Sunday, December 11, 2016

Some nature pics

Eve and I recently did a little tour of the South Island.  I haven't even gone through all the photos, much less write up the trip.  When transferring pictures from the camera to the computer I spotted these:

This tui has been feeding on flax nectar.  You can see pollen on its head and beak.

A red damselfly (Xanthocnemis zealandica)

NZ's other common damselfly (Austrolestes colensonis) is blue or green (female).  This male is particularly well focussed.  If you enlarge the picture you can almost count the cells of its compound eyes.

A wild flower near Fox Glacier.  We don't know its name.

A rare bearded orchid at Virgin Flat (yes, really) near Westport.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Coastal Classic 2006

As explained below, I sailed in the Coastal Classic yacht race 10 years ago.  Afterwards I wrote about it and tried to sell the article to the New Zealand Herald.  Their rejection was very polite.  So I'm publishing it here...

The Coastal Classic is raced every Labour Weekend from Devonport Wharf, Auckland to Russell in the Bay of Islands. It's a very popular race and I thought I'd like to take part at least once. My yacht is not a racing yacht and I don't have a regular crew so I advertised on the race web site as available to crew. The skipper of Winedown, Alistair Taylor, was brave or foolish enough to take a chance on me. His yacht is somewhat larger than my Air Apparent and has a considerably more complex rig.

We started on the Friday from Pine Harbour marina at 7am. Alistair was last to arrive and spent the first hour installing his brand new chart plotter, an electronic navigation device that worked very well and I want one! Our skipper was very safety conscious. Every member of the crew wore a life jacket and safety harness at all times.

We set off to motor to Devonport and arrived just in time to put up the sails for the start. Like most racing skippers Alistair is very keen on using his spinnaker, a difficult sail to control but which can deliver great speed. The start was chaotic, even though the fleet of around 300 was started in three groups. Boats were madly trying to sail fast, not hit each other and to demand their right of way. After 5 minutes we sailed around North Head and all the spinnakers came down. They must have gained all of 20 seconds over a more conventional sail setting.

The fleet then spread out along the 120 miles to Russell. We had many miles of reaching (with the wind coming from the side), which is Winedown's least competitive point of sailing. So we were well to the rear, and possibly last in our division. However, there was a strong, steady wind and every vessel made good progress during the day. Winedown was averaging 7 to 8 knots. At 8 knots 120 nautical miles will take 15 hours, which would mean arrival at twenty past one in the morning. The chart plotter estimated that we would arrive nearer 3 am.

That, of course, assumed that speed was maintained but shortly after dark the wind dropped entirely and we were becalmed. It was quite pretty, with the boats' navigation lights dotted around us. Where the water was disturbed phosphorescence shone. Alistair now proceeded to demonstrate light airs sailing technique of a terrific order. So long as there was a tiny bit of wind he would harness it. The trick is to get moving, in any direction, and then build on that to create wind by the boat's movement. It took a lot of patience to start creeping over the water. A quarter of a knot became half a knot, then a bit less but eventually we were moving at 2 knots. This is very slow, but since no-one else was moving at all it moved us up the fleet many places. For a couple of minutes we actually recorded 7 knots, apparently moving in a private breeze in defiance of all logic. Then the magic faded and Alistair started all over again. It took ages to repeat the trick, but 20 minutes at 5 knots moved us almost 2 miles, not directly in the direction we were headed, but close enough to be very, very useful.

To work this miracle Alistair was using one of three spinnakers that he carries. In case of a real wind arriving suddenly, as was forecast, he needed hands on deck to be ready to take in the tricky spinnaker. So only one person at a time got to go below and get some sleep. Going short of sleep is part of the Coastal Classic experience, but this was severe. My ration was 1.5 hours. Alistair got about half an hour below, but he didn't actually sleep.

Dawn on Saturday found us with Cape Brett in sight with a genuine wind pushing us along at 2 to 3 knots, but it strengthened as the grey light grew stronger. And the sea was mostly empty. There were yachts dotted about, but very widely dispersed. Most of the lights-in-the-dark we had passed were nowhere to be seen. The wind direction had changed from that which prevailed on the first day and we were now sailing as close to the wind as we could. This was where Winedown showed to best advantage. Unfortunately, with the yachts so spread out, we didn't "overtake" in the conventional sense of catching up and passing a competitor. We mostly had to be content with the knowledge that we were approaching Cape Brett faster than our opponents.

