Jumping into Warwick

Warwick, Qld: “How cold was it? Even the statues were wearing scarfs”

By Conal Healy

(AKA Mick In the Middle)

IN the main street of Warwick they were nailing a witch to a tree. A few metres away a handful of dwarves had been strung up. Next to them, a collection of pixie heads had been glued to a branch. Up the street an octopus was wrapped around a palm tree. And over there was woman hammering tacks into a bird, luckily it was dead and stuffed.

This was the scene in Warwick, Queensland, to greet early visitors to the annual Jumpers and Jazz in July festival. On a cold winter’s afternoon the main streets of this Granite Belt city was buzzing with activity as artisans eagerly decorated trees on the main streets.

In the fading light, a stiff breeze was already biting at exposed fingers – hats were pulled down over reddening ears, scarves were adjusted around necks and hands were slipped into trusty, warm gloves. Meanwhile, the art work continued on the trees – some bore coats of tinfoil, others had knitted coats, others were adorned with dolls, birds and plastic mouldings.

A helpful brochure explained Warwick’s “quirky” festival allowed visitors to “touch, feel, imagine, listen, and laugh as they take in the ambience of colour, creativity, vibrancy and melody”.

For the festival, artists abandon their canvases, weavers leave their looms and knitters think beyond the cardigans to create artworks for the deciduous trees of Warwick.

Why? Well, and to borrow from the brochure, “trees are dressed up with bright and cheerful textile sculptures (jumpers) to keep them warm”. Yes, Warwick people are concerned their trees will get cold.

It should be added the arboreal-jersey wearing is restricted to the town centre, and the trees that live in the city’s many park remain (dare I say it) naked, exposed to the elements throughout the year.

In the fading light, teenage schoolchildren – stopping to admire these living canvases – would suddenly squeal with delight as they recognised the artist and would snap phone-photographs, forwarding the image to their network of friends.

Eventually the remaining artworkers finished their timber-tinkering and finished for the day, taking a final look at the darkening sky. With a forecast of sleet, maybe even snow, most knew another cold night lay ahead.

IN the state, Queensland, that proudly proclaims itself as the Sunshine State, spending millions of dollars promoting its tropical destination, the Warwick region has successfully carved out a niche market by selling cold weather. The colder it is, the better, seems to be marketing strategy.

Naturally this image is bolstered by regular TV weather reports forecasts of “a chance of snow on the Granite Belt”. For the local tourism industry, the drop in temperature is a godsend. Residents of Warwick (and it colder country cousin Stanthorpe) know just how elusive a fall of snow is, but recognise its siren call to coast-living tourists.

Like a lot of other locations in Queensland, the temperature in Warwick does drop below freezing point. The nearby town of Stanthorpe holds the record lowest temperature record in Queensland at -11 degrees in July 1895.

The cooler weather, for tourists, means evenings spent in front of roaring fires (are there any other kind?), a steady diet of comfort foods, a chance to show off winterwear, pick up some local wines (and cider) and stock up on just-picked apples or cherries (when in season).

A “must” for any visitor to Warwick is a snapshot of the city’s first statesman – Thomas Joseph Byrnes (MLA for Warwick, 1896-68) adorned in winterwear.  Returning home, tourists can show just how chilly Warwick is, “Cold? Mate, even the statues wore a beanie and scarf!”.

In July, a Warwick tourist body said it was happy with the winter visitors numbers and it is now searching for an equivalent summer festival to the Jumpers and Jazz in July program of events to attract tourists to the region.



Yarnbombing in Warwick, Queensland. Local people decorate the trees (and other features) of the main street every July as part of the Jazz and Jumper in July festival.
In an Octopus garden?
Looking cute…

The Warwick egg that made history

IT’S hard to imagine that a humble Warwick egg was responsible for changing Australia. The date was November 19, 1917. The place: Warwick. The egg: Presumably from a local hen.

At the time Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes was touring the country (by train) in an attempt to bolster support for his controversial wartime conscription policy. As Billy Hughes addressed the crowd at Warwick railway station an anti-conscription supporter threw the (now-famous) egg at the PM, dislodging his hat.

Immediately Hughes ordered the Queensland Police to arrest the egg-thrower, but the officers on duty declined. It was a matter of jurisdiction, they said. The now-incensed Prime Minister stormed away and eight days later appointed the first commissioner for the Commonwealth Police which led eventually to the foundation of the Australian Commonwealth Police (the forerunner of the Australian Federal Police).

So the AFP came from an egg. (It was not reported it the egg survived the assault on the PM.)

IN the first half of the 20th Century, Warwick was a vital part of the Queensland rail network, at one stage 70 trains a day passed through the city. For decades the air in Warwick rang with the sounds of steam trains and whistles.

Then things changed, first came the move to diesel train engines, then a decision to move operations up the line to Toowoomba. The Warwick depot was shut down (the workers were relocated to Toowoomba) and the buildings demolished.

