Beaches and buses

April 20, 2015.  Mobility in Cape Town is a breeze.  The modern MyCiti bus service is reliable and convenient so we have become savvy in the ways of transit.  On our first full day in town we walked to the waterfront, bought bus cards, and rode the bus down the coast to the beaches at Clifton.  This is  quite the high rent district with gaudy, glass-fronted condos and villas reaching up the hill overlooking the water beneath Lion's Head.  We spent a peaceful hour on the rather empty beach and decided to come back later in the week when temperatures would be higher and we had our full complement of beach kit.

Further south we hopped off in Camp's Bay, a trendy outlying community.  Like beachfront towns everywhere it had all the predictable trappings (with a few local variations):  sidewalk cafes serving bland, fried food; t-shirt shops; wandering hawkers peddling sunglasses and souvenirs; gaping tourists eating ice cream; and wealthy locals rolling past slowly in fancy cars.  We met a lot of guys from Malawi selling their art that all looked suspiciously similar.

Camps Bay was a tranquil vibe and we had a bite of lunch at Cafe Caprice, listening to the conversations of the visitors and townies alike.  The bus whisked us back into town and we jumped off at Sea Point to pick up groceries for dinner.  I was delighted to find some familiar staples:  chutney-flavoured potato crisps and Windhoek lager.  Back at home we ate a candlelight dinner beneath the towering 4-metre ceilings of our main room.

Beaches at Clifton.

Lion's Head above Camps Bay.

12 Apostles above Camps Bay.

Jenna spots an overlander that has clearly seen a few kilometers.

The Fixtures of Life

The Fixtures of Life

What are those minor objects that are accessories to the passing moments in life?  They don't stand out in memory because they serve a purpose to a higher need - you don't remember the light switch but you remember the light; you don't remember the faucet but you remember the water.  Yet the fleeting seconds it takes to employ these fixtures constitute hours, or even days, over a lifetime.

London Calling

There is something magical about London.  I have always loved this city.  With an 8-hour layover Jenna and I decided to pop into town for a bite to eat and to see my friend Nandi Simpson with whom I grew up in Zimbabwe.  The lines at immigration were so short that my time savings going through the UK passport holders' line were less than a minute.  Soon we were on the Underground watching the rooftops and walled-in back gardens zoom past.

At Knightsbridge we surfaced and walked ten minutes to Motcomb Street.  Jenna, the Culinary Affairs Director for this trip, had researched a restaurant called Ottolenghi.  All of my friends in London assured me that if we were going to eat anywhere, this might as well be it.

Small place, huge flavours:  Ottolenghi.  Excellent choice, Jenna!

 

Our short stroll took a couple of detours, as I was distracted by the local automobile fauna.  It was impossible to walk 20 metres without passing a Range Rover and other posh wheels that decorated the narrow streets, including Ferraris, a McLaren, and a Rolls Royce.  I also stopped in Waitrose for my obligatory London provisions:  Bassett's Licorice Allsorts, Cadbury Flake, and chocolate digestive biscuits.

Ottolenghi was packed with well-to-do Londoners in search of a delicious meal on Saturday afternoon.  A Mediterranean restaurant, this satellite branch of the original was a more casual deli version where you could order items from the counter.  Given the crush of people inside and the beautiful sun outside, Jenna took charge of ordering and we brought our bounty to a plaza bench to enjoy.

The dessert selection, with indigenous local fauna parked outside.

The food was delicious and well worth the 40-minute Tube ride.  We sampled seared ahi tuna, lamb koftas, grilled eggplant with tahini, roasted red peppers with quinoa, roasted potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, and a crunchy salad that included greenery from both land and sea.  This explosion of fresh flavor was a much-welcomed change of pace from our snacks and airline meals.  

The scene was tranquil, as families gathered at small tables at a French cafe and many languages wafted through the air.  It was so inviting we moved into the cafe and enjoyed a satisfying cup of tea.  Even here in the heart of an old London borough we were reminded of the long reach of Seattle's cultural influence.  The defences of upscale Mayfair could not withstand the advances of Starbucks (perhaps only Bhutan can) and the cafe stereo played an old familiar by Pearl Jam.

