Wednesday 21 November 2007

EHRA - Building Week Video

EHRA - Building Week

So, after all those "on my way to the elephants" and "on my way home again from the elephants" posts, here is the first post to tell you how I actually spent my vacation - working for two weeks as a volunteer for the EHRA (Elephant Human Relations Aid) project in Damaraland, Namibia.

The volunteers work in two week cycles - the first week is building week, and the second week is spent on patrol (more about that in a later post). Normally speaking, the building week is spent on location at one of the Damaraland communities, and the time is spent building a stone wall to protect windmills or water pumps from the elephants, who have a tendency to knock things down in their search for water.

Originally, it was planned that we should complete a wall for which the foundation had already been created. However, due to a lack of water (this is the rainy season, but no rain had yet arrived), it wasn't possible to mix the cement, so wall building had to be put on hold.

Instead, we were put to work on a different task - building a 3 fences at EHRA Base Camp, which has also been suffering from elephant visitors.

We gathered logs from dead trees in the surrounding area - a tough task given that the wood we used was extremely hard, and didn't much like to be sawn through, loaded them up in the landcruiser and brought them back to camp. As well as being hard, the logs were very heavy, and we needed all the strong guys we could find to help carry them.

We painted the bottom of the logs with diesel, to protect them from termites, planted them about 3 feet deep and stabilized them with rocks, sand and water, which we beat down with a "stomper" (i.e. a heavy lump of metal on the end of a stick). By the end of the week, the stomper was feeling the strain, and about half of its stomping end was stomped away. The photo shows me having a go at stomping - it didn't last long, it took all my strength just to lift the wretched thing a couple times.

Once we had the main posts in we found smaller logs to build up the fences with, and fastened them together with bolts and wire.

Since we didn't really want to put our fences to the test, we finished our creation with 6 feet of "elephant cobblestones" (another fun job - gathering rocks) in front of each fence, to dissuade the elephants from approaching the fences and trying to break them down.

The work took us four days, although we had to leave the job unfinished because we ran out of bolts. Of course, we weren't in an area where you can just nip down to the local hardware shop, so everytime something broke (we broke a few tools along the way, that wood is seriously hard!) we had to find an alternate solution or fix it ourselves.

Recent EHRA tradition has been assigning a name for each group of volunteers - our group earned itself the name "The injury group" for reasons which are pretty obvious. My own personal contribution to these injuries included the stomper falling on my foot, right across the toes, and two days later, the side of the LandCruiser falling on both feet - hitting my toes for the second time. Ouch, and ouch again! We also had a couple head meets log incidents...

Sunday 18 November 2007

On my way home...

... here I am back at Jo'burg airport, where I've been sitting for the last 2 and a half hours. I left my hostel at 12.00 today and Namibia at 15.00. There's still over three hours until my flight leaves for Paris, and about 18 hours before I can expect to arrive back home.

Travelling through Walvis Bay airport was a nice reminder of how travelling ought to be - a small building, but enought to house 4 check-in chounters, a small tourist shop and a coffee shop. Passing through immigration to leave the country took less than a minute (with accompanying stamps - how I miss that "stamp, stamp, stamp" sound when I travel in Europe, and passing through the single X-ray machine was hassle-free (no removing of laptop from the bag, no separate bag of liquids, no taking off shoes, no taking off belts..... wonderful and fast!).

Arriving in Jo'burg though has plunged me straight back into my normal existence - the airport is packed with people, even the business lounge where I'm sitting is pretty much wall-to-wall, and full of noise and wheely-bags to trip over. I'm already missing my uncomplicated life out in the desert where I never even had to consider whether I was carrying any money or keys. I loved sleeping out under the stars and I missed it the last two nights back in the hostel. My group-mates who are staying out at EHRA for the next two weeks will have already had their briefing and will be getting ready to set out again tomorrow morning. My other companions are mostly staying in Africa and travelling further. I envy them!

Friday 16 November 2007

Back in Swakopmund

So, here I am back in Swakopmund after an amazingly short two weeks in the desert. We had a great group of people, bonded over 45C temperatures, annoying mopani bees, a lot of dust and not so many showers!

We saw plenty of elephants whilst we were out on patrol, including 3 very cute calves, and were mock-charged by a couple adult males... All in all an incredible experience and I wish I could stay for longer.

