Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Angelico Anglo-Austrian Adventure - Arriving again in Australia

Flying in a 787 is much less stressful than any other affordable option. There were no complains about ears popping, air conditioning dessicating or tiny windows inducing claustrophobia. But humans aren't designed to sit in one position for eight hours, and movies are of limited value as a form of entertainment.

Our stopover in Dubai was very brief - straight off and straight on again. Midga is getting a runny nose, if he's not well enough to go to work on Monday that's going to look a bit suspicious!

Brunei is still under refurbishment. Seeking drinking water Midga goes first to the shops, and then to the toilets. Both prove fruitless - the shops only sell hot drinks (at exorbitant prices, even by airport standards) and the toilets are in a state of cleanliness somewhere between Blackburn and Flinders Street.

We got the same plane (but a new crew) for the last leg to Tulla. We're in the aisle and middle seats of the starboard side of the plane this time, not the middle section, so we can watch the passenger next to us play with the window dimming control. Pity it's dark out. Hopefully there's an early dawn.

Midga and I get in a good game of OpenTTD during the flight but there's no in-seat power so that only lasts as long as my battery. At the end of my tether it's still dark outside, but we're passing over generally familiar territory. The maps on the in-flight entertainment units have a really weird way of choosing which cities to show, so Midga has a bit of fun working out where we are in relation to (say) Mildura when the only towns shown are Adelaide and Donald.

We start our descent between Seymour and Shepparton, and on the way down Midga could pinpoint Craigieburn, Caroline Springs, the city, Highpoint and Essendon. The landing is one of the best we've had so far and then it's a quick run on the Skybus and we just walk across the street to get home!

Once again ladies and gents it's been a pleasure to be your correspondent on the spot. Please wish Midga and Asha a smooth transition to normal life (for various definitions of normal) and many pleasant honeymoon memories.

The Angelico Anglo Adventure - Aviating Back where we Came on a Dreamliner Extraordinare

Abandoning my addiction to awkward alliteration, I woke the humans right on the crack of 10:30am and made them pack their bags. Before leaving they spent some time taking selfies with Shelly, which seems to be a good way for humans to deal with the whole being-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-world thing.

We took the bus to the tube station, and boarding the bus with baggage is just as hard as it was on the way in - it wasn't just because they were jetlagged. From my vantage point inside Midga's backpack I could feel every acceleration and deceleration, and if I had inner ears I would have been quite seasick.

On the tube there was more room, since it was off peak time, and we made the trip without incident. Changing at Acton Town for the Piccadilly line to Heathrow we managed to get a 1973 train - the same age as the Hitachis and still going strong. The trains seem to be in an M-T-M-T-T-M configuration, or at least that's how the cabs are arranged. We were in the fourth car, so we could see the driving controls in the adjacent cab. They looked basic and reliable like a W-class tram's, and Midga expressed a wish to have a go at driving one.

Heathrow hasn't changed since we were here two weeks ago. There's some sort of security scare on at the moment so they're being a bit more thorough with their bag checks, and we were told to arrive three hours before flying instead of two. That meant more time to kill after check-in of course, but we found power in a coffee shop and settled down to wait.

As we are now leaving the land of tube trains, let me just make sure I've covered everything.

As an Old World city, London has grown with not so much urban planning as urban opportunism. Even the spare of urban renewal courtesy of the Luftwaffe in 1940 didn't really make London focus itself on any particular key areas for development - or at least if it did that isn't really reflected in the layout of the transport network. That makes it hard to know what's what by any method apart from memorising vast numbers of origin/destination combinations and their attendant journey plans. An interesting side effect is that there's no rhyme or reason to platform numbers - where we can define Platform 1 as being the platform for up trains and Platform 2 for down trains (Burnley excepted), in the tube there isn't even a universal definition of up.

It's particularly bad on the Circle line. It's not a true circle - it comes back and meets itself, but not at the origin. From Paddington you can get Circle line trains in four different directions! How is this handled? Every train says "This is a Circle line train via x and y" - with x and y changing at intervals along the trip. Quite clunky really.

Most routes (including the Overground, DLR and British Rail services) use the "Fish and Chips" method of running services - a main line into a big city station with lots of terminating platforms. It's more flexible operationally than the "Apple Pie" method (services running through the city and out the other side, with only a few extra platforms) but uses more land and is less flexible strategically. So as tube patronage has grown and capacity at terminal stations has been filled, weird stopping patterns have arisen, with trains terminating one or two stops short of the end of the line. Also when new lines are built (or existing ones are connected up) they have to do the same thing.

Tunnelling, and especially making modifications to existing tunnels, is vastly expensive, especially in high value real estate. Anyone building tunnels needs to plan it carefully and tie it in with urban planning for the next few centuries, because changing it once it's in place is as close to impossible as macro evolution. Not looking at anyone in particular, Victorian Liberal party. And when I say plan, I mean every aspect - for example, a tunnel which enforces a non-standard loading gauge and platform height is a bad tunnel. (Incidentally, they really have done the very best they can with those tunnels - the trains fit like a 500-class in the Mount Lofty tunnel, which means the air in front of the train all gets pushed forward, not around - so the breeze in the face that tells you a train is approaching is of hurricane proportions.)

There were a few curiosities that don't really matter but stick in my mind. Escalator Manners exist in reverse - stand on the right, walk on the left. They don't drive on the wrong side of the road, I wonder how that state of affairs came up.

Tube trains are only just starting to get air conditioning now. Most trains just have a window in the end communication door for ventilation, not even hopper windows. And yet they manage to have trains packed to the gills (longitudinal seats will do that) without, presumably, people passing out regularly and needing an ambulance. Or maybe they do and that's why there's an ad campaign in the best "Eat More Fruit" style, telling people to keep cool with a bottle of water.

Due to the different loading gauges there are "mind the gap" announcements at most stations. But where the platforms are at the right height the gap is miniscule - about as good as our tram super stops. Suspension on the trains must have been tightened up or something, I've never seen that on a heavy rail network.

Well, bye bye tube. You've taught me a lot and I'm going to hold onto my Oyster card even though I could cash it in and get a few quid for it. Like Aslan would have said if he'd had wheels instead of paws, you form the backbone of Transport For London, which is both honour enough to raise the head of the poorest beggar and shame enough to bow the head of the most powerful king that ever lived.

A Narnia quote is always a good way to finish off a blog post.

The Angelico Anglo Adventure - Thomas and Bertie

Thomas, you understand, represents gunzelling. After all, most gunzels since the 1980s have grown up on Rev Awdry's books (or at least the TV derivatives) and they answer all the basic questions like what a set of points does. But Bertie, in this case, isn't a bus but a Wooster. More of him later. Yes, much more. Foine, foine, foine.

So today the humans got up and got going at a decent hour for a day's gunzelling - that is, earlier than they have for the rest of this holiday trip. After wasting a considerable amount of time focusing their attention on food and clothes, they headed off. In two different directions! Asha went for the Shakespeare Globe theatre and Kensington Gardens, but she had a very frustrating day because she couldn't get in to either of them and wasted a lot of time waiting for buses and trains, which I wouldn't have minded (as long as there was a station to study, or something) but when you have something else in mind even studying foreign railway infrastructure just doesn't satisfy. So let's skip over that and talk about the day Midga and I had.

We started by putting a few quiddages onto his Oyster card, we knew it was going to get a work-out today. Then it was off to Kings Cross St Pancras, which on the tube is one station with exits on both sides of the road (ie one to each station). Poor Gordon was so close when he went to London and said it was "all wrong". Anyone who's played Scotland Yard will remember stop 13 with tube connections to anywhere at all. Incidentally we're going to have to have another go at that game now.

St Pancras is, of course, St Pancras International. And it really feels like an international airport! The shops are all up-market (one which is still under construction advertises itself London's oldest bookshop, which is puzzling). International and long distance trains are upstairs, and the Overground and short distance are downstairs. A double decker station, why not?

We took a Class 319 EMU to Farringdon. It's very much like a Sprinter (the trains on the Buxton line) on the outside, but the inside is more for short distance trips. When we got off we noticed Farringdon has 25kV AC overhead and 750V DV third rail on same tracks. That's good to know, like the combination of light rail and O-bahn.

Back we went, and this time visited King's Cross - London terminus of the Flying Scotsman. Today it's a nice mix of old and new - classic brickwork walls and a modern sculpted roof with blue light projected onto it. A footbridge connects the main platforms and it also goes through the wall to the section where local trains run from.