 Teatime at Patisserie Valerie.

Teatime at Patisserie Valerie.

Our walk continued down narrow lanes and we stepped into a tiny neighbourhood pub called The Nag's Head.  At a cozy dark corner table we enjoyed a pint of bitter.  Coming from the Northwest, awash in endless varieties of IPA where each tries to out-hop the rest, it was refreshing to drink a hand-pulled pint of room temperature bitter with nearly no carbonation.  Note to the PNW:  this is how it's done.

Ultimately Nandi was unable to join us, which was a shame, but we'll just have to plan a return visit and spend longer.  Back in Heathrow we remarked how little the place resembled an airport.  Terminal 3 was more like a luxury goods shopping mall.  Not sorry to depart that scene, we boarded our flight for Johannesburg and I dreamt of narrow streets, delicious beer, and grilled vegetables.

The quiet, small streets.

An inviting sight.

It doesn't get much better than this:  the real deal.

A long-awaited journey

The eve before a major trip is always filled with excitement and anxiety. Tomorrow Jenna and I depart for a 3-week trip to South Africa. A few minor details remain unresolved but all the important pieces are in place.

Our voyage will take us from Seattle through London to Cape Town where we will spend a week. Then up to Durban to meet a friend and take a short tour through Natal's Midlands before ascending the steep mountain road up Sani Pass into Lesotho. Back in Durban we rendezvous with the KwaZulu Natal Land Rover Club to head to Tembe Elephant Park where we have exclusive access over 4 days. Once more to Durban for toes in the sand, bunny chow in hand, and catching up with my relatives. 

Tune in here for photos and accounts of our adventures. Next post will be about London, e.t.a. Sunday.

Greenland: The Next Chapter Begins

After taking a year off from arctic exploration I'm excited to be making plans to return to Greenland.  In 2015 I'm preparing to go back to the savage beauty of Koge Bay with my friends John Bradley, Frank Marley, and Jaana Gustafsson, all fellow veterans of the 2013 expedition.

This time it's different.  We have founded a new company, Global Exploration and Recovery, to continue the search for the 3 U.S. Service members who went missing in a plane crash during a surprise winter storm in 1942 while they themselves were conducting a rescue mission.  There will be many factors that distinguish this expedition from previous efforts.

We are a small team.  With only four people involved, we can draw on our alpine mountaineering experience to move light, fast, and efficiently.  We don't need the thousands of pounds of equipment that accompanied earlier trips.  This downsized approach will give us the agility and freedom to adapt to changing conditions, cover more ground than was possible before, and work in unison.

We have the right tools for the job.  This year we are taking different equipment.  Thanks to the generous support of Kovacs, we will have simple, non-motorized ice coring gear that can drill holes quickly in the ice without relying on any machinery.  And we will have cutting-edge ground-penetrating radar calibrated specifically to the conditions we will encounter.

We are collaborating with new partners.  This year we are not planning to support a government-led mission although we are coordinating our work with the Coast Guard and Department of Defense.  We will be seeking funding for the mission from the private sector.  Already we have secured valuable donations of equipment, resources, services, and financial support for our project.  We are emphasizing partnerships with U.S.-based manufacturers.  A crowdfunding campaign is on the way.  International support for our company is growing.  We hope you can join the momentum.

What can you do to get involved?  Visit our website and tell us what you think.  Check out our Facebook page and follow us for news updates and photos.  Tell your friends.  Spread the word.  We have a giant task ahead of us to plan and execute this mission and we will need all the help we can get.

Looking forward to sharing this adventure with you.

Speeding in a brick

Note:  An article I’ve written for Rovers Magazine covering the Northwest Challenge will appear in the 2014 holiday issue.  Given the space constraints for the magazine, I am posting this entry on The Atlas as a companion piece of supplemental material.

