Ralph Travels the Globe
It had been one of my ‘check off’ life events to go around the world, and had anticipated having to do it after retirement. I had thought of some of the places I would like to visit, and the routing to some of them. This trip came up a bit more suddenly than I had expected, and the routing not quite as planned.
As I have been employed with a couple of airlines in the capacity of Avionics Technician or Airworthiness controller most of my working life, I have been able to fly to many places and perform many tasks during the course of my employment. Aside from the vacation trips I have taken, most notably when I was assisting a friend who had a sailboat and would fly to some port, sometimes around the Mediterranean, I usually would be involved in ‘rescue’ missions involving a sudden departure to some station where my job was to enable a ‘sick’ aircraft to be flown home or to some place for further repairs. This facet of my work has always been interesting and fun, as I never knew just what I would find when I got there, and what condition I would find it. The stations that I would get to usually were within Canada, and involved, at the most, a few days.
This event, a ‘round the world’ charter was a whole different situation. This one was planned well in advance, and utilised a fairly new aircraft, limiting the chances of problems so far from home. Additionally, another maintenance support mechanic would be coming, along with an augmented flight and cabin crew. This charter, although a first for us, had been done by other operators in the past, so really, didn’t break much new ground. It was marketed out of Toronto by a company who has been going ‘round the world’ for many years, and it had attracted quite a following of generally retired couples and single folks who enjoyed ‘four star’ attention on their trips.
I had hoped to bring some Amateur Radio gear with me which might have included a decent antenna and radio, but space and weight considerations won out. I also considered that most of the countries that I would be visiting, some very briefly, operating privileges would have had to be obtained well in advance. I was not sure, either, where I would be staying and how much ‘free’ time I would have to devote to any kind of radio operating. I was, however, able to obtain a CEPT permit, to allow me to operate in Europe, but that would have to do. In the end, I did bring a small QRP transceiver (Elecraft KX1) and at first tried to bring a Buddipole ™, but that is where the weight factor kicked in. Even as small a package as the Buddipole™ was, I decided to limit myself to the wire antenna suggested by Elecraft.
Our adventure began on November 1st, when we flew to Toronto from Vancouver to position the aircraft and pick up the passengers. These passengers were limited in number, so as to not fill our aircraft, a Boeing 757, allowing only the aisle and window seats to be used. In the end we had 98 passengers, and 12 crew.
November 2nd, we loaded up and took off for Whitehorse YT. Some of the passengers were to join us in Whitehorse, although that was not the official start of the tour. That evening, we attended a reception for all the passengers put on by the tour operator, and everyone was able to meet everyone else.
Each of the travel days were very busy. The flights usually departed in the mid to late morning, and were planned to arrive during the mid afternoon. Following our schedule, we departed Whitehorse and flew to Osaka, Japan, requiring a fuel stop in Petropovlovsk, Russia enroute. This leg of our trip took us over Alaska, where we had a lovely view of Mount McKinley and its famous glaciers, and closer to Russia, the active volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Absolutely stunning!
The Russians, in Petropovlovsk were friendly, but did not let us wander far from our aircraft. This was a former Air Force base, and I guess they didn’t want anyone wandering around. We did see a number of old MIGs and other aircraft from a long-ago war sitting, rusting in the sun.
Following this brief stop, we took off for Osaka, passing down the length of Japan. Unfortunately, we did not see Mount Fuji, as the cloud cover was very thick. Most of the places we stopped at, we arrived the afternoon of the travel day, had at least the full day following, and departed the day after that. In some cases, we had two full days at destination, which was a nice break.
We had two full days in Osaka, and our hotel was right downtown. This enabled us to use the train system to travel to Kyoto, the city of temples. It also had an old Imperial Palace, which was open with free admission marking the 250 th anniversary of its restoration. We took advantage of this and enjoyed, along with thousands of locals, the quiet serenity behind those walls.
After leaving Osaka, our route took us to Hong Kong and a shopper’s paradise. We only had one full day there, so most of us had to make the best of it. It seems that everyone had some special place or area that they wanted to visit. I stayed close to the hotel, along with two others from the crew and watched in amazement as one of them seemed to take to bartering as if she was born to it. I think I should have taken notes! I didn’t feel at all uneasy in Hong Kong. All of the street signs are in English, most of the folks on the street spoke the language, and even though the traffic was quite heavy, it seemed to follow driving rules that I was at least familiar with. I would have liked to do some more travelling around the city (take the Star Ferry, and ride a local bus), but that was not to be as we only had the one full day.
