coast

Isles of Thunder

Up the coast a bit, then some island hopping up to the very north of Croatia.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  After all, the road’s bound to be quite flat by the sea.  The islands have much lower hills than the mainland, too.  And there are ferries to cover the little blue bits between the lumps of land.  Definitely pretty simple.

Well, pretty is right.  Not so simple, though.

After just one clear, if slightly too warm, day on the coast (on Wednesday, pic below), the thunder started rolling.

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If you live anywhere in Europe, you’re probably aware of the massive thunderstorms which have been sitting over the central areas of the continent for weeks, causing flooding and hitting people with lightning.  Well, they’ve left the middle of Europe in the last few days, and meandered south to Italy and the Balkans.

Just as I’ve been heading north into them.

Thankfully, while the inland areas appear to be getting absolutely pasted, the storms only occasionally make it across the last range to the islands.  But this makes trying to plan a day’s ride quite tricky.

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As you can see in the picture above (from the very bottom of Pag island), the big clouds and heaviest downpours lurk behind the last range on the mainland.  Then, at a seemingly random point, and with very little warning, they rush out to either electrocute or drown you.  They don’t care which.

As you can also see from the picture, the islands are pretty rocky, and not exactly flush with shelter.  So there’s been quite a bit of ‘ride like mad, hide, check the sky, ride like mad’ etc, etc going on.

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The biggest storms seem to be in the evening (it feels like there’s a cracking one waiting to get going this evening (Saturday), and even then, as you can see above, you can have bright sunshine in one place and the world’s blackest clouds a mile or so away.  It’s all been a bit unpredictable.

The roads and ferries probably haven’t helped that much, although that’s mainly my fault for pathetic levels of research.  I got to Novalja yesterday only to discover that the ferry I thought I was going to get from there doesn’t take bikes.  So today ended up being three ferries (from Pag to the mainland, from the mainland to Rab, and from Rab to Krk – got to love the names of these islands!).

It also cost me an extra 600 vertical metres of climbing, which will also teach me not to assume that coast roads are flat…

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Still, at least a bit of climbing gets you some decent views (above).  And the scenery remains spectacular.  The hills might be a little smaller, but all the little islands are really pretty.

And a bit of time on ferries lets you have a proper look at the sea (below).  Crystal clear waters and millions of tiny fish sum it up.  The bike wanted a dip after all its hard work.  I had to assure it that if it jumped in, I wasn’t going to be the one to pull it back out; those fish looked like man-eaters…

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But the Beastlet was right; it’s time for a little rest and relaxation.  I’m having my first full rest day tomorrow since Dubrovnik.  Partly because tomorrow’s supposed to be the worst day for storms.

Mainly because Euro 2016 kicked off last night, and England are playing Russia this evening.  A beer or two will probably seem appropriate, so there’s little point in trying to ride tomorrow.  From this point until England (almost inevitably) get knocked out, I’ll have to juggle the riding with both the weather and being near a TV at the appropriate time for the football.  Another complication thrown into that ‘simple’ ride up Croatia.

Still, I’m nearly there now.  I should be able to move back into the mountains, in Slovenia, at some point on Monday.  If the storms and roads play ball; I think I’m done with boats until Calais now…

As a ‘Stop Press’, and in case you’re not following the footy yet, Wales just beat Slovakia in their first game.  Fingers crossed for England this evening…

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The Adriatic

The small Balkan countries have been flashing past again.

Since the last update, I’ve left Albania, crossed Montenegro, and entered Croatia for the first of two visits.  And, after a day off in Dubrovnik today (Friday), it’s on to Bosnia tomorrow…

But such a brutally short summary doesn’t do any justice to the places I’ve been for the last few days.  Let’s start with finishing up Albania.

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Impressive when I first arrived from Macedonia, Albania got better and better.  My only full day in the country was a bit hilly, to be sure.  But the hills are what give you long descents through stunning valleys (above).

Unfortunately, the downhills eventually ended, and I was left on the flat for the last few miles to Shkoder, running alongside, but never quite within view of, the Adriatic Sea.  Which meant I’d pretty much crossed the Balkan Peninsular.

It also meant I was within a few miles of the border with the tiny country of Montenegro.

Crossing the border, just west of Shkoder, I was entering the most recently independent of the ex-Yugoslav states (if you don’t count Kosovo, which not everyone agrees is a country).  It was only a mile or so after the border that I realised I’d only stopped at one control on the way through.  I’d been expecting to come up to the Montenegrin entry check at some point, but realised something was amiss when I saw a mini-market and a petrol station instead.