My vision is blurry from bouncing along the rocky mountain track.  Every couple of minutes we catch a glimpse of the muddy orange Range Rover Classic when the trail runs straight for a stretch.  Occasionally brake lights flicker ahead of us through the dust.  Gord’n is driving like a madman.  It’s like the Dukes of Hazzard in four-wheel-drive at 4,000 feet in the Cascades, only instead of pursuing the brazen Duke boys with a bumbling sheriff I’m grasping the door as my friend Lar pushes his Land Rover Defender 90 to keep up.  I can’t see the speedometer, but if I could I know the needle would be far outside the “sensible” zone.

When driving off-road I try to abide by the adage “as slow as possible, as fast as necessary.”  The inverse of this pushes my comfort levels in ways I hadn’t expected.  Were it not for the heat of competition we wouldn’t be driving this fast, but we’re on a mission.

 A smooth road:  don't look at the speedo.

A smooth road:  don't look at the speedo.

 Lar zooms past basalt cliffs above the Little Naches River

Lar zooms past basalt cliffs above the Little Naches River

It’s 6:42pm on the last Saturday in September, the sun is setting, and we’re in the thick of the 25th anniversary running of the Northwest Challenge.  We have a cutoff time to be back in camp by 7:00 and at this pace I wonder if we just might make it.  Taking the turn off Highway 410 onto the spur leading into the campsite Gord’n squeals his chunky mud tires as they throw off a cloud of acrid, blue smoke.  I hold my breath as two of his wheels lift off the ground.  With great relief we come to a stop in camp.  It’s 7:08 and standing still feels strange.

The Northwest Challenge is an annual, multidisciplinary contest held by Land Rover enthusiasts for Land Rover enthusiasts.  It draws competitors and their vehicles from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia- sometimes points even further afield.  This year the Pacific Coast Rovers Club hosted the event over three days in the rugged terrain southeast of Mount Rainier.

 Mount Rainier keeps an eye on proceedings

Mount Rainier keeps an eye on proceedings

 Up high on the ridges the terrain was rocky and dry.

Up high on the ridges the terrain was rocky and dry.

 Down in the forested valleys we had a harder time with traction.  Lar winches up Aardvark Hill.

Down in the forested valleys we had a harder time with traction.  Lar winches up Aardvark Hill.

As rookies, Lar and I didn’t have a clear sense of what to expect.  Details around the event were sparse and we gathered that part of the challenge of the Challenge is that you have to figure things out as you go along.  We knew it would involve special tasks testing a range of skills, from driving technique to navigation, mechanical aptitude to problem solving.  We didn’t anticipate rally cross driving in vehicles that were not designed for speed, but that wasn’t part of the event’s intent.  That was a consequence of drawing Gord’n and his navigator, Cary, to pair up with as a group.

 A rare moment at rest:  Lar, Cary, Nick, and Gord'n take a quick break during transition between tasks at the 2014 Northwest Challenge.

A rare moment at rest:  Lar, Cary, Nick, and Gord'n take a quick break during transition between tasks at the 2014 Northwest Challenge.

Gord’n runs Lamorna Garage in Seattle, a quirky yet bustling repair business specializing in Land Rovers.  If you know the marque, their reputation for (un)reliability may be deserved and consequently his schedule is packed.  On any given day you may pass through his quiet corner of Ballard and see trucks spanning fifty years of production on Rover Row near his shop.  It is not uncommon to see a 2007 L322 Range Rover alongside a 1965 Series IIa, both awaiting attention.  Gord’n knows these machines like few others do, and this intimate familiarity extends to his knowing the limits of the possible in their performance, knowing where those limits are hard and where they are flexible.

 "We have ten minutes until our next task starts? Great, I'll change my alternator belt."  The mechanic in action.

"We have ten minutes until our next task starts? Great, I'll change my alternator belt."  The mechanic in action.

Yet Lar is no slouch.  Having completed a ground-up rebuild of his 1997 Defender single handedly, he knows a thing or two about it.  Plus his yellow brick of a truck has a secret weapon:  the 4.6-liter V8 engine transplanted from a P38 Range Rover.  This upgrade transforms a ponderous Clydesdale into a fleet Arabian racehorse…more or less.  Yet speed is useless without control.  I relax - a bit - when we zoom alarmingly close to trees because Lar’s other car is a Porsche that he bought from Sir Mix-a-Lot.

