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Peter and Pauline Curtis's 2008 Christmas Newsletter
How can it be December and time to write the Christmas newsletter ? Where has the year gone ? Every year we look for a theme and this year the main 'excuse' for many of our extra activities was the year of the big one - Pete's 60th Birthday. We also brought forwards several planned trips when we heard that the QE2 which has been our 'holiday home' for many years was to be retired and sold to become a floating hotel in Dubai. Pete's actual Birthday came in March when we were due to be in New Zealand and somewhat isolated, so Pauline decided it should be turned into a year of celebration instead.
The celebrations started in early January when we made a slow start to our journey to New Zealand by taking the brand new Cunard Queen Victoria's Maiden Transatlantic crossing to New York then on through the Panama canal to Los Angeles. Pauline had secretly planned the trip long before we knew the QE2 was being retired but it did give us the perfect chance to check the QV out as a replacement. Pete enjoyed this early part of his birthday present greatly, the highlight being the Panama canal. The current canal dimensions were set by the Americans who completed the canal in 1914 and built Lake Gatun and the six paired locks, a staircase of three on the Atlantic side, and a single lock and a pair on the Pacific. It remained the largest project completed by man prior to the Lunar programme.
We had been up and down through the Gatun locks on the Atlantic side on an earlier trip but never been right through. It has changed greatly in the last few years since Panama took it over from the USA. The investment has been greatly increased and it is being widened and new locks built to take the latest generation of ships. In the morning a steady line of ships go up three locks, wait on the summit, and then in the afternoon pass down the other side. It is slow as each ship has to be attached to 'mules', heavy electric railway engines, to keep the ship central while in the locks. The Queen Victoria was designed to just fit and so she has to pay one of the highest tolls of any ship - $290,000 for our passage. It was her first trip and so she also had to be measured.
We finally left the Queen Victoria in Los Angeles after 26 days. She is not a liner like the QE2 or Queen Mary 2 and we would not be so keen to be on her in really bad weather. She is also much slower. However she is much more up to date and has far more outside cabins with balconies. The inside is a bit like a film set and our pictures and video of her are stunning but she does not yet have the personality of the QE2.
We then stayed in a very nice stateroom on the Queen Mary at Long Beach California for 3 days which was very enjoyable and we met up with Joe and Jill who collected us from the Queen Victoria, joined us in the evenings on the Queen Mary and drove us to visit the new and spectacular Getty Museum. We are normally not great fans of modern architecture but we took the architecture tour which was most interesting and explained the philosophy behind Meyer's work. The Queen Mary herself merits several days as there is a lot to explore on board and many organised tours came included in our 'package'. She was, of course, one of the two 'gray ghosts' which ferried over 2 million service men in WWII across the Atlantic evading all the U boats. She was faster than any possible escort and faster even than the torpedoes which could be fired at her. She is all old wood and rich veneers, a complete contrast to the plastic film set of the Queen Victoria. People on the QE2 always referred to it as coming home when they got back on board but never on the QV. We had the same feeling about the Queen Mary being homely despite it having no engines and being just a floating hotel. What gives an inanimate object personality?
We flew on to Auckland and spent our time in New Zealand doing much the same things as usual - travelling in an old white van and camping or using cabins and motels depending on how we felt. A complete contrast to cruising! Each visit is a mixture of going back to favourite places and enjoying new and different experiences. Generally the highlights are the Art Deco Festival in Napier for Pauline and the sailing for Peter. Often we visit Taranaki (Mount Egmont) where we stay at Mountain House and walk in the amazing 'Goblin Forests' and visit the Whanganui River with it's vintage steam paddle-wheelers.
Another of the surprises that Pauline had arranged for Pete was a flight in the vintage Catalina from Auckland down to Napier for the Art Deco festival. While he flew, Pauline drove the van. A large number of Catalinas (3200) were built of which less than 20 remain airworthy and only this one is certificated for passenger flights (on a cost sharing basis). The large observation blisters at the back have almost as good a view forwards as the pilots and better in every other direction. It was fantastic flight although a little rough through the mountains after Taupo where he was looking up at mountain tops and down at clouds as she edged her way through the valleys. Pete spent most of the time lounging in the blisters. The trip was very quick, only just over an hour from take-off to over Napier although she did a tour of the area to wake everybody up and make them aware she had arrived. There was a very strong tailwind and although the usual cruise is only 112 Knots we had a ground speed averaging 150 knots. Pauline only just got there in time to see Pete land.
The Art Deco festival is The Highlight for Pauline and it was as good as ever. She likes to get all dressed up in 1930s clothes. The Queen Victoria arrived in Napier on the Saturday and we met up again with Dennie who was on-board for the whole cruise round the world. Aerobatic displays and a parade of vintage cars were laid on for her maiden visit. QV was said to be the largest ship to visit Napier and it was hoped she would open the way for future cruise ships, she was the first Panamax sized ship into Napier. After she sailed we had dinner with jazz at Brookfields and then on Sunday there was brunch with the Navy.
We then headed south. Yet another of the extras for Pete's birthday was Sailing in the Marlborough Sounds, with stunning scenery and very different conditions to what we are used to. The Sounds are too deep generally to anchor and mooring is to private or public fixed buoys. In the summer boats are rafted together and it would be hard to find anywhere secluded, whereas in the Hauraki Gulf and the Bay of Islands we can always find a quiet anchorage alone. We had one day of bad weather where we moored outside a hotel/resort and just asked for a water taxi when we wanted to go ashore. The Raven 31 'ZigZag' was delightful. It complemented the weeks sailing we had been given earlier by Jenny and Kev on their Piver Loadstar Trimaran in the Hauraki Gulf.