Beyond the Cape we were in the Bay of Islands, but it was still a good few miles to Russell. And the wind changed again to very light and dead against us. We still had an advantage, but it was dreary, hot, slow work as we tacked under a strengthening sun. Our ETA in Russell was pushed further and further back. At least there were opportunities for more naps as we toiled towards the finish. Courses converged as all the yachts got closer to Russell and a flotilla of race boats ahead were pursued in slow motion. Around a headland the angle of the wind now allowed spinnakers to be flown. One competitor was passed and we were close enough to see that the next two yachts were in our division. By taking the last corner on the inside, while the other yachts went further out to be sure of more wind, we managed to sneak ahead of one more vessel before the finishing line. It was now roughly 1:30 in the afternoon, 27 hours and 10 minutes after the starting gun.

The sails had to be stowed and the yacht anchored before we could have a beer to celebrate finishing this major race. John, one of the crew, had arranged to stay in a hotel so we were joined by John's wife Judith for a very quiet beer. We were all too tired to party. I had an earnest conversation with Judith and John on GST for non-profit enterprises! Errands ashore had to be run before we snatched an hour's sleep. Then we took the ferry to Paihia to join John and Judith for dinner. The meal was very good but I'd have swapped it for a hamburger and 2 more hours sleep. I hope Judith didn't think the zombies she was dining with were rude.

After some negotiation, we agreed to start back at 8am on Sunday morning. The main consideration was some very nasty weather forecast for the Monday. Alistair didn't wait for favourable winds. We were not racing so the motor was used to make sure we made good progress. At Cape Brett we admired the famous Hole in the Rock and watched a couple of tourist boats go through before taking photos of ourselves with the Hole in the background. I fear these may be produced as evidence that the brave sailors went through the natural tunnel, although there is clearly not enough height for a mast.

From Cape Brett our course was many miles in a straight line past Tutukaka to Bream Head and Sail Rock. An ugly rain squall passed over us and left a strong wind blowing us straight towards Auckland. These were ideal conditions for spinnaker use and Alistair was in his element. The boat performed excellently and it wasn't long before a cheer was raised when the log (boat's speedometer) registered 10 knots for the first time ever. This very long course could have been extremely tedious, but time went quickly as we urged our vessel to even greater speeds. We exceeded 10.5 knots and then, as we willed the magic of 11 knots to appear on the screen we surfed down a wave and saw the digits flash to 10.98 before dropping again. That was the best for some hours, but Winedown wasn't through with setting records. When the wind was strong enough to generate good speed at the same time as the sea would give an extra push the peak speed finally broke the 11 knot barrier and at the end of the run we had logged 11.51 knots twice.

As if this was not joy enough, during this exhilarating sailing we were joined on two occasions by pods of dolphins. They played around the pressure wave at the bow before darting ahead or to the side, cavorting apparently for the sheer pleasure of being alive.

At Bream Head the weather changed again and we had to use diesel power to make worthwhile progress. For all the speed of the spinnaker run it was half past five and we were only about half way back. Winedown has an oven, so the skipper heated up some pizzas for the crew as the motor pushed us through the evening. Running under power requires a different arrangement of navigation lights under the rules of the sea and Alistair had to jury rig a couple of coloured bulbs to make us legal.

Yet another wind shift by Kawau Island permitted a return to sail power and brought a chill to the air. Maybe it was the time of year, but I've never seen dolphins so often. In the dark their approach was marked by a diffuse white trail in the water as their passage stirred up the phosphorescence. Two groups played for a long time around the boat. The shimmering haze of phosphorescence around each dolphin was a gorgeous and ethereal effect. It was like the airflows around a model in a wind tunnel but even more perfect. Since the phosphorescence is a product of agitating the water I can tell you with absolute certainly that a dolphin is hydrodynamically most efficient over its body. The greatest disturbance, and thus the brightest phosphorescence, is around the head and behind the fin. And, of course, when it flexes its tail there is a burst of light as it accelerates. It's an effect more lovely than anything Weta Workshops has yet produced.

Eventually we had to return to motoring for the last of our journey back to the marina. At least we arrived in line with expectation a little after 3am. Packing up took time and so it was around 5:30 when we set off to drive home to make good the sleep deficit and for a long-overdue shower.