 Softer tires = more traction = more speed.  Lar airs down without feeling deflated.

Softer tires = more traction = more speed.  Lar airs down without feeling deflated.

Friday night was a mad scramble.  In the Cascade mist the event organizer, Mike Bach, handed out lists of lat-long coordinates to each team.  Our main task for the night was to link these up and find painted markers in the forest hidden near each coordinate.  Cary, who was practically buried in devices, cables, and plugs festooning the cabin of Gord’n’s Rover, entered the waypoints into his iPad’s navigational software (not Apple Maps, you can be sure).  We ended up driving the length of the Naches Trail, a historical route that Lar and I have traveled several times.  Only this night we completed it in less than half the time it usually takes us in daylight, including the time spent hunting around in the forest looking for painted markers on dead logs.

Saturday’s 12-hour (and 8 minute) dash took us through some wonderful stretches of trail I’d never before traveled.  Some I may never travel again.  Frequently throughout the day I thought to myself how glad I was to be in Lar’s Defender.  My own Discovery, reasonably close to stock, would not have sustained such abuse.  Other competitors’ vehicles took a beating, as well.  Around the campfire on Saturday night we heard tales of sheared shock absorbers, snapped drive shafts, dented panels, expired starters, the list of casualties went on.

 A capable Rover, but in need of a few modifications before entering the Northwest Challenge.

A capable Rover, but in need of a few modifications before entering the Northwest Challenge.

At the end of it all I was exhausted.  For being a vehicle-based competition, there was a surprising amount of physical activity involved.  I spent a lot of time running, performing an ungainly parcours through the woods as I searched for markers, hauled winch lines up hills, sprinted ahead of Lar to spot him on a trials course, or dashed to a prime vantage point to take a photograph before the moment passed.  As a teenager I was in awe of the feats of the competitors on the Camel Trophy events in the planet’s most remote regions.  The Northwest Challenge came nowhere close to that level of intensity, but for one weekend I could work hard with a worthy companion as we explored new terrain, collaborated under pressure, and fraternized with our fellow enthusiasts.  What is it about Land Rovers that inspires such irrational, bloody-minded devotion?

Lar and I did not win the Northwest Challenge.  Ultimately it was Gord’n and Cary who took top honors, and from my point of view it was well deserved.  Their collective daring and skill earned them a comfortable margin of victory.  Lar and I need some time to recover from the 2014 event before we start thinking about next year’s contest.  I need to do some work on my own Rover, too.  Plus ça change.

 This is what we imagined we were doing.  Photo by Lou Sapienza.

This is what we imagined we were doing.  Photo by Lou Sapienza.




A Thundering Remembrance

A tug tows "Grumpy", the B-25 Mitchell, into position for takeoff from the Historical Flight Foundation at Paine Field.

Communities the world over are recognizing the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion this weekend.  While Seattle is a great distance from the beaches of France, the area’s connection to D-Day is much closer than one might think.  The history of aviation in the northwest includes strong links to the Second World War.

John Sessions, CEO of the Historic Flight Foundation, had graciously invited me to fly with him during the D-Day commemorations at Paine Field on June 7.  John has put considerable effort into restoring vintage planes to flying condition and every one in his collection has a fascinating history.  This was an uncommon opportunity to fly in a WW2 plane as part of the elaborate weekend of events organized by the Foundation.

The hangar that houses the collection was largely emptied of planes and featured historical displays from the war, many of which had men and women in period uniform sharing stories.  At one end a band played popular music from the time as spectators of all ages sat at tables and enjoyed their lunches.  A swinging rendition of “Sentimental Journey” poured out into the sunshine as I arrived.

The Kings of Swing kept things lively.

The field behind the hangar was filled with exhibits of vehicles, weapons, encampments, and scenes from the war.  At the far end a group of U.S. Army Rangers from Fort Lewis were showing their lethal arsenal of rifles to a crowd eager to handle the well-worn firearms that had been used in recent conflicts.

Right then, I suppose we'd better turn back here.

"And this one, lad, was the preferred bayonet for charging the Nazi lines"

The genuine articles.  All males at this table for some reason.