After leaving the Sounds we travelled the full length of the South Island, ending at Invercargill where we visited the Museum containing the motorbikes of the famous Burt Monroe. If you have not seen the film 'The World's Fastest Indian' then go and get hold of a copy. It is inspirational.
Perhaps the most special of all of the Birthday celebrations was the Warbirds over Wanaka airshow. It is held at Wanaka over the Easter weekend in even years. It is nice to look at old aircraft in a museum, but it is so much better to see them flying. The show has expanded over 20 years to be one of the Big Four Warbird Airshows in the world. It is not just a Warbirds event and features a wide variety of classic and vintage aircraft with historic significance to NZ, including our Catalina.
Pete discovered that Pauline had purchased a Gold Pass ticket for his birthday (and one for herself), which gave parking and access to the event for all 3 days, together with grandstand seats alongside the runway, a large tented area with food and tables to sit, and access to rows of Gold Pass facilities. There was sufficient seating for all the 2000 people in the stand and all the displays were centred on the Gold area, often one was looking down on the displays.
It was interesting that one of the two P40 Kittyhawks had its guns reinstalled - it was the first time for 50 years that such an aircraft had fired its guns, in anger or otherwise – I can not see that happening in the UK. Some of our video shows the gun flashes on the wing. The spent cartridge cases were collected from all over the field, signed by the pilot and sold for charity. The guns, feed gear etc added 750 kgs to the all up weight of the Kittyhawk.
The aerobatics by the world champion great all-time Unlimited Freestyle champion, Jurgis Kairys who brought his Juka, designed and built by himself were unbelievable and he also got into many of the old aircraft such as the Policarpovs and put on displays which would never have been thought of by their full time pilots. First world war aircraft were well represented and the displays included modern aircraft and even an F111 from Australia whose fuel burns lit up the whole sky even more than the pyrotechnics during the set pieces which our Catalina played a part in.
Having seen pictures of the queues of cars for the event, with typically 110,000 people (over 10% of South Islands population) attending over the 3 days, we decided to book a camping slot at the nearby Albion Cricket Ground at Luggate. It only cost $5 per person, per night, and the site was only 2 miles on foot from the airfield so early booking was essential - most people book 6 or months before the event for the camp site and hotels get booked two years ahead before people leave. We planned to walk rather than drive each day and found it took about 40 minutes. It was then a mad rush back to Auckland and home.
We have done much less narrow boating this year, and only went along the Kennet and Avon to Bath. We try and do long trips every other year and we had to stay home in the summer while the house was being painted which took 5 weeks in total. We have hundreds of small window panes as well as all the fancy wood and plaster work. We did most of it the first time when we moved in and it took two years - Pete estimated he stripped thick old paint lead paint off round 700 pains of glass so five weeks was not too bad.
We did however continue Pete's celebrations with two cruises on the QE2. We had not planned for so many trips but once it was announced the QE2 would be no more we brought some of our plans forwards. The first was to the The Land of The Midnight Sun taking us to Longyearbyen, Svalbard on the island of Spitsbergen only 12 degrees from the Pole then Gravdal in the Norwegian Lofoten Islands as well as the Norwegian Fiords. This was followed by The Lands of Fire and Ice which started with three days in Iceland, land of geysers , bubbling mud and magnificent waterfalls then back down the Fiords to Stavangar where we had a memorable send off by the Nordsteam festival of old steam boats and everything else that floated before reaching our final stop at Oslo.
The last trip of the year was a Holiday in Malta timed to coincide with the last visit of the QE2 on her way to retirement in Dubai.
All this has not left a lot of time for other activities during the year although we did manage to plan and implement a party to celebrate Pete's 60th which we actually held at home on Pauline's birthday in September. This caused a lot of confusion but a good time seemed to have been had by all!
What of our other activities? Pauline continues with her Writing. Copies of Pauline's first book 'Quiet Quadrangles and Ivory Towers' are selling slowly whereas the second book covering her period in the DTI 'Working with Conservative Ministers' is still going through the formal approval process. Just one year after completing the manuscript it has finally been cleared by lawyers and has been sent to the Cabinet Office for their scrutiny. While on the QE2 she gave a lecture on 'Writing and Publishing Memoirs' and hopes to give other talks. She still does some water colour painting and painted the Houses of Parliament ready for the front cover for the second book. She has started to teach again with the OU - this time it is a technology MBA course T889: Problem solving and improvement. Although Pete has always described the OU as Charity Work after all that has gone on this year we may need the money, although Pete's pension has now kicked in.
Pete still looks after the computer systems and web sites for an increasing number of friends and small businesses. He has continued his shift from Windows to Linux and has given several talks on how to shift to Open Source and Linux titled “Why buy a Window when you can have the whole house for free”. He still makes enough Country Wine to keep us stocked up and to give to our friends. This year the elderflower and gooseberry has been very successful.
We both try to keep fit and did some serious tramping in New Zealand round Mt Egmont, and walked the cliff paths in Guernsey. Unfortunately being in Wanaka for Easter meant that we missed the traditional Easter walking holiday with all our friends. When cruising we never catch the lifts and always use the gym every day before breakfast. Pete tries to use his cross trainer every other day at home. Pauline has a rower but is less dedicated.
Next year will be very different as we have spent so much time this year cruising because of the retirement of the QE2, and not enough time on our own boat. There are also lots of other interesting places we want to visit, it is time for another trip to Australia.