Sunday, September 30, 2018

Travelling Hopefully - Halifax Briefly

The weather was grey and rainy when I arrived in Halifax and remained that way my entire stay.  Since “my entire stay” consisted of twenty four hours including the taxi ride from the airport you probably shouldn’t make any broad assumptions about the city’s prevailing weather patterns from that statement.  Despite the rain the weather in Halifax still managed to be less fundamentally hostile to human existence than St Johns.

Halifax is where they brought survivors of the Titanic (random Halifax fact provided by Jasmyn Pearson) but I had no time for an iceberg heavy version of The Shipping News. The city seemed quite pleasant and attractive or at least the bit within two blocks of the railway station  seemed to be.  It’s entirely possible that the rest of Halifax is a gang ridden hell hole where mothers sell themselves for a crust of bread so they have a side dish when they cannibalise their offspring but I’m going to give Halifax the benefit of the doubt.

I picked my hotel on the basis of proximity to the railway station and wound up five minutes away which indicates unusually good planning on my part.  I also wound up just a couple of blocks from the Citadel so the next morning I trudged through the mist to see it.  When the Americans tossed the British out of the more liveable third of the North American continent the Royal Navy was left without a naval base closer than Bermuda and suddenly Halifax and its harbour became very important indeed.

In what appears to have been a reflex habit the British grabbed the highest point they could find and fortified the crap out of it.  You can see why, standing on the hill you have a clear field of fire to the strategically vital Scotiabank Centre below.  I must admit when I heard the word Citadel my mind immediately conjured up visions of towering walls.  I wasn’t entirely wrong but the British had been a bit more cunning than that.  They had cut the top of the hill and dropped the citadel inside with the result that little is visible from the outside (and it’s therefore quite difficult to hit with cannon fire.  Inside there are barracks, a parade ground and enough artillery to start a small war.

Actually the Citadel was out of date by the time it was built, rather like every military purchase Australia has ever made and the place is now run by the Canadian Park Service with employees dressed up like nineteenth century soldiers.  According to one of these “soldiers” that I spoke to all of their rifles and at least some of the fort artillery still work.  I don’t know how much ammunition they have but it might be a good idea if Halifax didn’t piss off the Park Service any time soon.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Travelling Hopefully - Historically Dubious Edition

Nova Scotia my next destination has a rich and proud history.  At least I assume it does, pretty much every where has a rich and proud history if you ask the people who come from there.  As an outsider with a total ignorance of Nova Scotia I find myself uniquely placed to provide insights into the province unencumbered by cultural bias or prejudicial facts.

The history of Nova Scotia dates back some nine thousand years to when the nomadic Scotia tribe followed the migratory maple syrup herds west and encountered the Bronze Age culture of the Novans who had settled in what is today Halifax because the harbour currents washed away their sewage.  The Novans had a rich and complex system of cultural beliefs based on the passing of the stars, the turning of the seasons and the moving of the bowels.  The Scotians had a fuckload of weapons and remarkably few scruples about using them.

After some six and a half thousand years of continual warfare a truce was called and the leader of the Novans approached the Scotians and spoke them in these terms:

“Oh ye Scotians, know that we have great gifts of culture, art, agriculture, plumbing, medicine and the beginnings of a functional welfare system whereas you have weapons that we would really like you to stop hitting us with.  Surely we can come to some sort of arrangement here.”

Tears sprang to the Scotian leader’s eyes at these words of wisdom  and without hesitation he  cracked open the Novan leader’s head and devoured his brains so that such wisdom and insight could also be passed on to his children.  Thus the two peoples were united and the nation of Nova Scotia was born.

Approximately three weeks later they were approached by the British who asked them if they’d like to become a colony.  The Nova Scotians politely declined.  The British pointed out it was them or the French.  At this the Nova Scotians embraced the Union Jack with an enthusiasm normally only seen at white supremacist rallies in Bristol.

Membership of the empire brought economic benefits and it wasn’t long before Halifax became a major trading centre and Nova Scotia was established as the worlds principal source of blueberry dung and seal genitalia.

When World War II was declared the Nova Scotians rallied to the motherland committing their entire armoured zeppelin contingent to the cause.  Years of sacrifice and struggle followed but finally the Nova Scotians got their reward when the British snatched down their flag and abandoned their erstwhile subjects to the tender mercies of the new and predatory nation of Canada.  The Nova Scotians tried to resist but with most of their armoured zeppelin force shot down in raids over Arkansas (there may have been some navigational issues) and Canada’s elite airborne caribou brigade leading the assault capitulation was was only a matter of time.

Now of course Nova Scotia is proud to be Canada’s 87th province and looks forward to a bright future under the maple leaf flag.  Apart of course from the revolts in 1955, 1962, 1967-74, 1977-89, 1991-99, 2003-11 and the ongoing insurgency in the hinterland.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Travelling Hopefully - Up and Down a Hill

My last full day in St Johns dawned bright and sunny so I decided to walk up to signal hill which overlooks the city.  I popped in for breakfast along the way and when I came out it was cold and overcast.  It would appear I’ve got to stop having breakfast.

Signal Hill dominates one side of St Johns harbour.  There is a squat tower at the top of it and one can imagine gun positions there controlling access to the port beyond.  Unfortunately it isn’t true.  The tower was actually built in the late nineteenth century for Queen Victora’s Golden Jubilee.  They did, however, build a fort and a gun battery about halfway up the hill for the same purpose.

When the French captured St Johns they approached the position from the landward side and when the British recaptured the place they did the same thing.  That the British, a maritime power, would be obsessed with attack by sea makes sense.  I’m not sure what the French were thinking.  As a general rule you don’t send an army by sea if they can practicably walk to their destination.

