Tuesday, 28 July 2009

View from the top...

...is mainly a view of other people. Huge numbers climb Half Dome in Yosemite (pictured from nearby Glacier Point), and they spend lots of time on the summit. Not surprising, the views are amazing, and it's a great place to sunbathe. Plus everyone's shattered by the temperatures, the climb (4,800 feet) and especially the last few hundred feet, for which you have to pull yourself up cables.

There's an assumption that, being a litigious society, America is very safety conscious, except where guns are concerned. This isn't the case at the top of Half Dome. The cables are old, the posts they're attached to rattle alarmingly, and if you lost your grip on the cable, especially at the point where it starts to traverse across the slope, you'd reach terminal velocity long before anything stopped you. That said, there were no fatalities for 80 years, until 2006, but a few since, perhaps because the walkway is getting worn and shiny. Granite grips shoes well everywhere else. Some climbers make it look easy, a few others come prepared and clip themselves to the cable which makes it much safer, but I had my heart in my mouth watching a clearly scared 10 year old girl pulling herself up without them.

I asked a ranger about all this when I got down, and was told (a) that it's the wilderness and it's meant to be dangerous, they seem almost proud of it, the park bookshop has a book describing in ghoulish detail all the deaths-by-misadventure that have occurred in Yosemite's history; and (b) that because National Parks are federally administered it practically takes an Act of Congress to change anything about how they're run. I can think of several easy ways to make this cable ascent safer, given the numbers climbing it I'm amazed this isn't an issue.

Discarding your pack for the cable climb is one way to make life easier, but has its own risks. The local squirrels know all about this trick, and as soon as the owners leave they either burrow into the packs or just bite their way through them in search of grub. Several of my fellow climbers were in for a shock when they got back to their packs.

The descent was perhaps even tougher, because by then it was afternoon (I started at 7:30am, when temperatures are pleasant), and I was descending into the 100 degree valley floor. I took lots of water but had long since exhausted it when I got back to the highest drinking fountain, never been so glad to see one.

Felt I'd earned a lazy day after this, so have so far spent it in the spa at the Midpines hostel, where I'm staying. Back to San Francisco tomorrow, flying to Seattle the day after.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Regrets - I've had a few...

...but then again, too few to get het up about. But lest anyone thinks this trip has been as smooth as a baby's bottom (which is more than can be said for my bottom), here's a few moments when it wasn't:

- Lost or stolen camera (Melbourne) : Looks like I'll have to rely on my memory for the last few days in Tasmania and Melbourne.
- Accidental deletion of several days photos (New Zealand): And the same goes for my time on the Queen Charlotte Track and near Nelson in the South Island. Still not sure what button I pressed, still grumpy about the result.
- $300 car damage (NZ): Apparently only about 1 in 25 people take the accidental damage insurance from car rental companies. I'm one of the 24, which bit me in NZ when something wooden fell off a moving timber truck, and demolished the mirror on the driver's door of my hire car.
- Badly fitting flippers on my diving course, and failure to take protective measures. I had spectacular blisters, especially on the upper part of the balls of my feet for a couple of weeks afterwards, which made walking, or just wearing shoes come to that, very uncomfortable.
- Walking into wall: Happened while trying to find toilet in darkness in unfamiliar house. Embarrassing swelling on forehead for several days.
- Flight from Oahu to Big Island, Hawaii: This flight takes its passengers along the south coast of 3 big islands, past beaches, volcanoes and other fantastic scenery, all visible if you sit on the left of the plane. I sat on the right, from where you can see the Pacific Ocean.
- Theft of t-shirt from washing line in Cairns: This was my black one with a picture of George Best above his most famous quote about how he spent his money. Acted as an ice-breaker in several hostels and hostelries. People tended to assume I was Irish, but this isn't always a bad thing.
- Eating paua (Local NZ Shellfish) in Thai restaurant in Kaikoura: The shells are beautiful when polished. The contents are rubbery, gritty and bitter, and should be discarded, not cooked.
- Oedipus Rex by awful local theatre company in Darwin: I resent the fact that I'll never get those 2 wasted hours back!

Another regret is making definitive statements on my blog which turn out to be nonsense, such as "I'm not going to Yosemite in temperatures over 90". It topped 100 today, but I've come anyway, too many people in San Francisco said I couldn't afford to miss it. And while hiking's very hard work (4 miles on the flat left me shattered), the park is so well organised and gorgeous that I can forgive. Though even Yosemite has its bad moments. The photo shows Mount Watkins (one of many stunning lumps of granite) in the background, and shattered trees and rubble in the foreground cause by a major rockfall a couple of months back. The damage these can cause is impressive, the relevant path is impassable for the foreseeable future.