All that remained of Warwick’s proud rail history was a train turntable, which sat in glorious isolation surrounded by an industrial wasteland. And so it lay, until workers from the Toowoomba rail depot started to retire (in 1991) and realised that part of Warwick’s heritage was sinking into the ground.

In their retirement the workers formed a committee, determined to restore some the glory days of steam in Warwick. And so was born the Southern Downs Steam Railway (SDSR).  In 1995, thanks to Government funding, work on the Warwick Locomotive Depot began.

In 2000 the railway obtained a steam engine, a diesel engine, passenger carriages and other rolling stock. In January 2009, after a lot of hard work and many man hours, the first passenger services started. The first destination was to nearby Clifton, these days the railway has regular runs to Stanthorpe and Wallangarra (on the NSW state border).

Located at the Warwick Railway Precinct, on the corner Hamilton and Fitzroy Streets, the workshop is “must” for any steam train lover and is staffed by very proud, knowledgeable, (mainly retired) train workers and enthusiasts. Entry is by donation. Be aware the precinct is a industrial area, not a museum and that trip over a train line, or stand on a splinter … it will be your own fault.

(Visit the website:  www.southerndownssteamrailway.com.au)

The Dreamtime frog who drank all the water

ON the banks of the Conadmine River in Warwick is the statue of Tiddalik. According to Dreamtime legend Tiddalick was the largest frog ever know.

One morning he woke up thirsty and drank all the fresh water in the world. The rest of the animals begged Tiddalik to give the water back, but he refused. Following the advice of a wise old wombat, the animals tried to make the frog laugh, but without success.

It took the wriggling dance of a eel (or a snake) to make Tiddalik burst out laughing. As he laughed the water gushed out and replenished the lakes, swamps  and rivers again.

(Source: www.dreamtime.auz.net)

Statue of Tiddalik. Warwick on the banks of the Condamine River.
Statue of Tiddalik

WARWICK : Did you know?

  • The Warwick area boasts some of Queensland’s finest historical sandstone buildings, which were made from local sandstone.
  • Known as the Rose and Rodeo City, Warwick hosts one of Australia’s oldest and most famous rodeos each year in October.
  • During the spring months, Warwick showcases its wonderful roses throughout its parks and gardens. The red City of Warwick or Arafuto Rose was developed especially for the town.
  • The Southern Downs is noted for its mild summers and chilly winters with elevating ranging from 450-900 metres.
  • The first European settlement (in 1847) was to be called Cannington, but the name Warwick was eventually picked. Land sales started in 1850, the telegraph to Brisbane in 1861, the railway in 1871, a brewery in 1873, a flour mill in 1874 and a brick works in 1874.
  • Other attractions include the Historical Museum, Regional Art Gallery, and an 18 hole golf course. Leslie Dam is located 13 kilometres west of Warwick and provides for fishing, swimming, and boating (when there isn’t a dought), and also has picnic areas for day visitors and camping areas for longer stays.

Like what you see? Visit:


Warwick snippets:

Getting there: Brisbane to Warwick is 160kms by road, about two hour driving.  There are coaches and train options too (the trains can be problematic)

Shops: There is a Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, IGA, Foodworks, there is also: Big W, Target, and Harvey Norman.

Food: All the usual fast food chains are there. Warwick also has some very fine restaurants.

Just the facts:

Population – In the 2016 Census, there were 12,222 people in Warwick (Qld). Of these 47.8% were male and 52.2% were female. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people made up 6.4% of the population.

The median age of people in Warwick  was 41 years. Children aged 0 – 14 years made up 20.3% of the population and people aged 65 years and over made up 22.4% of the population.

The most common ancestries in Warwick  were Australian 31.1%, English 30.9%, Irish 10.9%, Scottish 7.7% and German 5.5%.

In Warwick  , 85.3% of people were born in Australia. The most common countries of birth were England 2.1%, New Zealand 1.5%, Philippines 0.9%, South Africa 0.4% and Germany 0.3%.

Religion: The most common responses for religion  were Catholic 23.8%, No Religion, so described 22.8%, Anglican 22.4%, Not stated 8.2% and Uniting Church 6.6%.


Things to do in Warwick, Qld.


Where is Warwick, Queensland, Australia?


Dublin: Driving in a Twilight Zone

He  was expecting a warm Irish welcome and not a trip to the Twilight Zone

By Conal Healy

(aka Mick In The Middle)

THE traffic lights had changed to red.

Thank God. Desperately I tried to find the demister button. The heavily fogged windscreen needed to be cleared.

Nothing looked familiar on the dashboard. Bloody hire car! Swearing , I flicked the switch for the wipers.

Again, I swore!

Somebody had switched the indicators for the wipers.

Another button was quickly jabbed, this time the wiper came on.

