The journey, not the destination,

Flying to Europe from Australia is not as simple as getting on a plane for 24 cramped hours in economy. As one grows older economy class becomes less and less attractive, even though one might not be able to fly business class all the way, perhaps a combination can be arranged. In the past ten years of planning holidays for my wife and I, it has been a happy learning experience.

A combination flight consists of a nine hour economy flight from Sydney to Asia and and business class from Asia to Europe. Where in Europe you might ask – London, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam or?

Considering your European gateway port is a mixture of airline pricing, schedules and your over all plans.

Let’s consider pricing from an Australian origin city. The price offered to London is often more expensive than the price to Paris or Frankfurt, but you might ask, you have to get from Paris to London at a cost, if London is your final destination.

A few years ago the UK Government increased the landing charges for intercontinental flights, so when I decided on a ‘combi’ ticket in 2012, the difference in landing in Paris and staying the night, plus the cost of the Eurostar (economy) was cheaper than flying direct to London. I have since realised that Frankfurt is cheaper again.

We returned to Europe in 2014 using Frankfurt s our gateway. Our final destination being Norwich in Norfolk.

I decided that we would fly KLM from Frankfurt, to Norwich, the overall cost being cheaper than a direct flight to London, plus the train fare to Norwich.
I checked KLM and found that a one way ticket was more expensive than the round trip cost, even though I didn’t wish to fly back to Frankfurt.

I booked return tickets and when I completed our ‘return’ booking, even though we would not be using the return ticket, the ticket cost would be cheaper still if we agreed to fly via the 6.00 am flight from Norwich, because it was FREE!

We booked our flight from Frankfurt to Norwich, and we were ‘no shows’ for the return flight, because we had tickets on the Eurostar to Paris, because at the end of our holiday we would be flying home from Madrid.

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I couldn’t fault the service or the aircraft, which was a Fokker 70.

So it does pay to investigate more than the direct service to save money.

 

Funafuti

After leaving Tarawa it was a short 805 mile flight to Funafuti, Tuvalu,

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but it still took about three hours in the HS 148. The aircraft carried more freight than it did passengers, because not many people visited Funafuti, other than returning residents, and the occasional businessman, i.e your truly.

As we made our approach to land I could see a long green field, which I realised was the landing strip for this ‘airport.’ Wheels down for landing and all of a sudden we banked and aborted the landing because the local children were using the landing field for a game of football! Round we went and this time the strip was clear of children and dogs.

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The aircraft came to a halt near a small concrete structure.
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Steps were pushed out to the aircraft, and we disembarked. One of the crew stood at the bottom of the stairs and waved towards the small concrete construction. At first glance I was reminded of a large garage come work shop, until I realised this was the immigration and customs post.

An officer, in traditional island dress of sandals, and lungi tied at the waist, and a uniform shirt stood waiting at one side of a concrete table with a stamp and an ink pad. I was welcomed to Tuvalu and my passport was stamped. Customs asked if I had anything to declare – I said No, and was waved through the concrete area to a grass patch outside the open walled government building.

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Local people milled around on both sides of the ‘security area’, some helping to unload the cargo from the plane, others had just come to see what was happening as part of the day’s entertainment. The sun was hot and nobody moved at any great pace – I was on island time, and I should relax.

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I anticipated that my business would not take more than a day, but due to flight schedules I was going to be ‘island bound’ over the weekend. I’d arrived on Friday, and booked my onward ticket to Fiji for Monday. I looked around for an airline employee to confirm my onward flight and found a young lady in a island skirt and an airline type blouse. I asked her if I could confirm my flight for Monday – she looked at me and asked if I was the business man from Sydney?
I confirmed that I was, and she then told me that as I was the only person who wished to go to Fiji on Monday, they were not going to bring a plane in just for me – I was told to come back the following Wednesday!

Eventually I found my way to the local hotel (Vaiaku Lagi Hotel, government run and the only hotel on the island) and checked-in. I was given a room over looking the lagoon; it was air-conditioned. Later I found out that most of the rooms didn’t have air-conditioning, which would be a problem for Europeans. The only other guest was a Japanese merchant seaman waiting for his ship to return. He’d been put ashore for medical treatment. He couldn’t speak English, and most of my Japanese, picked up during my time on the Japanese coast, had faded in to history. He did teach me how to play Othello and I liked it so much that I bought the game for my children on my return to Sydney.