After a long and proud history of failing to defend St Johns from attack the hill gained a new claim to fame when Guglielmo Marconi climbed to the top of the hill and received the first transatlantic radio communication from a transmitter in Cornwall.  This brought Marconi rapturous applause from the political leadership in Canada and a letter from the Anglo American Cable Company threatening to sue him if he didn’t get his arse out Newfoundland right sharpish.

Now the hill poses for postcard shots and serves as a centre for a series of walking trails in the surrounding nature reserve (the area being too rough and hilly to build on).  I puffed up the road leading to the tower, to be more accurate I puffed, wheezed, retched and vomited up the road to the tower.  Along the way I paused to photograph some remarkably relaxed ducks at the charmingly named Deadmans Pool part way up.

Once at the top I paused briefly to catch my breath and vital signs before enjoying a spectacular view over the city and harbour.  There was also a man walking what appeared to be a black bear on a leash but which turned out to be one of the largest dogs I’ve ever seen.  His name was Chief and he was a sea rescue dog.  He comfortably outweighed me and I couldn’t help thinking that in an earlier age it was entirely possible he could get harpooned by accident while out on the job.

Having escaped Chief’s somewhat slobbery attentions I set out on my journey back to the city.  I had walked up the road but would be taking a hiking trail that ran along the cliff side on the way down.  The trail was noted as being of “medium to difficult” grade.  I have news for them, if I can make it without a problem (and I did) then it isn’t difficult, it probably isn’t even medium.

Still the view was impressive whatever the difficulty and I was able to get a very good understanding of why the British figured guns on Signal Hill would be a good way of defending the town.

Travelling Hopefully - Disturbing Puffin Fetish Edition

I touched down in St Johns with a feeling of déjà vu.  This all seemed terribly familiar.  The security staff greeted me by name and demanded to know when I would pay them the money I owed them after an ill judged poker session in the arrivals lounge.  But I was a man in a hurry and I raced through the airport leaving a cloud of curses and insincere promises in my wake.  I had a date with puffins.

After hurling my bags at the jet lagged unfortunate who would be hosting me tonight I dashed downtown, nothing would interfere with my viewing of puffins.  Arriving in plenty of time I paused for breakfast, I was lingering over coffee when I got a call from the tour operator; where the hell was I?  Those puffins weren’t going to pester themselves, at least not without being paid considerably more than I was prepared to offer (if you’re interested there is a subscription only website which will cater to your requirements.  I think it’s run by some guys in Belarus).

Snatching my belongings and snorting coffee out my nose I dashed up the street and managed to grab hold of the minivans bumper as it sped off, destination puffin.  After a few kilometres they pulled over and let me get inside.
“Most of the puffins have already left,” were the words that greeted me as I picked gravel out of my face.  You see the puffins don’t actually live here, they are creatures of the open ocean.  The only time they come ashore at all is to breed (experiments with floating eggs having so far proved unsuccessful).  Once the ensuing baby is old enough (or has been eaten by predators) there’s no reason for them to hang around.

I howled and raged inwardly, at least I think it was inwardly although I did notice that the other passengers were cowering at the other end of the van.  Surely I wasn’t going to miss out on puffins too?  I was in a fine state of nervous tension by the time I got on the boat and I ground my teeth while the guide droned on about the interesting rock formations we would see.  Eventually he got onto the puffins, there were about a dozen still here yesterday, if we were lucky a couple might still be here.

The boat ploughed through fortunately not very rough seas while our guide babbled on about rock formations and the fact that Newfoundland comes from Morocco or some such.  As we approached the island where all the puffins had been until recently the frustrated geologist with the microphone told us to keep a sharp eye out for puffins.  He then literally ended that speech with, “oh there’s one.” Everybody oohed and aahed except me, naturally I had managed to miss it.  The problem was that while I had a pretty accurate idea of what a puffin looked like I was completely off when it came to scale.  Puffins are actually quite small and I had to mentally adjust what my eyes were looking for.  Also I expected to see them on the island and we actually saw them everywhere but.  Because, yes, the puffins did come out to play.  I saw puffins on the water and I saw them flying past.  One of them flew so close I was able to pick out it’s features as it went by.  I’m probably biased but to me no puffin ever looked more puffin like.  This puffin could have been the centrefold for the September issue of Puffin Monthly (a wholly owned subsidiary of  So yes I saw puffins and I’m ridiculously pleased by the whole event.  We also saw bald eagles.  There was one standing proudly on a cliff in its best e pluribus unum pose and another took flight directly above our boat allowing us to see it in full wing extension.

I have no idea what I did for the rest of the day but when I woke up the next morning there was a stuffed puffin on the pillow next to me.

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Travelling Hopefully - Round and Round

I met Steve in the cold and dark for my tour of the island.  He brought croissants which turned out to be a godsend for reasons which will become obvious later.  There are six thousand people living on St Pierre and I think we went by each one of their houses.  The island isn’t that large and most of the population lives in the town or in a couple of what I would call suburbs if the term didn’t seem a little ridiculous when applied to a town of six thousand.

Once out of town I was in territory familiar to me from Quirpon and St Anthony, pond riddled peat with occasional hills breaking through.  We passed by the cemetery on the way out of town and from the looks of the occupancy level it might be good if the population of St Pierre stopped dying quite soon.

Seals!  I saw seals!  We were driving along the coast as the sun was rising and there were seal heads (presumably with seal bodies attached) bobbing about just offshore.  I scrambled out into the freezing cold to get a closer look and they obliged me by coming closer to get a look at me.  I guess they realised they weren’t in any danger as long as they stayed in the water so we stared at each other until the cold drove one of us back to the car.  Steve was very surprised to be driving a seal around for the rest of the trip.

