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Eclipse T-1 Days : The crazy dude from the UK

Posted by on 4:55 pm in Eclipse | 2 comments

Sun up on the 20th of August. I was here, I was actually here. Alliance was pretty much bang on the centre-line of the Eclipse zone, and Wells Ranch (about 3-4 miles south of the town) was exactly on it. That meant 2 minutes and 30 seconds of totality at around 11 o’clock the next day.

First job was getting up and getting the equipment ready and checked. Fortunately it’s all pretty robust and seemed to have survived the rigours of travelling without any damage. The batteries had held their charge and the cameras, after a little tweaking, seemed to be operating well.

Twin rack tripod mount worked brilliantly.

I had both DSLRs working. One with the 6mm wide angle lens and the other with the 500mm zoom. A bit of duct tape and the focus and the zoom locked in place. The sun was showing some great sunspots, which was really useful for focusing! So far so good.

With all that sorted it was time to say hello to a few folks. This didn’t take long, only about the entire rest of the day. 🙂 Everywhere I went I got variations on “It’s the Brit!” “It’s the hat!” “You must that Drew guy from the blog!” or, and my favourite, “You’re that crazy British dude, aren’t you?” 😉

A genuine cowboy!

Turned out that lots of folks had been following my blog, and once a few of them cottoned on, they’d shared it with everyone else. So it seemed that everyone knew who I was before I even turned up! 🙂

Selfie time!

So much so, that pretty much where ever I went, everyone wanted a selfie with me. It was all great fun and really good humoured. I certainly didn’t feel alone out in the middle of a foreign country. Quite the reverse. People showed me around their RVs (still don’t know what RV stands for! – they’re huge self contained houses on wheels), gave me tours of the cars and chatted at length about my adventures to date.

Say hi!

There were hundreds of people at the camp site, some with big telescopes, others just there for the experience of seeing the Eclipse. I spent the whole day wandering around and talking, enjoying the glorious sunshine and saying hello to people. Even when I went back to my tent I had people wander up and ask if I was the “British guy.” 🙂

More Eclipse fans!

Later in the day we went for a ‘Hay Ride’. This involves bolting a trailer to a tractor, throwing on some hay bales to sit on and then driving across a field trying to drink beer, but mostly sloshing it all over yourself and the trailer. I got a real sense of how big the ranches out here are. Thousands of acres of land. Astonishing from a UK perspective. Everyone was in good spirits… with plenty of beer available… and speaking of beer… 😉

Hay ride!

I happened to mention that one of my ‘bucket list’ items was to drink some Coors Beer. Not because I was a particular fan, but because it was the beer featured in the movie “Smokey and the Bandit” where they smuggle it from Texarkana to Atlanta using a Tranz Am and a big rig. A quick discussion on cool American cars and then thirty seconds later…

East bound and down!

More folks to meet, more stories to swap. I have to say that everyone was amazingly friendly in a way that just doesn’t happen in the UK. Folks went out of their way to get to know me, I got to play games, sing songs and even met some folks who have read and enjoyed my books – how’s that for cool? 🙂

Hydrogen Alpha Telescope – Sun spots too!

Everyone was helping everyone else out. Some folks had come from a great distance within the US, driving overnight to arrive in Nebraska from East and West coast areas, others had come up from Texas and Arizona.

Meeting and greeting.

Lots of people had brought interesting cars with them and it seemed I’d made a great choice in bringing the Ford Mustang along. I think every approved. Some folks even asked how I’d managed to get a car that matched my tent. 🙂 Being a fan of cars seemed to go down well, so well that a little surprise was organised for me – more of that in tomorrow’s blog. 🙂

Kathy (and husband Tyler) own Wells Ranch

As the evening wore on more craziness ensued. Somebody fired a cannon because… well, because. It was loud. My ears were ringing!

Sunset over Nebraska

Folks cooked marshmellows around a camp fire and the stars came out. I even read some of the kids a story. I lost track of the number of times I was told “Oh my god, I love your accent!’ 😉

Campfire!

We were all set. the weather forecast was good. The Eclipse was coming.

Eclipse T-2 days : Travelling

Posted by on 3:58 pm in Eclipse | 1 comment

Today was a travelling day, and a lot of distance had to be covered. For the most part this wasn’t very interesting, so this is a short update!

I left the Red Feather lodge just south of the Grand Canyon at about 4am in order to drive back to Las Vegas. Though it was Saturday and the traffic should be light, I wanted to leave plenty of time to drop off the car and get through the airport security. I’m still lugging 3 bags everywhere (one for the hold, one for the overhead compartment and a rucksack) so I’m not very fleet of foot. 🙂

The drive was uneventful, but beautiful. It was before dawn and the thin crescent moon was hanging in the eastern sky in the constellation of Leo (a sign of things to come!) with the sky just beginning to brighten.