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This is a picture of Vaiaku Lagi Hotel taken recently.

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I doubt that this view would have changed much – the view is across the lagoon from the hotel guest rooms.

After unpacking my few things I made my way to the bar and asked the  barman, who was also the  check-in / doorman / waiter and I am not sure what else, what type of cold beer did the hotel stock. ‘We have Fosters’ was the reply – ‘What other kind of beer?’ I asked not being a great fan of Fosters beer.jpg – ‘We have Fosters’ was his reply at which point he opened the door of a very large walk-in fridge behind the counter, allowing me to see that the fridge was stacked high with cartons of Fosters beer and nothing else. ‘I’ll have a Fosters !’ I said with a smile on my face.
‘Supply ship just unloaded, the other day, plenty of Fosters’ was his comment while pouring the glass of cold beer. At times like this Foster’s was the nectar of the Gods.

In the evening I decided to stay in the hotel for my evening meal. The hotel didn’t have a menu, the Japanese and myself were asked what we would like to eat.

I asked what was the choice and was told fish or meat. I asked if the fish was fresh and was told that it had arrived in the morning, so I chose the fish. The meat was a mixture of chicken (locally grown) and meat from Australia, which was expensive.

I asked for salad with the fish and was told that they didn’t have any, just vegetables – so I ordered the vegetables, which when they arrived turned out to be from a tin – I was hoping in such a lush climate to have really fresh vegetables. Let’s say it was a disappointment.
I asked if they had any cold white wine to go with the fish – ‘We have Fosters’ was the reply.

Later in the evening while listening to the radio in the bar, I heard the news, and included in the news was the fact that a business man from Sydney had arrived that afternoon. Was this my fifteen minutes of fame, or was the radio station really hard up to fill broadcasting time?

I completed my business the following morning and decided after lunch to have a look around Funafuti.

Knowing that there wouldn’t be any aircraft landing between that Saturday afternoon and Wednesday, and noticing that the immigration and customs posted had been abandoned, I walked across the football pitch, come runway, to the other side of the island. I passed huts inside a fenced area and wondered what this area was because the gate was wide open.

Prison

On reaching the water’s edge (the opposite side of the island from the lagoon) I watched Pacific ocean rollers charging towards the little island and smashing their way on to huge man made blocks, which dissipated their energy. I was grateful for the blocks, because the highest point on the island was only fifteen feet (4.5 meters) above sea level.

It was later that I found out about the gated area was the local prison. The above picture is a recent photograph. I did ask why the gate was open and was told – ‘Where are the prisoners going to escape to?’.

The population of all the atolls making up Tuvalu was around 8,500 people, but the limited usable land created a high density of population at 340 people per square kilometer in 1987, which was during my visit.

Everything shut down late Saturday and the only entertainment for me was sitting in the hotel bar with a book and the occasional game of Othello. Trying to get through to Sydney by phone, to keep them informed of my movements, helped pass the time. The fact that they had no idea that I was not lying on a beach in a fancy beach side resort somewhere in the tropics, didn’t help matters.

Sunday was a drag, but Monday was far more exciting after the post office opened at 10.00 am, because I was interested in stamps, and at that time I collected stamps from certain Pacific Islands. It turned out that philatelists are one of the best contributors to the Tuvaluan economy, along with cash sent home by Tuvaluan seaman working on foreign ships.

The enforced rest can be a strain knowing that all your plans have been shot to pieces and communication with the outside world was difficult. E-mailing was still in the future, as was the mobile phone.

Overall I enjoyed my enforced rest in Tuvalu, because it was completely different place than anywhere else that I had visited.

Eventually I was back at the airport waiting for the plane to Suva in Fiji. Large international airlines use Nadi but as we would be a propeller job it would be Suva, which is the capital.

The airline that was supposed to fly us ( fourteen passengers) failed to show and a substitute had to be found – Sunflower Airlines from Fiji. Sunflower Our aircraft, was built in 1956! It was over thirty years old when I boarded.

The aircraft sat seven a side, and operated with a pilot and co-pilot. Forget any cabin crew, and the rear toilet was blocked in with cargo and passenger bags. The picture above shows the aircraft at Nadi airport in Fiji, not the grass strip in Funafuti.