After that we drank some celebratory liqueur (it was at least eight in the morning so it isn’t like I have a problem or anything) and we continued on our trip around the island.  Along the way Steve provided me with interesting facts about the island such as school kids are taught how to handle a small boat as part of the curriculum and virtually everyone on the island smokes weed.  The gendarmes tend to turn a blind eye.  The marijuana is imported from Canada thus allowing the Canadians to partially offset their bootleg alcohol created imbalance of trade with the islands.  Now if we can only get the regular economy working that efficiently.

Back in St Pierre with our tour completed Steve asked me if there was anything else I was interested in.  I asked for a cup of coffee and for the first time I saw a look of uncertainty in his eyes.  We cruised around looking for open cafes without success.  Steve eventually popped into the St Pierre tourist office and begged me a coffee in a styrofoam cup.  And this was my problem.  On a Monday outside the regular tourist season St Pierre was essentially closed.  I roamed the streets taking random photos, along the way I bought an apple, a baguette and a wedge of cheese, that’s all I ate for the remainder of the day.

I actually liked St Pierre quite a lot but I have a fondness for small, out of the way places.  After all I’m going to be leaving soon back to my home in Australia’s largest city.  I’ll let Steve have the last word on St Pierre.  He likened it to an open air prison.  The island lacks for nothing in modern amenities but there is nowhere you can go without, after quite a short period of time, winding up back where you started from.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Travelling Hopefully - French Language Edition

The next day in St Johns was glorious.  The sky was clear, the sun was shining and even the wind had taken some time off.  Unfortunately I was leaving to go to St Pierre but I waved to the nice weather on my way to the airport.  Once there I got into a very small, rather cute plane and flew to France.  Specifically I flew to St Pierre which is about forty five minutes flying time from St Johns.  To emphasise the non Englishness of our destination the safety briefing was given solely in French.  If the plane went down I was going to have to become bilingual in a hurry.

Getting through customs took all of a minute and soon I was in a car driven by Steve who I had hired to conduct me around the island.  He promptly attempted to sell me most of it but proved very useful nonetheless.  Dining options are limited in St Pierre on a Sunday and I wound up eating at a burger place, sort of like McDonalds but good.

So first the history; St Pierre and Miquelon have been bouncing back between France and Britain like a cold, windswept ping pong ball for most of its existence.  Which is to say since European settlement and people started writing things down.  For St Pierre mostly what they’ve been writing down is a score sheet to see who’s in charge.  The rest of St Pierre’s history is basically fishing, bootlegging, and more fishing with occasional pauses while either the French or the British raze the whole place to the ground depending on who currently has possession.

At present the French are in charge and the question is why do they bother?  St Pierre needs financial support from the French government to survive.  The fishing industry has crashed (ran out of fish) and the bootlegging industry can’t support everyone.  Yes, there is still bootlegging, not to the United States but rather to Canada.  As part of Europe (politically) the inhabitants of St Pierre are ideally placed to take advantage of the high tariffs Canada places on imported spirits.  Specifically they take advantage of them by loading anything alcoholic into a speedboat and sneaking it across to Newfoundland when the Coastguard isn’t watching.   Bootleg alcohol is about the only thing St Pierre exports (apart from sea cucumbers) and it imports virtually everything.  Steve took me down to the dock where a ship from Halifax turns up once a week and unloads an islands worth of virtually everything.

For the rest, the money from France is spent on roads, maintenance and generally keeping the island looking nice.  Incidentally the answer to the question “why do the French bother?” is simple.  Location, location, location.  St Pierre is sitting on top of what was once one of the great fishing grounds of the world and may be again if we stop killing them long enough to let them breed.  And underneath those fish deprived waters are unexploited reserves of oil and natural gas.  The are very good reasons for keeping the Tricolour flying over a portion of this region.  Conversely there are also good reasons for another sacking by the British.  It’s been a couple of centuries so they’re due.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Travelling Hopefully - Inclement Weather Edition

Leaving childish dreams of whales behind me I travelled to St Johns and the far more adult dream of puffins.  Absolutely nothing would stop me seeing puffins!  On arrival in St Johns I was greeted with an email from the tour company; my puffin cruise had been cancelled due to expected inclement weather..  I briefly considered cutting my losses and heading straight to Cleveland but some frantic rescheduling later I was able to get a spot in a couple of days time.  The only problem is that it happens to be day I fly in from St Pierre.  Hopefully my plane isn’t late.

With the puffin crisis at least temporarily averted I could take a look at St Johns.  Hills, brightly coloured wooden buildings and a harbour.  There,  now you know as much about it as I do.  I was staying in Georgestown which was hilly with brightly coloured wooden buildings.  The harbour was a twenty minutes walk away.  I got to my accommodation and dumped my bags.  Timber the house cat promptly went to sleep on them.  I decided to unpack later.

St Johns is all about the harbour of course.  When people arrive by sea they’re less concerned with a hilly hinterland and more worried about decent parking for their ships.  A decent harbour ringed by hills grants advantages that far outweigh the incidental tourist having a heart attack on the way back up the hill.  It claims to be North America’s oldest city and Newfoundland Britain’s oldest colony.  As such it has the usual handsome buildings associated with the brutal tearing of the land from it’s previous inhabitants (we have a decent number of those ourselves) including an impressive Roman Catholic cathedral which seems pretty big now but must have been huge for the population at the time.