I have to say, for the most part, the American highways and interstates are in pretty good condition – dead straight miles and miles of endless blacktop roads. Out of the cities everyone seems to be pretty well behaved and placid on the road. I put the cruise control on and headed on in. Up came the sun – another stunning day in the desert.

Got to Las Vegas, dropped the car, caught the shuttle, checked in (slightly surly staff on the checking desks United – watch that!) though the baggage lady was friendly enough. And then onto the plane…

Which broke down. 🙁

Not sure exactly what was wrong, but we almost needed a second plane apparently. This was not welcome news as my timeline was quite tight. I hoped to reach my destination in the light and I knew it was a 4 hour drive once I landed. United did eventually fix the plane (and we didn’t need to “deplane” – is that a word? Apparently!) but it was an hour an a half off schedule by this point. Folks around me were pretty upset as many had connecting flights and they weren’t going to make it.

Got to Denver though, the flight was a little bumpy as we went over the Rockies. Arrival, baggage claim… and then to the hire car.

More like it this time – a bright red Ford Mustang Convertible. 5.0 Litre V8. That will do nicely!

Big, brash, red and fast. a 5.0L V8 Ford Mustang Convertible.

A fabulous car, not something you could drive in the UK, but makes complete sense in the US. I’d definitely have one if I lived over here! Surprisingly practical too, with a big boot, quiet cruising and a great stereo (with a USB port for my music!) – of course – plant that right foot and this enormous woofly noise erupts all around you and the seat gives you an almighty shove in the back.

The roads were typical interstate until I passed in to Nebraska, where they became single lane highways. Night fell again and I was driving north into the dark, knowing I’d have to set up my tent when I got there.

I was heading for the town of Alliance, Nebraska, where I’d booked a campsite spot in a place called ‘Wells Ranch.’ It’s in the middle of nowhere. In fact, you turn left at the “middle of nowhere”, right at the “Back of beyond” and after a few more miles of emptiness there it is.

And guess what. My host, Kathy, was waiting at the gate to welcome me in. 🙂

Made it!

Car, plane, car. 1,200 miles in a day. I was pretty tired, but I got the tent up ok, sleeping bag out and boom – I was out like a light!

 

Eclipse T-3 days : A cycle ride

Posted by on 1:32 am in Eclipse | 0 comments

I was thinking of doing another hike today, but I was a bit concerned that I might over-tire myself in the process. I don’t think I would have seen anything *that* different from yesterday.

So instead I hired a bike.

My steed for the day.

The route I took was from the Visitor Centre to a spot called ‘Hermit’s Rest’ and back again, a total of just over twenty two miles.

Paved cycle-ways

For a lot of route the tracks are cycle specific and paved. It makes the going pretty easy. Sometimes you have to be on the road, and sometimes you’re using the same path as the hikers, so you have to watch out. One oddity – you have to actually come to a halt and stop to allow the buses by, they are forbidden from passing moving cyclists. Probably not a bad thing!

Still the same amazing views

There were a few hills, but nothing all that drastic. Despite the much longer distance it was a lot easier than the hike. The bike was pretty good too, a tourer, with 21 gears.

Staying on the trail

After a leisurely hour and a half or so I arrived at the far end. I had an ice-cream and a rest and headed back.

No. I’m not the hermit!

It’s a great way to get far from the crowds. I saw a few cyclists on the way out, but none on the way back. Most stopped at Hermit’s rest and then got a van to take them back!

Feel like I’ve done justice to the place. Now I have to get back to Las Vegas and catch my flight to Denver. Big travelling day tomorrow and unlikely to have much in the way of internet access.

Fingers crossed for good weather on Eclipse day… looks a little touch and go at the moment.

Eclipse T-4 Days : Grand Canyon

Posted by on 3:58 pm in Eclipse | 0 comments

I left Sedona at around 9am to head north towards the Grand Canyon. I’d done a little homework on this as the Grand Canyon is a huge place and you really need to plan something according to the amount of time you have here. I have a day and a half, so wanted to make the most of it.

I’d spoken to a few people here in the US and also looked up a few things. The first thing was to avoid the obvious route (I-180) directly north into the Canyon. It’s the busiest and less scenic. I opted for the longer, but prettier Highway 89 from the east. This ultimately fetched me up against the ‘Watchtower’, from where I got my first view of the Canyon.

The Watchtower.

I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s what I saw. 🙂

Wow!

I’d been warned that the place would be busy and it was – seemingly full of French tourists for some reason – and also that to get away from the crowds the best way is to take a hike down into the Canyon itself as most people don’t do this, but either stand around the viewpoints or hang out in the visitor centre. Certainly the later was packed with people. It wasn’t my sort of thing at all, I’d come to see the real Canyon. I’d been recommended a hike that took me to a place called ‘Skeletons Point’. First I had to find the start.