Stationed on the apron was an impressive array of aircraft, vintage and modern.  The stars of the show were the P-51 Mustang, “Impatient Virgin”, which flew four sorties during D-Day (and which John & co. had unearthed from a beet field in England) and the B-25 Mitchell bomber, “Grumpy”, the plane in which I’d be flying.  Nearby the Rangers had parked a pair of helicopters and invited visitors inside to check them out.

The "Impatient Virgin", left, survived D-Day only to meet an ignominious demise after the war in a field.  She's now restored to wartime glory.

The Rangers' Chinook:  each rotor blade is about 2 1/2 feet in width.

All the better to see you with, my dear.

Meanwhile, operations continue at the Boeing plant in the background.

At 12:30 the small group of lucky passengers gathered for our pre-flight briefing.  John and co-pilot Eugene told us about the plane.  It’s the oldest B-25 still flying and was used for coastal patrol and firefighting after the war.  John gave us a preview of the flight and described the maneuvers he was planning:  a series of banana passes (gentle arcs) followed by a couple of wingovers, where the plane climbs into a steep vertical bank.  We’d be buzzing the airfield at 300mph.  Climbing aboard and strapping ourselves in the excitement mounted.  “Don’t pull any red levers,” John instructed.

"When the bell goes off, don't jump out of the plane."

I don’t have a strong personal tie to D-Day.  My paternal grandfather served in the English army during the war.  While Allied troops were crossing the Channel he was sweltering in the jungles of Burma fighting the Japanese.  I think he would have appreciated the event put on by the Foundation and, after all, the B-25 we’d be flying was part of the Royal Air Force.  I wore my grandfather’s belt for the day so a small piece of his life could be part of the celebration.

The flight was breathtaking, set to a soundtrack of screaming Cyclone engines.  We flew close to the ground, certainly close enough, and enjoyed spectacular views over Puget Sound, the neighborhoods below, and Paine Field.  After our rollercoaster ride above the airfield John turned the bomber east and flew us over farms and forests to the slopes of Mount Pilchuck.  The bail-out bell signaled we could unbuckle and move around- I opened some windows for clearer photos and we took turns climbing up into the gun turret.

Better Grumpy than Sneezy.

The Rangers selected their youngest member as a passenger for the flight.

Circling Paine Field- B-52 on the grass among the commercial jets being prepared for delivery.

Snohomish County countryside

Mt. Pilchuck from Grumpy

View from the gun turret

On our return journey we passed above the site of the Oso landslide.  Even from the air the scale of it was difficult to grasp.  Climbing down the ladder back onto the apron everyone had grins to match the bomber’s wingspan.  That flight, while missing the gravitas of an armed sortie above Germany, gave us all a deeper appreciation for what the aircrews of the time experienced.  This was a machine that helped to win the war.  I’m grateful to the men and women of the time whose efforts secured our victory and also to the Historic Flight Foundation for keeping these memories not only preserved in a museum, but alive and flying.

The destruction is hard to comprehend, even when seen from this perspective.

Restored, but not too much.

The Cascade Conjunction

The choice of what to do on a sunny spring weekend in Seattle is often a difficult one.  The area presents many superb options, which is one of the main reasons I love living here.  I could go backcountry skiing.  Or I could go rock climbing.  Or I could go mountain biking.  Or I could do all three.  Any one of these choices would make for a good day’s outing; doing all of them would be even better.  There aren’t many places in the country where you can fit this trio of mountain sports into a single day within 59 miles of your front door.

 

My friend Andy was game to join me.  We have a long history of enjoying a multitude of sports together.  We started combining them 12 years ago when we guided rafts on the Wenatchee’s whitewater by day and climbed in Icicle Creek Canyon in the evenings.  When he showed up at my house at 6:30am he was without a bike.  It was a complicated story but I would have to complete the third leg alone.