Watch this space for photos and stories.

Sunday 4 November 2007


Sat in Johannesburg airport and I was going to quickly post a couple photos from the plane, but my external hard drive/card reader seems to have died on me.... annoying as it was my only back up mechanism whilst in the desert so now I'll have to rely on not running out of Compact Flash cards.

Well, think I'm going to call it a day with the internet since gmail is also not responding and head back to the electronics shop before catching my flight to Walvis Bay.

Had a quiet day yesterday in Johannesburg - bit of last minute shopping at the mall, swam in the pool and had a light dinner at the lodge with an Argentinian hunter/conservationalist (strange sounding combination, I know!).

Friday 2 November 2007

Sitting comfortably in Paris Charles de Gaulle

I'm not yet on the plane, but I can already say that First Class is pretty cool! Arrived at Paris and disembarked the plane to find an escort holding a "Mrs Hadfield" sign. Followed like a little sheep through the maze of Charles de Gaulle and was fast-tracked through passport and security checks (still had to take my shoes off and empty the contents of my bag, mind you).

I'm now sitting in the lounge, with my own personal assistent who gave me a little welcome speech and a cup of coffee. WiFi access of course here - they even scratch the scratch card to get the user id and password ready for you.

Just investigated the breakfast bar... didn't really fancy KLM's offering of "omlette and roast chicken sandwich" on the flight to Paris.

Well, when in Paris, eat a pain au chocolat and a mini brioche. A bit of parma ham and some chorizo. Think I'll pass on the strawberry juice though.

Thursday 1 November 2007

En route to the elephants

Afters weeks of anticipation, I'm finally on my way. There's still another 9 hours until my flight to Paris leaves, but I'm settled into the airport hotel, and waiting for my dinner (steak, mushrooms & fries, no tomato!) to appear miraculously at my door.

Fortunately, given the weight of my bag, I received many offers of help to the airport from my collegues, and ended up with a willing slave to carry my bag all the way from the office to Schiphol. Thanks Ian! and Alex, Dan and Leen also for your offers of assistance!

Aha! A knock at the door! So this, below, is what room service looks like.... and if you could see the laptop screen more closely, this is what you'd be reading!

Thursday 11 October 2007


Today I visited JFall, a one day java conference organized annually by the Dutch Java Users Group. The conference was a good chance to catch up on the latest technologies (with a bias towards Adobe products, as they were the main sponsor of the event this year), and also meet up with some old colleagues of mine.

In the end I attended sessions on:

  • Webservices security (a necessary evil)
  • Adobe AIR (bringing flashy internet sites to the desktop, for example eBay Desktop)
  • New features in Java 6 & 7
  • JavaFX (a new scripting language for Java user interfaces)
  • Concurrency
The conference was for the most part well organized, with the exception of the bus service which was provided from the train station to the conference venue - 2 7-seaters which were hopelessly under capacity to carry everyone. Since there were no signs indicating where the buses could be found, it was a good thing that an all male group of computer programmers is hard to miss.

All in all, though, an enjoyable day which was both educational and social, and gave me a good opportunity to practice my Dutch. I'm looking forward to their next conference, held in April.... JSpring!

Sunday 7 October 2007

With 26 days to go...

... it's time to start the countdown to Namibia in earnest. Today I visited the outdoor centre again to take advantage of the fact that they have an in-house travel doctor, who is available on the first sunday of the month, as well as during the week. 3 jabs later I have a rather sore arm! Still need to buy a few items, namely the mosquito net and water purification tablets, but with my itinerary organized and a drawer full of supplies, I'm beginning to feel a little more prepared.

Sunday 23 September 2007

Gadgets and Widgets

In an effort to get a little fitter before my holiday in November, I have now signed up for the fitness club at work, and, even more unexpectedly, joined the running club. I must admit that I attended my first running session with quite some trepidation, not in the least because I am the only beginner in the group and my recollections of school athletics classes were not encouraging. Still, I have now survived three running sessions and I begin to feel that there is hope yet!

Ever one to require verification of my progress through measurement, I have also acquired a Nike Plus sensor (and, ahem, a beautiful shiny blue iPod Nano). I took them out this evening for my very first solo run, and here are the results.