Start of the Hike

I eventually figured out that you have start at the ‘South Kaibab’ trail head. This requires you to take a bus to the start point from the visitor centre. The hikes come with plenty of health warnings. You are advised to carry lots of water, high calorie snacks both sweet and salty and to ‘know your limits’. The hike to Skeleton point was a 6 mile round trip and was forecast to take between 4-6 hours. You have to be careful of sunset as there are no lights, so a torch is also handy. There are stark warnings about going to far for your abilities. The Canyon is a “harsh environment” and “going down is optional, coming up is mandatory!”

I set off at around 2:15. I figured my fitness level would allow me to do the trip in the 4 hour area. The slope down was a constant 1 in 5 or so. Not difficult to walk, but jarring on the knees after a time – and you’re very conscious of the walk up that is growing behind you with every step!

The first waymarker was reached after 0.9 of a mile. This is where most people turn back. The aptly named “Ooh Ah Point”.

Ooh ah!

The trail was pretty narrow. You had to step aside to allow people coming up to pass. Apparently there are mules around every so often too, but I didn’t see any. At some points there is a steep vertical drop off one side or another. I had some of the theme tunes to Lord of the Rings buzzing in my head at stages!

Not many folks go past the first waypoint.

Hiking to the bottom and back in a day is absolutely not recommended, even for serious hikers. It’s simply too exhausting. People die doing this and, as I was on my own at this point, I was now conscious of the risk. Whilst there were a few other people around there was no additional water or facilities of any kind down here. I was prepared with the right footware and belongings, but there was definitely a sense of being out in the wilderness.

I was aiming for a corner just beyond Skeleton point from which I could spy the Colorado River.

The going got tougher…

I reached the halfway point at ‘Cedar Ridge’ and stopped for a rest. This was actually the 1/4 way point, as I had to come back up too. According to the trail map this was only 1.5 miles so far. It felt like about 4 in terms of the effort I’d put into get there – and this was going down, not up. I was beginning to consider how much I could do. However, after a rest I decided to go on, slowing my pace a little to conserve energy.

Scenery gets more spectacular with every turn.

About 2 miles down I caught up with an American couple who had stopped for a snack. They were turning around at that point and heading back up. We had a great chat and they took a photo of me. I have to say, down at this point there was a real sense of camaraderie and ‘looking out for each other’. They also tried to persuade me to take Donald Trump back with me – not sure I could help with that!

C’est moi!

I said goodbye and continued on, knowing that Skeleton point was still a mile further down. It was gone 3.30 by this point. I was now getting concerned that I wouldn’t make it in time and mentally set 4pm as a point at which I would turn around regardless and start heading back up. I’d passed a few people coming back up at this point and they looked shattered, so I wanted to leave myself plenty of time to make the ascent.

Still a long way to go!

Halfway down this last leg of the hike I met a young woman coming back up. She waved and started up a conversation. She’d apparently asked the tour guides at the top which was the most difficult trail and had been told it was this one. It seemed she was after more of a challenge. Oh to be young again. I put a brave face on it and tried not to look too tired out. 🙂

But not too much further one I got to the last waypoint. I’m not sure I want to ask why it’s called Skeleton Point, but it was a relief to reach it.

Skeleton Point!

As per the advice I’d received, I ventured a little further down – three or four more switchbacks – and was rewarded with a sight of the Colorado river itself. That was my payoff for the trip!

The Colorado River.

There I took a rest. Eating some peanuts, drinking some water. Then it was time to head back up. It was exactly 4pm.

And this was a challenge. Going back up is at least twice as hard as coming down. The only upside is not having the jarring impact on your knees. Quickly though I was short of breath and noticing the heat from the sun. There was little shade on the trail at all. I was glad of my trusty hat.

I took frequent rests, but noticed I quickly overtook a number of folks that had been on their way up when I was on my way down. Some were really struggling with it. Fortunately they were all in groups and sticking together. The hike was not for the unfit or faint hearted!

I reached the halfway point on the way back up at 5pm, pretty pleased with myself for keeping a reasonable pace. Another drink and a snack was consumed. You really begin to appreciate the taste of water when you are very thirsty and are measuring it out to make sure it lasts!

It was very arid.

As I reached the upper stages of the trail once more I was definitely beginning to slow down. The 6 miles was at the limit of what I was comfortable doing – but not to shabby for my age I don’t think – but I was taking frequent rests in the small amounts of shade available. I was really noticing it now and having to push myself on.

Another rest!

However, about 3/4 mile short of the top, who should I encounter but the American couple and the young woman I’d met on the way down. They’d teamed up at some point to share their water and it was good to have some company on the last leg.