The back window wiper, that is.

Heavy rain was now hammering on the roof of the car, drowning out the DJ gibberish from one of the local radio stations.

I was at one of the busiest traffic junctions in Dublin, Ireland, about to hit a highway, and I needed to see where I was going.

Frantically I looked across the unfamiliar controls while keeping one eye on the road ahead.

I knew that one false move could switch this tin-can on wheels from four-wheel drive to two-wheel drive … or it would clear the screen.

From the back of my jet-lagged mind, vital information was fighting its way forward to my sub-conscious (“Wiper on the left . . . indicators on the right . . . it’s reversed, you nong* ”, yelled my frustrated inner child).

The rain had now turned to sleet.

Big lumps of grey-white were now hitting the windscreen.

“And the weather forecast for Dublin is for rain, maybe snow later. A top of four degrees,” burbled the radio station.

“And now time for the surf report . . .” It was at this point, my mind snapped.

A 28-hour flight from Australia had left me exhausted, constipated, jetlagged and now my ears were hearing the local surf report. I muttered in disbelief, then stared at the radio — who in their right mind would go surfing when snow is forecast? Jeez it is April. Early spring, late winter … if you were a pessimist.

“… Lahinch should be up to two-metres…. Strandhill has a few swells…” an ex-pat Californian with a mid-Atlantic accent was doing his best to talk up the surf.

“There should be a few small point breaks down the Wicklow coast…”

If I thought things couldn’t get weirder, I was wrong.

There was an urgent knock at the window of the car. I span away from the radio to be confronted by an imploring face.

Surrounded by of four lanes of traffic, in the middle of a snowstorm, a one-legged, sodden-to-the-bone Polish woman was trying to sell me a copy of the latest Big Issue magazine.

She was hammering on the window with one of her crutches.

“You buy? Five Euros?” in a heavy Eastern European accent was erupting in one ear. “…and Bundoran might have the odd point break,” said the American into the other ear.

Am I really in Ireland, my mind asked? What is this madness!

With just enough Euros for the highway tolls, I had to decline buying copy of the charity magazine.

And to calm my brain, I jabbed at the radio, turning it off.

Keep an eye out for Irish ambulances.

IT was just that moment the traffic lights turned green. Thank God.

Still struggling to make sense of this mind-numbing scene, my foot hit the accelerator, the car lurched forward and I aimed it into what I hoped was the correct lane for the Dublin orbital ring road.

Big lumps of grey-white cotton drops were hitting the windscreen as the snow turned back to sleet. With a badly misted-over, sleet-splattered screen the car merged successfully onto the multi-laned 120km/h highway.

Being a four-wheel drive, the hire car didn’t respond well to my desire to keep up with the traffic flow.

It might have only been a few weeks old, but the Irish Terios lacked the grunt of my regular Australian car, a six-cyclinder four litre Ford Falcon.

In the swirling snowstorm behind me, other drivers were ignoring the speed limit and were busily flying past, flashing their lights, honking their horns while shaking angry fists in my direction.

By a stroke of luck a roadside construction site loomed into view.

There were many “Slow Down” warning, 60kms signs. I braked to slow down, relieved at the chance to study the various dials and buttons.

Okay, there’s the heater… Ahhhh there’s the demister …check road ahead…. clock… knob for side mirrors…check road ahead. I looked in my back mirror and realised slowing down was  a mistake, a big mistake.

I was now being tailgated by three cars, behind those were other drivers eager to switch lanes.

To my side, an expensive streams of Audis, Beamers and Mercs sailed past, seemingly oblivious to the speed restrictions.

With roadworks on both sides of the highway I was obeying the limit …and was the slowest car in six lanes of traffic. Welcome to friendly Ireland.


OVER the past 30 years Ireland has experienced an economic boom and depression.

Hundreds of thousands of workers from across Europe and around the world  descended on the small island nation to make money, to party hard and to drive on almost-Third World roads. When the money ran out, so did a lot of the foreign workers.

Tourists have been warned that “many Irish roads are below international standards, many Irish motorists are unlicensed, and the police have no way of removing uninsured foreign drivers from the roads, on the weekend many country roads belong to boy racers”.

Be sure to watch out for cyclists, pedestrians and the occasional garbage truck while in Dublin.

It is not unusual to see vans perform illegal U-turns in the traffic light intersections (halting eight lines of traffic).

Or for a learner driver to do a leisurely three-point turn on one of the city’s main arterial routes at rush hour (causing a two-kilometre tailback) just to get a car park spot in front of the local conveniences store.

A standard day out in Dublin usually involves at least four breaches of the Australian rules of the road. You might regard yourself as a good driver in Australia but when you’re in Ireland, do as the Irish do.

A tourist coach and truck get close in Ireland.