On a more indoor note, I have recently received my marks for the latest Open University course, Molecules, Medicines and Drugs, (I passed!), and am now embarking on a new short course in Nutrition, as well as challenging myself to a longer course, Understanding Health Sciences, which will take 9 months to complete.

As you can see from the nutrition chart (from , the "measure it" principle doesn't only apply to running, and the Nutrition course has lead me to investigating websites which will log your food intake, and give you a nutritional summary. A nice feature of the course is that part of the assignment involves analysing your own diet (or that of a willing guinea pig... any volunteers?)

Analysis of over the last week already shows that my diet is low in Vitamin A (interesting, as Vitamin A is good, amongst other things, for night vision - something which I've always had problems with). Although walrus liver is apparently a good source of Vitamin A, I've decided to go for the more practical, not to mention palatable (I hope!) approach of drinking carrot juice (guess there's some truth in the saying the carrots help you see in the dark, after all).


Monday 17 September 2007

Of trains and harpsichords...

... you could say that two features defined this last weekend - singing and transport problems.

On Saturday, I sang in Amsterdam at the St Nicolaaskerk, with the Anglican Singers and a couple of my friends from the choir in The Hague. Travelling to Amsterdam is generally straight-forward - a single train ride from Delft, but even so, it's not a place a visit very often. I decided, therefore to set off a little earlier than necessary and do a little shopping in preparation for my trip to Namibia. Unfortunately my plans were rather scuppered by rail-works on one route, and an accident on another. My simple train journey ended up taking nearly two hours, and involved 3 trains and a bus. Needless to say, I had to abandon the idea of my shopping trip.

Although a number of people turned up late for the rehearsal become of the transport difficulties, the service itself went very well. This was my first time singing at the St Nicolaaskerk, and it was a very enjoyable experience - both seeing the very impressive church, and meeting up again with my friends from the ECS.

(many choir members, especially those with music qualifications, have an academic hood for every occasion. I feel like I'm starting a similar trend with choir robes recently, having been seen in red, purple or blue, depending on the choir I'm singing with. Come to think of it, that's a hood per robe!)

Music List, Choral Evensong, with Anglican Singers in Amsterdam:

  • Introit - Bless o Lord, us thy Servants (John Harper)
  • Preces and Responses - Jackson
  • Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis - Brewer in D
  • Anthem - Lord, thy Glory Fills the Skies (Darke)
Being the third of the month, Sunday was a busy day with the choir in The Hague, singing at both morning and evening services. It was also the Sunday before Prinsjesdag (the day on which the Queen addresses the Parliament in The Hague) which means that there is a practice procession from the palace to the parliament buildings. Last year I also fell foul of the procession, as my cycle route to the church takes me straight past the palace. Again, this year, the first thing I noticed was the whistle of a policeman, and the sudden appearance of a couple hundred horses, being ridden by men with swords! A real shame I didn't have my camera handy, as the procession is quite impressive, including the mounted trumpeters, a marching band and a number of golden carriages. Pretty much everything and everybody, in fact, apart from the Queen herself.

But perhaps you're asking, where does the harpsichord come into things? Well, to fit in with the music we were singing at evensong, Christina had brought her harpischord along (again, would have made a nice photo), and located it in the only space available - the middle of the choir stalls. So, not only road and rail blockages this weekend, but also "the wrong kind of harpsichord" in the middle of the choir stalls to add an extra dimension to the procession.

Music List, Choral Evensong, St John & St Philip, The Hague:
  • Preces and Responses - Davies
  • Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis - Daniel Purcell
  • Anthem - Thou Knowest Lord - Henry Purcell

I'd like to be able to report at this point that my travel annoyances of the weekend were over, but sadly, on the way home from church in the evening I braked too hard as I came flying down the bridge, and bust a brake cable on the bike... a week of tram riding follows...

Thursday 6 September 2007

It is delicious...

Jen's trip flew by, but despite the short amount of time we had, we managed cover a fair bit of ground. As well as a visit to Maastricht (a little blighted by the Belgian beer of the night before), we also visisted Dekxels restaurant in The Hague to celebrate a friend's 30th birthday. The food was quite inventive, including strange combination such as steak tartare with duck liver ice-cream. Sounds bizarre, but was actually very tasty, and the various combinations provided a good way to break the ice with the many people we hadn't met before.