Hiking is essential to avoid the crowds in Yosemite, but California has state parks as well as national parks. I visited Pacheco park (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=560) on the way here. 7000 acres, 28 miles of trails (I covered about 6 of them), beautiful scenery (not as dramatic as Yosemite, but what is?) perfect walking conditions (it's close enough to the coast that the temperatures are bearable) and I was the only person in the whole park. Or at least I saw no one else and there were no other cars parked, which is all the evidence needed in the US.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009


This could refer to Alcatraz - 'The Rock' - which is the most popular tourist attraction in San Francisco. I was there on Monday (am I the 1st Scotsman pictured in one of these cells since Sean Connery in the film "The Rock"?), but I'm really blogging about the once-mighty Blue Oyster Cult, who I saw in action at a non-descript nightclub the same evening. It was one of these crusty ugly audiences I seem to specialise in these days (see also Rush, Australian Pink Floyd and Richard Thomson, and apologies to anyone who was at those gigs with me), and it's easy to see why BOC are playing clubs while some of their contemporaries are still filling stadiums. Only 2 original members, both of whom look embarrassed about the whole process - they're probably respectable husbands and fathers in real life. The lead singer finished the evening with injunctions to drive home safely and take no drugs - not very rock and roll. And not much inspiration about the music, the original BOC sounded a lot more distinctive, this was just generic dadrock. From a selfish point of view, disappointing they played no songs from the 2 albums I know and like, apart from their only big hit Don't Fear the Reaper because there'd be a riot if they didn't play it. But still glad we went - I need a fix of this stuff occasionally!

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Flowers in my hair

San Francisco is considered a great place to be, rather than necessarily to do things. And so I'm doing my best to tune in to the vibe, man, and be one of the dudes. Which isn't really me, to be honest, but I'm trying.

A criticism the city gets is that it can seem self-satisfied, and I can see something in that, a typical example was all the whooping and hollering that went on at a bike film festival I went to. It seemed cliquey, and not especially welcoming if you weren't part of the clique, though lots of the short films were good. But it's much the most interesting city I've been to on these travels for just wandering around, there's such variety and character, though far too much facial hair, even on quite young guys. But even the oldest are keeping up with the times - photo was taken at a very well attended free concert by Sergent Garcia in a park to the west of the city - though most of the crowd were a bit livelier than these two.

There's far more begging than anywhere in Oz or NZ. I've no idea how SF's homeless percentages compare to elsewhere in the US, but I suspect they're quite high, as a lot of people who feel they don't fit in elsewhere (not just homosexuals, though inevitably that's quite central to the culture here) gravitate to SF, and just as inevitably, a lot of them don't fit in here any better than they would elsewhere.

Note: I subsequently read that SF is fairly relaxed about people sleeping on its streets - the local Big Issue started here too. Other cities tend to run the homeless out of town, or at least out of the town centres.

This is turning into a social critique, which will bore people faster than - er - well, even faster than the rest of the rubbish I write. So will get back to what I've done and what I'm doing. Fisherman's wharf yesterday, Asian Art Museum today, Alcatraz on Monday. And heading north a couple of days after that, though this may depend on the weather. It's perfect here, but inland California is having a heatwave, and I won't be walking far in Yosemite in temperatures of 90 degrees, so will give this a miss if it stays this way.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

The next big thing

Myself and my San Francisco couchsurf host Laurie have been out drinking this evening, and we met this band - http://www.myspace.com/thebarbaryghosts - on their way home from a gig. They played their song 'Rio Grande' to us on the street corner, it was lovely. They deserve to be megastars, the campaign to make them megastars starts here!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Spot the odd flag out

I visited Hawaii's most popular attraction, Pearl Harbour, to see the sites of America's 2 most famous battleships. Arizona, a war grave which sustained the heaviest casualties during the attack and was left as a tomb for the 1000+ who died inside. And Missouri, the last working battleship, on which the Japanese surrendured in 1945. It was only decommissioned in the 1990s.

I also saw this collection of flags on a US WW2 submarine, showing the ships it sank. Suggests that US-French animosity predates the whole 'Freedom Fries' nonsense! For extra points, can anyone tell me why the US was sinking French ships?

Now in San Francisco with my latest couchsurf host.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Building more real estate

Most of Hawaii is shrinking, but the Big Island, which is the newest and contains the active volcanoes, will be growing soon as a new undersea volcano reaches the surface and joins the rest of the land sometime in the next few thousand years. So here's what it has to look forward to. Constant rain (on this east side of the island), questionable fashion sense, far too much country, reggae and christian music (at least 4 christian radio stations so far), and lots of non-indigenous life that's busy eating the indigenous stuff. In New Zealand stoats were public enemy number 1, here it's mongooses/mongeese (pictured), which were brought in to tackle snakes but decided the local birdlife was much tastier.