The race web site records Winedown's times and rankings. She was the 35th boat of the 51 in division 3 to cross the line and placed 30th on handicap. Before Alistair owned her she had raced the Coastal Classic and come last or one from last. Handicapping is not precise and the weather and sea conditions can make a great difference. I hope Alistair is well pleased with his achievement. The statistics are all that history will remember, but I will look back on ghosting through the night past yachts with baffled skippers, the elation of new speed records and dolphins riding the bow wave clothed in a beautiful, luminous shawl of phosphorescence.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

What we got up to in 2015

The first action of note in 2015 was the purchase of our launch. Lady Ethel is a carvel built kauri planked vessel launched, according to the plate in the saloon, in December 1962. She is a very roomy vessel and comfortable to live aboard. If you are interested, she is featured on a classic boats web site here. Or Google “Lady Ethel Motueka”.

Like every boat owner we know, we don't seem to spend enough time afloat, but we have managed a few short cruises. Because of the very shallow marina and equally shallow channel to reach the sea we have about a 4-hour 'window' each tide in which we can leave or return to the marina. The practical effect of this is that it is virtually compulsory to be out overnight. Since there are some wonderful anchorages in the Abel Tasman National Park just 2 hours motoring away, this is not a disaster. However, there have been some visitors who have had to make do with a clamber over her in the marina because there was insufficient time to go to sea.

Bill's granddaughter Laurel steering Lady Ethel.  Tansy is helping.
We have also been unlucky with things going wrong. The freezer went on strike just before we took possession. The toilet was refusing to empty and after a long delay was replaced. This was first noticed at sea, when Bill's daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Tim, were with us, making that voyage memorable for a wrong reason.

January brings many visitors to the region, and 2015 included Eve's daughter Amy and her three younger children, Mana, Will and Nevaeh. They are amongst those whose visit did not coincide with favourable tides for boating, but we spent a delightful day at Kaiteriteri Beach playing in the water.

In February Angela and Gordon Mizner were here. Angela is Bill's second (or so) cousin on the Roblou side. They live in England. Their visit coincided with a water-borne trip round the Abel Tasman NP that had been booked before we had even thought about buying our own boat. Angela and Gordon decided that it would be a good idea to join us and we had a marvellous excursion. We were shown some lovely little inlets that Lady Ethel will not dare to navigate. We didn't know there were colonies of spotted shags in the park, but there certainly are. The commentary was just right, the lunch was tasty and the weather was perfect. A great day. We can heartily recommend Abel Tasman Golden Future Conservation Tours.

After the tour returned us to Marahau we went to have a cup of tea with Rae and Aaron, who live nearby. Rae is Eve's niece. They had generously looked after our growing pup for the day. They have a dog of their own, a spaniel called Toby. He is smaller than Flossie but much older and spent a lot of time reinforcing his dominance, when Flossie just wanted to play. After tea the dogs had a fight. We think Toby got fed up with Flossie's youthful playfulness and bit her. She returned the compliment with interest and definitely won the fight. Fortunately no blood was spilled.

Having lavished many dollars on a boat, we followed up by the further extravagance of having a deck built on the Western side of the house. This had always been planned and the house is now complete. A key feature of the design is the two clear toughened glass panels which allow small visitors, such as our youngest granddaughters, to see the view without needing to see over the balustrade or risking falling off the edge. It also keeps an exuberant dog outside where she cannot terrorise said small visitors.

For many years we had known what outdoor furniture we wanted for the deck. We first saw Mark “Peg Leg” Perry's output at a fair in 2009. He takes huge flitches of macrocarpa, sprinkles pieces of paua shell in the irregularities and then fills them with clear acrylic. So on most days we can enjoy lunch and afternoon tea on the deck. We anticipated regular dinners there as well, but as the sun gets lower it can be a pain to those sitting with their backs to the house. Maybe we need some kind of sunshade. And for much of the year it can be too cold after the sun has gone down behind the hills.

Bill had a business trip to Northland in April. Eve decided to come along, too. The client very generously invited Eve to use the firm's car so she did some sightseeing while Bill earned the money. While dodging showers at Ocean Beach Eve met a lady who was touring NZ as a member of the Affordable Travel Club. The deal is that all members can act as hosts or visitors. The host provides bed and breakfast; the guest pays a $20 “gratuity”. Part of the fun, of course, is meeting new people. It is based in North America and there is no annual fee for members outside the USA and Canada. So far we've had three enquiries but have been unable to host any of them because we already had a full house on those dates.