No get-together would be complete without a chance to eat sushi, which we managed to fit in at my local Japanese restaurant, a slightly strange place where every dish is accompanied by the words "it is delicious".

Wednesday brought more homely fare - I came home from work for lunch and a friend joined us for lasagne, and an extremely competitive game of monopoly. Quite a change from my normal lunchtime routine - I felt like I was playing truant from school, and I can highly recommend the experience.

Taking Jen back to the airport, she was most anxious to have one last kroket (see "In which Jen discovers the kroket"), a wish that we were fortunately able to fulfil at Schiphol Airport. After all these years, Schiphol still manages to turn up a few surprises!

Sunday 2 September 2007

In which Jen discovers the kroket

So, I picked up Jen from the airport yesterday and brought her back to Delft. During our 20 minute change at Den Haag H.S., she decided to investigate the Dutch snack counter, and discovered that most Dutch of snacks - the kroket. I think it's safe to say that she's hooked... as soon as we polished off the first kroket, she ran back to the machine to pick up the next one.

Once we got back to Delft, we quickly (ish) rustled up a roast chicken and then headed off to Locus Publicus to meet my friends Fiona and Ivo, and introduce Jen to Belgian and Dutch Beer. Guided by Fiona, our resident expert, she sampled the Zatte van de IJ, Afligem Blond and the Popperings Hommel, accompanied by the traditional kaasplank - a selection of (primarily dutch) cheeses. We rounded the evening off nicely with a visit to Alef's snackbar, for, yes you guessed it - another kroket!

Wednesday 29 August 2007

Ballet in the Binnenhof

Unfortunately a rather a wet evening for an outdoor festival, but despite the weather a large number of people turned up for this evening's ballet performance by the Gallili dance company, one of a number of performances over 3 nights in the Binnenhof in The Hague.

The evening got off to a rather late start, caused by a slow security procedure, which meant that unfortunately one item was removed from the program. As you can probably see from the photo, Fiona and I didn't end up with particularly good seats, and after craning our necks through the first dance (and missing most of it), we managed to move and find better seats for the rest of the performance.

The dances were very varied, ranging from intense to amusing and acrobatic. Well, I can't begin to describe them, but the photographs on the festival page (link above), perhaps can convey some idea.

Tuesday 28 August 2007

Desert Elephants

There are probably those who think that visiting Belgium, the UK, Canada, the USA, Morocco, Norway and Germany (albeit, for work) should be enough to satisfy a person for one year. I don't seem to fall into that category, however, so I've just booked myself a holiday in November to Namibia.

To be fair, the trip is more than just a holiday - it satisfies the itch I have to contribute a little to the world at large, as I'm planning to spend my time working as a volunteer for the Elephant-Human Relationship Aid (EHRA) project. The first week will involve working at the project's base camp, building walls to protect water supplies from elephants, allowing the farmers and elephants to live together in the harsh desert environment. In the second week, I'll be heading out into the desert on patrol, camping under the stars, tracking the elephants on foot as part of elephant herd identification and data collection projects. You can see a video about the project here.

In contrast to the basic life we'll be living on the project, I've decided to treat myself, and blown all my lovingly collected airmiles to travel over to Africa in 1st class. According to the Air France website, it promises to be quite an experience, including transfer to the airplane in a special vehicle (I kid you not), massages, "comfortable lounge wear" (not really sure what that is supposed to be), all the lotions and potions you could ever ask for, and a bed on the plane. Um well, not quite that all of this is necessary, but after sleeping on the ground for two weeks with no toilets or showers, it sounds like an enjoyable prospect!

Monday 20 August 2007

Bowdon Choir at Durham Cathedral

My second choir trip this summer was to Durham Cathedral, with the choir of St Mary the Virgin, Bowdon - my English choir, whom I still visit when I'm back at home.

Durham is a city which I have passed through a couple times, including for university interviews, but never really spent much time in. The city itself is small and welcoming, and we were lucky to be staying at one of the colleges (St Chad's), which is located directly behind the cathedral. After the steep uphill walk we had in Bristol, I really enjoyed the convenience of being able to just nip up to the cathedral, especially when loaded with robes and music.