Rendezvous on the trail

Together we made it back to the top of the trail, getting there at 6:08pm – only 8 minutes after the time I’d aimed for and under the 4 hour mark. Three of us were tired out. I suspect our young friend would have been able to go down and up again without a problem!

It was the most incredible trip, spectacular scenery and some good company at the end. I’d recommend it to anyone, but follow the advice and make sure you’re fit. There is real adventure here, but real danger too. The hiking trails at the Grand Canyon are no place for the unprepared!

Eclipse T-5 days : Kayaking

Posted by on 4:15 pm in Eclipse | 0 comments

More of an outdoorsy sort of day today, without the big ‘site’ visits.

I had to get up early to get down to a place called Camp Verde. As the name suggests it’s very lush and green down here. After a long drive, partly off road towards the end I reached a potage point where I met up with a few other adventurous souls and embarked on a spot of kayaking down the Verde river.

We left the cars and drove 5 miles upstream and then kayaked back down to the cars over about two hours. It was an amazingly clear day with fine blue skies. The river looked (and was) very muddy, due to the previous week’s rain so I was told. Thus it was a little faster flowing than normal. We had inflatable kayaks, which were pretty sturdy and robust, but tricky to control as they have no keel and pretty much want to go in any direction other than straight ahead.

There were a few rapids (or to be more accurate they should be called ‘Brisks’) as they were fun enough to make you pay attention without giving any real scary moments. Mostly it was drifting down the river enjoying the sun, the butterflies (some huge ones!) birds and cicadas making noise in the trees. These are surprisingly loud when you’re not used to them and they seem to be able to synchronise when they start and stop en-masse in some peculiar way.

In the afternoon the jetlag caught up with me again and so I had a snooze when I got home, but not before I had a burger in one of the Sedona restaurants that overlooks the valley. They cool the veranda by jetting thin streams of water into the air, which evaporate before they get to the dinner tables, but keep the air surprisingly cool. Neat, if probably not very ‘green’, way of doing it.

Next up… I’m heading North now. Tomorrow’s blog will be from the Grand Canyon…

Eclipse T-6 days (Part 2) : Taking it easy

Posted by on 4:11 pm in Eclipse | 0 comments

So, part two of this blog, or I’m going to get behind schedule! Tuesday was an amazing day and I had fun on Wednesday too, but Tuesday was where I did all the ‘big stuff’. So I’ll concentrate on that.

Grabbing breakfast (bacon and waffles!) at the Arabella Hotel in Sedona, which is where I’ve been staying, I headed up the interstate towards flagstaff, refuelled the car (after I figured out how US fuel pumps work!) and then turned East on I-40.

The weather was lightly overcast, but with a line of blue sky in the distance. My original plan was to go to Meteor crater first and then to Winslow, but I decided to go all the way east first and then head back a bit at a time. Winslow it was. 🙂

Fairly self-explanatory!

Those familiar with the Eagles band will already know why I’m heading this way. For those who don’t there’s a famous song “Take it easy” by this band which features the line “I’m standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona” and yes, you can stand on that very corner. Apparently up until a few years ago there was nothing really here, only since 1999 did the town raise the money to commemorate the song. The corner in question is also on the old ‘Route 66’ so there’s a lot of old Americana to celebrate. Winslow was one of those towns that was bypassed when the interstate opened and struggled financially as a result. You can still get a sense of that as you drive around the outskirts.

At the site itself is a wall with a mural painted on it that looks like a shop window featuring the ‘girl in the flatbed Ford’ and there’s a bronze statue of a man with a guitar. The floor is paved with stones from all those those donated due to their fondness for Winslow. It’s actually quite subdued, though it may have been because it was quiet when I arrived. I parked just across from it.

There’s a couple of gift shops (one has Eagle’s songs on endless repeat) and an ice cream parlour (Root Beer Float was good).

I enjoyed the visit as I’ve loved that particular song since I was a kid. But then it was back in the car to head back west.

Meteor crater can be seen from the interstate, it looks like a low line of hills from that perspective, just before you turn off onto the aptly named ‘Meteor Crater Road’. You’re about 7 miles away at this point, which is, as I found out later, pretty much the zone of immediate incineration for anything that happened to be about when this impact occurred. The meteor slammed into the ground at about 26,000 mph somewhere around 50,000 years ago.

Apologies for the eccentric Brit blocking the view, folks. 😉

It’s the best preserved impact crater on the Earth (which I was told atleast 4 times during the tour! – I think I’d be proud of it too 😉 ). Photos simply cannot express the scale of this site. It feels much bigger in real life. The distant edge of the far side of the crater is over a kilometre away, but your brain has difficulty processing that when you look at it. It’s only when you look back and see people on the viewing decks that you can get an impression of the size.