Every year Nelson has a book fair. A very large room is full of trestle tables on which are thousands of books at very low prices. Nearly all of them are second hand, but in perfectly good condition. As books are sold the tables are replenished. The fair lasts a week, and there is a special price for a week-long pass, so some people must check the offerings repeatedly. Our bookshelves are full and there are more volumes in storage so we don't desperately need more books. You will not be surprised to learn that we needed a banana box to carry away all our finds. And wonderful reading they are, too.

Bill has been presenting seminars for years on esoteric matters of no interest to non-accountants. Seminars have reached the cyber-age now and largely been replaced with “webinars”. In June he presented his first webinars; a series of two sessions a week apart. They were organised by the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants and delivered from their office in Wellington. Bill decided not to rely on the early morning flight from Nelson, but to stay with Elizabeth and Tim in the capital city. The first session was extremely memorable for a very wrong reason – Bill was late.

Like so many accidents, it was a combination of factors. First, he didn't get to sleep quickly, and after hours of tossing and turning fell into a deep sleep. He had set his phone as an alarm clock, but the battery ran down overnight and it didn't go off. Tim got up for work but knew he was earlier than Bill needed to be so he thoughtfully didn't disturb his father-in-law. Elizabeth was working from home that day, rose late and assumed that her Dad had already left. By the time he did wake up and plug in his 'phone there were already messages from the Institute asking where he was. An urgent taxi-ride and no breakfast later he got to the Institute 10 minutes after the session was due to start. A half-hour briefing on how to use the software was compressed into 5 minutes and he was on air.

The actual presentation went off far better than it had any right to. The second one, which started on time and without any rush, was even finer. The feedback was extremely positive. A webinar is nowhere near as effective or enjoyable as being in the same room as the attendees, because feedback has to be via typed comments and folk cannot see each other. In a classroom a question can be put up on the screen and the audience invited to discuss it between themselves. The webinar is what radio must be like – the presenter must not stop talking and leave silences. However, Bill feels he can adapt and there will be more webinars in 2016.

Lots of Heritages headed North in 2015. Bill's son, Richard with Tansy (wife) and Laurel (daughter) were the first to go to the UK. This prompted Grampa Bill to arrange a little present for Laurel, who was then 18 months old. He bought her two bibs proclaiming her support for York City. Since Laurel's Dad and Great Uncle Nigel are both rabid Arsenal supporters this did risk igniting a feud.

We were close behind them. Our 5-week tour started in England and went on to Germany and all sorts of places, ending up in Istanbul. These travels have been described elsewhere in this blog, artificially dated at the time we were there. See July and August 2015. N.B. At the time of writing this it is not quite complete. Istanbul is missing. It was a fascinating city, and we hope we can manage a return visit.

An important piece of travel technology was a Samsung tablet computer with the Ulmon CityMaps2Go app. Read the Berlin post (the earliest in August) for a full description.

We were able to leave our animals (1 dog and about 10 chickens) because Eve's son, Matthew, came to live on the property. He needed somewhere new and we needed a dog sitter. So he took up residence in the sleep-out. To Flossie's delight, he takes her with him to work (farm contracting) so she gets rides in the car, than which there is no greater treat, and lots of space to run around or just blob in the shade under the vehicle.

There have been some important anniversaries in 2015. These kicked off in Christchurch with Eve's brother, Russell and his wife, Ivy, celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. Their four daughters organised a great party with a live band. Eve, who is one of the few people who have known them for all 50 of those years and the only one of Russell's siblings to be able to attend, delivered a very good speech.

In October Matthew reached 40. How can we possibly have children that old? This was celebrated with a brunch at Jester House, one of NZ's very best cafés. It was one of the very rare occasions when Matthew's controlling ex-partner permitted us to meet their daughter (and thus Eve's granddaughter), Leila.

Matthew (40) and Leila (2)
Only about a month later we were off to another party in Christchurch. Alison Newbegin is a long-standing friend of Eve's. She had reached 70.