It was great fun being back with my friends from the old choir, singing both old favourites from my 11 years in the choir, as well as exercising my sight-reading skills on the newer pieces. All in all, we were over 40 people on the weekend, which caused some logistical problems in choir stalls designed for 24 people.

The only frustration for me at Durham is that, unlike most British cathedrals, photography is not allowed. The cathedral is an incredibly awe-inspiring building, with huge great pillars, and my fingers were really itching to get my camera out! Fortunately, we were able to take photos in a couple of areas, including the cloisters and the chapter house, where we robed up and which featured in the Harry Potter films as the transfiguration classroom.

Monday 13 August 2007

European Cathedral Singers in Bristol

August is traditionally "choir camp" month, as choirs are given the opportunity to fill in for the many cathedral choirs during the summer vacation.

I spent the last week with the European Cathedral Singers (ECS), singing the services at Bristol Cathedral from Monday to Friday, and at the parish church of St Mary Redcliffe on the weekend. This is the only the second trip I've made with the ECS, and the first time I've joined for the full week.

As last year, it was both enjoyable but exhausting, as we sang 8 services in 7 days, with a lot of new (and in some cases, challenging) music. With the exception of one day off, we spent the best part of each day rehearsing, before singing evensong at 5.15. On Sunday we sang a total of 3 services, which kept us busy from 8.45am until 7.30pm.

Compared to some of the cathedrals in which I've sung, Bristol Cathedral is fairly small, and as such, less overrun with tourists and more welcoming than many.

One the other hand, St Mary Redcliffe is, on the scale of parish churches, really rather grand, but no less friendly for that. During the break in services I wandered in with my camera and was made very welcome by the sidemen on duty, who even made me a cup of tea!

One bonus of choir trips is the chance to visit parts of England that I would probably never venture to otherwise. This was my first visit to Bristol, and I had the feeling that there was plenty more to be seen, if I'd only had the time and energy!

Of course, since we were staying in Clifton, we couldn't miss seeing the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Lit up at night, it was really quite a sight, although some of us were more impressed by it than others!

We were also lucky that our visit coincided with the attraction of the annual Balloon Festival, which was also based in Clifton. The balloons went up twice a day - at 6am and 6pm. Unfortunately, the one morning I managed to get up in time to go out and take photographs, the weather was changing and there were very few balloons and a lot of clouds.

Saturday 23 June 2007

Choral Festival

Every year the RSCM (Royal School of Church Music) in North West Europe organizes a Choral Festival for its associated choirs, which are based in The Netherlands, Belgium or Luxembourg. This year, it was the turn of my choir, from the church of St. John and St. Philip in the The Hague, to organize the festival, and I was a member of the festival committee, along with my two friends Fiona and Emmy.

The choral festival takes the form of a day's rehearsal, culminating in a themed service at the end of the day. This year, the service was a Choral Evensong, in which all the music was linked to the RSCM, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary. We held the festival at the HH Petrus Paulus kerk, a Catholic church on the Vliet canal in Leidschendam, with Nigel Groome as our musical director for the day, and Christina Edelen playing the organ.

Organizing the festival involved a lot of work, including booking the church, choosing the hymns and psalms for the service and creating a lunch for 80+ people on the day of the festival. Fortunately, we had a great deal of support from the choir in providing the lunches, though I still found myself baking flapjacks and preparing salads in the middle of the night!

And of course, I shouldn't forget the great pleasure of loading 90 chairs into a trailer, only to have to unload them and repeat the experience the following day, thanks to some rather inconsiderate people who insisted on having them, and then rather smugly told us they hadn't bothered to use them after all.

After all the hard work, the festival itself was a great success, and appeared to be enjoyed by all the participants. We had representatives from the affiliated choirs of The Hague, Haarlem, Utrecht, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Brussels and Luxembourg, as well as some special visitors from Dusseldorf and Swindon.

As you can see, we made a very colourful procession from the church halls, through the the main shopping street of Leidschendam, past the Hoogvliet supermarket and the local pub and into the church, with each choir wearing its own robes.