Frantically checking my passport stamps, I worked out that I’d skipped the Albanian exit gate somehow (I didn’t even see it, but maybe the guy was just on a break or something).  So I wouldn’t have any trouble leaving Montenegro again, as they had stamped me in properly.

Phew!  Although I suppose I may never be able to go back to Albania again…

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Anyway, Montenegro, as the name suggests (and as the photo above shows), proved to be another hilly country.  But really not very big.  I wasn’t rushing, and yet, despite constant ups and downs, I rode the entire length of its coastline in roughly eight hours (spread over two days).

The road essentially glued itself to the Adriatic coast, and just stayed there.  It’s still there at the moment, in southern Croatia, too.  Which makes for a lot of little climbs, and detours into bays.  And even the odd tunnel and ferry.  But I find it hard to complain about the little delays, the hard work, and the extra few kilometres when it looks like this:

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All too soon, I was a handful of miles from the Croatian border.  I’d soon be back into the EU again (albeit only for a couple of days).  Although, in keeping with the cultural oddities of the region, Croatia is in the EU, but doesn’t use the Euro.  On the other hand, Montenegro is not in the EU, but doesn’t have its own currency, and just uses the Euro regardless.  Odd…

Montenegro makes it difficult to leave.  Not just because it’s beautiful, but because there’s a monster hill up to the Croatian border (below, looking back into Montenegro).  I’m not actually sure which country you’re in as you climb; it’s about two kilometres of steep between the exit from Montenegro at the bottom of the pass, and the entry to Croatia / the EU at the top.

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Which is hard work.  But any fears that the effort might be rewarded by a much uglier country on the other side of the border were (kind of obviously) unfounded.  The coast, the hills and the bays all continue in the same, exceedingly pretty, way.

And it wasn’t all that far after the border, before I crested another steep hill, and saw the city of Dubrovnik below me:

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Dubrovnik is a world heritage site (that’s quite a few I’ve seen on the way round so far).  It was a city-state for most of its history.  And that history is very different from the Ottoman / Slavic battles of the Balkan areas I’ve seen so far.  Dubrovnik’s been squeezed between western European powers, such as Venice, and the Ottomans instead.  Although, given the amount of foreign influences and changes of ruler, you could just say it’s the same old stuff with a few different players.

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Anyway, I had a day off to explore (and to rest – it’s the first day off the bike since Skopje).  The old town is really lovely; tiny alleyways running between the main street and the massive city walls.  And you can really see the Italian influences; it actually feels a bit like a tiny Venice without the canals.

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Tomorrow (Saturday) will be a little strange.  And maybe a little sad.  I’ll be heading back out of the EU again, into Bosnia.  You can’t get from here to the rest of Croatia without either crossing Bosnia or using a boat.

But it will be a day of lasts.  Bosnia will be my last Muslim-majority country.  And the last country that I’ve never been to before.  Things will be getting increasingly familiar as I head closer to home.

No more of the excitement of crossing into places that I’ve never been before.  On this trip, at least.  I’ll have to savour it while I can…

The Lego Brick Coast – Northern Turkey

I’ve covered a fair bit of ground in the last few days.

The sea has remained much the same, and, although it changes colour as the sun appears and disappears, it is still resolutely refusing to live up to its name.  Green, blue, grey, yes.  But never the Black Sea.

Except at night, obviously.

The mountains on the other side of the road have gradually shrunk as I’ve headed west.  Although they still look a little intimidating.  I’ll find out on Tuesday, after a day off here in the city of Samsun.

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Maybe it’s the terrain, squeezing all the towns into the same shape between hills and the sea.  Or maybe it’s just how things happen when small fishing villages are subject to rapid development.  But every small and medium-sized town along the coast is built on an almost identical pattern.

First, there are a straggle of houses and small businesses along the main road on the way in.  Then, as in the picture above, there’s a mosque in the middle.  The mosque is surrounded by square blocks of flats (usually five or six storeys – the ones above are larger than usual), many of which have shops on the ground floor.  And there are a few cafes and restaurants.  Then, there’s another straggle of houses etc on the way out.

I’ve come to to think of this as the Lego Brick Coast.

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Given that the sea and the towns have remained the same, and that the road has been flat and smooth, it’s been left to the bigger cities and the weather to keep things interesting on the bike.

Despite benign winds, there’s been a constant battle between a huge blob of rain over the hills to the south, and the onshore sea breeze.

When the breeze is winning, it’s wall-to-wall sunshine, and the riding is easy.  When the rain gets its turn, it’s cold, grey and a bit miserable (as you can probably see above).