Ask me how they keep pigeons out of the station! Sometimes natural methods are the best, they say. In this case it's the most effective I've seen. Wait for it - they have an official Network Rail raptor handler, who parades a real live hawk around the station to frighten them away. There were exactly 0 pigeons at King's Cross today, giving the bird of prey method a distinct edge over the Caulfield spikes and the Box Hill netting.

Eventually we made our way back to the tube to visit Euston. Actually from King's Cross St Pancras you can't get to Euston itself, you can get to Euston Square which is about 400m away. It's just the wrong distance, not far enough to take a train between them but not close enough to call it part of the same station.

Euston itself is very grubby by comparison with the other two, the platform section has low ceilings and poor lighting. The concourse is nice and open though. Interestingly it still has what looks like a motorail dock, but by the look of it I reckon it's only used for getting freight into station.

By then it was time to head off for Leicester Square, because we're seeing Jeeves and Wooster today! Should I break that out into a new post? Nah why bother, you get a mega post today!

I was a little apprehensive to be honest, because the charm of the books is Bertie's inimitable narrative style, and the contrast between the way the events really happen (which the readers work out for themselves) and the way Bertie sees them. The TV series misses this completely, by telling the story from an external point of view, not Bertie's. But this stage version was great. It existed as a sort of play within a dinner party narrative - it opened with Bertie telling us how Bingo Little had loved the story and suggested he do it on stage, and then saying "I've seen lots of theatre, acting seems pretty easy so here goes!"

The story line was the one about Totleigh Towers and the cow creamer - is that Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit? Or Right Ho Jeeves? I shall have to research this question, woe is me. All the roles in the inner play were played by three guys - in the outer dinner party they were Bertie, Jeeves and Seppings. That was good - it meant they didn't have to find an actress who could do justice to the role of Aunt Dahlia (red face, massive bulk, massive voice, genial nature, breezy manner and love of the use of blackmail to bend nephews to her will) or drag any supermodels away from Hollywood at enormous salaries to play Madeline Bassett. Plus, it meant the petite Stiffy Byng was taller than Bertie, and whenever Roderick Spode entered there was quite a business of Seppings climbing up onto a wheeled truck (Fessick and the holocaust cloak, anyone?) and operating a dummy colossus figure like a glove puppet.

The narrative was shortened somewhat, to get it into a two hour theatre slot. But that gave the authors an opportunity to exchange the policeman's-helmet-out-the-window gag with handing the bally thing to an audience member in the front row. We had bought cheap seats in the crick-neck area, which was a shame for Asha who could see about a third of the action, but great for Midga who got to handle one of the props of a professional London show. He had Asha's Tyrolean hat in his other hand, and had to be very careful to give the right one back when Jeeves came in with his magic wand at the end of the show.

Technically, the show was quite brilliant. The stage was fairly bare at the beginning, with Bertie in his easy chair and not much else. Then there was a noise of hammering off stage and Jeeves rolls in the wall of Bertie's drawing room and says "I thought it might lend colour to your narrative, sir" and Bertie says "I say, Jeeves, did you just whip that up now? That's amazing!" The actor playing Bertie had a grin just like Andy Payne, and I thought he suited the role perfectly.

Later in the show Jeeves brings out a bike with its back wheel propped up, and pedals it as the stage rotates! Bertie acts all confused of course, "I can't find the door Jeeves, where have you put it?"

Changing costumes is done cleverly each time. To play Madeline, Jeeves takes a moment to panic, then snatches a lamp shade off a lamp to be her hat and a curtain off a window for a skirt and speaks falsetto. When Stiffy springs her trap on Uncle Watkin and he summons her to tell her not to marry Bertie, Jeeves comes out in a half-and-half costume (Seppings is playing Sir Watkin's butler Butterfield at the time) and has a dialogue with himself.

I think it can probably be summed up as being a show full of the performers' inner Bugs Bunny - in other words, a great one. I think even non-Wodehouse fans would appreciate it.

After the show we wandered around Leicester Square for a bit (looking for food as usual) and then started heading for Aldgate - there's another dancing lesson on tonight. The way to Aldgate was via Euston, which Midga and I enjoyed but Asha formed the opinion that if she never saw another tube station in her life she wouldn't mind. The narrow twisting passages all alike and pressing crowds in peak time aren't the best environment to be in when you've already done 20km of walking that day and have a broken toe. But that mood passed when we got to the dancing class, because they were teaching something called a "Swing Out". Apparently that's something both my humans have been waiting for. To me it just looked like bodies bouncing around the stage and arms and legs jerking in random directions. No wonder Asha had her feet on Midga's lap (where I usually sit) on the tube on the way home.

Tomorrow we fly home.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Angelico Anglo-Austrian Adventure - Twain on Europe

Mark Twain once described New South Wales Government Railways' practice of weighing baggage and charging for the excess as being "troublesome and European - that which is not troublesome cannot be truly described as European". And so it proves as we board the ferry for Dover - compared with our southbound crossing where we just went straight on, straight off and on our way, this time we had to queue up for ages, get off the bus, go through Passport Control, get back on the bus, and then queue up again to get onto the boat. Incidentally, it's the same one we had before, the Pride of Burgundy, owned by P&O Ferries.

It felt good to swap the universal plug adaptor from European to British mode. Luckily we were on board before all the tables in the bar became occupied, and one TWROAPP was still vacant. So Midga and I spent most of the voyage playing OpenTTD, which we haven't done for ages. No WiFi on the boat unfortunately.

The bus ride from the docks to London seemed to last a lot longer than it did. The crew were good, but not as hilarious as Spencer and Neil. Driving up the motorway we paralleled a railway - Midga and I were hoping it was the main line to the Channel Tunnel and that we might see a Eurostar flash by at some unbelievable rate of knots. Unfortunately we saw nothing at all - not even a local EMU. Ah well.

When we got to London Victoria the driver announced the directions for people transferring to the National Express service to Glasgow. Now over here, National Express is a bus company, not the owner of M>Train, M>Tram and V/Line. Who travels to Glasgow by bus when there's two completely awesome rail options? Well I guess it's the same answer as who goes to Austria by bus instead of flying or Chunnelling - people who holiday on a budget.

From Victoria we got the tube to Shelly's and arrived just as the humans were approaching 0% battery power. So no gunzelling tonight. It was dark out anyway.

The next day it was time to start our London adventures. We sat around gasbagging with Shelly for a while, then headed out. Just shopping today, and getting an idea about navigating London.

The number of options for buses and tube stations is mind boggling. Without a grid network of main roads there's bus routes within walking distance in several different directions, and with the tube the way it is you can pick which one to walk to based on where you're going. I wonder how long it takes to get used to it.

So we went to Oxford Street, to a discount clothes shop called Primark. Apparently it's even cheaper than KMart and Target, and Asha needs some clothes of some sort. What with the crowds, the queues and the decidedly non-linear (and completely nonsensical) method they use to allocate numbers to sizes, we spend most of the day there.

That evening is spent recounting our Austrian adventures to Shelly, and talking randomly about anything that comes up. Fun people are fun.

The next day it was time to tourist around. We started by going to Paddington station to buy our London Passes. It's a kind of "welcome to the city" card, where you pay 47 pounds and get up to 90 pounds worth of museum entries for the day. Paddington itself was quite a sight - five HST sets all lined up, and the usual massive concourse lined with eateries. It's just like being at Manchester Piccadilly again but with different trains!

And that was just the beginning, we were off to the Tower of London. Which is quite old, even in human years. We took a guided tour with one of the Yeomen Warders, who told us bloodthirsty stories about beheadings and political intrigue which would completely destroy your respect for the monarchy if you didn't bear in mind there weren't any parliamentarians back then so each member of the royal family had to possess disrespectability enough for six, just to make up the allotted quantity.

We had to hurry (sic) a bit because we wanted to see about a dozen different places today, and the next one on the list was Tower Bridge, which is right next door. Victorian era engineering, my all-time favourite! Unfortunately the "Tower Bridge experience" is aimed at tourists who really don't care how steam power or hydraulics work and just want to take a few happy snaps and then leave. Worse still, when people who ARE interested see an exhibition like that, all they can do is take a few happy snaps and then leave - with a few wistful backward glances at the stunningly restored brasswork and cylinder castings. Still, the rivetted ironwork holding up the towers of the bridge was quite a sight. And there was a video reenactment of Queen Victoria discussing the urban planning, world heritage and skyline implications of having a second river crossing. That was fun.

