurring at that venue.

Or if you’re really nerdy, you can download the KML and go geocaching-for-comedy. Just me? Okay then…

Update: you can now view the map on the frontpage of the Free Fringe website, too.

Touring Scotland

While JTA was off breaking parts of his body (and showing off his injuries on Reddit) with Ruth on the second part of their honeymoon, the week before last, I too took some time off work in order to have a bit of a holiday. I’d originally hoped to get some cheap domestic skiing in, but the weather forecast showed that Scotland was going to consist of exactly two weather conditions, depending on where you were:

  • Snowy, but with 55mph winds.
  • Not snowy.
Scotland. Snowy, but with 55mph winds. It looks like this.

This kind-of put a dampener on my plans to get some snowsports done, but I’d already taken the time off work so I re-arranged my plans into a “make it up as you go along” tour of the highlands and lowlands of Scotland.

Highlights of my little tour included:

  • Renting an almost brand-new car, and – by the time I returned it – being responsible for more than half the miles on the odometer.
  • Visiting my family both on the way up and the way down – my dad injured his back while cycling around Italy this winter, and had originally hoped to join me in Scotland (perhaps to get some more training in for his upcoming trek to the North Pole). He couldn’t, as he was still recovering, but it was nice to drop by.
  • Being virtually the only guest at each of Glen Nevis and Glencoe youth hostels; getting an entire dormitory to myself at each.
Ben Nevis. It looks slightly less-hostile here than it did on the day of my ascent.
  • Exhilarating but exhausting trek up Ben Nevis. The freezing conditions, plus the incredible wind, meant that I spent the Tower Ridge stretch clinging to a steep ice slope against the push of a gale-force blizzard. Spectacular.
  • Ice climbing at Ice Factor. I’ve never done ice climbing before (y’know – scaling a glacier with crampons and ice axes), and it was spectacular. Also, very tiring, especially after just coming down off Ben Nevis a couple of hours earlier. I was pleased that not all of the rock climbing experience I’d had, over 15 years ago, was completely forgotten, and my stamina – if not my flexibility – was better than I expected.
A climber fights to free his axe from the wall.
  • Veggie haggis, tatties, neeps, and a dram of whisky on Burns Night, drying myself off by the open fire in a wonderful little pub.
  • A reasonably-gentle walk along the lochside at Fort William, in order to allow my knee – which I banged swinging into a wall of ice – to recover a litle.
  • Visiting the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. Did you know that the wheel is apparently so efficient that it costs only £10 a day in electricity to run it?
The Falkirk Wheel. Photo by Sean Mack.
  • Live comedy and music in Edinburgh. Also, meeting fabulous strangers and hanging out with them drinking whisky and singing along to bawdy Scottish folk songs until past midnight.
  • Returning to Edinburgh Central Youth Hostel to find it full of Spanish sports fans. Sharing pizza with them, and conversations in broken English.
  • Visiting the Wallace Monument and learning all of the bits of 13th Century Scottish history that they don’t teach you in Braveheart. It’s far cooler, yet much much bloodier, than you’d be made to believe.
The Wallace Monument, photographed by Finlay McWalter.
  • Geocache-maintenance expedition with Kit, along with the opportunity to dress up in invisibility jackets and hang about near roundabouts and road signs.
  • Chinese buffet with Kit & Fi, two of my favourite people to go to a Chinese buffet with. Surprisingly impressive selection of veggie-friendly foods, which is something I look for, these days.

All in all, a delightful little tour, particularly impressive considering that it was launched into with the minimum possible amount of planning.

Cinco de Mayo

This week included the Cinco de Mayo, the anniversary of the overwhelming (and surprising) Mexican victory over a superior French force at the Battle of Puebla, but used mostly as an excuse for Mexican expatriates and non-Mexicans to celebrate Mexican culture. And food. Mostly food.