At Alison's birthday bash.  The birthday girl is behind Bill's shoulder.
The most remarkable anniversary was in England, so we were unable to attend in the flesh. But we were very much there in spirit when Bill's Uncle Norman and Auntie Chick celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. Chick had been ill through much of the year, but she was out of hospital and in the thick of the celebration lunch. Bill's brother, Nigel, who lives not too far from them, was there and reported to us:

It was held at a pub on the edge of the New Forest outside Ringwood called the Alice Lisle. Everything was beautifully laid out; Julia's daughter Kia who works in event management had found gigantic 70 shaped balloons and the table was liberally - very liberally - sprinkled with sparkly things including little number 70s. Nearly everyone managed to find one of these sprinkley sparkly things in their food at some point.

The story of the day was about Chick's engagement ring which she had lost at some point during her illness and being in Bournemouth and Southampton hospitals. Norman had bought her a replacement which he was going to present to her during the meal. And then on Saturday morning whilst getting ready, Chick found her ring! Norman gave Chick his present anyway, which was lovely, so she now has 2! There was a photo of them on their wedding day, aged 20 and 19. And here they still were, and so happy.

Sadly, Chick was soon unwell again and died in January, aged 89.

In the spring we added to the livestock that once upon a time we resolved not to have. We were given four geese. Strictly, they are one goose and three ganders. We were told that the goose was a young bird and she clearly needed guidance on how to be a mother goose. She laid her first egg out in the open and left it, so we had scrambled goose egg. After that she made a proper nest and laid three eggs in it. Only one of them hatched, and the gosling died two days later.

Eve has kept a goat before and we know a couple down the valley who have surplus kids. That's young goats, not children! Two of them are promised to us when they are old enough to leave their mothers in the New Year, so our menagerie will get even bigger.

Part of our life now is wwoofers (willing workers on organic farms). They are mostly young folk travelling round New Zealand and want to exchange half a day's work for board and lodging. Most enquiries come in the summer, but they may turn up at any time of year. In 2015 we had delightful people from Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, USA and NZ. Diego and Valentina are from Colonia del Sacramento, which is one of the two Uruguayan towns Bill visited in 2007. Raja (pronounced rye-er) from Germany liked us so much she came back for a second visit. And if we do not look up Wylder when we are in North Carolina there could be an international incident! Thanks to all of them for their labours and their great company.

Valentina and Flossie

Minako and Naoto from Japan.  They wwoofed for us in 2014 and came to see us before they left NZ.

Bill, Eve, Matthew, Raja and Christin.

At some time during the latter part of the year Bill's son Richard introduced a game called Ingress, which Bill is now also enthusiastically playing. It was designed to get computer nerds out in the fresh air and requires actual travel to play it. The object of the game is very simple. Around the world there are lots of “portals”. Strictly these are GPS co-ordinates, but they have a name and a picture attached so it is easier to think of them as the pictured object. They have to be in public places so that players can approach them legally and safely. When you download the software to your smartphone or tablet you have to choose which of the two teams you wish to join. You then try to “capture” portals, defend them and link them, all of which has to be done within about 40 metres of the portal. If you link three in a triangle you create a field, which is worth a lot of points. The other faction is, of course, trying to capture your portals, and so on.

If you want to try this for yourself, Bill and Richard ask that you join the green team, the Enlightened.

Late in November Bill received the unwelcome news that his largest client, BDO New Zealand, had decided to make other arrangements. It was not dissatisfaction with Bill's work, but they wanted to find a role for an individual who was too experienced to be a manager, but for whom no member firm had an immediate opening as a partner. Bill certainly has other clients, but this will make a big dent in our income in 2016.

We cannot leave an account of 2015 without some mention of being proud grandparents.

Grandma Eve with Bill's granddaughter Laurel

Grampa Bill reading a story to Eve's granddaughter Ellyssa

Saturday, February 6, 2016


There was an item on the radio today about an idea for frustrating telemarketers. An American, Roger Anderson, has devised a system that automatically responds with voice recordings that waste cold callers' time by engaging with them, and then stringing them along. The details are on a Facebook page at

Annoying telemarketers is hopefully but one step in ridding the world of this modern-day scourge. I have been giving some thought to other strategies we could employ.

Simply banning cold calling is not likely to work. The telemarketers, who have no ethical standards at all, will simply go overseas. They may have done that already. Who knows where they are calling from? However, that doesn't mean to say that we should tolerate this shameless behaviour being conducted openly in New Zealand. How about declaring the NZ Marketing Association as a terrorist organisation? That would automatically drive it underground and significantly restrict its funding.