From Hong Kong we went to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, Vietnam. I am sure that this city has not changed much since the war. The thousands of motor scooters clog the streets, making your life at risk every time you wanted to cross the street. At least the scooters can go behind you and are very manoeuvrable, not like cars and trucks. The market is a sight and experience to behold; lots of live animals and fish for sale as there is not much refrigeration available. Keeping the animals alive, makes sure that they are ‘fresh’ when they are bought. As well, lots of dry goods, clothing etc, with the stall sellers grabbing your arm wanting you to buy their offerings…without taking NO for an answer!
We took a tour up to the Cu Chi tunnels, just an hour or so out of the city. This network of tunnels was used by the local population during the various wars in the area. They could operate somewhat unscathed in this underground network of rooms. We were able to get into some of them which were now lighted, but it did give us a sense of what the locals did to protect their land. The entrance ways were very well disguised at the ground level, but now, opened up to allow the somewhat larger westerners to gain entrance. After this tour we enjoyed a quiet drink at a café on the Mekong River, thinking that just a few short years ago this was the scene of fighting and bloodshed and mourned the thousands of lives lost on its banks—from all sides--Vietnamese, French, Australian, American and many others)
Two days in Vietnam and we were off to Cambodia. Siem Reap is the site of Angkor Wat, one of the wonders of the ancient world. This and Angkor Thom are two old Hindu/Buddhist temples which had languished in the Cambodian jungle since the 10 th century before being ‘discovered’ in the late 1800’s. They are truly a testament to the abilities of this old civilisation to carve out of, what was then jungle, a complete ‘city’ and to operate it. Why they were abandoned is a mystery.
From Cambodia we flew to New Delhi, India. Our passengers left us and drove immediately to Agra to see the Taj Mahal in the evening. The crew, on the other hand, made their way into town to relax, and plan their two days there. We decided to take a six hour trip to Agra the next day, as none of our number had seen the Taj. So, we rose early the following day and into the traffic of New Delhi in a tourist coach to brave the highway to and from Agra. The Taj Mahal is a wondrous example of architectural beauty. The drive to and from was an experience in itself. not only are there busses, cars and trucks on this two land highway, but donkey, and camel carts, tuk-tuks, the motorcycle-like conveyance common to that area, and almost every other kind of vehicle imaginable. All competing for their square foot of road space. Quite and experience! If we drove like people there, we would be thrown off the roads, forever, never to get a driver’s licence again.
From New Delhi, we flew to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Dubai is one of the most curious cities I visited. It is a large city growing right out of the desert. It really has no ‘reason’ to be there. Construction is going on all over, with myriads of buildings with cranes on top of them. I guess all the money we spend at the gas pumps does actually go somewhere! The locals don’t seem to work there. Everyone I saw working, at the hotel, in shops, at the airport, anywhere, was from somewhere else— Pakistan, India, and The Philippines , also western countries such as Canada, England and others. I noticed them in the malls and shopping areas people from the west were dressed in shorts and golf shirts, but the others had the long flowing white for men and black for women gowns that are common in those countries. I must admit I really didn’t get used to see the women covered from head to toe in black. In spite of understanding the Muslim custom, it is still hard to see.
Only one full day in Dubai, and we’re off to Nairobi, Kenya. Crossing the desert, both in the Middle East and Northern Africa, sure brings meaning to the word ‘wasteland’. Miles and miles of grey and tan with nothing to break the monotony. Descending and landing in Nairobi is interesting as the city and airport are located quite high in altitude. It actually rains there from time to time, and the Great Rift Valley is nearby. There is farming in the area and it looks quite lush and green. This was the most southerly point of our trip, just south of the Equator.
We were advised not to go out of our hotel as there was a referendum being voted on the next week, and the two sides sometimes resorted to fighting. We didn’t want to be caught in the middle of any of that, so we heeded their advice. We did make plans to go to a game farm, one group went on an overnight safari, and others made do with a day trip. The overnight group saw some large animals, cats, elephants, giraffes, but the day trippers, saw thousands of flamingos as well as water buffalo, white rhino, and other smaller animals.