The inclement weather the puffin tour operators turned up pretty much on schedule which made wandering around St Johns somewhat less than fun so I wandered around Georgestown instead.  There I found a bakery, a cafe, a museum and the aforementioned  Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist.  Just down the road was the Baptist Cathedral of St John the Catholic.

In search of a sightseeing opportunity that got me out of the weather I walked down to The Rooms which is the museum I mentioned earlier.  They had a great exhibit on Newfoundland’s contribution to the First World War (they were on our side, unless you’re German in which case they weren’t) culminating in the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel.  This battle is a defining moment in Newfoundland history which is to say it was a ghastly slaughter where nearly everybody died.  It has the same resonance for Newfoundlanders as Gallipoli does for Australians.  Incidentally the Newfoundland regiment was at Gallipoli as well.

Other displays highlighted the natural environment of Newfoundland and Labrador, there seemed to be a fair bit on peatbogs.  There was also an exhibit on all of the various races of people who have stumbled across the region over the last couple of thousand years and for one reason or other decided to stay.  Presumably everywhere warmer was already occupied.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Travelling Hopefully - Cetacean Frustration

After steeping myself in all things Viking I met up with Ed who drove me around the various small villages that occupy the coves in this part of Newfoundland until it was time to go across to Quirpon Island which housed the lighthouse that would be my home for the next few days.  Well when I say I would be living in the lighthouse I actually meant the keepers cottage which was now a guesthouse.  I asked Ed if the lighthouse was working.  He said “yes” by which he meant “no”.  Officially the lighthouse is working but actually it’s broken down and so far it hasn’t been repaired.  In the meantime shipping in the area is simply going to have to watch where it’s going.

I and some other guests clambered onto a zodiac and were bounced and splashed out to the island.  Along the way the other guests spotted a whale, or so they claimed.  I didn’t see it but I had a whale pestering tour the next day to redress this lack.  Quirpon Island is about seven kilometres long and one and a half wide which doesn’t seem like much until you start walking around it.  I felt it actually bore quite a resemblance to the Isle of Skye although since I last saw Skye some thirty years ago I may be confusing it with the Isle of Dogs.  Trees do not happen on Quirpon.  The terrain is mostly exposed rock, moss and the kind of low lying shrubbery that looks like moss with ideas above it’s station.  Seabirds swoop around the cliffs wondering if they can move somewhere less chilly and waves crash against the rocks.

Overnight the wind picked up to such an extent that my boat tour had to be postponed until the next day leaving me stuck on a rock in the Atlantic with no idea of what to do.  Hiking is another popular activity with the (other) guests so I decided to follow their example.  In deference to my general level of fitness and enthusiasm I limited my walk to a five kilometre return journey to the next cove along called Cod Cove.  Ed informed me that there was a Palaeolithic sod hut dating back several thousand years that predates the Vikings and reality tv.  With a purpose thus provided I set off on a bracing walk.  Pretty soon I was braced to the point of hypothermia.

Still I got to Cod Cove and I did indeed see the sod hut.  At least I saw a sod hut shaped impression in the ground very carefully located so that the owner would be able to see anyone trying to land in the cove.  I stared at this ancient accommodation option and contemplated the person who might have lived there; what had their life been like?  How had they survived in what must have been a harsh environment without central heating?  What sort of hopes, dreams and belief systems had sustained them?  Fifteen seconds later I started walking back to the lighthouse.  Contemplation is overrated and it was very cold.

A couple of other guests who had walked off in a different direction came back claiming to have seen an arctic fox.  They produced a blurry photo of what appeared to be a malnourished husky to support their claim.  They showed the photo to Ed who confirmed it was indeed an arctic fox, or possibly a malnourished husky.  I couldn’t claim a malnourished husky from my walk.  The closest I came was encountering the mutilated corpses of several seabirds or possibly the extremely mutilated corpse of a single seabird.

The next day was calmer which was a blessing as I was leaving and didn’t particularly want to be hurled into an angry sea or even a mildly annoyed sea.  An ATV bumped us to the other end of the island where there was a nice little bay only a short hop from the mainland.  Ed dropped the other departing guests off and then we headed off on a circumnavigation of the island to see if we could scare up some whales.

Sadly the whales proved impossible to scare.  There would be no whales for Neil on my trip to Quirpon.  I’m afraid I have to admit I was bitterly disappointed.  What made it especially galling was that everyone else did see whales.  Guests, staff, workers everyone saw whales but me.  The whales were definitely there I just managed to be in the wrong place every time.  I did see a dolphin on the last cruise, it swam past us and right under the boat.  At any other time I would have found that pretty impressive.  Sadly in the mood I was in I would cheerfully have bludgeoned the thing to death with it’s own dorsal fin if that would have produced me a whale.  I tried to hide my disappointment and I don’t think I sobbed on Ed’s shoulder more than twice.

On reading the above I feel I’ve been a little unfair about my stay on Quirpon.  The place was beautiful, the food delicious and the staff were lovely, it wasn’t their fault I didn’t see whales.  But I think it is a lesson for me.  I doubt if I will travel so far or spend so much for an objective that isn’t guaranteed in the future.  Neither my time nor my money are infinite.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Travelling Hopefully - Norse Interloper Edition

St Anthony is a small town in the northeast of Newfoundland and it’s where my holiday really began everything preceding merely being a sleep deprived prelude.  St Anthony is served by a bijou airportette which is marginally closer to St Anthony than St Johns which I had left just over an hour earlier.  Fortunately there was somebody waiting to pick me up and drive me through the wilderness to my hotel.  I gargled incoherently at the receptionist and she threw a key at me and backed away slowly.