The rules you are most likely to breach are: Parking on the wrong side of the road, mounting the kerb, illegal (and repeated) use of the car horn, queuing across intersections. In Ireland people seem to park wherever they can.

In places like Dublin, Cork and Galway motorists run the risk of having their car “clamped” — where your vehicle is immobilised by a large metal contraption wrapped around your front wheel.

Be aware that in the best traditions of the informer, locals can get a “spotters fee” if they see a car illegally parked and report it to a clamping company.

The declamping fee varies –but a good average is around $150. Driving in Dublin is a nightmare. The CBD is a maze of one-way streets. Car-parking is expensive ($3 for 30 minutes). Traffic lights seem to be positioned every 50 metres.

On some streets you share the road with windscreen washers, beggars, bike riders, motorcyclists, other car users, double-decker buses and Dublin’s light train system, the LUAS.

Dublin has a system of light railway called The LUAS. It can make driving in the Dublin CBD a nightmare.

ONE of the best things about Dublin — as the old joke goes—is the network of highways that lead away from the capital.

Off the motorway many local roads are not well marked.

Therefore, it is helpful to know the name of the next town or village on your route. Directional road signs are usually a single post with a number of arrows pointing in different directions. In some instances it is difficult to determine which way the arrows are pointing.

Some signs are broken and the arrows are pointing in the wrong direction. And to add to the adventure, some are in the Irish language.

In some part of the West of Ireland the signs are wholly in Gaelic.



You have to understand Gaelic to drive in Ireland. (Watch out for the sheep too.)

Don’t be afraid to stop and ask for directions. The locals are usually very helpful and more than willing to offer assistance.

Ireland is largely a rural country and rural traffic is the norm.

Expect slow and gigantic pieces of farm machinery around every corner, especially in Roscommon (but that is just my personal experience).

Also be prepared for wildlife and pets suddenly crossing the road. Cows and especially sheep don’t mind using the public road as a resting place.

Even in Dublin collisions with horses are not unknown.

There is network of highways radiating out from Dublin. Top speeds can be 120km/h.

MY relationship with the Terios 4WD hire car lasted 10 days, adding 1200kms to its clock.

On the highways it was a nightmare, it had to be coaxed up to the legal speed limit of 120km/p.

Around the city it was perfect – it mounted the kerb admirably, it was nippy in one-way streets, high enough to see errant cyclists, and the rugged wheels tackled the city’s potholes with ease.

The car’s heater meant the heavy winter coat was occasionally discarded — but not the gloves and the scarf. And the off-road features? The car climbed over high mountain passes, flew past misty peat bogs, stopped sharply for a flock of sheep, chugged happily along behind rural tractors and only once left the tarmac.

As the Terios was being dropped back, on one bright spring morning — but with snow on the Dublin Mountains — the boom gate remote control failed at the entrance to the Dublin airport car park.

Rather than double-back through the airport’s torturous one-way traffic system, the Terios mounted a small nature strip and effortlessly drove around the boom gate and into a nearby car park space.

Who said you shouldn’t take a 4WD into the city . . . mind you, it was just a pity a surfboard couldn’t fit into the back of that Terios.

The Terios parked on a country road in County Dublin. Roads edged by tall stonewalls are common in the East of Ireland.




Clamping in Dublin: Why and what to do


Driving in Ireland?


Spring (March – May)

In spring it becomes gradually warmer with average temperatures between 8- 12 °C.

Summer (June – August)

The average temperature during the summer is between 16-20 °C. Apart from short refreshing showers, this is Ireland’s driest season.

Autumn (September – November)

In autumn, the temperature ranges between 14-18 °C.

Winter (December – February)

The average temperature during the winter ranges between 4-6 °C.

Daylight in Ireland

Winter: In Ireland, on the shortest day (December 21), the sun rises at about 8:40 a.m. and sets at about 4:10 p.m. providing approximately seven-and-a-half hours of daylight.

Summer: On June 21, on the longest day, the sun rises at about 5am and sets at about 10pm.providing approximately 17 hours of daylight.

Are you planning to visit Ireland soon?

Check www.met.ie for the latest weather forecast for the next 5-10 days around Ireland.

* Nong – in Australian slang, nong is used as a pretty mild and/or endearing insult. A bit of a twit, or idiot.  (Source: Urban Dictionary)


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NZ: Battling a winter blizzard … in a campervan


By Conal Healy

(AKA Mick In The Middle)

TAKING a campervan around the South Island of New Zealand in winter is not for the faint hearted. This was the thought that struck me as our campervan hit another patch of icy-snow, started sliding off the road and stopped – luckily – before we went over the cliff.

A bright but chilly afternoon turned nasty as we headed over the Arthur Pass after collecting our vehicle at Christchurch.

Rain turned to snow and eventually a blizzard as we hit the top of the pass, the heating on, wrapped in our winter clothes, rugged up with the van’s doonahs (duvets).