Now I'm not really qualified to comment on the afternoon, because without legs and feet of my own I have no idea just how tiring it can be to tramp around London, going from map to map and wondering why it takes so long to get anywhere. But at least we got a chance to buy tickets to Jeeves and Wooster for tomorrow, which we're seeing with Trevor F.

To my (limited) understanding, walking and dancing are pretty much the same thing, so if a pair of humans don't feel like walking, a whole evening of dancing will be right out. But no. Not only did they brave the rain to go to a blues dancing lesson, but they paid good money for it too. I'm beginning to see how Midga could behave the way he did at the Tyrolean night - after all, he likes learning stuff, and keeping in time to the music is pretty much the same skill as stepping from one pallet of chairs to the next without falling over. Not that he ever did that, of course. Not while he was secretary of the Say Stafe Steam, or Stay Safe Team, or whatever they called it. No, certainly not.

After about an hour of shamelessly bumping his rear at everyone else in the room the lesson was over. My attention span was pretty much done, but Asha said there was another whole lesson to go, AND something called "social" after that. It was too much for me so Midga and I went for a bit of a stroll. No particular reason, we'd just seen trains in the distance and were curious.

And I'm so glad we did! It was the Docklands Light Railway, which runs driverless trains! The station we were at was one stop from the city terminus - or rather, the city termini, because there are two of them. Since we had an Oyster card already on the go we decided to take a ride. From Shadwell to Bank we just sort of watched through the window, observing the strange shape of the third rail and the electrical conduit running down the centre of the Four Foot connecting to each rail alternately - presumably providing a return circuit in case ground isn't the same as ground when there's 25kV AC trains running in the same reservation as 750V DC light rail vehicles.

From Bank to Shadwell we got the front seat. There are notices up saying that we have to vacate the seat if asked to by the Customer Service Agent if they want to drive the train from the front. At one point she was doing exactly that - she pressed a button to say "Close the doors" and then another to say "Go", and the train did everything else. It knew when the flat junction between the Bank and Tower Gateway lines was occupied. It even knew there was a train slowing into Shadwell station in front of us - and from the way it slowed down in increments I think it must have moving block safeworking. That would explain why I didn't see any signals - do you call it in-cab signalling when there's no cab?

Incidentally, re the flat junction, Bank is an underground station, and immediately after the junction the line descends off a viaduct to ground level (and then into a tunnel portal). Why on earth couldn't they put the descending lines in between the flat ones and avoid the junction? Anyway, it was fun to see the train's automatic "driver" stopping at a "red signal" on a steep gradient, and then starting again when it went "green".

Back at Shadwell with time to kill we visited Tower Gateway, which has platforms on both sides of the single terminating track - which provides a unique example of a station which has a single platform and a double platform by the same operation.

Watching the track from the front of a train never gets old. We need more half-width cabs, or double decker vehicles, or (let's go for broke) driverless trains in Melbourne!

Back at Shadwell we glanced around the Overground station (which was in fact underground) but the trains were the same Class 378 things we saw a few years back. It was almost time for social so we went back to the dance studio.

Now social, I've worked out, is just a piece of time when there's no lesson going on. The people who took the lesson are still around, the music is still on, and anyone who wants to dance can just get up and dance. Midga and Asha had a go but they were a bit tired and headed home pretty soon. The teachers and several of the students expressed deep appreciation for them visiting from the other side of the world, and homeward they trod.

In London there are quite a few bus routes that keep running at a useful frequency until midnight. It's amazing. So we didn't take the Overground back to the tube station to go home, we just sat in a bus shelter trying to keep the rain off for a few minutes, and then a bus came along.

Double decker buses are fun. Up the top you can see forward, but you're so high that perspective tells you everything's closer than it seems. So a cyclist who's calmly minding their own business in the left gutter looks like they're inches from disaster when actually the bus is overtaking them in a perfect "be nice to cyclists week" manner.

From the tube to Shelly's Midga offered Asha a piggy back, but he's getting out of shape and couldn't do it. Pity, it would have made quite a photo.

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - so long, farewell, auf widersehen, goodbye

We headed downstairs for breakfast for the last time. I've noticed breakfast music is quite different over here. In Australia we usually hear slow jazz with a lot of brass and no beat, which makes people drag their eyelids open and linger over their coffee. Everywhere we've been so far in Europe has played march music with a distinct rhythm to it, which makes people chew their food and then get up and do stuff.

On that (musical) note, a word about in-store and background music in general. As you know, in-store music sits close to Midga's heart, as it represents his biggest victory over the bureaucracy. He started a thread on the Officeworks discussion forum saying how much the Christmas music sucks and offering to record some which people would flock to the store to listen to. All the other stores jumped in and agreed, someone from head office saw it, and that year there was no dreary Christmas music in stores.

Anyway, in-store music over here, mysteriously, tends to be stuff we know - American pop songs from all eras, sung in English. I get the point that most people over here speak English so it's not a problem, but they have plenty of great music of their own, why do they have to get fobbed off with second-rate American junk like James Hacker was?

After breakfast we had some time to kill before we were due to be joined by Midga's Swiss relos - they aren't actually Swiss but they live there. So we took the bummelbahn to the next village along and took the cable car up the mountain - just for fun, and for the photo op too.

Cable car tech is cool. They manage the difference in speed between cruise and boarding by having the cars drop off the cable and into a rack which moves at a crawling speed. The rack also has a trip mechanism which unlocks the doors (and locks them again just before transitioning the car onto the cable). It's a fairly flexible system, cars can be added or taken off as required (we saw spare cars stabled at the winding station). The traction comes from a 25kV plant in the winding house, and the place is full of hefty cables delivering RICH CHUNKY VOLTS to some fairly solid looking steelwork. The stanchions are passive, they have enough roller wheels to allow the cable to change angle if necessary, but don't add any power. The grip mechanism on the cars has to fit into the groove on the wheels, obviously.

The most distinctive feature of the cable car as a mode of transport is that it's not really DDA compliant. Since the car keeps moving (at a crawl) anyone who's really unsteady on their pins will have trouble getting in and out. Ditto wheelchairs. Depending on the exact method of taking cars on and off, I can conceive a system where people get onto a stabled car, which is then swapped for a car that was running. That should fix the DDA issues, leaving the cable car as a very useful option to have in a transport planner's arsenal. It provides a 20 second service frequency, is fairly straightforward to scale up (by adding cars until the winding house draws more power than the grid can provide, or the science of metallurgy can't provide steel cables that will take the weight), and operates at quite a reasonable speed. It's also got a very small land footprint while being independent of road traffic. Unfortunately I suspect capital and maintenance costs might be a bit higher than for some other vehicle types, but staffing costs are minimal.

The views from the car on the trip up the mountain were amazing. Since the car travels in a (nearly) straight line from staunchion to staunchion, the height above ground level varied considerably. Sometimes we were close enough to see every flower, other times we were above the tops of the trees. Some of the staunchions were pretty tall too, and what was funny to Australian eyes was that the maintenance access ladders weren't guarded with razor wire, and didn't have cages around them. Mountain people are just sensible, I guess.

We got out of the cable car about 20 seconds after the last bummelbahn which would get us to our hotel in time to meet the relos. So we checked out the regular bus timetable, which is also an hourly service. It would get us there just in time, and we had 40 minutes to wait. So we decided to visit the wood museum.

It would have been fascinating for someone who could understand German - as well as the wood carving full scale models of all sorts of things, there were videos showing every stage of the process (including growing the wood). Somewhat cheekily they charged us an extra euro on our admission fee for the privilege of taking photos.

Unpainted timber features heavily as a building material in the mountains. After all, there are plenty of trees there, and they're tall and as straight as a laser beam. The timber look, combined with the planter boxes full of flowers, makes the houses look beautiful despite being practically identical. It's time timber made a comeback as a building material, and oil made a comeback as a method of treatment instead of paint.

We got to the bus stop in good time, and the bus turned up at the exact minute the timetable promised. Nice. EUR2.80 took us to the hotel (it's a zone system, according to the metadata on the ticket), on a nicely padded seat in a very quiet bus. It was a high floor with two doors, and had luggage racks. The "Next stop" buttons were in English!

The relos were there when we arrived, and the humans started nattering away nineteen to the dozen. After a huge lunch (after which a doggie bag was required) they took another cable car up to the top of the hill in the village. Uncle Willem looks at the way mechanical things work, same as Midga and I do, so he was able to tell us a few things we hadn't been able to glean from a good long look at the works. It was great to have someone to geek out with.