But the real effort has to be made against the amoral businesses that employ telemarketers. This should be made a crime. Why have successive NZ governments done NOTHING to restrain this intrusive practice? Suitable punishments, for all individuals involved in recruiting and contracting with telemarketers and all directors of the company could include:
  • Hefty fines. I have in mind $10,000 for every annoyed householder;
  • Computer-generated telephone calls to their home, office and mobile telephones at random times, 24-hours per day, inviting them to buy things they don't want;
  • Publishing their home telephone numbers so that any member of the public who has received an unwanted call can ring up the people who caused it to happen and see how they like it;
  • Requiring them to wear a large sign, front and back, with the message “I HAVE ALL THE MORAL SCRUPLES OF A SOW ON HEAT”. (If we ever catch an actual telemarketer this message should be tattooed on each cheek – all four of them); and
  • Compulsory training in ethics, a subject of which they are apparently completely ignorant.
Sharia law may have some interesting punishments to add to this list.

And if all of us, just once per day, telephone the Marketing Association on 09 361 7760 and ask politely for them to cease all direct marketing in New Zealand, they might eventually get the message that the practice is unacceptable.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Copper Crested Heritage

The attached image is real.  It has not been Photoshopped or edited in any way.  You had better be sitting down when you look at it.

Now that I have your attention, perhaps I had better explain.

I had had the same hairstyle for 63 years; since the day I was born.  My mother told me that I was born with so much hair that the nurse combed it with a parting on Day 1.  So I thought I would try something different.

I recalled that a friend had an afro for quite a while, but that didn't appeal to me.  It would probably have required months or years to grow my hair long enough anyway.  A crew cut (the hairdresser called it a "flat top") interested me.  Eve was OK with the idea so we discussed it with Pauline, our hairdresser.  A flat top was out.  Apparently you need hair that is naturally something like clothes brush bristles to stand up that way.  My hair is very straight and fine.  In the end it was cut short and, with the assistance of special goo, persuaded to stand up in a spiky way.

That was enough.  It was sufficiently different from the old look that it satisfied my desire for something new, and people who knew me noticed it.  During a Skype call to cousins in Ottawa their daughter said it made me look 10 years younger.  What a perceptive and intelligent young woman she is.

I was working in Auckland with a normally sensible, intelligent man who, probably out of sheer horror, suggested I get it dyed ginger.  I relayed this suggestion to Eve and in the subsequent exchange of text messages she DARED ME (in capitals) to do it.  So straight away I made an appointment with Pauline.  It turns out that Eve was joking, but once again we talked to Pauline about the idea and she suggested 'highlights'.  We perused the colour charts, made a choice, and deferred the actual opertion until the New Year.  The result is pictured.

My children will probably disinherit me.

I can console them with the observation that it will grow out in a few weeks and I don't plan to maintain it.  Putting the colour in involved wearing a tight rubber 'helmet' for quite a long time.  By the end it was very uncomfortable.  Also, getting hair coloured costs money.

In the meantime, my charges for terrifying small children are very reasonable.  ;-)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

I dreamed of the Orient Express ... and I woke up in Plovdiv

Have you ever read Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, or seen the film?  There are linen tablecloths in the restaurant car and uniformed waiters.  The sleeper berths are the last word in luxury.  While we did not expect to meet Hercule Poirot on our journey from Sofia to Istanbul we were rather looking forward to a little old-world extravagance.

The reality in 2015 is a far cry from that romantic picture.

We could not make reservations over the Internet, so we presented ourselves at Sofia station, where a pleasant woman speaking good English explained that the choice of sleeping accommodation was simple.  There were no berths of any class.  We would have to sit up all night.  Well, we'd managed that from Budapest to Sigisoara and it hadn't killed us.  We could cope.  "And" she added, "there is no restaurant car.  You will have to take your own food."  Blast!

"The train goes as far as the Turkish border, arriving at about 2am.  You will go by bus from there."  This last factoid wasn't a surprise because earlier Internet researches had revealed that the Turks have been doing major work on the tracks and we knew that the final part of the journey would probably be by road.

There was a tram from outside our hotel directly to the station so that part of the journey was simple enough.  We surveyed our takeaway food options.  Sofia had not been a gourmet experience until then and the station offered nothing to change our opinion.  The least worst option seemed to be large slices of pizza and a giant bottle of beer.  To kill time we opted for a coffee from the tobacco-and-spirits shop that boasted a few tables and chairs.  Not only was it the cheapest coffee in Europe at about 60 cents for the cup, it was the best coffee we'd encountered since leaving Germany.