Now this is cold, I thought as we started our mountain descent down what can only be described as a glorified goat track. The windscreen wipers, even on high speed, had difficulty clearing the snow as the blizzard turned horizontal.

We drove slowly avoiding the waterfalls which poured onto the road. At the same time we had to keep a watch for ice patches which threatened to slide us over the cliff to the valley floor hundreds of metres below us.

The road was being upgraded so most of the guard rails had been removed.

To add to the holiday’s excitement we had to share the pass with heavy earth moving equipment which would loom out of the snow storm like technicolour dinosaurs.

It was a great relief when the snow turned to heavy rain again as we reached the valley floor.

As night fell – at 4pm – we realised we were over the worst part of the journey, on what had been our first day on the road.

With the first overnight stop of Hokatika still an hour away, we drove through a scenery which was losing the battle against the annual 2.5metres of rainfall.

Grey, bedraggled sheep, sheltered from the storm behind granite boulders or bushes of yellow flowering gorse. Tiny two-roomed humpies  (small homestead) lay hidden, surrounded by sparse windswept trees.

The barely two-lane road, regularly narrowed as we approached a bridge which usually doubled for both rail and road traffic.

Another of our nightmares was for the campervan to be trapped on one of these bridges and not see the train looming out of the mist … until it was too late.

That first night, Hokitika could have been anywhere, all we saw were the town’s neon signs shining bright out of the storm. We were happy and relieved to reach the guide’s suggested campervan park, make dinner and warm ourselves at the open fire of a nice West Coast pub.

With the wind gently rocking the van and the rain washing the mud from the outside we fell asleep.

THE next morning the local radio station told us that the Arthur Pass had been closed by our blizzard, that cars were trapped and the pass wouldn’t be re-open for three days. We had been the last people over the pass.

Outside the rain had cleared, the snow-capped Southern Alps shone pink in the early morning sunlight.

The plan was to go down the West Coast, stopping off to see the glaciers in the Franz Joseph National Park,  head for Queenstown and turn north and finish back at Christchurch.

The circuit would be three days of driving but with plenty of rest between each long haul.

As the six-berth campervan handled like a brick and the road conditions meant we rarely got over 50km/ph the driving duties were shared among the four of us. One person would drive, the other front seat passenger would ride shotgun (scouting for icy patches, scenery and sign posts) while the other two would sit in the back looking after the two children.

Backseat passengers also had to tidy the cutlery and clothes from the floor of the van after the drawers and cupboard emptied after we took a sharp turn.

Even when everything was secure there was still the almost constant rattle from within the van.

The millions of potholes we seem to have bumped over in the course of two week ensured we appreciated the regular stops to admire the beautiful – and silent – scenery.

Mirror flat azure lakes reflected the greens of a rainforest, the browns of heather covered mountains, the white peaks and the cold blue cloudless sky.

Hard sandy beaches, edged with giant boulders, lashed by huge Tasman Sea waves.

Wide, stony grey riverbeds, empty expect for a central channel of swift glacier blue torrents. A twisted ribbon of a road scratched into the narrow stretch of land between the cold grey sea and the sharp, angular mountains which rose like a wall.

Deep steep ravines occasionally littered with the axles of smashed vehicles warned us that it was best not to travel that stretch of the road when it rained or at night.

FOR two days we waited at the town of Haas for the mountain pass to Queenstown to open. Snow eventually turned to slush and then rain before we felt brave enough to load up the van and set off.

Hidden – by rain clouds – from the watchful gaze of Mt Disappointment, the van slugged its way up to the Hass Pass passing Misery Creek.

“A very appropriate name,” muttered someone as we were enveloped by mist.

Even though we followed the tyre tracks cut in the slush by the previous vehicles, we could made out where others had skidded and ended up in the ditch. With the rain now turning to snow we debated whether to keep driving or risk being stranded after spending 30 minutes attempting to put on the van’s snowchains.

Our lack of confidence about the snow chains decided we drive on – slowly through the snow storm.

As we reached the top of the pass the weather cleared to a fine winter’s afternoon and the road ahead to Queenstown seemed clear.


IT wasn’t until we turned a corner and were confronted by a road crew that our hopes were dented.

An earthquake the previous week had closed the only route through.

“We’ll open a single lane for 20 minutes, in two hours time. After that the road is closed til tomorrow,’ said the foreman to the queue of 10 vehicles stopped at the barricade.

The kettle was just coming to the boil and the soup simmering when the foreman changed his mind and we all had to leave “Now” or stay the night.

Whoever was in the back strapped in the kids, held onto the hot lunch and tried not to be throw around too much.

Upfront, it needed one set of eyes to spot the debris on what was now a goat track. Meanwhile the driver made sure the van didn’t get too close to the edge of the ravine which plunged down to Lake Wanaka.