The next day eight hours of restful sleep was enough to inform me that I needed more than eight hours of restful sleep.  After breakfast I was met by a cheerful individual named Ed who would be Virgil to my Dante and my pipeline to all things cetacean.  But first, Vikings!  Or at least somewhere Vikings used to be.  Or at the very least somewhere they stopped off on their way to somewhere more interesting.

L’anse aux Meadows  is a UNESCO world heritage site.  It’s called L’anse aux Meadows because very few tourists would come to visit Peatbog by the Sea.  One of the people who did visit Peatbog  by the Sea was Leif Erickson.  He and his crew were on a voyage of discovery, specifically they were trying to discover resources they could haul back home.  Home was Greenland and it had a problem.  Some time earlier Leif’s father, Erik Leifsdad had suckered a bunch of people into moving from Iceland to Greenland.  On paper that sounds sensible, in reality not so much.  The principal problem with Greenland (and Iceland too for that matter) was a distinct lack of trees.  For a people utterly dependent on seafaring the lack of harvestable timber was a disaster.  When a merchant turned up in Greenland with some crazy story of being blown off course and encountering a land covered in trees that was enough for Leif to kit out a longship and head points west.

Well, Leif found the trees all right on the coast of Labrador but rather than call it a day he sailed south eventually pitched up at Peatbog by the Sea.  The reasons appear to have been a mixture of profit and strategy.  Peatbog by the Sea was well placed to control a number of shipping lanes including those to the vital Labrador forests but it also seems Leif wanted more.  The timber was the bread but he wanted a little jam too.  He named the region Vinland, the Land of Grapes.   No grapes grew in the area but they did grow further south and this was a useful staging post.

Incidentally the name Peatbog by the Sea may sound unappealing to us but it’s unlikely the Vikings would have agreed.  To them it meant peat (a building material), bog iron (useful for ship repairs) fresh water and, by extrapolation, fish.  Building a base here suddenly doesn’t seem so silly after all.  And a base is all it was.  It was never a colony or a permanent settlement, just a place the Vikings could sail into, overwinter, conduct ship repairs and trade with the locals.

I didn’t know any of the above going in so I was a little surprised at the small size of the settlement, just two or three longhouses and some ancillary buildings.  You can’t actually see the buildings because the Vikings burnt them down when they left.  Archaeologists dug up the remains but when they were finished doing whatever it is archaeologists do they buried them again.  Apparently to preserve the site in case they want to dig it up again one day.

There is however a replica longhouse so that visitors can see how Vikings would have lived if they had been subject to modern Canadian health and safety laws.  The doorways to a longhouse were only four feet high (for obvious, head chopping reasons) but the replica has six foot high entrances so that people don’t bang their head.  Also the fire inside is fueled by propane after the original (and much more authentic) wood fire was implicated in an unfortunate replica burning down incident.  All of which may go some way to explaining why the Vikings were much feared sea warriors and the Canadians aren’t.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Travelling Hopefully

As we settled into our seats we were warned that as our aircraft would be travelling to the United States we had to avoid congregating into groups while we were on the plane.  This despite the fact that I have probably never been physically closer to more people in my life.  I edged to the side of my seat and gazed with suspicion at the person next to me.  Somehow we both managed to avoid the attention of security.

While waiting for gravity to reassert its temporarily surrendered dominance over our metal steed I settled down to read The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani which had thoughtfully been provided to me by Thomas Siemsgluess.  Much thanks to Thomas; straight outta Hamburg!

The Death of Truth by citing learned studies and referencing various authors and philosophers managed to dress up a statement of the bleeding obvious that I had managed to figure out myself despite the fact that I have only the vaguest idea of what post modernism is (for the record, its a sort of intellectual blind alley that various people have charged down with such enthusiasm that they've got hopelessly lost despite the fact that there's nowhere to go).  I actually agreed with most of what the author said but I would have been grateful if he had actually suggested anything that we could have done about the situation.  That's the bit that I didn't already know.  Sadly I still don't.

With a greater understanding of the imminent collapse of  human civilisation thus attained I settled in to watch Deadpool 2.  After which I browsed the documentaries the inflight entertainment had to offer.  Principal among them, "Rise of the Sexbots".  That collapse of civilisation thing isn't exactly a work in progress any more.

It took me less time to get through customs in Canada than it did to simply change planes in Dallas.  Once Homeland Security decided I was unlikely to be an existential threat to their transit lounge I was released to wander the corridors of Dallas-Fort Worth airport like a sleep deprived ghost.  In the absence of sleep I developed an alternate revivification routine.  I changed my clothes, washed such parts of me as were immediately accessible, purchased coffee and arranged for a muscular black guy to massage my neck and back.  That last one is unlikely to surprise too many people who know me.  Nor will the fact that I had to pay for it.

With sleep held at bay and vigour (or something that in my sleep deprived state I mistook for vigour) restored I climbed into another plane for the trip to Toronto and what a sad comedown it was.  The Sydney-Dallas flight had been in an A-380 where even in economy you need a gardener to tend the estate that comes with your seat.  For the Dallas-Toronto flight we were crammed into what looked like a roll of Christmas wrapping paper with wings.  I also noticed it actually required more space to land the thing that it did for the A-380 which was odd given there are countries smaller than an A-380.

Canadian customs having hurled me onto the street without even asking why I was in their country I found my hotel and settled down for about four hours sleep before getting up and catching another plane, this one to Newfoundland.  Once in Newfoundland I caught another plane to St Anthony which is where my holiday really starts.  I seem to have been travelling in the aircraft version of a Russian doll.  Each plane has been a bit smaller than the last.  By the time I got onto the flight to St Anthony the plane looked like something you might get as a toy in your breakfast cereal.

