Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Campbelltown nights

July 27th, 2011

Martin, I thought, must’ve had a few bad experiences with cyclists. Sharing his obvious frustrations very diplomatically, just as I sought to reassure him that I at least sought not to impede others on the road. Fortunately, the conversation soon moved on to koalas. Previously a fairly emotive subject, tonight the only point of contention was that they were just that. Koalas. Not koala bears.

I’d reached a small town close to Campbelltown, a little to the south of Sydney, at dusk. Slow but steady progress through the western suburbs. Half expecting a quiet evening staying with Debbie and Steve, relatives of Dewi who, back in North Wales, had trained me as a cycle mechanic. Instead, a rather more rapturous affair, joined by their friends for a homely dinner. Curious names. "Mrs DDS".

Cyclists they might not be, but a firm grasp of what would go down well after a day’s ride Debbie certainly had. Rich, homemade lasagne, garlic bread. And alcoholic ginger beer. Lashings of it. A fine return to the road.

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Nuns on the run

July 26th, 2011

By the time I was called the ticket was crumpled. Slightly sweaty. Decided to rest it on top of my small pocket book. Into which I’d shoved various documents to support my case for a US visa. Letter of introduction from The Outward Bound Trust. Outlining my venture. Evidence of funds to support myself. Of ties to the UK. That’d I no intention of over-staying.

Glanced once more at the number printed on the small slip. Three hundred and ninety. Must been the twentieth time I’d checked it. Sat in the waiting area of the US Consulate. High above Sydney. Fiftieth or so floor. People came and went. Called forward to the small interview booths. If there was an order to it, it wasn’t numerical.

Curious about my fellow applicants. Sat about. Family with four daughters. Quite a few students. Overhearing snippets from the booths in front. Questioned mostly on their ability to support themselves. And a couple of nuns. One of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to Robbie Coltrane.

Then my turn. A few questions. More of a pleasant chat than an interview. Explained the purpose of my visit. Why I sought a visa rather than use the usual Visa Waiver Programme. Added I had various documents in support of my application. But these weren’t necessary. Ten year multiple entry visa granted. Helpfully advised that the duration of each visit would depend on the immigration officer at point of entry. So wise to keep hold of the paperwork.

Reflecting a short while later with my flask of tea, I felt rather buoyant. For one thing, I’d found the US Consulate very understanding. A few days earlier concerned Chilean ash clouds might preclude me from getting back in time from New Zealand for my interview. I’d explained the situation in an e-mail. Personal response within the hour. If was delayed, they’d be able to accommodate me. Just get in touch. And the morning’s experience had been similarly pleasant. I was really looking forward to visiting.

[Author’s note: Ken sought a Class B-2 tourist visa because he needs more than the three months permitted by the Visa Waiver Scheme for British Citizens. Time that includes that spent in Canada. So, de facto, a North American visa. Cost. About one hundred pounds]

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Consular affairs on camera

July 26th, 2011

Consular affairs from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken heads for the US Consulate in Sydney, Australia. In search of a visa.

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A bit behind…

July 25th, 2011

I’d finally made it back to friends in Sydney’s northern suburbs. Bit later than I’d hoped. Immigration to thank for that. Bite to eat. Glass of wine. Chance to reflect on the day’s events. There’d been the unexpected airport departure tax. Not included in the ticket. But only for those bound for Australia.

Deptax

More expense. Which struck me as odd. Just why was Australia so expensive? If any country was justified in being more costly than, say, the UK, it was New Zealand. Far side of the world. Relatively small population. About four million to Oz’s twenty or so. And yet I’d found it pretty comparable to Blighty.

As we’d made our approach into Sydney the Captain had announced they were two hours behind. I’d laughed out loud. Quipped if you came out from the UK make it twenty years.

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Rude awakening

July 25th, 2011

How was I able to support myself, the official asked? Explained how I funded my travels. Added I’d paperwork in my bag that might be helpful. Offer accepted. Cursory check. He’d need to file a brief report. Just in case I was stopped again. I wasn’t sure where, or when, that might be. No particular plans to return once I’d completed riding along Australia’s eastern seaboard.

Australia - Immigration - entry stamp - 17 Jun 11

I’d been pulled to one side by an immigration officer at Sydney airport. Spotted I’d been here before. For a while. Resisting the temptation to be flippant. I’d a multiple entry visa. Six months per visit. Why not? Whilst I’d been able to satisfy the rather Orwellian Customs and Border Protection chap of my bona fides, I’d not taken kindly being stopped. British Citizen. If we’d much of a Navy left I’d have summoned the gunboats.

At least the woman in Quarantine was friendly. Nice smile. I’d explained I’d been here before. Last time with a bicycle. Knew the do’s and don’t’s. Not even a rummage in my bag. Allowed to proceed without further delay. Welcome to Australia.

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Night rider

June 28th, 2011

Acceptance. When you know you have to do something. Even if you really don’t want to. Makes it easier. Stoic. I’d pulled off the road. Dark in less than twenty minutes. Quick phone call to friends. They were expecting me. Wasn’t exactly sure where I was. Just an inkling I’d quite a way to go. Two. Maybe three hours. Could be more.

I’d reached Gosford at lunchtime. Making satisfactory progress from my overnight stop at Swansea. Brief break for coffee. Centrepoint town. Lower social demographic. Benefit office mainstay of the local economy. Cheap looking shops. Salvos – Salvation Army – second hand store doing a brisk trade.