One of the smaller existing volcanoes, Kilauea, is the liveliest at present. I visited the point where its lava is hitting the sea, or at least the viewpoint half a mile away which is the nearest we're allowed to get. The summit is less lively, but currently producing enough sulphur dioxide that parts of the 11km road round the crater are closed. But it's possible to walk through a smaller crater nearby, full of incredible lava formations. I've seen nothing like it anywhere else. Volcanic scenery (I'm comparing it to Iceland and New Zealand) takes lots of different forms.

Anyway, I'm currently sat at a table in a hostel in Hilo doing lots of passive smoking, and talking to 3 gorgeous French travellers (one of whom bought this laptop solely because it's pink), so blogging isn't the best use of my time. Later dudes...

Friday, 10 July 2009

Island Time

Hawaii's meant to be the laid back bit of the US, and here on the Big Island that's certainly true, unless the volcanoes come to life and give the locals a hurry-up. Hopefully this isn't their plan for tomorrow, since I'll be in the vicinity. Molten lava and pyroclastic flows I'm happy to experience on TV rather than in real life.

I've been donning mask and flippers again to test my new found diving and snorkeling skills. See photo - if a giant 'S' on the chest stands for 'Superman', what does the giant 'B' here mean? The corals and varieties of fish don't compare with the Barrier Reef, but it's nice to be able to step off the beach straight into prime reef territory, as opposed to taking a 50 mile boat trip first. Highlight was the biggest turtle I've seen; some turtles on the barrier reef would have made good snacks, but this guy had good-sized snacks living on his shell. One lowlight was having swotted up on my diving stats on the plane, then discovering that America's rejection of all things metric made these irrelevant. The other was watching my dive buddy for the day succumbing to seasickness, emptying her guts over the side of the boat and thinking "I've got to swim in that..."

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

In search of Captain Cook

I hadn't thought about it before today, but much of this trip has parallelled the journeys of Captain Cook, who made the first detailed descriptions of NZ, Oz, and much of the Pacific in the 18th century. I've seen statues or museums commemorating his landfalls in the Queen Charlotte Sound in NZ and at Cooktown north of Cairns. He was also in Sydney long before it became Sydney, and today I toured the replica of his ship Endeavour at the Maritime Museum in Sydney. And tomorrow I'm off to Hawaii, where he came to a grisly end - hope this is where the parallels stop. The histories are a bit delicate on the subject, but it seems the British only got some of his body back from the Hawaians who killed him. Not sure what happened to the rest, but 'Long Pig' was definitely on the south seas menu in those days.

Finally, big shout to my pal Ronnie, who was going to come and meet me in Canada at the end of the trip, but has just broken his leg so sadly won't be going anywhere for a while. My brother Alan is still scheduled to come, can I ask his fellow footballers to treat him with kid gloves for the next few weeks please?!

Journey to the Dark Side

Yes, rugby league, the wriggling code. Never been to a game in the UK, and a couple of decades ago my name would have been mud in the Scottish amateur union code for even considering it, but times change, and sadly this is the number one sport in Australia. Mainly because it occupies the place in the national psyche that football does in Scotland, with all the positives and negatives this implies. An incredible number of players have been in the papers recently for alcoholic and sexual misdeeds or general loutish behaviour, and some of their excuses are very entertaining. But it brings in the fans.

We went to a game in Penrith west of Sydney (the Sydney couchsurf hosts were laughing hysterically at the thought of tourists heading so far into the backwoods) for a game with local rivals Parramattah, the sort of local rivalry (think Ayr v Kilmarnock in Scotland) the rest of the world ignores but means everything to people in the two towns. Who seem pretty rough diamonds. One fan we conversed with in a hostelry was interested in Europe only as a source of dope, and we saw a cracking fight after the game featuring about 10 people including a pregnant woman, with not a policeman in sight, despite a 16,000 attendance. And in the midst of it all was an excellent game, about 38-34 to the home team with the lead changing hands at least 8 times, thanks to a mix of good skills and useless tackling. The game doesn't have enough variety to displace Rugby Union in my affections, but I wish Union (especially in Glasgow) could draw crowds like this. And we saw some more traditional Aussie dancing - pictured. Myself and Erich spent much of the game congratulating ourselves on our choice of seats.

This is my last night in Oz. Think Sydney is still my favourite city here, even if inevitably it's not as exciting when there isn't a rugby world cup on. Spent part of the evening watching a film with a Sydney setting. Yes, Finding Nemo, featuring the clownfish I swam with on the Barrier Reef. Hoping to see a few more on my next stop, Hawaii.