To mark the occasion, one of my favourite restaurants, The Mission in Oxford, announced that they were giving away free beer to customers, and your next burrito free if you came along dressed as a Mexican. The Mission already wins my favour by making the best burritos I’ve ever tasted; giving me an excuse to dress up and get free beer and more burritos is just a bonus!

Dan with Ruth and JTA at The Mission.

We’d had a long, long day already. After work, I’d mostly been doing administrative work with helpline Oxford Friend, with whom I’m a volunteer. Ruth and JTA had perhaps been even busier, as they’d spent the evening working on the Yes to AV telephone lines, making sure that everybody who had pledged to vote was out and doing so. We all really felt like we’d earned our burritos. So we donned our ponchos and (in my case) my sombrero, and went to The Mission.

I learned two things:

  1. The Mission remains awesome. If you’re looking for food in Oxford, I highly recommend them. And no, they’re not paying me to say this.
  2. It’s really, really hard to cycle while wearing a sombrero. Those things catch the wind like nothing else, and unless you enjoy riding along with what feels like a kite tied to your neck (and that’s if you’re lucky enough that the neck string catches you; otherwise your hat flies off into traffic and you have to run after it, yelling and screaming), cycling while wearing one is not  a good combination.

We brought home a takeaway for Paul, too, which I suspect was his second burrito of the day. Seriously: nobody celebrates Cinco de Mayo like Paul does.

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

This repost was published in hindsight, on 12 March 2019.

Ruth wrote:

Since I last posted, I’ve been fairly busy, one way and another. First, Dan and I travelled up to Preston where I was forced to allow that it isn’t a complete pit after all because it does have a couple of nice bits (viz, a pretty park by the river and a nice museum/library with a ball on a really long bit of string in the lobby).

We also visited Blackpool, which was a new experience for me. Incidentally, the entertainment value of eating giant eclairs and then riding on a waltzer is limited. I kicked Dan’s arse at crazy golf, on a really nice course with astro-turf and little streams.

Later, we travelled up to Scotland with some crazed, drunken bus company employees (they were an ok bunch apart from their habit of getting up at 5am) to canoe the Caledonian canal. I managed the 18 mile first day, got out of our boat and found that my RSI had flared up and I couldn’t move my arms at all. Dan sympathetically fell about with laughter, but on the third day (Fort Augustus to Drumnadrochit) the winds on Loch Ness were so bad that he and the other canoeists were forced off the water so we both finished up walking the Great Glen Way to Inverness.

On the way back down, the planets were aligned correctly (or something) so we were able to do the surprise thing that Dan had been planning for ages as my graduation treat. We got up at 5.30 and drove out to a deserted farm shop on the outskirts of Preston, where we sat in a car park for 10 minutes or so before a battered landrover emblazoned with “Pendle Balloon Company” arrived towing a large basket on a trailer. I was surprised.

Ballooning was amazing. First, we got to help put the balloon up (which was really cool). The inside is full of wires and cables which are used to control it in various ways. We went up to 5500 feet before coming back down so we could get a better view of the countryside. It was cold at that height but there was barely a breath of wind for reasons which I am sure you can all figure out by yourselves (I felt colder when we eventually touched down and could feel the breeze again). The views were stunning, the gentleness of the flight was quite something, and I had a great time. When it was over, we drank champagne with the pilot and other passengers (which is apparently a ballooning tradition, although I don’t know whether the plastic beakers are traditional or not).

It was a good trip. Knackering, and full of unexpected events, but highly enjoyable. Now I’m settling in for a summer of alternating basking in the sunshine with working like buggery on voluntary projects. All I need is a part time job so I can carry on eating and paying the rent, and I’m set.

Scotland Etc.