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The bigger cities along the coast provide most of the personality.  My ‘sea view’ at Trabzon (above) was not exactly what I was expecting, but watching the bustling port in action was a nice change.

The steep, cobbled streets of the old town of Giresun provided an unexpected cycling challenge.  And that was before the guesthouse owner and his friend decided to take me out for a few beers (and English practice) on Friday night.  After which, the challenge of the steep cobbles was on a whole different level.

Most of the cities have bundles of building work going on.  Both Trabzon and Samsun are building new football stadiums on the outskirts.  And Samsun already has some imposing architecture, which definitely doesn’t fit into the ‘Lego Brick’ category (below).

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And there have been one or two smaller places which have bucked the identical towns trend.  The lovely old castle and harbour at Tirebolu was the highlight for me, and probably the nicest place for a coffee break on the whole coast:

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Still, the Black Sea coast, ‘Lego Brick’ or otherwise, is over for now.  I’ll be cutting inland from here, across those big hills.  With a bit of luck, they won’t be nearly as high as those near the Georgian border, where most of the passes are over 2000m.

I’ll use the rest day tomorrow to prepare the legs.  They’ve had it much too easy for the last few days…

On a more personal note…

Today is May 1st  2016.  On this day last year, I was on a sofa, watching the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire professional bike race on TV, while trying to find a comfortable position for my accident-damaged back and shoulder.

The peloton grappled with the beautiful, but rugged, North Yorkshire Moors.  The riders were tackling the roads where my Dad grew up and went to school.  Today, May 1st, exactly a year later, the same race was tackling the same roads again.

And May 1st was Dad’s birthday.

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Dad died a few years ago, at the age of only 65.  He died with dementia.  A cruel way to go, and one which is still both incurable and (generally) badly treated by health and social services.  It’s a disease (or rather, a group of diseases) which will affect more and more people as the global population ages.  And, as Dad’s case shows, it doesn’t always wait until you’re old.

I never wanted my journey around the world to be sponsored – too many obligations and too much pressure on what is supposed to be fun.  So this is not a request for money (though I’m sure the organisations below could use anything you could afford).

If you can find the time, though, please have a look at the relevant link(s) below.  Inform yourself about dementia, how it affects sufferers, and just how many of those there may be in future.  And then, maybe, think about doing something about it.

In the UK:

Alzheimer’s Association
Alzheimer’s Research UK

Outside the UK – Alzheimer’s Disease International has a Global List of Dementia Associations with information in your own language:

Alzheimer’s Disease International

Thanks,
Tim

Samsun, Turkey.  May 1st 2016.

Ireland Hopping

UK Tour Stage 3 (Isle of Man, through Northern Ireland to Irvine, Scotland):
Cycling Distance – 311km / 193 miles
Ascent – 1960 m / 6429 ft (0.22 times the height of Mount Everest)
Toughness Index – 62.99 (100 = Really Tough)

Total UK Tour Cycling Distance – 1036 km / 644 miles
Total UK Tour Ascent – 6821 m / 22373 ft (0.77 Everests)

My little adventure outside the UK, on the Isle of Man, didn’t last long.

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Douglas, the main town, is a nice enough place; a very traditional (Old-fashioned?  Yes, definitely old-fashioned) seaside resort.  Terraces of Victorian hotels, a promenade, horse-drawn trams, and shops that shut at five sharp in the evening.

I wasn’t really on the Isle of Man for its genteel touristic charms, however.  Or its exceptionally low rates of income tax.  There are two things which move a little quicker than the trams, and rank alongside offshore finances as the island’s best-known features.

The first (and slower) of these are some of the finest racing cyclists in the world.  Mark Cavendish and Pete Kennaugh are the current cream of the Manx crop.  I thought it would be good to have a little ride around some of the roads they grew up on.

They’re nice roads, but I’m not sure why Cav can’t climb hills very well:

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The other fast thing is the Isle of Man TT.  Also on two wheels, but just a little quicker.  If you’ve not seen what motorbikes look like while doing 200 mph on public roads, this video gives you an idea.  I thought it would be good to see how the Beastlet matched up.

I took most of the bags off, and rode up to the top of the TT’s Mountain course (from where the picture above was taken).  It was surprisingly easy, having dropped 20 kilos of weight.  And, having admired the view, I turned around and legged it back down the 400 vertical metres to the TT finishing line as fast as my tiny touring chainrings would allow.  My legs were a blur.

It only took about 15 minutes to pile down the hill.  Which was somewhat quicker than the climb up.  I was quite pleased, as there was a bit of traffic.  But the fastest TT riders are close to 17 minutes for the whole 38-mile lap of the island.  Read that again.  17 minutes for 38 miles.  Hairpin bends, mountain roads, mini-roundabouts and all.  An average speed of over 132 miles an hour (210 kph), and a max 0f 200 mph.  Phew!