The music we sang at the service:

  • Introit - Out of the stillness - Shepherd
  • Responses - Neary
  • Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis - Nicholson
  • Anthem - Lord, thou hast been our refuge - Vaughn Williams
  • Extroit - Irish Blessing - Chilcott

Sunday 3 June 2007

Choral Evensong at the Bavokerk, Haarlem

Most people, after an overnight flight from the US back to Europe, would acknowledge defeat and head to bed for a few hours (or days...). Ever a sucker for punishment, however, I headed up to Haarlem in the afternoon to joined the choir of the English church in Haarlem for a special service of Choral Evensong at the Sint Bavokerk. The combination of jet lag, and a traditional Anglican 1662 with readings and prayers in Dutch, was somewhat surreal.

The Music List:

  • Introit - Bless o Lord, us Thy Servants - Harper
  • Preces & Responses - Nardone
  • Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis - Harwood in Ab
  • Anthem - Give us the wings of faith - Bullock
  • Extroit - Irish Blessing

Thursday 31 May 2007

Portland, Maine

Having come to the end of our stay in New Hampshire, we headed east this morning to the coast of Maine, just south of Portland. The weather having finally turned, we decided for dry and effortless sightseeing - a "Land and Sea" tour which comprised a trolley tour of Portland with a visit to Portland Head Light (Maine's first lighthouse) followed by a boat tour through the harbour and Casco Bay to see the various lighthouses from the water.

A bonus sighting were a large number of eider ducks and their ducklings. Sadly not too easy to photograph.

Wednesday 30 May 2007

The day after the mountain before

Woke up this morning with a severe case of "Mt Washington legs" - getting out of bed and down the spiral iron staircase of our cabin was a challenge indeed.

In the interests of limbering up a little, and making the most of our last day in New Hampshire we found a small hike up Mt Willard - a straight up and back to a cliff ledge overlooking the Crawford Notch valley.

The hike to the cliff edge was fairly unremarkable - a small river crossing at the start, and then a path up through the woods at an unchanging gradient. Unlike the solitude of our Mt Washington hike, there was quite a lot of traffic on the route, including a couple groups of teenagers.
Fortunately, when we reached the top, we were able to enjoy the peace and quiet for about 5 minutes before the ledge was overrun by the first group.

Sitting up on the ledge we had a fine view down into the valley, and also backward over to Mt Washington. As we sat, we could see the clouds coming in and shrouding the weather masts on the summit.

Once we returned to the cabin, we had a relaxing afternoon sitting in our "back garden" playing scrabble, writing postcards, reading and snoozing. In the evening we lit our second campfire - a challenge as it rained on and off the whole evening. Eventually we managed to get it burning and dinner was a success, albeit a little damp.

Trail Length: 2.9mi (4.7km)
Elevation Gain: 980ft (300m)

Google Earth file for our White Mountain Hikes

Tuesday 29 May 2007

What goes up Mt Washington, must come down

...but sadly, not on the Cog Railway, a curious-looking beast whose boiler is at a funny slant to enable it to get up the hill (the phrase "I think I can, I think I can..." springs to mind).

Having climbed Mt Washington, we had a discussion in the cafe about whether we should take the railway back down or hike. In the end, the issue was settled for us when we noticed the gift shop closing up and realised that in fact the last train service of the day had just left.

Resigned to our fate, we had a chat with the Park Ranger and found out the best route for our descent - the Jewell Trail.

Crossing over the train lines (reassuring to know that we could outrun this train easily!) we headed along the Gulfside Trail which took us along the edge of a beautiful cliffside until we met the Jewell Trail.

Very quickly it became clear that the way down was also not going to be easy going. Not only was the trail fairly steep, but we had to step from rock to rock like mountain goats. This seemed to suit Darby, whose Norwegian heritage surely showed through here, but I can't say that Fiona or I found it much fun and we took things at a rather more knee-friendly pace. Once we hit the tree line it looked as though we had a nice clear trail marked through the trees, but sad to relate, more rocks to climb over, spiced up with a return of the snow to slither down.

After a long set of switchbacks near the end of the trail we finally reached a small bridge which crossed over the river to the other side of the ravine. The familiar smell of steam engine began to reach us as we approached the base station of the cog railway and finally emerged from the trees. We watched the sun slowly set as we walked the final half mile back to the car park.

Trail length: 9.5mi (15.3km)
Elevation gain: 3937ft (1200m)

Google Earth file for our White Mountain Hikes.