Twenty terrifying minutes – and five kilometres – later we hit tarmac again, we pulled over at the first safe spot and settled down the two scared children. It took a long lunch before the four adults recovered.

It wasn’t until we were packing up that I looked over the edge of the ravine and saw the undercarriage of another campervan which lay rusting on the edge of the lake shore. I slowly walked back to the van and kept my mouth shut until we hit winter ski resort of Queenstown.


Like most of the places we stayed at on the South Island, the Creeksyde Campervan Park, offered excellent facilities.

A well furbished kitchen/dining room/heated TV lounge offered a welcome a break from the cramped van.

The lounge also gave us a chance to gleefully swap horror stories with other campers over a couple of beers: “Our toilet backed up, flooding the van…we ended up in a ditch…the heater broke down and we nearly froze…my wife couldn’t stand the campervan’s constant mess so we flew her home to Sydney…our gas water heating system doesn’t work…”

Nearly everybody agreed that taking a campervan around mid-winter New Zealand was something of an adventure.

Which is fine, if you want an adventure, a family planning a relaxing break shouldn’t consider it.

CAMPERVANS can be cramped, the on-board facilities are best described as adequate.

How many families would relish the prospect of spending two weeks in the space smaller than a large bathroom. (We regarded ourselves as lucky that six of us didn’t have one argument in the two weeks we were holidaying in the van.)

A campervan allows you a certain amount of freedom as to where you travel, however an NZ tourist body suggested it was safer to use the van parks.

“Several isolated van have been attacked an robbed,” we were warned.

As already mentioned, most parks have good facilities, but these are geared mainly towards summer campers when it might be bracing to have a shower in an open-shower block.

In winter it’s a different matter, especially if you are used to showering on a daily basis.

The South Island is beautiful, the scenery fantastic and the people friendly – next time we’ll go in summer, hire a mini-van and stay in motels.


February is the hottest month in Hokitika (on the west coast of NZ’s south island) with an average temperature of 61°F (16°C) and the coldest is July at 46°F (8°C) with the most daily sunshine hours at 8 in August.

During the winter, Queenstown has snow-capped mountains and crisp, clear days, while during the summer, the days are warm and can reach a temperature of 26°C. There is not much difference between seasonal rainfall in Queenstown, but March tends to be the wettest month with an average of 80mm.

Simple rules for safe winter traveling in NZ

  • Allow extra time
  • Ensure your vehicle is safe for winter driving
  • Drive to the road and weather conditions
  • Slow down and be prepared for unexpected hazards
  • Allow greater following distance between you and the vehicle ahead
  • Make sure your cell phone is well charged, check car charger also
  • Have blankets, snacks, bottles of water ready in case of emergency or a breakdown.
  • (Source: https://www.nzta.govt.nz/media-releases/winter-journeys-be-safe-plan-ahead/)


Things to do in Queenstown:


Things to do in Hokikitta:


Where on earth?


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Stanthorpe: Stepping back into history

World War 1 echoes can be found in Stanthorpe, Qld.

By Conal Healy

AKA Mick_in_the_Middle

WHAT do the names Amiens, Messines, Passchendaele, Bullecourt and Pozieres have in common? They were the names of train stops on the outskirts of Stanthorpe, Qld.

Of course, they were also some of the deadliest battlefields of World War I and half-a-world away from the sleepy city that nestles high on the Granite Belt of South-East Queensland.

The train line that serviced the “battlefield stations” is long gone, so are the stations, and sadly so are the diggers who fought in that war to end all wars.

Around 100 years ago, WWI returning soldiers were offered selections on the outskirts of Stanthorpe as a thanks for their military service. The train stops to service this suburb were named after the European towns that a lot of war veterans must have tried to forget, or to mentally move on from.

At the time (1920) The Amiens Branch Line would have been big news, it was opened in 1920 by HRH Edward, Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward).

Today most of the diggers’ land selections are covered in orchards, or in vineyards.

A POIGNANT reminder of the settlements can be found in the station signs which survive at the Stanthorpe Heritage Museum.

Stepping inside the museum is like stepping back in time, if you are over 40 years of age. It’s like stepping into another world  – if you are under 40.

To the touch-screen generation the 22,000 contents must seem from outer space, or to have come off one of the First Fleet ships.

For example, there are big, black heavy telephones which had to be hand-cranked. There were phones where the numbers had to be turned on a dial using your index finger, rather than being prodded by a stylus, or tapped on a smart phone.

On display were the latest – in the 1950s and 1960s – multi-media Home Entertainment Centres which played vinyl records (at 33rpms and at 45rpms) and the wireless too. It wasn’t exactly portable – more of a piece of furniture. In the same display were the first portable record players, about the size of a small suitcase, and which could play music in Hi-Fidelity Stereo, or in Mono (at a pinch).