From the top of the hill we had a complete view all the way round (just like the idiot whose wife used Lumps) and spent quite a bit of time just strolling around taking in the views. The paragliders were taking off from a cafe near the top station of the cable car run, so Midga and Uncle Willem watched them take off and examined the aerodynamics of every stage of the flight. Luckily for the girls it started to rain or we might have been up there all day. We took shelter in the cable car, and by the time we got back down the rain had given up. We kept chatting until it was time for them to head home (they had a four hour drive ahead of them) - or rather, until they'd said it was time, continued the conversation, said it was really time, stood up, had another conversation as an afterthought, said goodbye, given messages to all the family for relaying when we get home, explained their plans for their next visit to Australia, and said goodbye again. Ah, family.

Then it was just a waiting game. We watched our host receive another bus load of guests, not nearly as well behaved as us - petty, demanding and not all that polite. Maybe that's why when we all got on board our bus he came aboard to thank us and wish us a pleasant journey. Thank you, Harfenwirt.

From there it was a marathon of driving, Spencer's humour (until he decided it was late enough to turn off the lights and let the human passengers sleep), breaks every two or three hours, and reading Verity Stob. Midga didn't sleep much, which meant my battery got a workout. Luckily we've found power here at Calais where we're waiting for our connecting bus to London.

The next post will probably involve some tube trains. How exciting!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - in which Midga climbs a tree and scrapes his hands

After winning the quiz night and getting a good night's rest, we were all up and about at 7:30 - apparently it's a long drive to Salzburg and so we had an earlier start.

In the bus we had a bit of role reversal - Spencer was driving and Neil was playing hostess. Heading down the mountain is getting less scary now - tacking around corners and holding up the traffic in both directions seems almost normal. Heading out on a different road to any we've taken so far we saw a servo selling AdBlue for about EUR0.75 - I guess that's to be expected with a lot of Euro 5 engines around but I'd never thought about it. How do we handle it in Australia? Are the only Euro 5 engines in operation owned by big transport companies that have their own fuel points? Or is the AdBlue topped up with the 50,000km service? Interesting.

On that note, there are a lot of old looking trucks around. The styling suggests something from the 60s or 70s, and the makes are names I've never heard of. It's quite a mix, most of the vehicles on the road are ultra-modern, the same sort we see at home in the colours of forward-thinking transport companies (if that's not a contradiction in terms now that FCL is gone). But there's nothing in between - I haven't seen a single Scania 3-series, Volvo F model, or any of the square bodied Mercedes that were common in the 80s and 90s. For rigid vehicles, the Mercedes Unimog seems to be the chassis of choice, which strikes a chord for me.

On the way to Salzburg we're actually crossing the border into Germany, through the section of Bavaria where Hitler settled after being released from jail. Spencer told us the whole story, without referring to any notes, while he was driving down a winding mountain road. Amazing.

As we got in to Salzburg the first thing I noticed were overhead wires. But there were no rails and on second glance I noticed there were two on each side. Salzburg has trolleybuses! That merited some photos. They're articulated, and have trolley poles that are quite long so the bus can be in either lane and still pick up a wire without difficulty. Interestingly the wires are staggered from side to side like ours - we do it to even out the wear on a pantograph, but you can't have a pantograph when you have two wires. Mysterious!

The Europe-wide agency that organizes local tour guides for tourist buses had somehow managed to get the time wrong. Apparently they're good at that, and also at forgetting to roster anyone on at all. But when she turned up she was in traditional dress and told us her middle name was Maria.

First stop was the Salzburg zoo, where the scene with the children climbing trees was shot. Midga went up one to get his photo taken, not too high as the group had moved on. The gazebo (without an arrow sticking out of it) where Rolf and Liesl had their after-telegram date was in the same area - it was built for the movie and the producers presented it to the town once the movie was finished. We weren't allowed in but we got a photo showing the gap in the benches where Rolf knelt down and Liesl did her best to give him a nasty flesh wound with a high heel.

Then we headed for the old part of Salzburg and looked around the various ancient buildings. On the way there we were directed to look out the right side of the bus, and through the trees (throoooooough the treeeeeeeeees) we caught the merest glimpse of the house which was the model of Captain Von Trapp's mansion. The rest of the tour was about the history of Salzburg and the birthplace of Mozart, which was interesting in its way but not really what we came for. But we did walk through a cemetery and see a genuine edelweiss in bloom.

In between eating lunch, Asha went into a few clothes shops and looked for a reasonably priced (ie anything under EUR200, which is about AUD something incredible) traditional dirndl. Not a hope. Apparently there's factory outlets around, but inner city clothes shops are priced between the tropopause and low earth orbit.

We rejoined our bus and went to a town called Mondsee, which has a beautiful cathedral which is where the wedding scene was filmed. None of it was in the least bit recognizable - we'll have to watch the movie with the photos handy and try to compare. Still, the artwork was quite a sight.

We had nearly an hour to kill before our bus left, so we went to a few more clothes shops and Asha actually tried on a dirndl that was priced well within the troposphere. There was nothing that really fit her without alterations, but from the front she looked lovely. I think Midga thought so too, and when he was invited to take a photo (that's the beauty of big cameras, they can't be easily hidden) he was over the moon. A cheaper-looking shop had the kind of prices we like but not the right size. And of course ordering anything in wouldn't work.

So we sat by the lake and watched the ducks swimming around. And picked up WiFi briefly.

Back through Salzburg we saw a trolleybus which had lost its poles - it still happens, and the driver still has to get out, pull them down and put them back on. I suspect once we get back there'll be a big rethink of the Smart Passengers policy on urban transport where there's no rails.

On the way home they had a DVD of the original Sound of Music movie playing on the bus's info system. Midga took off his headphones after a while (altitude, ears, bad combination) and could still say most of the lines in time to the lip-reading. Sad.

Tonight we're going to hear the owner of our hotel play the harp for us all. Apparently he does all sorts of styles. This should be quite an evening.

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - define service ceiling?

This morning we woke in good spirits and proceeded downstairs. The interminable process of eating, the humans' favourite pastime, was soon over and we got on the bus. Unlike yesterday the skies were as blue as we try to make them in The Gondoliers and the sunshine was doing its job of illuminating everything. Midga made sure he had his camera with him, at least a few shots should come out well.

We had to pay extra for today's tour, but it was well worth it. The first stop was Krimml Falls - the most amazing series of waterfalls you could imagine. There was a walking trail to get up to the top, but we only made it about half way up before it was time to head back down again. Still, the views were stunning, and we saw several flowers that might have been edelweiss. On an unrelated note, Midga got to play with his camera a lot, including macro mode and lots of zoom.

As we got higher our rate of climb dropped. It took us about five minutes to do the last 25m, and since service ceiling is defined as the point where rate of climb at maximum takeoff power drops to 100ft/min we were well above our ceiling. At least we didn't need oxygen masks.

From there we went to Kitzbuhel, which is a skiing town but has enough people that aren't tourists with no sense of the value of a Euro that we were able to find a bakery selling apfelstrudel for a reasonable price. From the way the humans ate it I can well believe LeBeau would count it as his first choice for a means of using Treatment A on Schultz.

There was also a railway station, with a level crossing which had a long express setting so we got good warning of a train approaching. As a station it was nothing special (the stations on whatever network this is are very like ours - minimal facilities, bare concrete, etc) but we had two EMUs and two freight trains go through in the space of a lunchtime, which was perfect for taking advantage of the great photo weather.

The road to Kitzbuhel parallels an old narrow gauge line (it looked like about 2'0" or 2'6" when we crossed it), where diesel trains run regular services but during summer two trains a day are steam hauled. We passed one of each on the way, but photos from a moving bus aren't easy to take. The steam loco was a 2-8-0 with a four wheel tender. The driving wheels were tiny but the loading gauge was quite generous so I bet it had quite a decent bit of tractive effort. Probably the strangest thing was seeing narrow gauge rails on 100% concrete sleepers with deep ballast. It's like being in the Queensland coal fields but even more so.

What with the weather and the scenery (and the trains) it was probably the best day we've had yet, but there really isn't much to put into a blog post. So to pad it out I'd like to tell you all how funny it is to hear Midga trying to speak German.

Having lived his entire life speaking only one human language and one or two computer languages (apart from that brief episode in which he tried to learn French, with very mixed success), he is now madly pulling together everything he's absorbed unconsciously from the Goons, Biggles, various war movies and the technical specs of German planes and trains, and trying to use it in conversation. Guten morgen. Haben sie, bitte, ein T-Mobile SIM card? Nein? Danke schoen. Of course it helps that almost everyone speaks English, and that there are some conversations (Ullo. T-Mobile SIM card? Nah. OK.) which sound exactly the same in both langauges.