The next day I would be travelling to a Viking settlement and then onto the lighthouse where I'll be staying.  I have one night's sleep to remove the effects of approximately two and a half days of jetlag.  I'm actually typing this the next day and I can tell you that it wasn't enough.  On the other hand if I can stay awake long enough the next blog post might actually contain something other than filler about travelling through the air.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Travelling Hopefully

I’ve finally figured worked out what it is about airports that unsettles me.  The place is, by any objective standard, well lit and yet it manages to give the impression of gloom.  I always have the feeling that I can’t quite see clearly even when I’m staring at something a few inches away.  I think it’s because virtually everyone in the building intends to leave it as soon as they decently can.  This collective intention to depart gives an air of impermanence and uncertainty to the entire place as if it wasn’t quite real.  Which is pretty impressive for several square kilometres of concrete and steel.  It’s rather like being in a ghost town with the added complication that it’s full of people.

I shouldered my way through the mass semi existent people and approached the automatic check in.  This is supposed to speed the process up and I suppose it did once a staff member came and helped me after the thing didn’t recognise my passport.  This caused me existential dread totally unconnected with missing my flight.  Given the nebulous nature of reality in this place I was afraid I might dissipate into the mist myself if the documentary proof of my existence turned out to be inadequate.

Despite the very real possibility that I didn’t exist at all the security staff were sufficiently confident of the reality of me to pull everything out of my hand luggage and scan it twice before checking me for explosives residue into the bargain.  Once they had somewhat reluctantly allowed me to proceed I made my way to the departure gate where my bag and passport were checked again just in case anything had changed in the meantime.  Yes I was annoyed but I was also more than a little grateful at this independent confirmation of my existence.

Once I had been somewhat grudgingly permitted onto the plane I settled into the surprisingly comfortable seat that would be my home for the next fifteen hours.  Food was offered and I accepted more in the hope than the expectation.  As is usual on aircraft the menu was more of an aspirational statement than an accurate depiction of the food on offer.  Still they managed to produce one of the three dishes the menu boasted were on offer and it was delivered with aplomb.

Would I like wine?
Indeed I would.
White or red?
Reisling or Chardonnay?

They brought me rose which was neither red nor white.  I pointed out that it was rose.  The steward insisted it was reisling.  I pointed out it was pink.  He looked at the label.

“It’s rose,” he announced.  Good manners prevented me from pointing out I had got there before him.  I had the rose.  I was slightly afraid of what he might come back with if I sent it away.  I didn’t want to wind up washing down my meal with jagermeister.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Silly After Action Report - With Apologies to any Finnish Readers

The scene: A heavily camouflaged field sauna on the front lines.  Major Peetu Sukketin is wrapped in a towel reviewing readiness reports while enjoying a quick snack of herring and hallucinogenic reindeer urine.  The door bursts open and Captain Honkken-Horne stumbles in wide eyed.  Major Sukketin looks up in alarm.

"Honkken-Horne are you all right?  You look dreadful."

"Some stranger just tried to make conversation with me on the bus," replied the captain in tones of outrage

"Dear god, here have some reindeer piss."
The captain took the proffered mug and gathered himself.

"Sir, we have a problem?"

"What, are we running out of Finnish stereotypes?"

"Oh no sir, we haven't even touched on heavy metal yet. No, it looks like the Soviets are planning an attack."

"How's the mood of the men?"

"Not good, the hot weather is getting to them.  Do you know that some of the ponds aren't entirely solid any more?"

Sukketin nodded sympathetically,

"Don't worry, I'm getting us some assault guns from Lagus."

"I didn't know Nigeria made assault guns."

Yes, I could probably go on like that for quite a while but instead let's get to the AAR.  Having acquired Hakkaa Paalle over a year ago I realised that I haven't played a single scenario from it so I suggested to Ivan that we try Scenario 174 - Lagus Assault Guns.  I will be taking the stalwart Finns as they discover that backing Nazi Germany was the second worst geo-political mistake they ever made (the first was locating their country so close to Russia).  I'm defending against the ravening Soviet hordes who are trying to snatch a handful of buildings, presumably as a precursor to grander things.

To defend this little patch of Finland I have ten first line squads, a mmg, a pair of lmgs, a panzershreck, a big 81mm mortar and a pair of Sturmis which is the rather cute name the Finns gave to their German sourced StuG self propelled guns.  Ivan as the Soviets gets eight squads of mixed first line and elite troops backed up by an hmg and a trio of lights. As reinforcements he gets six squads of elite 6-2-8 assault engineers toting demo charges and a flamethrower led by a doughty 9-1.  Backing up this, in my opinion, already overly powerful Soviet force are four very impressive AFVs.  Two T-34/85 tanks and a pair of monstrous SP guns toting the sort of weapon normally only seen in human cannonball acts.

To win Ivan has to either control six of the seven buildings within three hexes of location 17R4 or get five squads and two AFVs past a line shown in red on the map below.  I thought the buildings were the most likely target and set up with a significant force in southwest forest facing where I thought he would enter.  My mortar set up hidden in the forest to the west where it could control both the open ground to the east and the road approaches.  The two assault guns I nestled in trees further back essentially holding them in reserve (ok I didn't know what to do with them, all right?).  The rest of my forces I set up in a cordon trailing east where they could either protect against a flanking attack or move to block him should he punch straight down the eastern road looking for the exit VP.