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It’s fair to say that I’m unlikely to match that sort of speed pedalling.  And putting engines on bikes is cheating, anyway.  So I reluctantly shelved my racing dreams, had an early night, and awoke in darkness to catch the early boat to Northern Ireland.

I’ve been to the Republic of Ireland loads of times, but never been to the North before.  I guess it’s the same for lots of people my age, as Northern Ireland was, to say the very least, a bit of a mess for most of my life.  It’s a part of the UK which is still struggling with its past issues (to the extent that half the Assembly resigned while I was there).

The armoured police stations with their high fences, watchtowers and cameras are a reminder of the bad old days.  And there are echoes of that past all over the place.

I saw more Union Flags in Northern Ireland than I have anywhere else in the UK, together with red, white and blue painted kerbstones, and war memorials to members of the British army (like the one in Bushmills, below).  There’s not much doubt that people in these areas see themselves as being part of the UK very strongly.

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In areas and villages where there were no flags, the school names tended to begin with ‘Saint’, there were Irish Gaelic translations of the road names (add that to the list of languages in the UK), and the kerb stones remained unpainted.

It’s pretty clear that those old divisions (Catholic vs Protestant, Unionist vs Republican) are still there, not so very far under the surface.  Us versus ‘Them’ again…

But things are much, much better than they used to be.  The main terrorist / paramilitary (as usual, it depends on whether they’re on your side or not) groups on both sides aren’t bombing and shooting each other, or the army and police, any more.

I met a local cyclist called Des, who rode with me up a big chunk of a big hill, taking the edge off the gradient and the brutal headwind.  It was a classified climb when the Tour of Italy started in Northern Ireland a couple of years ago, which was some consolation.  Des was around my age, and had grown up with one Catholic and one Protestant parent (I can’t remember which was which).  He told me that his kids don’t believe him when he tells them how things were when he was growing up.

That can only be a good thing.  And I hope it stays that way, because Northern Ireland is stunning.

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Having spent Wednesday riding up to the north coast from Belfast through rolling farm country, Thursday was spent on the hills and coast of County Antrim.  First stop was the Giant’s Causeway, which is one of the very few places on earth where nature creates straight lines.

It’s actually quite hard to get your head around the fact that it’s not man-made (it’s much easier to understand that it wasn’t actually made by a giant, but don’t tell the kids).  And I managed to get ahead of the tourist hordes, which means that the pictures aren’t full of hiking jackets, which they would have been ten minutes later.

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The Antrim coast is beautiful all the way down to the port at Larne, where I was headed to get the boat to Scotland.  It was a hard day’s ride, with a 20 to 30 mph headwind raking the exposed coast once I’d got over the big hills in the morning.  But I wasn’t in a rush, thankfully, so could take plenty of breaks to soak up the scenery; bays and islands to the left, the glens of Antrim away to the right.  Lovely.

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I’d highly recommend Northern Ireland on a bike, and I met quite a few tourers on the roads over there.  It’s a beautiful place, there are stacks of sights to see, enough hostels and campsites around, and the roads are much like the Republic of Ireland; small and quiet.  It’s hilly and windy, but that’s par for the course in the British Isles in general.

Another start in the dark, and a slightly spooky pedal through the silent streets of Larne, dropped me down to the ferry for the mainland yesterday morning.  The wind was high by six-thirty (high enough that it managed to blow the bike and bags over when I parked against the fence at the terminal), but it would be pushing me up through Scotland, once I got across the water.

Two hours on the boat, and I arrived into the tiny port of Cairnryan.  Into Scotland, the fourth and last of my UK countries-within-a-country.  And I’m still slightly astonished that I’ve crossed all those borders without showing ID once.

Hitting the coast road north, with the wind at my back, I was running quickly yesterday (Friday).  Progress was marred only by the staggering ugliness of the road, which I kept having to stop to photograph:

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This is Robert Burns country; Scotland’s favourite writer (and national hero) was born and died in Ayrshire and Dumfries, and I passed through both areas on the way north.  Which brings me to another British linguistic quirk.  Burns wrote mainly in Scots, but I’m not sure whether it counts as my fifth UK language (I’m disregarding Manx, as the Isle of Man is not in the UK).