Interestingly, the guttural sounds we always expect to hear in a German phrase don't seem to be much in fashion here. Apparently that's mainly from the Swiss. Everyone here sounds just like Fraulein Hilda, even when they're locals talking to other locals rather than to foreign tourists trying to absorb the local culture.

But just like the French, they reward tourists who make an effort. Today when Asha ordered strudel in Kitzbuhel, she did it in German and was rewarded with a big dollop of whipped cream for no extra charge. (She couldn't finish it but she has a devoted husband who is always willing to help out with such things.)

Tonight there's a trivia quiz, with tour guide Spencer as quiz master. Should be fun! And tomorrow - Salzburg.

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - shaken to the core (all four of them)

I've known Midga all my life, and though I'm aware he made a few slight changes in his lifestyle when he met Asha, I would never in 1,048,576 years have guessed he would voluntarily get up and dance. There's so much to tell that I hardly know which parts are the highest priority. However, for the sake of my listeners I will forego interrupt-driven programming and present the events of tonight in a pure top-down layout.

We arrived at the dining room of the hotel right on 8:30pm and saw some people in traditional dress. This promised to be a good evening. We sat down at a table with some people from our group, which happened to be next to an electronic keyboard and a piano accordion. On closer examination the keyboard had three pedals under it and quite a number of buttons and soft keys, and the accordion had a cable coming out of it. Rosuav, you would have loved it. The player/singer ran it all as a one man band - the pedals switched between pre-set programs to control the rhythm and choice of instruments in the bass section (chords were controlled by the bottom half of the keyboard), the percussion section was controlled by buttons, and he was singing as well as playing the melody on either the accordion or the top half of the keyboard. It was fascinating to watch him getting the most out of the machine's features.

As expected, he opened with some traditional Austrian music, similar to the stuff we'd heard in the bummelbahn. Midga was sitting there tapping his foot and just enjoying the music. I could understand that. But then the music changed a bit - it went a bit more modern. Now I have to tell you something about Austrian music - it's not all written in waltz time. Quite a lot of it is in 4/4 or 2/4 and is great for marching or working to. And this particular song was in 4/4 and had a bit of a blues groove to it. And what did Midga do but ask Asha to dance! I thought it must have been a joke because so many other couples were on the floor but they really did it! There wasn't a director telling him to dance or a choreographer telling him how, but he did it anyway. I don't know what's real and what's not - maybe I'm hallucinating from the effect of the altitude and being offline for so long.

Anyway, after that the traditional dancers came on and did their thing. For the men there's a lot of very fast, very accurate high kicking, knee slapping and foot slapping. They were perfectly in time and it looked and sounded amazing. Once you looked closer you could see that some of the foot slaps were in front and some were behind, it alternated left and right feet, and there must have been a pattern to it all because they were all doing the same thing. For the girls it consisted mostly of spinning. Of course they were wearing long skirts, which obeyed the laws of physics. When the couples paired up it initially looked like they were just going to walk around in a circle, but then you could see the men were each grabbing the thumb of the next in line and their arms were twisted around in a manner which defied physiology.

They must have been tired after that, because the one man band came back on and played some more music. I guess after the last eipsode I should have been prepared for Midga to get up and have another go, but I was still processing the traditional dance. Anyway, a few songs in it was a waltz, and off he went again. Asha declined, so he asked another lady at our table. She declined too, so he shamelessly opened it up to the whole table. And when that didn't work he went over to some people we'd spent a bit of time with at various places on the tour, and one of them got up and danced with him. Right in front of her husband too. I have to say, he's improved a bit since Diana Burleigh told him "That was the funniest looking waltz I ever saw in my life". Probably the effect of having been a Greek diplomat on stage.

It went on for quite a while - a few songs from the band (most of which were in English, from various eras, but played on Austrian instruments, real and synthesised), and then the traditional dancers would get up and do a piece. Most of them depicted activities of everyday life - the first was milking cows, so they came on with buckets and one legged stools, carefully put them down in the centre of the circle, did their knee slap routine, and then squatted down and acted out milking in time to the music. There were some funny bits, eg one audience member was getting quite close with his camera so they mimed squirting him with the milk. One of the guys tried to sneak a peek under the skirt of one of the girls and he got slapped in the face, and all in time to the music.

After a few more songs they did a dance about milling flour, which included some incredibly fast (it looked quite dangerous in fact) whirling around in circles, meshing to depict the gear wheels that crushed the heads of grain. Then it went to a more sedate winnowing, then mixing. I forgot to say that for each dance them came out in the appropriate headwear and accessories, so in this case white caps and aprons.

The next one was mining, so the guys came out with their heads bent and mimed swinging picks to the light of lamps. That ended with a cry of "FIRE!" and they actually lit a platter full of something that burned blue, then orange, then back to blue. They had doused the lights before coming out so it looked quite impressive. The last one they did was bell ringing, which didn't seem to have much point to it except that they played along with the accordion using two or three bells each which made up the octave and a bit.

Then when we thought they'd finished and it was just going to be the Minister for Aerial Music playing for dancing for all ranks, back they come and pick members of the audience to join them for their original opening dance. Well, you'd think Midga might have had enough of making a fool of himself, but no, he jumped up like a Roulettes bomb burst formation and one of the dancers put a Tyrolean hat on his head. Then came what seemed like hours of limbs flying around in all directions, and then the drinking dance. Shots of neat spirit, they looked like, and not the simple 30ml shots you can buy in a pub at home, quite generous ones. I looked quizzically at Asha because she doesn't like the way he acts when he's drinking, but she was too busy filming the whole sordid scene to worry. I guess having gone so far he could hardly turn back. Anyway, he downed it in one, and then it was congratulations all round and he sat down again.

That was it for the traditional dancers but the accordion player kept going, like old Outback 'Arry at Ballagundi. Luckily Midga's last dance was cut short when Asha's toe started sending her non-maskable interrupts for emergency relief. According to what he told some of the other guests it was a Charleston they were dancing - which Jeeves once said is a great way to find out whether anyone has been stealing silver spoons and hiding them under their outer garments.

Thankfully for my peace of mind, that was the last indiscretion committed by the shameless couple whom I serve. The music ended, they went upstairs to bed, and I settled down to sooth my ruffled feelings.

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - He inhaled and got a pane in his stomach

Breakfast this morning was on the house, and was about as big as a house too. The sideboard went right round two walls of the dining room.

The other people on the tour are quite a mix. There's a lot of retired couples of course, but there's another honeymoon couple, a single guy on his first trip overseas, and some ladies who met on a trip years ago and have been taking their holidays together ever since.

The coach left at noon and headed for Alpbach. Heading down the mountain in a 13m coach is quite an experience. The mountain roads have no kerb, no footpath and no nature strip - there's just a road, and then a solid stone retaining wall holding up the side of a mountain. Or on the other side, a series of timber posts and then a long drop. I guess the way it works is, if you can navigate a mountain road and still be alive at the end of it, you're allowed to go 130km/h on the autobahn.

Alpbach itself wasn't all that interesting. It was quite steep, which gave us better views of the scenery, but it wasn't all that much better than what we saw yesterday from the bummelbahn. We stopped at a cafe for lunch, intending to soak up the local culture with some apfelstrudel, but by the time the humans had finished their mains there wasn't time for dessert so we went back to the coach.

Midga asked Spencer (our hilarious tour guide) if he knew a joke about a glass blower, and Spencer offered him the microphone. It was just like the time he was SM before he got told off for abusing the dressing room tannoy. The bus rocked to the sound of groans and laughter. (What was the joke, you ask? You'll have to guess it. Or Google it if you like, there's a hint in the title.)

And so we headed to Rattenberg, the centre of the glass blowing industry. There was of course a guided tour and we watched a glass blower making a swan and a cat. Ornaments made out of blown glass look amazing in a shop, but they have to be dusted daily (or more), polished with vinegar three times a week, and guarded around the clock against scratches and fingerprints in order to stay that way. By this time it was raining heavily, so we went into various shops just for shelter from the weather. We ended up at a pub and the humans needed some hot chocolate, which was expensive but good quality. Then it was back to the bus.

There's a station at Rattenberg, not on the high speed network but still electrified. We saw a few four-car EMUs go through, and they were quite speedy. Don't forget Europe's definition of high speed rail is quite different to ours - Regional Fast Rail, the XPT, the Cairns Tilt Train and the Prospector would all be classed as slow over here.