This hole was blasted out in just 10 seconds by the impact of a iron/nickel meteorite about 50 metres in diameter. As an astronomer the sense of drama was palpable. At the site is a small museum and theatre which go over the history of its discovery. Barringer, after whom the meteor is named, went broke mining for the big lump of iron he assumed was deep in the crater somewhere. Unfortunately for him it was vapourised on impact.

There is a ‘hike’ around the rim with advertised health warnings about elevation and those not in the peak of physical fitness. In actual fact it’s what I would call a very short stroll along a well tended path for about 200 metres. Plenty of opportunities for taking photos though.

Sadly you’re not allowed into the crater itself, which would be a stupendous thing to see. I hope they allow this one day, but it’s off limits right now.

Then further east, back to Flagstaff, Arizona. This is also on the old ‘Route 66’ and features in the famous song too. Route 66 ‘wound from Chicago to LA’ (Los Angeles) and Flagstaff looks to be about two thirds of the way. I was here to visit the Lowell Observatory from where Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, and from where Percival Lowell sketched some very imaginative pictures of Mars full of canals and wonderful inventions of the life that existed on the surface, which, alas, turned out not to be there at all.

The Clark telescope from where Percival Lowell didn’t see any canals.

The site is still in active scientific use with a few astronomers doing research. The site hosts the ‘Clark’ 24 inch refracting telescope that Lowell used, still in its original housing. It remains fully working to this day. The telescope that discovered Pluto is not on site at the moment, as it’s being refurbished. We were shown around by an enthusiastic but slightly astronomically inaccurate tour guide. One thing was clear they, they are extremely miffed  that Pluto has been demoted to a ‘Dwarf Planet’. 😉

Then it was back to the hotel. I drove into Sedona and the sun came out. The clouds seemed to ‘evaporate’ in a matter of minutes and the amazing red rocks of this area showed their natural beauty. I stopped to take a look at a scenic view and discovered that there was a climb to one of the summits. I had my walking boots and a bottle of water and the ‘what the hell’ gene took over. An hour later I was at the top (well, nearly) and treated to one of the most magnificent views I’ve ever seen in my life. All it needed was a wagon train and a posse of gunslingers.

Wow.

In the evening I found a more local look up point and, since the sky was clear, watch the sun go down and the stars spring into the sky. Even right next to the town the light pollution was minimal and the milky way put on the grandest vista I’ve ever seen. With the greater southern latitude of Arizona compared to the UK I could see the whole of the Scorpio constellation. An amazing end to an amazing day.

Core of the Milky Way and the constellation of Scorpio

Eclipse T-6 days (Part1) : Virgin 747s, Aiports and Interstates

Posted by on 2:17 pm in Eclipse | 3 comments

The good ship “Barbarella” – quite appropriate for an SF author!

First off, I’m here! I’m down, I’m safe. I’m in the United States of America!

With that out of the way – a bit of a recap. 🙂

Flight (Virgin VS43) was as pleasant as these things can be. I had the Premium Economy seat, so it was pretty comfortable, certainly a lot less cramped looking than the economy seats in the other part of the plane.

I boarded the “Barbarella” (all Virgin’s planes are named after ladies of various distinction) and it wasn’t long before we pushed back and started taxi-ing. The Virgin safety video (you can find it online) was very clever at injecting a bit of enthusiasm back into the boring mechanics of this process.

View from ‘the bubble’ or the upper deck of the 747.

Ticked off another ‘bucket’ list item in the process. Riding in the top deck of the 747. This was quite cozy and does have the ambience of a small private jet. The Captain and First Officer are just in front of you and you occasionally see them come out of the cockpit. There were only 20 PE (premium economy) seats in this section and a bunch of economy ones at the back. It did feel as if you were in a bit of an exclusive club, though I don’t think it’s much different from downstairs otherwise. Talking of stairs…

“Stairs on a plane!”

Without much fuss we were airborne. I love flying and there’s still a rush as the airplane barrels down the runway, ‘rotates’ and then majestically lifts itself into the sky. The Boeing 747 weighs somewhere near 400 tonnes, it’s amazing to think something that big and heavy can fly through the air. I understand the physics, but it’s still an impressive feat.

The in flight meal was pretty good – better than I’d expected. Not sure if this was PE or just a general improvement in airplane food over the years. I had a glass of orange as a welcome to the seat, a chicken dinner, with bread, salad/vinigrette and a desert. Later on came an ice-lolly! Then there was a pasty and to finish off a set of sandwiches, a scone and a nice cup of tea. All very civilised. I certainly didn’t go hungry.

“Pinched from Virgin Atlantic!”

My favourite thing was the salt and pepper shakers. They are modelled on little aircraft. One a jet and the other a prop. Feeling a bit naughty I swiped mine. Only later did I discover that under the feet of each one are printed the words “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic.” Nice one, Virgin. I felt guilty and impressed all at once.