The effect of this cheering jolt of caffeine was to make me study the shelves of spirits.  None of the labels was familiar, and, since we were in Bulgaria, they were mostly in cyrillic script.  I selected a green bottle with a friendly-looking label.  "Schnapps", explained the tobacconist-cum-barrista lady.  The 200ml bottle set us back $3.50.

The electronic departure board signalled that we would be departing from platform 12Ѝ.  Now Sofia station boasts the worst signage in Europe.  We found platform 12 without difficulty, but there were two trains sitting there.  Which portion was platform 12Ѝ?  There was no hint.  So I walked along the nearer train looking for a coach with the right number on it (we had reserved seats, remember).  The first several were unlabelled.  Then a conductor appeared on the platform.  "Istanbul?" I asked in my best Bulgarian.  She pointed to the coach immediately behind the locomotive.  "This coach.  Only one through coach."  So the famous Orient Express is reduced to a single, ageing 2nd class coach behind a workaday electric loco.

At least we departed on time.  And then stopped at every village along the line.  The first call was still within Sofia, where a band of young men, apparently going home from work, boarded.  There was plenty of room in the coach as we trundled through the Bulgarian countryside.  The young men chattered and we ate our pizza.  The cardboard and paper wrapping was a surprisingly efficient insulator so it wasn't completely cold, nor was the beer completely warmed.  We sipped at our ridiculously cheap schnapps.  It was OK.

Dusk turned to night.  A conductor walked down the coach.  "In 45 minutes, off train onto autobus.  In Plovdiv."  His English wasn't up to explaining why we were being transferred to a bus, but the message was clear enough.  Plovdiv is Bulgaria's 2nd largest city and, Wikipedia tells us, is an important economic, transport, cultural, and educational centre.  We saw nothing of importance as we carried our luggage across the tracks and waited at the kerbside.  Our Orient Express experience was over.

The bus quickly left the city and settled onto a motorway.  This, I thought, may save us some time.  It is actually quicker (and cheaper) to travel from Sofia to Istanbul by bus, but they don't have on-board toilets, which is an important consideration for the mature traveller.  More fool me.  It seemed hardly any time before the bus had to turn off the motorway to call at the next train station.  And on we went through the night.  I got the strongest impression that we called at one station twice.  Maybe the driver missed one and had to double back.  And towards 2am, as promised, we arrived at the border with Turkey.

If I'd thought much about it I would have guessed that the border would be a single, half-asleep customs officer stamping passports like an automaton.  In fact there were thousands of people lining up to enter Turkey.  Trucks have their own lane.  I swear they were backed up for two kilometres.  Buses and cars at least got within sight of the border control buildings before they had to queue.

Leaving a country is normally the briefest of formalities, but the Bulgarians took aside one lady.  She was part of what we took for a family group.  The husband was, I think, Canadian.  The wife was notable for wearing a formal evening gown for an overnight journey on public transport.  What was the matter?  Why should she not be allowed to leave Bulgaria?  Whatever the problem was, it got sorted out and the whole party re-boarded the bus to advance to the Turkish side.

Nearly everyone needs a visa for Turkey.  It's a nice little money-spinner for the government, with a computer somewhere in Ankara collecting fees and despatching e-visas in pdf format while the traveller enters all the information.  New Zealanders are among the chosen few who need no visa, but Eve was travelling on a UK passport.  It had taken ages, using a tablet computer, to enter the information, correct the spelling errors introduced by predictive text and double-check that everything was perfect.  In the morning I had opened the e-visa so it would be ready to show at the border and found Eve's name was misspelled, despite all our care.  I thought it likely that money would change hands at the border to remedy the defect, but I confess that I did worry a little about what would happen if we were refused entry.  My disquiet was unnecessary. We were simply handed back our passports with new stamps in them.  The problems were for the five travellers with no visa at all.  This must be a common problem, because the bus driver collected the visa-less five and confidently marched them off to where visas are dispensed.

All this took time and it was well after 3am when the bus moved on with its cargo of sleep-deprived travellers.  In Turkey the first thing it did was to force a way through the line of cars headed in the opposite direction into the grounds of a hotel.  Then we threaded our way through lanes of parked trucks, whose drivers were presumably asleep in their cabs.  Beyond this was - a railway station!  And parked beside it was a Turkish bus.  So once again we hauled our bags into a new vehicle.