We also saw a centre cab electric loco go through, light engine. We didn't see much of it (there's a timber fence up to about half way to the wires) but the pantograph looked like a fairly old model. Midga initially thought it was a Crocodile, but that would have been too amazing for words. Anyway, the noses weren't long enough. But it was quite exciting anyway.

The humans are now about to head downstairs for dinner, after which there's a special "Tyrolean evening" - traditional music, dancing and drinking. That will quite possibly deserve a post of its own.

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - in which the second shooter isn't on the grassy knoll

Midga and I were both in suspend mode when Asha came in from doing various errands around town. There was a train she wanted us to ride! But one thing Midga and I have in common is that we find it hard to come out of suspend mode when low on battery, and while we were fussing around it left. So we waited an hour (not a bad frequency for a tourist service) and tried again.

The "bummelbahn" is basically a Land Rover dressed up with a boiler and funnel, towing an air braked trailer carrying about 20 people. It goes up the mountain stopping at most of the villages, and plays a tape like the City Circle, but in both German and English. When there's no talking going on it plays traditional Austrian music, some of which is familiar to us.

At the top station the humans got out to take photos. They turned out just like every other tourist photo ever taken, but in real life it's quite beautiful. At one point Midga climbed to the top of a hill, or knoll, in a grassy paddock for a better vantage point, and Asha stayed at the foot of the hill. Midga started snapping away first, which made Asha the second shooter. Geddit?

On the way up we had seen a few things we liked the look of, so we did the stopping-all-stations thing on the way down, staying for an hour at each stop due to the service frequency. Unfortunately the wood museum was closed, so we just walked around and looked through the windows. There was an outdoor model railway layout as well, which was well worth a look. When we're at a model railway expo at home European models don't merit a second glance, but over here they fit into the landscape perfectly.

After using up the remaining time drinking chocolate (hot for Midga, iced for Asha) and buying a multi-purpose sun hat, the next stop down the mountain was a hotel which featured a welcome board on a nine cylinder radial engine with a two blade propeller. Round the side of the hotel were two classic tractors, of a make we'd never heard of. Unfortunately it was closed too, or we would have gone inside to see if there was anything else interesting.

We killed the rest of that hour sitting in the outside dining area of a closed cafe. It was a big day for closed shops. The wind was blowing straight into the enclosure, and bringing all the flies with it. Austrian flies obviously get an easy time of it from the locals, and Midga was able to clock up a kill ratio of 4 for 6 in not much time. The flies didn't even take the hint when he waved them away with his hands still reeking with the blood of their predecessors.

The next stop was the farming museum, which was, you guessed it, also closed. There wasn't much to see through the windows either. Rather than waiting another 57 minutes we walked home, which took us about as long but we were able to drop in at a supermarket on the way. Asha didn't like the sparkling mineral water she'd bought that morning, so we were standing there in the shop staring at the German words and trying to spot useful keywords in all the marketese. Without an internet connection I didn't have a clue. We also looked for a SIM card but no luck.

Both the humans went into a deep discharge and trickle charge cycle straight after dinner. Tomorrow our coach touring starts!

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - Guten nacht fellow bus passengers, und nicht snoring bitte

I think I mentioned in my last update that we were just arriving, having sat quietly smoking our monkeys for the rest of the voyage. In Calais, we left the noisy kids. By rejoining our bus on the car deck (in French) we escaped detection and made for the autobahn.

On that note, I had neglected to mention that the queues at the ferry's restaurant were as long as the fork on a pole Major Bloodnok used to spear Neddie's kipper, so we waited for a bit before eating. When we got there they were closing the place up because we were just about in France...

So we got on our bus and met our new tour guides. They told us there's a new way of scanning passports for immigration into France, by opening our passports and holding them up at the window. Lolz. I guess they must send our details to customs ahead of time and then the bus is automatically waved through. But this is just a tiny taste of what's to come with a clown like this as our tour guide. (A few examples from various points in our journey: "We have a sharp bend in the road here ladies and gentlemen. It was designed by that famous German road engineer, Herr Pin." "You can sometimes see deer crossing the road here. Always young ones, you know why? Because all the old dears are on board this bus.")

Just as we head out of Calais we see our first French train. It's only a rake of car carrying wagons, and they're four wheelers with buffers. Seriously? You even had a major rollingstock retirement program thanks to the rocket-equipped Mustangs and Typhoons in advance of the D-Day landings. Why wouldn't you get proper auto coupled bogie stock to replace it? I guess as a Victorian I can't talk. We call it Operation Phoenix but it included a few hundred steam locos and a few thousand GY wagons, not to mention the hump yard, instead of mass produced off-the-shelf diesels and moves towards containerisation on 80 foot Jumbo wagons.

The next impression we get is, as we're crossing railway lines a lot of them are single track. That's fair enough, they're probably quiet branch lines, but they're electrified! If they're busy enough to justify copper overhead for the sake of a small reduction in tonne-km costs, surely they're busy enough to be duplicated?

Maybe that has something to do with the ratio of car to truck traffic on the autobahns. Our freeways usually have about five cars for each truck travelling. In France and Germany it's the other way round - it's quite rare to see a car on the autobahn, and those that do usually zoom past at 130km/h or more. High speed rail has killed off the car traffic, but freight still goes by road. Interestingly in Belgium it's not that way - the proportion is much like in Australia. We were told by our guide that Belgium prides itself in having a huge motorway system, bigger than Britain's in fact, and that over 90% of it has street lights.

The exit ramps were interesting to Australian eyes. Instead of "Reduce speed now" and a 60km/h speed limit about half way to the traffic lights, they have four speed limit signs each about 100m apart, to tell people exactly how fast to slow down. Imagine the outcries of "revenue raising!!!!!!!111111" if VicRoads tried to do that...

By the time we got to Germany it was quite late, but it wasn't fully dark until about 11pm. There were some roadworks, which in Germany are done very thoroughly - they had painted yellow lines to show new lane placement (without removing the white lines) and all the warning signs looked fairly permanent by our standards. Imagine how much preparation work had to happen before they started the "real" job of resurfacing or widening or whatever it was... In some places where they'd used the shoulder there wasn't enough room for two full lanes, so they had one normal width and one for cars only. Fair enough, but the sign telling us that told us exactly how wide each lane was, to the nearest 10mm. Germany is still ruled by engineers, I think.

We kept driving overnight, with the two drivers/tour guides taking shifts. Sleeping on the bus was like sleeping on a plane, and I got quite a work-out because at every stop (of which we had several, about every two hours or so) Midga would connect to WiFi, load heaps of Verity Stob or BOFH in tabs, and then read them while everyone else on the bus was snoring noisily away.

There were several train sightings, but of course we have no idea what they were. Electric locos with pointed noses, regional DMU sets, rakes of container wagons - and in Holland, a yellow double ended set which looked like an EMD streamliner but not quite. Taking photos from a bus at 100km/h is tricky and not many of them came out well.

This morning we arrived at our hotel in Austria at about 7am local time, and have now checked in to the hotel and plugged in to power. The humans are looking at either doing some tours or just taking it easy (ie sleeping and looking around the town). We'll see what happens.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - Crossing the Channel

In Dover we got off our bus and went into the waiting lounge, which was a sort of truck stop with a bit of fast food and a bar. Midga found power, which was good because I was down to 13% battery, but in the time before we were called for departure we couldn't manage to find WiFi.

On the bus we were greeted by our two drivers (they do it as a relay so the bus can keep moving all night) and told (lol j/k) to enjoy our trip to Blackpool. This is going to be a good trip.

The on-duty driver threaded the needle and got us on board the boat, and we were allowed to get off and enjoy the facilities. We found a convenient table with power and a view, and I got double duty with a phone on each USB port. Some noisy kids were hanging around for a bit but eventually they lost interest and left us in peace. There are SO MANY ferries passing us! No wonder they built the Chunnel - but I must say something's not right if the slow method is still very popular when the fast method is available. Maybe it's expensive. The lack of a view out can't be that important to truckies who do this all the time.

The sea is as flat as a pond - which reminds me, we passed a pond as we went through Kensington and I wondered if it was the Kensington Round Pond or the Kensington Square Pond - not that it matters, Ned Seagoon swam them both in his lead-up to the Great Regent's Park Swim with his bottle of green liquid.

The interior of the ship is quite dated - marbelled melamine walls, rivetted aluminium skirting boards, prominent air vents and sprinkler heads in the roof. Reminds me somewhat of Bob Ansett's story about the inter-island ferries in New Zealand. But the service is good - when Midga asked for a piece of ice to put on Asha's toe (which has swollen and looks like a bruise, which means it's broken) he got a whole bag full. He also got asked (very anxiously) whether the incident had occurred on board, in which case paperwork would have to happen. He was delighted to assure the staff member that this would not be necessary.