The ten hours didn’t seem too long. The JVC noise cancelling headphones I’d bought with me worked a treat – very impressive. They’ll be essential for any future travel. I watched a few movies, listened to some music. Looked out of the window at Greenland, which isn’t by the way.

Then we were descending into Las Vegas. Couldn’t see much of it from my window (and I’ll do that in a later blog) but it did seem a very long taxi from the runway to the terminal. Getting off the plane was surprisingly quick, getting through security was surprisingly long and tedious (over an hour) but eventually I escaped into the outside world.

First impressions? It was hot! Even in the shade – apparently it was a cool day for Vegas too. Not sure I’ll like this heat much! Picked up the shuttle to the car rental facility. Enterprise had decided to upgrade my car for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me, but I ended up with a black BMW 430i convertible, so I wasn’t going to complain much. Bags in, phone set up as a sat nav and I was, ahem, ‘East bound and down’.

The Hoover Dam

I’d planned a quick stop at the Hoover dam which was on my route. That was an amazing sight. I didn’t have time for much more than a cursory look about as I wanted to keep moving, but it was quite a construction, particularly set against the backdrop of the desolate desert that lies south east of Las Vegas. Then it was onwards down the interstate. The land about me was pretty desolate, with a hot desert wind blowing across the vista. I would not want to be stuck out here.

Whistles mournfully… 😉

After a long drive I reached Sedona. By the time I was unloaded and into my room it was dark, photos will have to follow. 🙂 Today I’m off to the Meteor crater and Winslow. So there’ll be a part 2 of this entry later on.

Eclipse T-7 days : Gatwick Airport

Posted by on 8:32 am in Eclipse | 1 comment

Gatwick Aiport (North Terminal)

One week to go!

Gatwick airport is my nearest airport, but it’s also known as the ‘tourist’ airport, hosting a lot of EasyJet flights for holiday makers off to enjoy some summer sun. As such, it’s extremely busy in the summer months.

I haven’t flown from here in a long time, but I used to use it for business travel many years ago. It’s interesting to see how it’s changed in all that time.

The first thing that has changed is the cost of parking. Years ago it was less than £50 to park your car for a couple of weeks. Now it’s more like £150 and that’s before you factor in the cost of petrol to get you to the airport. I decided on an alternative route. I took the train and stayed in a hotel the night prior to the flight. Not only does this cost rather a lot less, it’s far less stressful than an early morning run around the M25, which is, rightly, notorious for mucking up travel plans.

After kissing goodbye to my lovely wife and children I caught the train out of our grandly named ‘Ashford International’ station. To be fair, it’s a station which was completely rebuilt to host the Eurostar trains that run to Paris and Brussels, it’s all brushed steel and aluminium nowadays, a far cry from the old concrete monstrosity it used to be before. As stations go it’s quite smart.

“All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go…”

The train route to Gatwick is a little convoluted. It takes two hours, with a stop and change at Tonbridge and Redhill. The later part is run by the much maligned ‘Southern’ railway, but they seemed to be on form yesterday. I got to Gatwick on time, with no interruptions or delays.

The train station deposits you at the South Terminal, so you have to take a monorail train to the North Terminal. Technically it’s not a monorail at all, but an “two-way automated people mover”. Everyone calls it the ‘monorail’ though. It’s a great way to transfer as it’s fast and frequent. The automated announcement on board quips that “We’ll be flying at a height of 35 ft and won’t be crossing any time zones.” 😉

The “Monorail”

Virgin’s check-in desks are on level 2 of the North Terminal, mercifully separate from the EasyJet queues on level 1.  I was able to use their ‘Twilight’ check-in, dropping my hold baggage a night earlier. What a brilliant idea this is. There was no queue at all, in fact, I was the only person there, though there were two Virgin desk attendants on duty. A quick check of the documents and my bag was on its way to the plane. Managed to keep the weight within limits it would seem. No comments anyway. 🙂

I’d booked an overnight stay at the Premier Inn. Check in here was highly automated (looks to be very popular with Disney travellers – lots of excited children about) and a bit impersonal. It was efficient though. Room was pleasant enough. Nice to be able to have a shower before bed and one in the morning too.

Monday morning dawned bright and clear.

View from the Premier Inn.

I’d set the alarm for 6. After a quick shower it was off to the security queues. I wasn’t looking forward to this bit to be honest. Security has been an unpleasant experience at airports ever since the 911 terrorists attacks. I recall flying in the early 90s when we would just turn up to the airport about half an hour before the flight was due to leave… those days are long gone. Nowadays it can take hours to clear security if you’re unlucky with the timing.