Nairobi was the station where we dodged the maintenance bullet. The towing tractor over steered the aircraft, causing the tow-bar to break. This over steer might have caused damage to the steering cylinders on the nose gear, but thankfully no damage was done. The towbar was repaired, gear straightened, and everything turned out well. If we had sustained any damage, well….we probably would still be there!
From Nairobi, we flew to Cairo, Egypt. As we only had one day there, we wanted to fit into that day as much as possible. That meant visiting the Pyramids and the Cairo Museum—not necessarily in that order. We arranged a tour guide to take us for the day, and a vehicle for all of us. We first visited the Museum. This place has a lot of the antiquities from the old Egypt. It has been said that if you wanted to see Egyptian antiquities, go to the London Museum. That may be so, but there is enough in Cairo to take a month to sort through. Unfortunately, the museum was built around the turn of the last century, and needs an update. It needs better display halls and signage that can be read from ten or fifteen feet away. That aside, walking past ancient objects gave me the same feeling as when I was in the Smithsonian in Washington DC a number of years ago—a feeling of awe and wonder and almost disbelief that I was actually seeing and in some cases touching artefacts from across the centuries. The King Tutankhamen exhibit is one to behold. From the 15Kg solid gold mummy mask to the gold leaf trinkets, not to mention the golden sarcophagus and caskets it’s breath-taking.
Nairobi to Prague took only four hours. In those four hours though, we went from summer to winter. We left blue skies, warm breeze, and blue water to light snow, cold wind and frozen water. We also were reminded that Christmas was coming. We were in countries that not only don’t have Christmas on their social calendar, but it was so warm and summer-like, we just didn’t think of it, even though we all knew what the date was.
Prague , to me, was the jewel of the trip. I was so taken aback by the beauty of the city and how much it was unspoiled. It was not damaged during WW2, and was preserved behind the Iron Curtain for so long; it is just now coming out of hibernation and showing its beauty. I was able to take advantage of a very efficient subway system and walk into the old town the two days we were there. I took many pictures there, as it seemed that every where I looked, another picture beckoned.
Two days later we were on our way to Reykjavik, Iceland. This was our last stop, and a brief one at that. We arrived in the mid afternoon (sunset) of one day, had a day and a half there, and left in the mid afternoon of the day after. It was very unusual to walk out of the hotel at 9AM and still not have the sun up yet. We were about 63N at that point, and although the sun hadn’t reached it’s most southern point, not much daylight is had that far north. I was able to walk around this lovely city, noting the stark mountains across the bay to the north. The mountain sides bathed in the soft light of a far away sun.
I would have liked to operate the radio, at least listen, in some of these far flung places, but I decided that I would look suspicious at best, and I didn’t want to take the chance of having the radio impounded. Instead, I was able to take in lots of sights, smells, and sounds of the places I visited. I was able to see three of the ‘wonders’ of the ancient world (Angkor Wat, The Taj Mahal, and the Great Pyramids), as well as a game farm in Kenya, shopping in Hong Kong, the short days in Iceland, and the picture perfect city of Prague.
In Iceland, I did set up the radio on a hillside beside the hotel. The weekend I chose (Nov 26-27), I found a contest on, and the bands were alive with signals. Even with 1 watt, I was able to make a few short contacts with some European stations. I would have liked to put more time in, but that stop was only a short one and time (and daylight) was limited
I did operate, on two occasions, from the aircraft in flight. On one leg, from Cairo to Prague, I was able to spend about half an hour, and from Iceland to Toronto, the last leg, I also was able to put in a few minutes. I always was looking for Canadian stations when I was listening, but only able to contact a few on the last day.
I took many pictures of my trip, many more that I expected. It will take me awhile to go through and make any sense of them. Thankfully, I tried to keep a journal of my trip, which should serve me as a memory jogger.
It will take me months, maybe years, to come down to earth after this trip. It certainly was one that I will remember for a long time. Thankfully, I didn’t get sick, in spite of the temperature changes I went through and the food I ate and the aircraft operated flawlessly. We had a great time and got along well, both passengers and crew.
Would I go again??? Where do I sign!!\
Ralph Webb, VE7OM