The furniture is quite convenient - side tables for laptop cases, I mean drinks, relaxing couches with plenty of padding and a view of whatever's out the window, and stone topped card tables. A lot more fun than being crammed into the bus. I wonder if that will still be true when Smart Passengers brings in buses with 2+1 seating at 1167mm pitch for intercity services where there's no rail reservation.

Right now I've got just about a full charge, the phones aren't far behind and the humans are about to head to the restaurant to do the same. The next post will be from the continent. Maybe I'll put on an accent.

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - Landing in London

Nothing much happened that flight. I was stuck in the overhead locker the whole time because the humans were watching movies and eating. We landed a few minutes early and started to navigate Heathrow...

The airport itself is much like any other airport, but bigger. From my vantage point inside my case, under a towel and a coat, and inside Midga's backpack I had a perfect view. NOT. But I could tell by the pace of the walking that the humans were running low on battery power.

Getting through customs and immigration is relatively easy, and we head to the baggage carousel. Since we'd been close to last off the plane there weren't many items left so we had no trouble grabbing them and getting out. Now, which way to trains?

Unfortunately the Heathrow Express doesn't seem to realise that planes land at all hours of the day, so the information booth was closed. 6am on a Sunday morning, people should be at home in bed! But there was enough printed information there that we could see the express wasn't what we were looking for.

The tube station was at the opposite end of the airport. The humans bought Oyster cards (I travel free), which are just like a Myki but done right. Response time through the gates is instantaneous. It even handles zones correctly.

The train is waiting in the platform as we approach and the PIDS says three minutes. We jump aboard. Midga bumps his head. Ah, the Tube loading gauge! Heathrow is on the Piccadilly line, and there's three different stations for the various terminals. They're in a weird kind of loop and spur, which I don't understand and don't really want to because it goes right against Jarrett Walker's concept of lines that don't split. Let's just say it seems like a good idea not to go into Terminal 5 and expect a high frequency tube connection.

Shelly has given us very precise directions for how to change trains, get the bus from the station and find her house. It's pretty painless despite the spiderweb layout of the tube - obviously once you know the system it's just as easy to use as a radial one. We turn up later than we expected due to taking it easy on the trip, and the humans eat and gasbag until it's time for church.

We take the bus to church, just because we can. It's a beautiful old stone and brick church, with a modern interior grafted into the main hall. There are about 50 people there, and a good mix of ages. The minister has four children, including a teenage daughter who knows how to break up squabbles between the two youngest. I like that in a teenager.

After the service Shelly gets Midga a trip up into the bell tower. It's had OH&S equipment added but all the solid timber flooring (with holes cut into it for the bell rope) and grilled windows are of the classic style. Midga chickens out of going past the second level because the ladder isn't attached and the last thing Asha's arm needs is a nasty wrench from trying to stop her darling husband from falling. But he was wearing his "I'm in England looking at old stuff" grin when he came down.

He was on such a high that he told the girls he'd be delighted to go shopping and even carry their bags. Well, if he'd decided not to he'd have regretted it, because as shopping trips go this was one of the most exciting since the time Mum's purse got pinched when she was shopping for whatever birthday party that was.

Asha wanted to go to Sainsburys for lunch, just for the experience of eating at a cafe-in-a-supermarket. As we got to Sainsburys a security guard told us it was closed. That's not normal. Midga postulated that it must have been a bomb threat and Shelly said he was such an Australian for thinking the worst but not panicking about it. We were told half an hour would see the situation under control so we took a stroll around.

About 20 minutes later we were back, and asked the security guards how long. Now they said they couldn't put a time on it. Hm, that means they haven't found the package yet. We were just mulling that over when the evacuation alarm sounded - the whole corner of the shopping centre was being closed and we had to move. Now would be a good time, please.

Well, if mountain won't come to Mohammed, the road will pass under the chicken. So our heroes girded their loins and used the power of their leg muscles to force the earth to turn until another supermarket-with-a-cafe was in front of them. What could be sweeter? They shopped for snacks for the trip and for general groceries. They were just about to order food from the cafe when that evacuation alarm went off again! The whole shopping centre was closed off. Someone used the word "fire" on the PA, which Midga was always taught never to do because it causes panic, but surely if a fire at the other end of the centre had lasted an hour we'd know about it? Bomb threat and gas leak remain the best theories.

The footpaths outside the shopping centre were packed like New Years Eve, and the bus bay was so crowded they couldn't safely move a vehicle around, so they diverted the buses to a nearby stop. Eventually we navigated our way through and found a place for lunch. It was a Middle Eastern restaurant, which meant they had every combination of meats and different spices and herbs to cook them in. I was prepared to be bored, like I normally am at meal times, but the conversation was fascinating.

We headed home and the conversation continued to be fascinating. It was one of those conversations which segued from one topic to the next without even a hint of a pause. It ranged from the antics of some of the children from church to the merits of studying psychology. Nap time, still talking. Dinner time, still talking. Bed time, still talking. I guess I shouldn't complain, it's like when I've been offline for ages and need to synchronise. Eventually they turned in, leaving me to charge both phones from my USB ports.

So they woke up this morning, an hour early because Midga's phone got the daylight savings thing wrong. Get up, pack up, get on the bus, and head for London Victoria. Asha managed to damage one of her feet by trying to kick a hole in Midga's Officeworks bag, so she's limping and can't curl her toes. Great timing. Still, they get to the bus stop and cram onto a peak hour bus without too much trouble.

The tube is another matter. It's standing room only when we get on, and gets toward sardine tin proportions as we pass through Sloane Square and South Kensington stations. Yep, really. Luckily the hoarde that got on weren't ravenous, because we want our penny ice and cold meat for the trip.

We thought the bus station would be fairly close to the British Rail station but it really wasn't. A local told us it was a five minute walk, but when you've got a broken toe five minutes of walking translates into fifteen minutes of hobbling in agony. Midga was doing the whole "in sickness and in health" thing by carrying all the luggage (some of the time) so he was hobbling a bit too. Luckily we got to the right place with about two minutes to spare.

The bus was delayed... traffic had been bad and there was some other sort of delay further up the line, so it was more than an hour after departure time before we got underway. The conductor was very apologetic about it, and the company had told a different bus to do all the other pickups and meet us at Dover, so we had a chance to catch up. It sure didn't feel like we were doing all that well, what with the inner London traffic and tiny streets, and I wondered why on earth a tour bus would want a central London pickup point. Why not just go round the ring road and get people to take the train? But anyway, by the time we got onto the main motorway that leads to Dover we were back on time, so we were able to stop at a place called Medway Service for lunch. It was really just a truck stop, but the British like to name things.

We did have one pickup in Canterbury. To get to the bus stop we had to go past a massive stone wall with battlements and everything! I wonder if it was the official residence of the Archbishop, dating back to when the church had an army of its own.

Dover is amazing. As we came in (down a road with a 5% grade with lots of warnings saying "All trains stop to pin down brakes", or rather, "Test brakes, stay in low gear") we could see a massive parking area, container terminal, multiple ferry loading points, port buildings, and towering over it all were the famous white cliffs. Quite a sight.

As we're now leaving England (for a bit, anyway) I'll take this opportunity to talk about the buses and the tube.

Buses run at real frequencies most of the time. They all have either Turn Up And Go or clockfaced timetables, and the routes are as simple as possible in an old world city with streets going on all sorts of angles. They're really red, and they're really double deckers, and everything else about them is just like a modern bus anywhere else.

The tube is everything I've been told about it. The routes are designed to garner cash for PFYs from French tourists, but the frequency is great. There's a lot of limitations of technology which make the customer experience worse than it should be - the most obvious is the limited loading gauge on some lines which means they have a different platform height. Where different lines share the same tracks and platforms this is a problem, so it seems the platforms alternate in height and the trains have annoucements to mind the gap at just about every station.

Signalling is single aspect, which probably doesn't matter since there's extra tracks for expresses so everything is running to the same stopping pattern.

There's quite a bit of distance between stations in a lot of places, which I wasn't expecting. I guess when you have an underground system a station costs a bomb so you don't overdo it. The top speed of the trains is pretty good (I estimated 90km/h in a few places) so the station spacing means we can go longish distances pretty quickly. It's just a bit weird looking at the map and thinking "Oh, only two stops to London Victoria, we'll be there in a few minutes", and then keep barrelling along for ten minutes or more.