I did have an advantage though. Turns out that my Premium Economy seat on Virgin Atlantic gives me access the the Premium security lane. This is really just an separate queue with a posh sign, but it was significantly less busy than the main one. Apparently the process has recently been changed as the press reports in recent months have been horrific. However I was pleasantly surprised to see a pretty slick and efficient operation, with the various choke points (ticket checks, putting your luggage into the x-ray and repacking your bags) turned into separate mini-queues. Someone has clearly spent a bit of time optimising this. It’s still a pain, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I expected. I was through in 20 mins. I’m not complaining!

It was also interesting to see the number of people now using their phones to check in. I’m a bit of dinosaur still, I have all my docs on paper, but I did try the mobile app. It uses VR codes to store your info.

After a quick stop at Boots to buy a toothbrush (so far the only thing I’ve noticed I’ve forgotten) I was in the departure lounge.

Departure Area

This was very busy. There are lots of very early morning flights out, so even at before 7am the place was full. Some folks were already asleep on the chairs and the shops were heaving. Toothbrush safely stored, I fled the scene.

I made my way down towards gates 101-113, not because that’s where my flight was going from, but rather to see the fly bridge that has been built to reach these gates. It’s a reasonable walk, but it’s worth it to see it. It’s called “Pier 6” and is apparently the “largest air passenger bridge in the world”. It’s certainly impressive. It was opened in 2005 and gives access to 11 more gates. The bridge goes over a taxi-way and is high enough that even the biggest aircraft such as the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380 can taxi underneath it.

“Pier 6”

“EasyJet folks again…”

Having seen that it was time for breakfast. Another perk of all the business flying that I did years ago was to have enough points to use the No. 1 Lounge at Gatwick. It gets you away from the crowds (mostly) and allows me time to sit down, have a coffee and a bacon sandwich and update the blog. Next stop is the gate itself and then the flight to Las Vegas. I’ll grab some photos throughout and do that one tomorrow. Today is going to be a long day.

Coffee! 🙂

Eclipse T-12 days : Equipment and Packing

Posted by on 4:25 pm in Eclipse | 2 comments

I mentioned before that I’m only an average photographer. I know my way around an SLR, understand my F-stops, ISOs and shutter speeds and have done a fair bit of astro photography, but I’m no expert. My intention with this eclipse isn’t to take the most amazing photo of the event – I don’t have the necessary equipment to do so, or the skill – but more as a personal memento of the experience, something I can look back later on and recall with a mental “I was there.”

This is an amazing photo and I won’t get anywhere close to it. 🙂

Thus, I’m not taking a massive array of equipment with me. First that’s expensive, second it’s not practical to take it to a foreign country. It would be a lot easier if this eclipse was in the UK, but it isn’t and that’s that. In fact the next total eclipse in the UK isn’t until the 23rd of September 2090, which I suspect I won’t be around to see (I’ll be 120!) though there’s a chance my youngest son (who will be celebrating his 87th birthday on that day!) will be able to see it.

I’m going to attempt to catalogue the event from start to finish as the moon crosses the sun, eclipses it and then retreats away again. This will actually take several hours from start to finish, though the ‘dark bit’ only lasts two and a half minutes.

To do this I’m actually going to use three cameras. Two SLRs and my mobile phone.

One SLR is fitted with a 500 millimetre lens. This gives a pretty high magnification, enough to see the sun as a good sized disc. Here’s a picture I took through it pointing at a nearby house.

500mm lens

The other camera will have a semi-fish eye wide angle lens (about 10mm focal length.) Here’s the same shot with that lens. Notice the distortion around the edges.

10mm Lens

Both cameras will sit on the same tripod, looking in the same direction. This set up is designed to capture different things. The 500mm lens will capture the sun in close up; the phases, the passage of the moon and (if I’m lucky) the diamond ring, Bailey’s beads, any flares and the corona. The second camera is there to capture the scene around the eclipse, and also, when it gets dark, the stars and planets that will hopefully be visible in the dark sky. I’ve also got the standard kit lens 18-55mm that came with the SLRs.

I’ll also be using my mobile phone to film the 30 min segment straddling the eclipse itself, to grab the atmosphere of the event.

I’ve also designed the rig so I can sit behind it and look over it. Both cameras are operated by remote shutter so I don’t have to be pressing buttons on them to take photos. Many folks have stressed the importance of just enjoying the experience. This way the cameras can be doing their thing whilst I look over them and up into the sky. I’ve already checked the F-Stop, ISO and shutter speeds I expect to have to use. I’ll have a full day in advance to check everything. Spare batteries and SD Cards. Check! Both cameras are Canon, so if one fails I can use either lens on the other.

That’s the plan, anyway!

The rig itself all sits on a single tripod with a small spotter scope alongside. The cameras and scope will be protected by Baader solar film filters during the early and late phases of the eclipse. I have my own tripod to sit on (which is much more comfortable than it sounds!)

Both SLRs on a single tripod.