A quick summary of a holiday (and a series of associated trips on the side) that Ruth and I took a fortnight ago (yeah; I’ve been busy). Ruth has already written a little about the trip. I’d hoped to blog “on the move”, but a combination of low signal and low energy after a day of paddling made this pretty much impossible, so here’s the “grand catch-up”:

Wednesday 27th May

Ruth and I travelled to Shropshire to visit Ruth’s grandma in hospital, but it turned out that she’d been discharged about an hour before we arrived, so we briefly visited her at home.

Then we drove on, up to Preston.

In the evening, we played Chocolate Teapot with my family. I haven’t written about Chocolate Teapot on here yet, but the short summary is that it’s a “light” board game I’ve put together in the style of Apples to Apples meets Chrononauts… meets Dragons’ Den. So far, folks seem to like it, although I’m still ironing out a few kinks in the rules.

Thursday 28th May

This morning, we were supposed to do something special I’d had planned to commemorate the occasion of Ruth finishing her final exam, but we weren’t able to on account of the weather. I’d kept secret from Ruth what it is we were eventually to do, and the tension of not knowing (she’s not good at surprises) was very obviously boggling her poor little mind by now.

Instead, we went to Blackpool, rode a few rides (and felt ill thanks to eating a huge chocolate éclair each and then riding on the waltzer on the Central Pier), and played adventure golf, which Ruth won by a significant margin. And then ate fish & chips, because that’s what one does in Blackpool.

Got tied up with some stuff in East Lancashire early in the evening and missed our chance to get to see Pagan Wanderer Lu on his weekend mini-tour. Damn.

Ate far too much Chinese food at an all-you-can-eat buffet and gave myself nasty indigestion.

Friday 29th May

Did things in Preston, like buying lots of really really cheap clothes to wear for the remainder of the trip while paddling around in Scotland.

Saturday 30th May

Travelled up to Gretna Green with my dad and Ruth. Left the car at the services there and transferred to a coach full of Go North East employees. Travelled up to Fort William, in the centre of the Nevis mountain range and close to the Great Glen Way and the Caledonian Canal.

Despite it by now being late in the afternoon, my dad suggested we walk up Ben Nevis, so Ruth and I – joined by two others: John (fellow canoeist) and Dave (the bus driver, although – that said – about half of the folks on the trip were bus drivers) – followed my dad up the mountain. Dave, who’d apparently never climbed a mountain before, made it about 200 feet up before he had to give up. Ruth and I got to about 3200ft before we realised that we hadn’t actually eaten since breakfast and had to turn around and get some food, and only my dad and John made it the extra thousand feet or so to the summit, keeping a spectacular pace going as they did.

There’s photos from Ben Nevis here.

Sunday 31st May

This was our first day in canoes. Ruth and I took one, John and my dad took a second, and the third was taken by a pair of the bus drivers, Yvonne and Claire. We were to paddle our way up to Inverness, towards the North Sea, over four days. The remainder of the group were to walk the Great Glen Way – about 13 miles longer, and – of course – hillier, but at least they’d be powered by their legs and not their arms!

The first day was the hardest. It was the longest, which made an impact, but it was also the hottest. I’d not planned for this kind of heat (I’d thought – hey, Scotland, that’ll be a few degrees colder than Aberystwyth, but it turned out that Northern Scotland was in the middle of some kind of unseasonal heatwave): my case held lots of long sleeves and not enough pairs of shorts! Out on the lochs and canals, there’s no shade, and on our first day’s paddling, there wasn’t any breeze either. Combine that with 17 miles of rowing, and you’ve got a recipe for exhaustion.

Ruth overdid it somewhat, and triggered a relapse of her RSI, and she wasn’t able to carry on rowing for the rest of the trip: instead, she joined the walkers group, and a walker called Martin took her place in my canoe.

Among the many canoeing photos I took, there’s a very cute one of Ruth with one of the walkers helping her to drink a glass of lemonade because her arms were too broken to lift the glass for herself.

Monday 1st June

The second day’s canoeing was a lot shorter, and a lot easier. Martin and I – after a little bit of weaving around the canal and failing to paddle in a straight line – found a great synchronisation and made a great rowing team. We easily led the other two canoes for most of the remainder of the journey.