Ivan surprised me by holding his armour back and entering his entire force in the extreme west.  He pushed his infantry through the orchards and forest but suffered a savage set back almost immediately.  He moved a pair of squads (plus an lmg) forward through the trees and directly into LOS of my mortar.  My second round was a hit and a snake eyes on the effects killed both squads outright.  And this was only turn 1.  Ivan was his usual restrained self at this set back while I danced a jig around my computer and mocked him cruelly.  I did little in my turn except skulk to regain concealment and attempt, unsuccessfully to gain more results with my mortar.

End of Ivan's turn 1 and he's already two squads down (north is to the right)
Ivan brought on his assault engineers in the second turn but once again held his armour back.  In contrast with the westerly positioning of his first force the reinforcements came on far to the east and charged for the one squad I had sitting in a building as a speed bump.  It managed to break one squad before the brown tide overwhelmed it and sent it yelping and broken to the west.  Ivan's strategy seemed clear.  He was going to try and fix the bulk of my forces in the west while his assault engineers made a dash down (or at least adjacent to) the forest road for the exit.  I didn't mind being fixed in the west.  I felt I had enough forces east to slow and possibly stop that push.  As it turned out I was being optimistic.

Regular troops in the north, assault engineers in the south

In my turn my mortar broke some more guys but for the rest of it I just shuffled some of my eastern troops down to where I thought they might inconvenience Ivan's push.  Inconvenience is a generous term as it turned out.

Finally on turn three the Soviet armour made its appearance.  Both T34s came on in the east to back up his assault engineers while the two big guns rolled west to provide some much needed fire support for his western troops who, frankly, had got nowhere.  Monstrously sized shells obliterated a couple of dummy stacks and it was obvious that it was time to abandon my forward defence up there.

"Back up" incidentally is a good term for how Ivan used his tanks.  The sat back well away from my troops (and their one hex range panzerfausts) while his assault engineers pushed forward.  It soon became obvious that a) I couldn't stop them and b) having eight morale troops was simply a challenge to the dicebot to ensure that I still failed morale checks.  A squad and lmg having failed a morale check Ivan surprised me by suspending operations while he enthusiastically surrounded the brokies and killed them for failure to rout.  I questioned this tactic and Ivan indicated he was afraid of the Finnish self rally capacity.  This was needless paranoia on Ivan's part as five turns of combat have resulted in my self rallying a total of one half squad.  Still what it did mean was that I only had two squads (plus some dummies) left to defend the east.  Defence down there now consisted of skulking and praying.

Ivan is pushing forward
My western defenders had been pushed into the far western part of the woods they occupied which allowed Ivan to swing some troops and an assault gun round the trees to the east looking to push through a gap into the open ground and the victory buildings.  All I had there was one squad and a HIP hero w/schreck and halfsquad.  I really hoped I might get a shot on the AFV but when a squad with an lmg wound up right next door I felt I had to take a six flat shot at them for no result.  Another six flat shot in prep fire also generated no result and then somewhat recklessly I advanced into CC.  I was hoping my stealth and hero would compensate for lack of numbers.  Nope they died and I lost the panzerschreck without firing a shot.  Ivan now had three squads and an assault gun in this vicinity compared with my squad and a half while the remainder of his western force (essentially a squad with the hmg) kept my other guys busy.

The hero with the panzerschreck is about to die

Things took a turn for the better in the west when a squad battle hardened becoming fanatic and generating a hero.  All Ivan had in the immediate vicinity was his hmg squad and a lonely 8-1 leader.
A word about that hmg squad.  So far its done nothing.  With a 5pp weapon it can hardly move at all and I thought I would be rather clever.  Rather than attack it I would advance east against his lone leader with a hero led fanatic squad and simultaneously head a little closer to what was obviously going to be the main scene of the fighting.  You know how this goes, I had 7-1 odds, rolled boxcars and watched him withdraw back to a convenient location next to the hmg squad.  I'm sure that's going to hurt me later.

Meanwhile in the east I was defending by sniper.  With my skulking troops having pretty much run out of forest to slink back into I was forced to actually shoot.  I failed and had a squad broken and ELR'ed into the bargain.  Now I had just one squad left down there.  However my sniper made up for all.  I got four sniper results, three 1s and a 2.  I broke a squad, casualty reduced a squad, killed his 9-1 and pinned another squad.  Lest you feel some sympathy for Ivan at this point I invite you to reflect on how many fours he must have rolled to generate all that particularly when I didn't get a sniper on every opportunity.  Ivan had advanced a squad into CC with my one remaining intact unit in the east and, glory of glories, I slaughtered him at no cost to myself.  And with that I had broken Ivan's strategy.  He needed to get five squads plus two AFVs past the red line and now he only had four squads of assault engineers left.  Which means that the remnants of his other force are really going to have to step up.

A close combat triumph. Let the bells ring out

 Ivan started turn six with what I thought was an act of pure spite.  My squad in the east which had just triumphed in close combat was somewhat awkwardly positioned between two other squads both carrying a flamethrower.  Ivan cheerfully soaked them in flaming liquid and then shot the broken, ELRed survivors.