And I need to get all of this to the USA! This is where the packing problem begins. The weight allowance for the hold luggage on my flight is a pretty standard 23kg, with 10kg for hand luggage. Two cameras, chargers, batteries, SD cards and lens take up a chunk of that. Throw in a laptop, another charger, basic camping gear and clothes and it’s not difficult to hit that weight limit. I could pay for excess baggage, but a) I don’t want to and b) I still have to lug all this around for a week and a half, so it’s got to remain portable. I’ve also got to take certain items in the hand luggage for safety as they are fragile. I also need all the usual travel gumph – razor, toothbrush etc.

Thus the equipment is pared down to the minimum, as is the camping gear and the clothing! Fortunately I’m staying in a few hotels prior and post eclipse, where I’ll have a chance to do some washing.

I’ve gone through it a few times and I think I’ve got the balance right. Time will tell of course. Let me know what you think!

Eclipse T-14 days : A change of scenery

Posted by on 1:44 pm in Eclipse | 0 comments

The vast majority of the blogs on this site are concerned with my books. Hey, I’m an author, right? There have been a variety of progress updates, minor spoilers, lore, game commentary and tech articles about the science my novels are based upon, or not… as the case may be the with fantasy stuff. Genres, eh? Who needs ’em.

However, for the next few weeks there’ll be a bit of a … departure … from the norm. I’m taking a trip to the United States of America. They do say that travel broadens the mind. Yes it’s a cliché, but the thing about clichés … 😉

I’m leaving on a jet-plane, do know (approximately) when I’ll be back again.

I’ve only ever travelled to the USA before on business, so this is the first time I’ve gone there for pleasure. This isn’t exactly a ‘leisure’ holiday though. I’m planning on doing a little ‘science’. My ultimate destination is near a little town in the state of ‘Nebraska’, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

What I intend to do, as a bit of a break from the regular writing, is to do a daily blog (uploaded when wifi/signal allows) of my experiences travelling around the USA. I’ve always enjoyed Bill Bryson’s travelogues, so I thought I might have a go myself. Loads of folks have asked me to share photos of what I’m doing, so I thought I’d supplement the photos with a few words. I’m just an average photographer but hopefully a little better than average with the wordsmithing.

No itinerary in advance, I’m afraid, but I’ve got a few interesting spots picked out if, like me, you’re a bit of an astronomy/science buff. I think you’ll find them compelling. No prizes for guessing the ultimate purpose of the trip, which is to land myself slap bang in the the midst of the totality zone for the upcoming Solar Eclipse.

No, I’m not the chosen one… but it sort of feels ‘significant’.

This is a moment of significance for me, as I’ve had this particular Eclipse in mind for about 30 years, ever since I discovered that the Sun, Moon and Earth were preparing to line up to celebrate my birthday. Yes, the Eclipse is on August 21st. I first noticed this back in 1987 and promised myself I’d be there.

30 years seemed like an interminable amount of time back then, but it’s two weeks away now. Tickets, accommodation, cars etc. are all booked. Seems very strange to be almost on top of it after all this time.

Not only will this trip give me the opportunity to visit some key scientific locales of interest, but it will also satisfy a few other ‘bucketlist’ items.

First off, I’ve been fortunate enough to bag myself a spot on Virgin Atlantic’s Premium Economy for the necessary long-haul flight. They certainly used to be the best airline for cross-Atlantic travel, so I’m hoping they’re still as good as they were the last time I flew with them which was almost two decades ago.

The Boeing 747-400 upper deck. 7 metres high.

It also gives me a chance to fly on the most beautiful commercial airliner in the world (yes, my opinion), the Boeing 747. This is a little poignant too. The “Queen of the Skies” is now quite a venerable old lady, and many airlines are retiring their fleets of 747s. It is likely they’ll all be gone from passenger service in the next decade, replaced with cheaper twin engine jets, which, whilst green, modern and worthy, just don’t have the romance of the iconic 747.  It will be sad to see it go.

I’m also seated on the upper deck, something that I’ve always wanted to try. This area gives the impression of being on your own private jet so I’m told. Known colloquially as ‘the bubble’, this seating area is right behind the cockpit, 7 metres above the ground. I’ll devote a bit of blog space to this experience.

Equipment is pared to the bone, but capable and designed for portability.

Right now I’m still packing. This has been rather complicated by wanting to take some photographic equipment and camping gear with me, which has me bumping up against weight and size limits. I’ve never had to wrestle with these before. Striking a balance between the practical, the desired and the allowed has forced quite some compromises. I think I’ve got a kit list which will allow me to cover most eventualities and situations. We’ll see!

Anyway. The trip starts next Sunday evening. In the meantime I’m going to be posting up a few ‘pre flight’ blogs on the equipment, the travel, the locales and the eclipse itself. I may even subject you to some ‘selfie’ footage from my mobile camera.

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