The aircraft turned up and we  fourteen brave souls boarded. Once all on board we taxied out to the end of the grass runway. The door between the two pilots on the ‘flight deck’ and the passengers wouldn’t close and banged and banged as we trundled along the runway in the hope of gaining enough speed to lift off the ground. At last I felt the plane rise in to the clear blue sky.

The distance to Suva was 915 miles and our top speed was around 183 mph according the to the manufacturer in 1956 . . . so we had four hours to hope that nothing would go wrong.

The noise of the engines killed all hope of conversation across the aisle, so I watched the pilots manhandling the joystick to keep the aircraft level in a slow climb. We never did get too high and I found it fascinating to watch the ocean waves break below. This view was something one didn’t normally see, unless you were coming in to land over water. The breaking waves accompanied us all the way to Fiji.

Two hours in to the flight the co-pilot comes out and shouts that it is lunch time, and bends down to grab a cardboard box from under the seat of the first passenger. He then walks slowly down the aisle and hands to each passenger either a coca cola or a lemonade. None of the passengers were offered a choice. I was handed a lemonade and was about to open it when the passenger across the aisle spoke to the co-pilot stating that he didn’t like coca cola. Immediately my lemonade was whisked from my grasp and replaced with a coca cola – the guy across aisle received my lemonade.

The co-pilot returned to the front of the plane and pulled another box from under the first seat on the other side of the aircraft. This was our lunch – plastic wrapped sandwiches – and he was not going to get in to a conversation about likes or dislikes, because the sandwiches came through the air and the passenger was expected to catch his lunch.

It was fortunate that we were only given one small drink because there was no way we could have climbed over the cargo to get to the lavatory.

Although I am not a Catholic, I can sympathies with the Pope when he steps off an aircraft and kisses the ground, because most of us wanted to do that in Suva!

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The picture shows what is left of this aircraft at  Bankstown Airport in Sydney. Picture was taken in 2004.

 

 

Pacific Islands

In the late 1980’s I used to visit various Pacific Islands on business (someone had to do it!).

On one trip I flew Sydney, Nauru, Tarawa (in Kiribati), Funafuti (Tuvalu), Suva (Fiji).
Kiribati – pronounced Kir-i-bahss – which is the Gilbertese for Gilbert Island, and Tuvalu is the new name of the Ellis Islands, as in Gilbert and Ellis Islands, which used to be a British protectorate until 1974 when they became the independent countries, Kiribati and Tuvalu, after they held a referendum.

I flew from Nauru on Air Nauru to Tarawa.001

The parking of aircraft in Nauru was simple – leave them alongside the main road in a lay-by. The island is so isolated that security was ‘limited’ at that time. The traffic had to stop for the aircraft to cross the road to allow passengers to board.

Tarawa is the name of the main atoll of Kiribati and the capital on Tarawa is Betio. (pronounced ‘bay- she – oh’)

Tarawa is remember for some very heavy fighting by the Americans, against the Japanese during WW2, and the beach on which I walked still showed the remains of landing craft, small tanks or amtracs and pieces of aircraft, along with defensive pillboxes manned by the Japanese.

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As I looked out over the 800 to 1200 yard coral reef, (see picture below) across which the troops had to fight their way ashore under withering machine gun fire, I could feel the ghosts of those brave men who died that November day in 1943.

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The area of the Betio atoll, is three miles long by half a mile wide. 1,115 Americans were killed or listed as missing, and 2,234 were wounded. Of the 4700 Japanese troops defending the island only seventeen were captured, along with 129 Koreans. It was estimated that 4690 Japanese died defending this now forgotten part of the Pacific.

The Americans had to estimate how many troops were defending the atoll. The best guess was about 3100 men, which was reasonably accurate, considering that they were unable to send in reconnaissance units to obtain a more accurate number. The Americans realised from aerial photographs, that the Japanese built their latrines over water, in multi-holed wooden buildings. By counting the number of latrines they worked out the relationship between the number of backsides and to a latrine and estimated 3100 troops!

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Defending the beach I saw eight inch guns still point out to sea. When I visited Betio I was told (not by locals) that the guns had been removed from Singapore, after the fall of that island, and transported to the Pacific to defend Tarawa. Later I read that the Imperial War Museum in London stated that Singapore didn’t have any eight inch guns for the Japanese to capture, so they couldn’t have been transferred to Tarawa from Singapore. They were in fact manufactured in Britain for a 1905 contract to supply eight inch and twelve inch guns to the Japanese navy. The Tarawa defensive guns appear to have been part of the 1905 contract.