Couple of cyclists had spotted Emma, my trusty steed, outside the cafe. Guessed it was my bike. We chatted for a short while. Soon apparent the final fifty miles into Sydney’s northern suburbs would be slow. Lengthy, if steady, climbs. Wooded valleys.

Sun fading fast now. Lights rigged. Fresh batteries in the rear set. Quick snack. Been on the road since eight. Anxious to press on. Headlights bright enough to be seen. But insufficient for picking my way along unlit roads. Needed to make the most of the last glimmers of daylight. Striving to reach the comforting orange glow of street lights on the outskirts of Sydney.

There’d been a steep gradient at the end. Too tired to ride. Suburban street. Checking letter boxes for house numbers. Needed evens. But which way did they run? Then a shout from down the hill. Welcoming party. We’d made it. Sydney.

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Big map…

June 27th, 2011

Ausmap

Sydney. Two thirds of Australia’s east coast complete. Final mainland stop Melbourne. About the same as riding from Calais to Istanbul. After all, it’s more than a country. It’s an entire continent.

So far there’s been the wet tropics – heavy, if warm, torrential downpours. Oppressive humidity. But now getting cooler. Low twenties in the day. Much lower at night. Frost. Cold rain. Just ten hours of daylight. Not dissimilar to an English summer… And an Australian winter.

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Makings of another cunning plan

June 26th, 2011

Makings of a cunning plan from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Unexpectedly slow progress has left Ken with over two hundred and forty kilometres – about one hundred and sixty miles – to Sydney in just two days. Which calls for another cunning plan…

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The accidental tourist

January 20th, 2011

I’d half expected to spend New Year’s Eve in Sydney baby-sitting Emma, my trusty steed, and all the kit. Sitting sleep-deprived in Domestic Departures. Waiting for Check-In to open. Caffeine my only companion. But no. Fortuitously choosing to fly Virgin Blue north to Cairns meant I could offload my bags and bicycle at International Arrivals. Using Virgin Atlantic from Hong Kong had probably helped. Captain helpfully explaining the arrangement just before we landed.

An unexpected day on my hands. Just after nine in the morning. Flight north not until gone seven pm. Cabin baggage – one of my front panniers – secured in Left Luggage. Even managed to find a free shower in one of the toilet blocks in the International terminal. And an adjacent shop that did a good trade in razors. My own having to be checked in. Refreshed. A bit. Or at least enough to head for the heart of Sydney. It’d be criminal not to. Like so many earlier visitors.

Bridge - web

A short train ride into Circular Quay. Emerging to see Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Along the waterfront people staking out their places early for the night’s celebrations.

[With especial thanks to my Dad for researching the airlines, their rules for bikes and excess baggage, and finding the best deals. Virgin Atlantic from Hong Kong to Sydney. Then Virgin Blue to Cairns. Flying Cattle Economy but still very impressed with the standard of service. A relatively painless experience, even with a bicycle. Assuming you’ve properly packed up all your kit of course…]

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Bah humbug…

December 9th, 2010

New Years Eve in Sydney. Australia’s cultural Capital. And I wasn’t looking forward to it. Not a bit. Truth was, I’d be arriving early in the morning on an overnight flight from Hong Kong. Then there’d be a twelve hour wait for my connection to Cairns, the starting point for my southerly run along the east coast. Reckoned on arriving at lodgings close to midnight.

Much as I might want to see in the New Year – and my third continent – in style, the grim reality is that after being deprived of all but a modicum of sleep the previous night, a vat or two of caffeine in domestic departures… I think you get the picture. Of course, there are earlier connections. And better days to travel. But a lot more expensive. Even toyed with the idea of temporary membership of an airline lounge to take some of the pain away, but the airlines have already wised up to that scam one.

Booking the flights has been enough of an experience. Shades of colonic irrigation. Some people enjoy it. I don’t. Actually, that’s the easy bit. The real fun starts with the excess baggage rules and charges. For which possession of a bicycle appears to be viewed as something of an aggravating factor. Complicated further by using, of necessity, two separate airlines with different requirements and fees. Makes the various Central Asian visa and immigration rules look like they’d merit a Plain English award.

Scales - web

So. No plans to saw the handle off my toothbrush. It folds. Or fly into tropical Cairns wearing my down jacket. Far too light. But I do know exactly how much all the kit weighs. Courtesy of a set of children’s bathroom scales. About £2.50 from a Chinese Walmart.

And I’ve also worked out how to legitimately exploit the carry-on luggage rules to their fullest extent. I’ll be the one boarding with a full seven kilograms in my bag. Maps and notebooks (’reading material’) in my pockets. Netbook and cameras carried separately. Whilst wearing my iPod. Pondered – albeit briefly – what to do with one of my spare folding tyres. Ressembles a cricketer’s protective box. Sort of.

Frustrating? Yes. Time-consuming? Yes. And I’d had help. A lot. No need to shop around the various airlines. My parents had very kindly done that for me. Simply had to follow their advice. Which I’d done. To the letter. And also pleased I’d already got my Australian visa. Saved a few more hours online. And my sanity. Just needed to get across the de-facto border from mainland China into Hong Kong. But that’s another story….

[Author’s note: You may be surprised to know that the English language version of the Kazakhstan visa and immigration rules probably does merit a Plain English award. Invaluable for fending off corrupt border guards. Sadly not available in hardback]

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