 

East of Snoqualmie Pass a bumpy forest road winds up to the northern flanks of Silver Peak.  Snow covered the road so we started our ascent a little lower than I had anticipated.  It was a spectacular morning in the central Cascades and we cruised up through shady glades to the open slopes below the summit ridge.  Climbing straight up the final slope to avoid a cornice, we took a break on the ridge before dropping in for some fun turns in perfect spring snow.  A little routefinding through the forest brought us back to the road and a crunchy accompaniment to a day in the mountains:  a bag of Tim’s Cascade salt and vinegar potato chips.

Andy Lewis photo

Nicholas Bratton photo

Nicholas Bratton photo

Nicholas Bratton photo

Nicholas Bratton photo

After some gear organizing and packing we turned west and headed back down the pass to Exit 38.  It’s not a glamorous name for a climbing area but it has the sunniest crags around.  A hike through secondary forest brought us to the rock and the crowds that had ventured out to climb it.  We found a few open routes at Eastern Block and had a lovely time doing laps on those.  Despite the bustle at the crag that afternoon everyone seemed in good spirits:  dry rock and bright sun signaled the start of another superb climbing season in the Cascades.

Nicholas Bratton photo

Nicholas Bratton photo

Nicholas Bratton photo

Andy Lewis photo

Andy and I parted ways at the northern end of the Grand Ridge trail outside of Issaquah.  It had been another fantastic day in the mountains with an old friend and we had shared many laughs along the way.  Wondering if this was what the host of the Oscars felt like, I made my third outfit change and hopped on my mountain bike.  The late afternoon sun filtering through the forest canopy sprinkled the forest floor in pools of light.  Birds sang heartily, equally excited to have such a glorious day.  Twenty minutes into the ride I wondered if I had the juice left in my legs to make it all the way out and back but I didn’t want to stop having come this far already in the multisport extravaganza.  Powered by energy chews I made it the 1,000 vertical feet up the ridge.  The descent was a fast, twisting pleasure.

Nicholas Bratton photo

I arrived home exhausted and starving.  I was delighted to discover a cookout in full swing in my driveway.  Some neighbors and friends had gathered at Jenna’s invitation.  No sooner had I dropped my gear in the garage than a plate of grilled goodies and a glass of Manny’s pale ale were handed to me- a delicious conclusion to an exciting day.  What future multisport days could we plan for the summer?

Bob Boulware photo

Nicholas Bratton photo

Farewell, Sochi

The 2014 winter Olympics saw many great feats of athletic achievement.  Perhaps because of the predictably melodramatic television coverage broadcast to the American audience, I longed for some variety.  Without access to the Canadian broadcasts I revisited some new winter Olympic sports I've been developing since the Vancouver games.  Alright IOC, how about this lineup for 2018?

Skurlington:  a high speed marriage of skeleton and curling.  A skeleton racer launches headfirst down the steep course.  A second later, a curler chucks a rock down the chute.  Which hurtling object gets to the bottom first?  Kind of like this:

 photodoctory by Eddie Espinosa

photodoctory by Eddie Espinosa

 

Ski jumble:  Assemble all the athletes from all the ski disciplines in a group.  Everyone brings their skis.  They all throw their skis into a huge pile in the middle.  An Olympic official chooses two skis at random from the pile and gives them to a randomly selected athlete.  That competitor is then assigned at random to one of the ski events.  You end up with a moguls skier doing freestyle aerials on one super long ski jumping ski and one Nordic ski.

Short track curling:  Shani Davis and his Korean rivals zoom around the short track dodging curling stones and sweepers with brooms.

Figure hockey:  The entire field of figure skating competitors, dressed in decorative performance costume, are given hockey sticks and put on the rink.  Two unguarded nets are placed at opposite ends of the rink.  An honorary fan with minimum blood alcohol content of 0.10 throws a puck onto the ice.  In the ensuing free-for-all, the first country to score a goal wins.

30K Nordic snowboard pursuit:  In this mass start event, all snowboard competitors must complete a 30-kilometer cross-country course on their snowboards.  Both feet must remain in the bindings at all times.

Bobsled half pipe:  who can catch the biggest air and do the sickest tricks in the half pipe in their bobsled?

Luguls:  luge racers launch down the mogul slope in a mass start.  Fastest racer to the bottom wins.  Hold on tight!