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The above pictures show the Japanese HQ building with shell a machine gun damage, which when I visited was being used a simple squash court.

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 The above shows what is left of a captured Japanese bomber strip, which allowed the Americans to carry the war to other islands.
The modern airport is about a twenty minute drive from this area.

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The above picture is to show how shallow the soil is on Tarawa – this is a local grave yard. After the war the American causalities, from this battle, were laid to rest in the war cemetery in Hawaii.
The marking of the grave’s perimeter, in many cases, was often done by using empty glass bottles – beer bottles and soft drink bottles.

 On completion of my business in Kiribati I flew to Funafuti the capital of Tuvalu with  Airline of the Marshall Islands. Quite a noisy trip.001

I’ll Never Go Abroad

Travel often pops up in various conversations and those who know me have suggested that I should put down some of my experiences. At first I was reluctant, because I didn’t think people would be interested in the travels of an unknown traveler. When my grandchildren started to ask questions I thought perhaps I should put a few things down before I get too old and forgetful.

Do you ever regret making a comment years ago, which proved how stupid and wrong you where when you look back over your life?

I was about thirteen at the time and ‘studying’ French. On the completion of the final examination the class results positioned yours truly second to bottom in a class of forty. I was not very good, nor was I interested in the French language. I can remember the teacher, when discussing my poor effort, asking what would I do if I ever went abroad. The thought of going abroad was so far out of my comfort zone that I remarked that ‘I’ll never go abroad’, which is why I decided on this title.

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Rayani Air

Having flown with nearly fifty different airlines I have finally found an airline that I would not wish to fly with, even if they offered free seats.

Rayani Air began services last Sunday (20th Dec). This airline is the first Malaysian Sharia compliant airline. Of course they don’t carry wine, which is not a problem, except they restrict the passengers’ choice. The lack of wine is important, but not my main consideration.

My main reluctance is that they offer prayers before take-off, which doesn’t give me the confidence that I normally have in the the guys and girls at the sharp end. If they need the help of the Almighty, and they are still on the ground, I think I’ll give them a miss.

Bird calls

Travel does broaden the mind, or so one would think. Two small incidents happened to me, each linked to the other, but thousands of miles apart in distance, but only a few months in time.

I was in Tokyo, on business, and the hotel in which I stayed had recordings of bird calls in the reception area to help sooth the tension of the guests arriving and leaving in such a busy city. Depending on the ambient noise in the reception area the sound of the birds would be increased or decreased, but the birds calls where always in the background.

Some months later I was in Cairns (northern Australia), and staying at a city hotel, which was popular with Japanese tourists. I was checking out and a Japanese tourist asked the hotel employee who was dealing with me, if the hotel could possibly turn down the sound of the birds. He complained that they woke him too early in the morning. The hotel employee’s face was a mask of confusion as he had no idea what the hotel guest was requesting. I was able to explain to the hotel guest that Australian hotels didn’t have electronic bird calls, and the sound of the morning bird chorus was real, and completely out of the control of the hotel. I don’t think the tourist was convinced of the truth of my comment. The hotel employee had a hard time keeping his face straight as he finalised my account.

Rudolph

Recently flew from Helsinki to Bangkok with Finnair, so of course they offered reindeer as a choice of meat for the evening meal. It was very lean meat with a nice texture, which went very well with the red wine.

I had to try it because I like to try ‘new’ meat having eaten kangaroo and crocodile as well as the ‘normal’ meat of cows, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, frogs (is frog meat classed as meat?).

I only hope my grandchildren don’t find out about the reindeer meat, because I am sure I will be accused of eating Rudolf, if Santa is late this year due to being a reindeer short to pull his sleigh.

Santa’s traditional reindeer Dasher, Dancer, Donner, Vixen, Comet, Prancer, Vixen and of course the new one, Rudolph, which is thanks to Robert L. May in 1939, who wrote the story of Rudolph. May’s brother in law, Johnny Marks, turned May’s story in to a song that we now know.

Who remembers Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, who made Rudolph famous in 1949?