Scots is the language of Burns, and pops up in everyday speech in both Scotland and Northern Ireland (the Ulster-Scots community is strong over there too).  If you’ve ever used the word ‘wee’ to mean ‘small’, you’ve used Scots.  And it’s on the road signs here, too:

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But is it a language or a dialect?  Nobody seems to know.  If you speak English, it’s not hard to work out that the sign above means ‘Come Back Soon’.  Although a really strong Scots accent can be hard to decipher for an English person.  It’s not an official language (unlike Scots Gaelic, which should pop up as I go further north), and most Scottish people don’t think of it as a language.  Even those who identify as Scots speakers.  But it is recognised as a ‘traditional’ language by both the Scottish and Northern Irish governments*.  Once again, it’s all as clear as mud.

One thing that’s definitely true of Scotland, especially in the west, is that it gets a lot of rain.  It’s been hammering down all morning, and after a few hard days in the saddle, and passing the 1000 km mark on the bike, I’ve decided that another rest day is in order today (Saturday).

With a bit of luck, the next few days will be dodging showers, rather than getting soaked, as I pass Glasgow and head on north.  Mountains, lochs, valleys and the mysteries of Loch Ness to come, before I even get to the capital of the Highlands at Inverness.

And no more ferries (I think) until the top end of Great Britain.  Time to focus on the big island again for a little while…

*Thanks to Wikipedia; for the information, and for someone to pass the blame to if any of this is wrong…

Christmas Decorations

I’m experiencing Southern Hemisphere Christmas Weirdness.  I think it’s probably the same for everyone from the northern hemisphere.  You see fat men in red costumes sweating about town in over 30 degrees C.  And watch people spraying fake snow and hanging decorations while you’re busy with your second application of sunscreen, and worrying whether that’ll be enough.  I guess, if you’re here regularly, you get used to it.  Or if you live here, of course.  But it produces an odd sense of dislocation for me.  And most of the European travellers I’ve met don’t feel ‘Christmassy’ at all, either.

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Personally, I’m feeling more American Mid-West in August.  Despite having the Pacific coast fairly close to the road for the last few days, the heat and humidity are increasing steadily as I plough on north towards Queensland.  I’m having to adjust from the relative cold of New Zealand and the pleasant riding temperatures further south around Sydney.  My need for liquid while riding has more than doubled in the last couple of days, and the more health-conscious Aussies don’t sell massive buckets of soda for next-to-nothing like the Americans do.  Some adjustment is required.

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They like decorating things over here, and not just for the festive season.  I stopped at Port Macquarie (still trying to remember that it’s pronounced ‘McQuarry’, for some reason; thankfully, most locals just call it ‘Port’, which is much easier) a few nights ago, and found that the town had developed a plague of painted koalas.  I was quite excited, as these were the first wild koalas I’d seen.  Hopefully, it’s a sign that my woeful luck with wildlife is on the turn.

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There also seems to be a developing tradition of painting rocks on breakwaters at harbours.  These were at ‘Port’, again, but there are examples at Coffs Harbour (apostrophe not included, apparently), where I am currently residing, too.  I suspect that they may turn out to be everywhere.

I’ve been making mixed progress up the coast.  One day, the humidity will take its toll, and I’ll be struggling to make 40 miles.  The next, there will be a tailwind (and maybe I’ll be better prepared for the heat), and I’ll be doing 75 miles fairly effortlessly.  It seems to be a bit of a lottery, though at least the weather forecasts are much more reliable here than in NZ.  And there are more painted decorations to look at along the road; some good advice here on where not to buy your next truck.  It must take a massive grievance to go to this much effort…

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In any case, I officially became a long-distance cyclist on Tuesday, as I pushed through the 6000-mile mark for the trip, just south of Kempsey.  You might (if you’ve been putting up with reading the blog since then) remember that I met Tim and Laura Moss in California, just before I hit the Pacific.  They were just starting a US coast-to-coast as the last leg of their round-the-world ride, and were aiming to be home in the UK by Christmas.  They also run a database of long-distance riders, which you’re not allowed to enter until you hit the magic 6000-mile mark.  So I can now get in!  And Tim’s a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, which makes it as official as can be…

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I’m resting up in Coffs Harbour today, getting ready to push on north.  I’ll have a proper look round today (Thursday), as I’ve only seen a couple of cafes and a dead fairground so far.  I’m also vaguely thinking about where I’ll actually be for Christmas; if the miles keep ticking by as they are, I’ll probably be somewhere on the Sunshine Coast, just north of Brisbane.

Maybe I’ll just go for the town with the most remarkable decorations.  Or maybe the town with the least.  Maybe Brisbane itself wouldn’t be a bad idea, as a big city with plenty going on.  Or maybe I want somewhere quiet, so I can sit by a pool and be bemused by the Christmas heat in private.  Decisions, decisions…