There's obviously been extra tracks and platforms in a lot of places, and the reservation is just being used to store bags of gravel, or even just as a rubbish dump. When we're looking at acquiring people's houses for space to put in vital infrastructure it's heartbreaking to see it just going to waste.

The trains themselves are very well designed. Their doors are quite fast, their seats are mainly along the sides for maximum capacity, and they accelerate out of stations like a good metro should. The interiors are nothing special. There isn't as much graffiti and vandalism as we're used to, but the general grubbiness and shameless internal ads are the same.

In short: Melbourne can learn a lot from London, but it's far from perfect and there is no reason to hold it up as an example to follow. Under no circumstances should anyone advocate (to take a completely random example) limiting certain designs of train to certain lines "because they do it like that in London". Not looking at anyone in particular, PTV.

I'm speaking to you now from a patch of water just off the coast of Dover. But that's a topic for another post.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - Dubai

Now I've blogged about Dubai a few times before. So what's new this time?

Well, today we're here at night. It's just past midnight local time, and the heat and humidity are unaffected.

Also, due to some renovations at Dubai International, we're at Dubai World Centre - a sort of outer airport, like Avalon or Tooradin. It seems to have a lot more room to grow than the main airport - or that might just be that it doesn't already have a shopping centre the size of Chaddy+Eastland+Highpoint built in.

The WiFi here is good, but requires us to sign up, and pay for it once we've had half an hour. Why do people bother? They don't even make us visit our email and pick up a confirmation code, so must be absolutely spammed with people creating a new account every half hour. Anyway, it lets us get online. Afterthought: it must use cookies, because when I'm in incognito mode it has no idea that I already exist... deleting the cookie is an option I guess but Ctrl-Shift-N is easier.

Midga decides to visit a coffee vending machine. Anyone would think he was at work and waiting for SAP to do something... I have no idea what the exchange rate is, but apparently an Australian 20c coin is an acceptable substitute (Lord High, of course) for a One Dirhan coin. 60c later he has a cup of coffee!

This is just a technical stop, so we were allowed to leave our luggage on the plane. I came ashore with them of course, to pick up some more power and have something to blog about.

For some reason the gate opens 90 minutes before departure time, and almost all the passengers get up and go through straight away. There's more room in the waiting area but for some psychological reason people prefer to be one step ahead while they're waiting. Maybe it breaks up the waiting time too. Anyway, we have a seat and we still have WiFi so it really doesn't matter (matter matter matter matter) where we sit.

That's really all there is to tell about this stop. But one more thing about the 787 (just one, this time). Midga was standing up in the middle seat (it's 3+3+3 in economy) and could stretch up on tip toes without bumping his head on the luggage bins. This plane has been designed for tall people. Isn't that lovely?

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - Brunei

Brunei Darussalam airport is currently under renovation, so there's very few power points around. Midga eventually finds one a long way from any kind of seating, which is a pain because Asha is sore and doesn't feel like sitting in the floor. I have one hour to absorb as much power as I can. Shame I can't harness the power of the security x-ray...

There's also no WiFi, which is a bit of a pain, but ah well. We have a stop at Dubai before we get to London so we'll try again there.

Our approach was excellent, I was expecting some humidity related turbulance but there really wasn't anything to speak of. The pilot put the nose wheel down so gently I hardly felt it, and the main wheels weren't bad either. Disembarking was the usual slow process, I wish business class pax could be as prepared as we always are.

Asha is sitting on a massage chair trying to get rid of some of her aches and pains. And playing games on her phone of course - she was able to charge it using a USB port on the in-flight entertainment unit on the plane. Incidentally, apart from the lack of power points they also had very poor touch screens. Fortunately the software problems we usually see on Emirates 777s were just not there - response was fairly quick and all the functions just worked as expected.

A lady just came up to "our" power point and tried to plug an American phone charger into a British power point. It didn't really work. Midga offered her a USB cable to charge off my port, and then another passenger offered her a British USB charger from his iPad. Comradeship is born out of alliance in pursuit of a common goal, and the goal of recovering from a 5% battery charge and getting onto Facebook is one of the most common in the world.

In closing I will just give a shout-out to the power points that were located very conveniently near our departure gate, but were very inconveniently not working:

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - flying out

Welcome, one and all, to Clippy's Log! Having chronicled all Midga's overseas trips as a single bloke, how can I not do the same for his honeymoon? After all, I announced his attachment to Asha, which is almost as good has having brought them together.

So here goes. The humans woke up this morning at a totally un-Saturdayish hour, and proceeded to do most of their packing. Rosuav is looking after my British plug adaptor, which is a shocking oversight on Midga's part, but Asha is a seasoned traveller and has plenty of electronic gear. I was already packed of course, but my case had been lightened by removing everything not required for an overseas trip.

They then took a casual stroll across the road to the centre of the universe, Southern Cross Station. Actually they went to the off-centre, not the centre - the bus terminal where Skybus lives. Just as they approached a 14.5m three axle rigid departed, but we weren't worried - Skybus runs every ten minutes, rain, hail or shine. And the next bus in line was an artic!

They bought tickets and boarded, selecting seats just past the articulation for best effect. The bus filled quite comfortably - most of the seats were occupied. There's no doubt that good frequency draws more patronage than $30 return fares drive away.

We went out past the Dudley Street carriage yards, looking closely at the H cars to see if they had rusted into the ground yet. Apparently not. There was also a three-car V/Locity in the original purple livery, which is becoming a rare sight. According to Vicsig one's already come out in PTV spots (come out in spots, like a disease, geddit?) and I guess the last purple cars will be the first ones to get stickered.

In Dudley Street itself we were held up by traffic. It initially looked like a semi-trailer was trying to back into a very narrow alley, but by the look of a slightly shop-soiled car and broken glass all over the road I suspect some idiot got under the truck's heels and the truck jack-knifed trying to stop too fast. And it was right over both eastbound lanes too... Our bus driver seemed to have no trouble at all threading a needle with a bendy bus though - thank goodness it happened at a spot where the traffic island was only a painted one.

So we got to the airport in 22 minutes. I completely fail to see how an airport rail line can offer better service than Skybus does.

At the airport the humans realised they'd forgotten to do the online check-in, but the line was moving quite fast anyway and they had enough time. The process of getting through the airport is one I'm getting used to - x-rays don't hurt all that much any more. As we approached the gate we saw the shapely yellow tail of our ride for today. It's a 787.

Now just in case there are any new Log listeners today, I have to tell you about Midga's thoughts on the 787. To put it mildly, he adores them. They saved Boeing Commercial Airplanes from the chopping block, they employ all sorts of amazingly geeky technology, and they're built with the customer in mind, not the shareholder. So when he found out he was flying on one, he was slightly excited.

We got on board and the interior looked quite familiar. I guess all international-configured widebody aircraft have the same basic layout. The luggage bins seem a bit better in the capacity department, the interior lighting gives an impression of space, and the windows are huge. We're sitting in the middle section but we can still see out without much trouble. And the electronic dimming thing is so cool! I don't know how well it'll keep out light when we want to sleep but for softening the glare off the cloud layer without blocking the view it's amazing. Quite possibly the 787 is going to join that exclusive club of Items That Were Hyped Big And Then Lived Up To Or Exceeded The Hype. There aren't many members of that club, in all modesty. In point of fact I am the only member so far.

The humans have eaten (they seem to do a lot of that), and Midga has finished watching Need For Speed. It wasn't the one with the bus jump the Mythbusters tested, which is disappointing, and the "hero" spent a lot of time on the wrong side of the law. Still, he rescued his enemy from a burning car, so it's not all bad. The main value of the film is in picking holes in the science - but that can be said of most action movies.

The only other thing worth watching on the in-flight entertainment is a documentary about the invention of mobile phones, which includes the way a Hollywood actress came up with the idea of frequency hopping to avoid interception and an electronics geek who invented the camera phone by connecting an early digital camera to an early mobile phone with speaker wire while his wife was in labour, because he wanted to be able to email around the photos of his daughter without waiting til he got home. Ah, geeks.

The staff here are fairly constantly bringing around drinks, so it's hard to tell if the extra humidity they can put into a carbon fibre plane has made a difference. But the pressurisation certainly has - the water bottle trick isn't nearly as violent as it is in a 777.

Right now my battery is running low because Midga forgot to charge me last night. And there's no power in the seats for some reason. Ah well, we're already past Darwin so we'll be landing in Brunei in a few hours. Hopefully there's WiFi as well as power. Midga is snoozing, maybe he has low battery too?