On this, the second day, we even beat the walkers along the first half of the route, meeting them part way for lunch on a pebble beach alongside Loch Oich.

One of the hardest bits of canoeing the Caledonian Canal is that British Waterways no longer allow canoes to use the lock gates (there’s a concern that if your boat tipped over you could be sucked into a sluice gate and held underwater for quite a lot longer than most people can hold their breath for). So we had to pull ashore, lift the boat out, and carry it up or down each hill. Walking rather than rowing gave our arms a rest, at least, but it’s not easy to lift your boat, your day bag, and your oars and then carry them up a hill.

Tuesday 2nd June

On Tuesday, we were supposed to cover the first half of Loch Ness. At Fort Augustus, we got into the River Ness (it was easier to get the boats than the canal would have been, from the back garden of the building we’d kept them at), and appreciated for awhile the current helping us along a little. We passed the smallest lighthouse in the world and headed out onto the Loch.

The wind had picked up, and it was choppy on the Loch. Paddling over waves and against the wind was more challenging than what we  were used to, and the six of us adopted a tight formation in order to keep an eye on one another in case we got into any trouble. We hugged the shore to avoid the worst of the wind, and took an early break at the bottom of the garden of a waterfront house, where we ate our morning energy snacks.

The wind felt okay in the bay we’d sat in, but as soon as we got back out onto the Loch, we could feel the wind: it was getting stronger. Paddling was very hard, and Martin and I redoubled our pace several times. It felt like we were making great time – a hard wind in your face and an ache in your arms will give you the illusion of speed – but when we pulled over and took a break, we looked at the map and realised that we had travelled about half a mile in the last hour. At this rate, we’d barely reach the next Youth Hostel in time for breakfast… the following day.

We pressed on, and stopped again and I looked up the shipping forecast on my phone. The wind was due to get worse still, with gusts of up to 25 miles per hour. We were already at a point at which we spent almost as much time going backwards that forwards, and turning sideways to the current resulted in the boats rocking alarmingly and very quickly filling with water, so we ran them aground, dragged them ashore into a building site, and called for backup to come and pick them up.

The building site turned out to belong to a chap who I’ll hereafter refer to as The Friendliest Man In Scotland, who was quite unsympathetic to the idea of us sitting around and waiting for rescue from the backup vehicle, and shouted and swore and threatened legal action quite a lot. While we waited for the rescue vehicle, I used my phone to find XSS vulnerabilities in his website. You know, like this one.

After we’d got rid of the canoes, we raced to try to catch up with the walkers, who were a couple of hours ahead, finally reaching them a little while after they’d reached the cabins in which we’d be spending our next night. It was disappointing to not be able to canoe the rest of the distance, but it really wouldn’t have been possible to go any further this day, and the weather forecase didn’t look any better for the day after (it turned out to be wrong, but we didn’t know that when we had the canoes returned to their owner).

Wednesday 3rd June

And so we canoeists joined the walkers for the very last day of the Scottish trip. The walk was long and arduous, and Ruth and I probably ought to have set off earlier, because we were right at the back of the group when we entered Inverness, and we actually had to cheat and catch a bus for the final mile in order to not keep them waiting at Inverness Castle for any longer than we already had.

In summary, canoeing across Scotland was… exhausting. Even (and perhaps especially) for the bits that we weren’t actually in canoes. But it was also a great opportunity to see that beautiful country from a new angle – from water level, looking up at the Munroes and along at the Lochs. It could be beautifully still and calm out in the middle of the bigger lochs, and it was great to just stop and sip some water and take in quite how magestic the mountains of Scotland actually are.

At Inverness, we took victory photos (here they are), had a quick McDonalds meal, and got back on the coach to Gretna, then drove back down to Preston.