In which we climb up Mt Washington

Happy Birthday Darby!

After celebrating Darby's birthday with the cupcakes we had brought with us, it was time to get down to the main business of the day - a hike up Mt Washington, the tallest mountain in the north eastern US, known less for its gorgeous views than the fact that is has what is considered to be the worst weather in the States. Although the mountain is equipped with its very own cog railway up to the summit, we were determined to earn our views the hard way.

Although we didn't know it at the time, the mountain was a very appropriate choice for Darby's birthday as it was first scaled in 1642 by someone named Darby Field, thought to be have been born in Boston, England.

There are a number of routes up the mountain, and we had initially planned to take the Tuckerman Ravine route, but after consultation with the owners of the campground changed our route to follow the Ammonoosuc Ravine. This turned out to be a better idea than we first realised as we heard once we reached the top that the Tuckerman Ravine route had been closed.

The first part of the trail up to the Gem Pool was hardly more than a gentle stroll, the only slight challenge being a couple river crossings and a few patches of snow along the way. Very excited by the snow, we stopped to photograph every patch, little knowing that further up the trail we would see far more snow than we could have ever bargained for.

Once we left crossed the Gem Pool, life got harder very quickly as we hit a stairway of rocks. Ready for a breather, we were pleased to see a couple heading downwards and stopped for a chat. Worryingly, they told us that they had planned to walk to the summt but had been stopped a little further up due to difficult river crossing. As they turned out to be regulars on the route, this was a little concerning, but we decided to carry on and see what we found. Worse yet, after continuing a little while we saw someone else coming down towards us - an extremely well-equipped looking guy who had passed us earlier. He also had turned back because he was concerned about getting through the snow just beyond the river crossing. Apparently not someone to take life easy, he was planning to go back down to the trailhead and find himself another mountain to climb! Despite being a little daunted by all the experienced looking hikers giving up we were determined not to quit so easily, and deciding we had both numbers and youth on our side, decided to continue.

The next section was pretty hard work, every time we thought we were clear we hit another patch of snow which, given the steep gradient, was tough to clamber up. Still, the occasional view we had, when the trees thinned a little, was superb. Finally the path evened out a little and we emerged from the obvious trail into a more open area, thinly scatter wereed with trees. Now a challenge - where on earth did the trail lead? Blue markers, which had been reassuring us so far, were woefully absent. We looked valiently for footprints through the snow, but it seemed that no-one else had got this far. Just as we were starting to think we might have no option other than turning back (really not a pleasant thought!), we heard voices. After waiting a couple minutes, a group of people slowly emerged from the trees, looking expectantly up at us, as if we had all the answers. Between us we managed to find a blue marker and carried on as a large group through the trees and finally, up to the Lake of the Clouds Hut, our first major landmark after the Gem Pool. Now the summit was finally in sight, although there still remained a good climb ahead of us.

The final part of our ascent had the great advantage of being above the treeline, so we could see our target as we slowly climbed. The downside to the open landscape, though, was a brutal wind which caused my eyes to stream constantly. We were very quickly glad of our fleeces, despite the sunny day. Not for nothing is New Hampshire called "The Granite State" - the last part of the hike up to the summit is nothing but rocks.

An hour or so after leaving the Lake of the Clouds, we reached the summit and, extremely windswept, clambered up the last pile of rocks to be photographed at the summit. Sadly my hat wasn't able to withstand the strong winds, and rescuing it a couple times, I finally lost it out of my pocket! Our hard work was rewarded - for once the summit wasn't eveloped in cloud, and we were able to enjoy the fantastic views. Flushed with our success, we smirked at the people climbing out of the steam train which had just reached the top and rushed to the cafe to beat the queue for a well-earned cup of tea.

Monday 28 May 2007

Camping USA

OK, so we weren't sleeping in tents, but we still considered that a campfire was a vital part of our camping experience. Despite some trouble with the wind, and the fact that none of us have a lot of experience building fires, we managed to get a good fire going so that we could try our hands at cooking some traditional campfire food.

First up were the hot dogs - a roaring success, even though we left the mustard at home. Then the s'mores - melted marshmallows, squashed with Hershey's chocolate between Graham crackers. - much amusement due to my inability to cook a marshmallow without setting it alight at least twice.