With the pointless sadism phase completed Ivan gathered himself for a last desperate throw.  Prep fire in the centre broke my last undamaged squad in that vicinity (I still couldn't buy a morale check) and then he was off.  Two squads of his assault engineers ignored the remnants of my defence and made their way to the exit line.  I was happy to let them go.  Then his remaining two squads made their move.  One by one they charged across the open (well, openish) ground heading for the red line.  Now however the dice which had been a bucketload of suck for most of the game (snipers excepted) favoured me.  His first squad, guided by a leader, wound up behind a hedge adjacent to my rearmost Sturmi which was pointing the wrong way.  I slewed it round, got a hit and broke the squad.  Eager for revenge Ivan roared his forwardmost T34/85 up the forest road.  To do so it had to slide past a concealed squad, sadly my morale check failures came back to haunt me, the squad was now green and ineligible for a panzerfaust.  But then Ivan rolled out directly in front of the recently fired Sturmi.  For the first time since I have been playing this game intensive fire worked for me.  I scored an unconfirmed kill on the T34.  Then it was the turn of his other squad.  It raced past my other Stumi trusting to grain and a two hexside VCA change to protect it.  Nope, critical hit which vapourised the squad and its lmg and also kept rate.  Things were looking grim for Ivan but he didn't despair.  Sitting in a building in the middle ground was a stack I had managed to keep concealed.  Ivan started up an assault gun and lurched forward determined to freeze them in bypass.  This might have worked if he hadn't forgotten that my Sturmi had kept rate.  A side shot smashed the assault gun and suddenly Ivan was getting low on armour as well.

The point behind Ivan's armour sacrifice was the hope of freezing my guys in the building with bypass.  That hadn't worked but he played his last card anyway.  His final squad abandoned the useless hmg, hopped onto his surviving assault gun and rolled down the road.  At which point I revealed my 9-1 guided mmg and hosed him off the vehicle.  In the rout phase, absent any live Soviets I managed pull a couple of broken units back to a victory building that wasn't actually in any danger at all.

In my sixth turn my rearmost Sturmi took out his T34/85 but the final nail in Ivan's coffin, appropriately enough, came when a sniper broke one of the few functioning squads he had left.  That was sufficient.  He didn't have enough troops left to have even the slightest hope of getting five squads past the red line.  Ivan conceded with grace.  I accepted with malice.

The end; not too many Finns but almost no Soviets

"Where the hell are the men?" demanded Sukketin looking around in astonishment.  Honkken-Horne gave an embarrassed grin.

"Apparently when the shooting started they all ran and hid in the refrigerator sir."

"I knew it was a mistake bringing that thing with us.  Well drag them out and tell them the Sturmis won the battle for us.  Just in time too, I have to return them."

"I've already covered them in stamps and mailed them to Abuja."

"Lagus you idiot and that joke is getting old!"

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Light Up the Night

I was having a quick chat with my Belarusian tech support trying to convince them that simply because they had harvested my DNA while I slept I was not liable for child support for any of the resulting mutated offspring they had created in their research facilities when the smell of smoke drifted across my room.  I sniffed and looked around for the source.  I noticed my tech support were doing the same.

"Guys is that anything to do with you?"

They shook their heads in unison.

"Are you sure?"

"Oh yes, political prisoners have a completely different smell."

Slightly panicked I started looking for a source of the burning when the lightly charred face of my Tasmanian correspondent appeared on the screen.  Despite a distinct frizziness to her hair and some interesting facial blisters she seemed in good spirits.

"Sorry about the smoke, that's me."

"If you've taken up smoking you're doing it wrong."

"No, idiot.  We had a torchlight parade.  And gluhwein.  Quite a lot of gluhwein actually."

It would appear that Tasmania's No Festival Season has officially ended.  The next glut of festivals started in a rather modest way with a local one that my correspondent engages in.  Partly out of solidarity with her neighbours, partly for the sake of her children but mainly for the gluhwein.

It seems that in the dark and cold of a Tasmanian Winter night such of my correspondents neighbours as can be dragged out of doors by their children engage in a torchlight procession.  At first I wondered if this was some sort of political protest with the outraged peasantry snatching up torches and storming the castle where hideous and unnatural experiments were taking place.  Then I remembered that my tech support were based in Minsk and were unlikely to be the target of a bunch of suburban Tasmanians no matter how pissed off they were.

Apparently this was the Tasmanian's idea of fun.  Or at least running up and down the streets waving burning brands in the faces of all and sundry was their children's idea of fun.  To get the parents on board there was gluhwein.  Aglow with community spirit my correspondent had marshalled her children, given them incendiary devices and unleashed them onto the streets.  Other parents had done the same.  Strangely despite the presence of a parcel of prepubescent pyromaniacs most of the suburb remained stubbornly unburnt. 

The parents, somewhat nervously given the amount of flame knocking about, marshalled their offspring and herded them in the direction of a bonfire in the quarry.  Once there the children were entertained by a fire twirler, the parents were entertained by gluhwein and everybody stood perhaps a little too close to the bonfire.

It is this sort of rich cultural heritage that in earlier times served the vital purpose of weeding the less viable from the gene pool.  Sadly today's safety culture has started to intrude on even this innocent attempt at child murder.  My correspondent spoke in tones of withering contempt of certain parents who, rather than trust their six year old with a flaming torch, provided them with LED lights instead.  She, I and my tech support in a rare burst of unity agreed that it was this sort of mollycoddling that was breeding a generation of useless parasites who didn't even know how to treat third degree burns.

I was intrigued by the fire twirler though.  It seems that except in explicit festival times such things are rare in Hobart.  Street performers, hippies, the professionally outraged and varying degrees of activists used to descend on the city to protest about forests (I think they were in favour of them) and things.  Now, however, they apparently locate themselves a little closer to the forests they are trying to protect (or possibly log) and don't hang around in Hobart much at all.  Thus the acquiring of a fire twirler was a bit of a coup.

Speaking of the protesters apparently one of them was a surfer from Byron Bay.  He decided that he would go for a surf in the waters off Tasmania in the middle of Winter, without wearing a wetsuit.  So it seems as though we are still coming up with ways of winnowing the inadequate out of the gene pool, or gene surf in this instance.  Everybody warned him but he did it anyway and he died.  This would be hysterically funny if it wasn't for the fact that a police officer and a kayaker were hurt trying to save this clown.