Thursday 4th June

On Thursday morning, we finally managed to do the thing we’d tried to do the previous week… weather conditions were at last favourable for: a trip in a hot air balloon (thanks, Pendle Balloon Company)!

Ruth was suitably surprised.

The whole experience was a lot of fun, and everybody present got roped in to helping lay out the balloon, inflate it with cold air, check and disentangle the control lines (and all the same stuff again but in reverse at the opposite end).

It’s amazing quite how gentle a balloon take-off is. While the pilot fired the (hot!) burners in a full burn ready for takeoff, I glanced out of the side of the basket and down at the ground… and realised it was slowly moving along underneath us – we were airborne, and I hadn’t even noticed!

We sailed around at 3,500-5,500 feet for awhile, looking down over mid-Lancashire. We got a great view of Houghton Tower, where I’ve been to their annual open air classical concert a number of times (including some I didn’t manage to blog about). Ruth geeked out about different kinds of road junctions and their comparative space/throughput efficiency trade-offs. We came in low over fields of cows and horses and confused the livestock as they trotted towards the barns for their morning feed.

And after an hour of sailing around, we bumped down into a field (which happened to double as a microlite runway, which was convenient) and all helped to pack the balloon away. And it was awesome.

There’s photos from this, too: here they are.

Afterwards

Finally (after a celebratory friend breakfast at a restaurant near where the balloon launched from), we hit the road and got ourselves back to Aberystwyth. It’d been a busy, exhausting, but fun week.

And The Rest Of Bulgaria

Oh yeah, suppose I ought to finish writing about Bulgaria now that we’ve been back a couple of days.

MORE SKIING: Aced The Wall in the end, and damn it’s a good run – long and fast and challenging, even when you think you know it. Coming back up on the chairlift I met a couple of Irish blokes (the Irish seemed to be the most-represented nationality on the ski slopes; not sure why), who – as the fog of the final day began to white-out the mountain top – pointed down at The Wall and said that you’d have to be a nutcase to go down it right now. So I pointed out that I’d just come off it, and was on my way back to it again.

SKIDOOS: Damn, these things are fun. Imagine a motorcycle but on skis, ripping along hard-packed ice in the middle of the night at 70km/h, guided only by a drunk Bulgarian. On or off road, Skidoos are brilliant. When the next ice age comes, I’m getting one to do my shopping in.

KARAOKE: On our final night, we went out and (alongside some Irish blokes we met) made complete idiots of ourselves at the local karaoke night.

I’ll upload pictures from the holiday at some point. For now, here’s a video of my dad singing Dancing Queen at the Karaoke night.

So yeah; Bulgaria was fun.

News From The Slopes

Fresh from the slopes, over GPRS (at charging rates starting at “two limbs”), comes this report from the Bulgarian Holiday Team (Claire and I, along with my dad and my sisters).

JOURNEY: Uneventful, but tedious – three and a bit hours on a plane followed by a five hour bus journey is pretty mind-numbing, although we did get a break at a Bulgarian McDonalds (complete with hilarious Cyrillic lettering on the sign – picture to follow [I don’t have enough arms and legs to pay to upload it]).

ACCOMODATION: Remarkably nice hotel: infinitely superior to our usual stay at Aviemore Youth Hostel for Cairngorm skiing, but with a predictably scary price tag to go with it.

FOOD: Every meal seems to contain egg and/or pork. Are these the national foodstuffs? Scrambled egg with bacon in is an obvious breakfast combination. Eggy bread laced with ham was less expected, and quite a suprise to bite into. Stuffed peppers very nice. Cured sausages not bad either.