For younger members of Spotify generation, in the middle of the last century music came on plastic disks, called records. This is getting technical, I know, but a diamond tipped “needle” would run along the “etched grooves” in the plastic disk and the resulting scratches – ie the music – would be “amplified” and transferred to a “Loudspeaker”.

There were no such features as “repeat” or “skip” but you did have a choice between a “single” (about three minutes worth of music on EACH side of the disk), a Long Playing record (LPs tended to last for 20minutes, but you could flip it over for a second 20-minute) record or the inbetween mode, the Extra Play (EP) which usually had enough music for around eight minutes, about three or four songs.

Moving into the SoHo exhibits, there are wonderful range of typewriters. Again – for younger readers – a typewriter was an early communication device. Similar to a laptop, a typewriter had features that included “instant save” and “print” functions, most were extremely durable (could be dropped or on occasions flung across the room and still continue to work). The email function was slow in typewriters, sending a letter usually involved the use of – pardon the technical expressions – envelopes, stamps, bodily fluids from your tongue and possibly a trip to the nearest Post Office by car, bike, horse and buggy, or by walking.

For the generations of children who believe that bread, milk, butter and jam comes from the fridge (or maybe the Local Supermarket), the kitchen in the Stanthorpe Heritage Museum must seem like an industrial zone. In many ways it was. In most 20th Century households it was the place where meals were “made”, as in produced and constructed (and not simply a place where a “packaged something” is reheated).

This museum kitchen reflects the industrial side of cooking: Bench-top mincers, meat safes, ice-boxes, rolling pins, metal sieves, butter pats, jaffle irons and metal counter-balance weighing scales with accompanying measuring weights (in pounds and ounces, naturally). This was a kitchen were families (or if you were lucky, servants) actually worked, this wasn’t a place for a touch of “recreational cooking”.

Back in the 20th Century, life was a lot less convenient, compared to today. And this is reflected repeatedly in the museum’s 22,000 exhibits spread across eight rooms/buildings.

As you would expect, there are the early pioneer era wooden hut structures (and their furniture and household necessities) – these would look “ancient” to most 20th Century parents, but in the other buildings are the donated items (from the middle half of the century) that really catch the eye.

I dare anybody to walk through the museum and not say “My mother had one of those  …” or “My Gran had one of those in her house”. Items that would have end-up up in a rubbish dump 30 years ago are nicely displayed, ready to generate a long-forgotten memory from a by-gone age.

In the space given over to the school exhibits, there are stern wooden desks (complete with inkwells), a picture of a young Queen Elizabeth, as well as blackboards, counting frames, an oil heater, a pair of wooden dividers, and a large wall map of Australia which illustrated the wealth and features of this vast brown land. It stands in almost glorious isolation from its Asian neighbours.

I’m sure if I looked hard enough there would find a map of the globe where most of the continents (including Australia) were shaded pink, indicating that the Great Britain and her young Queen still held sway over vast portions of Planet Earth.

Yet another relic from a different age.

Fact box:

The Stanthorpe Heritage Museum is at 12 High Street, Stanthorpe. Opening hours: Wednesday to Friday, 10am-4pm;  Saturday, 1pm-4pm; Sunday, 9am-1pm. Groups by appointment.  Entry cost: $7

Website: http://stanthorpehistoricalsociety.org.au/


Where is Stanthorpe?

An hour and a half from Brisbane, two hours from the Gold Coast and a two hour drive from the Sunshine Cost. The region is well connected via highways and road networks including the Cunningham, New England, Warrego, Leichhardt, D’Aguilar, Brisbane Valley and Gore Highways and the Great Inland Way and the Adventure Way.


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Stanthorpe shopping:

Department stores: Target County.

Food Stores: IGA, Woolworth and Aldi.


Winter: Owing to its elevation, Stanthorpe features a subtropical highland climate. At an altitude of 811 metres (2,661 ft), Stanthorpe holds the record for the lowest temperature recorded in Queensland at −10.6 °C (12.9 °F) on  June 23, 1961. Sleet and light snowfalls are occasionally recorded, with the most significant snowfall in over 30 years occurring on  July 17, 2015.

Summer: December – 15/27 (Eight rain days); January – 16/28 (Eight rain days). February – 16/26 (Seven rain days).

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Untersberg: Climbing every (snowy) mountain


The Untersberg is very much a typical Alpine geographical feature. In other words, it rises sharply out of the valley floor, as though some subterranean giant had delivered an upper cut to the earth’s crust.

By Conal Healy

(AKA Mick In The Middle)

THE plan was to climb the local mountain, today. Yesterday was the tour and seeing the sights. Tomorrow it was shopping. Today – as was said before – was The Mountain. But there was a problem.

Here in the small Austrian city of Salzburg the weather had closed in.

A thick cloud of freezing fog had descended overnight and visibility was now pretty poor. The rocky escarpment at the end of the street was still there, but only just.