Eve and I both thought that we would get no proper sleep that night, but the Turkish bus must have been more comfortable because we both managed a couple of hours or so.  As far as we know, this bus did not leave the main road. Certainly it made good time into Istanbul.  We were deposited at the terminus at about 6:45am.

I wonder if anyone has ever surveyed the accessibility of taxis by time and place.  If they have, I should imagine that going on 7am outside a boarded up, defunct railway station would rank pretty low down the list.  But Istanbul is awash with taxis and there were actually two of them sitting on the rank waiting.  We showed one of them the printed name and address of our hotel and off we went.

There was a slight glitch with the GPS navigation system in the cab (I later found the same imaginary street on our electronic map), but we were delivered to Mint Residence at about 7:15.  This has to be one of the nicest hotels on the planet.  The porter hurried out to claim our bags, confirmed our booking, gave us the WiFi password and made us a cup of coffee, all the while apologising for his poor English.  When the receptionist came on duty he checked us in and, since the room was vacant, invited us to occupy it straight away, making this the earliest of early check-ins.  We asked if we could buy a breakfast and were told to help ourselves from the buffet.  The offer of payment was refused.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


If you look at a map of Europe and plot a course from Bucharest to Istanbul you have to cross Bulgaria, but you would hardly expect to take in Sofia along the way. However, extensive interrogation of the Eurail timetables could not find a more direct route.

We left Bucharest in bright sunshine, sharing a compartment with a party of what appeared to be unsupervised schoolgirls. All but one of them wore glasses. They all spent most of the journey reading or writing. How terribly well behaved! With the addition of a young man, who turned out to be another New Zealander, the compartment was chocka. The seats were OK, but the luggage rack was perilously overloaded. Late in the journey I wandered along the carriage. None of the other compartments had more than 3 people in them. What a strange way to allocate the seats.

The train paused for a while at a major river. It was probably the Dunărea, i.e. the Danube, and the border with Bulgaria. It then proceeded terribly slowly over a very high bridge; a most uncomfortable sensation for an acrophobe like me.

When passports were demanded for inspection the girls produced credit-card-sized pieces of plastic, which were acceptable travel documents. Google has since confided that some national identity cards are valid for travel within Europe, but it was a surprise to us at the time.

The New Zealander had worked out a complicated cross-country itinerary and left the train at one of several stops in depressed looking Bulgarian towns. We and the girls stayed on the train all the way to Sofia, which was reached about 10:30pm. By following the youngsters (the station had NO signs for 'exit', 'taxi', etc. In fact, it had no signs!) we arrived at the metro. But we wanted a taxi. The lady in the ticket office couldn't, or wouldn't, direct us to a taxi rank so we wandered around in the dark until we found another human, who pointed up a flight of stairs.

There were several taxis waiting in the dark. We had thoughtfully prepared a card with the hotel's address in both Latin and Cyrillic characters. A driver looked at it thoughtfully.

“You have Bulgarian money?”.

By following the journey on our 'magic map' we confirmed that the driver went by a direct route, but the hotel had no illuminated sign and he went past it. However, with the aid of our electronic map he soon deposited us on the pavement and claimed what was probably an exorbitant fee, but what were our options at 11pm in Bulgaria?

The hotel advertised 24-hour reception, which turned out to be in an all-night eatery 2 doors along. The room was small and the ensuite bathroom poky. But the bed was comfortable and we slept well.

By a happy chance the hotel was within walking distance of a tourist information office, which in turn was within walking distance of the main sight of Sofia, the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. There were other sights in the vicinity, too, but Malaysian Airlines had cancelled our flight out of Istanbul, and the least worst alternative flight cut our holiday short by one day – and Sofia was the unlucky city that was deprived of our company 24 hours early.

The cathedral is indeed an impressive building built, according to the information board, “by the whole Bulgarian people in memory of the thousands of Russian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Moldavian, Finnish and Romanian soldiers who, from 1877 to 1878, laid their lives for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.” Finnish soldiers? Yes, Wikipedia confirms this.

Of particular interest is the collection of icons displayed in the crypt.

A 17th century work from Rila Monastery

This depicts “St. John the Forerunner.” Neither of us had ever heard of him, but dear Mr. Google led us to an article that explains this is another name for John the Baptist.  Either the artist's brush slipped, or St. John was a particularly grumpy individual.