SKIING: Generally good conditions – some partially broken runs (by Bulgarian standards – in Scotland we’d call them “perfectly usable”) this morning because the weather report predicted snow for two days so they haven’t turned on the snow-blowers, but no snow’s been forthcoming. Here in Pamporovo there’s a lot for beginners (one entirely green run is almost 4km long!) and some nice challenges for advanced skiers (I’m particularly enjoying some of the red and black runs on the West face of the mountain), but fewer options for intermediate-level skiers. Not as large a resort as Mt. Tremblant in Canada, where I was a few years ago, but still far more than Cairngorm or The Lecht offer us on our traditional trips to Scotland. Of particular note is The Wall, a black run that’s so-called because it’s quite steep. Here’s an example for those of you at home: stand up – pretend you’re on a ski slope that stretches down to your right and up to your left (so you’re “sideways” on it). Now stretch out your left arm to your side. If you were on The Wall, your hand would be touching snow. Well, a wall of ice, really. It’s a beast, and I love it.

ACCIDENTS: This is what you were really reading for, isn’t it – to find out who’s had a horrible accident so far. Well, here’s some of the best:

1. On my first attempt at The Wall, I took a turn a little sharply and flipped over. And began to slide. On my belly. Head first. Now I’ve been in this position before – it’s a natural state for a skier who’s just pushed themselves a little too far. So a started working on stopping myself all the ways I knew how, but after about 10 seconds of accelerating I came to the realisation that there was genuinely nothing I could do to stop this slide, and instead positioned myself in the best way possible to minimise the risk of damage. Eventually I ran onto the next ski run (still belly-sliding at about 40mph) and was able to regain my balance and right myself. No injuries except my pride and some friction burns, but this hundred-metre ride – well, FALL – is easily the most fun I’ve had here so far.

2. A few seconds later, I was hit by a runaway ski. My sister, Sarah, had a similar slip but had been able to keep her balance at the sacrifice of half her equipment, and had to sledge the remainder of The Wall on her other ski.

3. Claire panics when she sees a cliff some 10 feet away and swerves into a tree, with no serious injuries. Photos to follow. Everybody starts making jokes about Claire loving trees, which become even funnier when…

4. Owing to out-of-date maps and a bit of bad guesswork on my part, Claire found herself on a short run somewhat above her capabilities. And, realising that snowploughing wasn’t enough to bring her to a halt, sped up (because THAT’s a sensible alternative)… right into a tree. She caused herself a mild concussion (earning herself a day in bed) and a series of nasty-looking cuts and grazes across her neck.

BOOZE: It’s been hard to find drinking establishments that don’t charge excessive touristy rates, but now we’ve found a few I’ve been trying out the local beers. Zagorka is great, and Kamenitza is pretty good too. Vodka’s cheap, and a “small” vodka is 50ml (what we in the UK would call a “double”). It makes me wonder what a medium or even a large is – a quadruple or sextuple, presumably. It’s also hard to persuade bar staff to provide mixers – the pervading attitude seems to be that vodka should be drunk neat.

RINGOS: While Claire was bed-bound, the rest of us went ringo-ing. We’d done it before in Canada – sitting in a rubber ring and sliding down a ski slope – but it’s still good fun and a fabulous violation of health and safety law. By the end, my sisters and I were strapping our ringos together and spinning our way into the walls that marked the edge of the slope.

COMING SOON: Later this week – Skidoos? Snowboarding? Pub crawl around Pamporovo? As usual, you’ll read it here first (if I can be bothered).

Photos From Malawi

[this post was lost during a server failure on Sunday 11th July 2004]

[an image in this post was recovered on Thursday 30th December 2004]

Here’s some photos of my trip to Malawi, as the group have now started uploading photos to me at last!


Dan looks down on Lake Malawi.


Dan on the descent.


Two baboons, at Vwasa National Park.


Livingstonia Hospital: This woman and her baby have both been diagnosed with AIDS
Thanks to ARVs, the woman’s condition is improving. Her baby cannot be treated and will die.


Beautiful waterfall, on a river running from Livingstonia to Lake Malawi.

Will post more when I can be bothered. Meanwhile, photos are continuously being uploaded to Scatmania’s Malawi Album [update: link killed 2006]