The big local mountain – The Untersberg – on the other hand was not.

A mountain, with a high point of 1857metres, disappearing – well, that was disturbing.

The Untersberg dominates Salzburg. It even dwarfs the huge Festung Hohensalzburg, the local medieval fortress that has kept watch over the region for hundreds of  years.

If you check out the background  – and ignore the singing Julie Andrews – in the film The Sound of Music you’ll catch glimpses of this mammoth of a mountain.

By European standards, the Untersberg is very much a typical Alpine geographical feature. In other words, it rises sharply out of the valley floor, as though some subterranean giant had delivered an upper cut to the earth’s crust.

It is the sharply angular lump of a mountain that is loved by advertising agencies trying to sell breakfast cereal, bottled water or a pine-scented deodorant.

In geological terms, the Untersberg is still a toddler (about 22 million years old). The forces of nature – the wind and rain – have yet to knock the edges off this rock. And it will be millions of years before the Untersberg takes on the rounded profiles found on many of Australia’s ancient mountains.

But today, the majesty of the Untersberg is lost to us – thanks to this cloud of freezing fog. The helpful staff at the Hotel Lasserhof were having an each-way bet when asked if today was a good day for climbing.

“I could be cloudy down here, but at the top? Who knows? It could be clear?”  was their suggestion. Hmm, it was sound advice but not very helpful.

What would be the point in climbing to 1857 metres (nearly 5000ft) and NOT being able to see your hand in front of your face? We could easily step outside the hotel and get a better view of the swirling greyness at street level. It would also be a lot cheaper.

So what to do? It was now just after breakfast but a decision would have to be made soon.

Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg, Austria
Salzburg, Austria

IN winter, the days in this part of the world are famously short.

In January, the sun rises just after 8am and is almost gone by 4pm. In some of the high Alpine villages, which are surrounded by mountains, the sun might not be glimpsed for weeks.

Mid-year, the long summer days (5am-9pm) makes the Alps an ideal location for hiking, rock climbing or a place to simply amble. From late spring through to early autumn, the Untersberg’s myriad of trails are open to walkers. Now in mid-winter, the only safe option was a cable car service, directly to the top.

In the end a run to the mountain was agreed. A short trip on a  local bus from central Salzburg found us at the base of the Untersberg, next to the cable car station. The mist – or was it low-lying cloud? – was as thick as ever. From the valley floor the visibility was a dim 200 metres.

In reply to a mangled question in German, the box office attendant announced that the sun was shining at the top of the mountain, but muttered (almost under his breath) “for now”.

Money was exchanged for tickets and we followed the directions to the waiting cable car. As the three-quarter empty carriage swung into the cold gloom we caught sight of the snow-covered landscape.

Wonderfully cute Alpine chalets – the inspiration for generations of cuckoo clocks – sat dusted in white. Towers topped with onion-shaped roofs stood defiant in the mist. Swimming pools in summer holiday homes had now become ice-rinks.

Farmfields looked like ironed-flat bed sheets. Mist swirled through a belt of pine trees that wrapped around the base of the Untersberg.

Moment later the cable car swung off another pylon and one half of the view disappeared and we suddenly faced the shear rock face of the mountain. And that’s when the cloud enveloped the car. Now all that could be seen was hard rock wall, lone trees appeared, sometimes it was patches of snow, sheets of ice, or long daggers of ice hanging off ledges.

The rest of the carriage windows showed grey cloud.

Would there be sun at the top, was the question being asked. The car’s operator tried to assure people, “Yes there is sun, but in 20minutes – who knows?” Well, at this height, I figured, there would be decent snow.

Salzburg in the snow.
Salzburg in the snow.
Salzburg in the snow.
Salzburg in the snow.
Showing the way.

TWO nights earlier the Ryanair plane had touched down in Salzburg. The favourite conversation on the flight was snow, or the lack there of. The mildest winter on record – blamed on global warming – had left most of Europe’ ski fields snow free.

News reports the previous week had shown ski competition organisers bringing in – by helicopter – giant bucket of snow for their downhill events. Thin ribbons of white where being constructed in green Alpine meadows.

Salzburg, which usually gets its first snow in November, was still waiting for the first fall. And this was January. One of  the passengers on the plane had asked, almost in desperation: “What do you do at a ski-resort when there’s no snow?”

We’d all gone to bed that night wondering when – or if – the white stuff would arrive. But there was no need to worry, the next morning Salzburg woke to an inch of snow on the ground. It wasn’t going to get the serious skiers excited, but it was fantastic for the first-time snow seers.

The already picturesque Salzburg looked magical but cold. By mid-afternoon, the snow had cleared from the streets and paths. And there hadn’t been a chance to build a snowman or to have a snowball fight.

The Unsterberg promised – at the very least – deep snow, perfect for snowballs.

Above the clouds
Above the clouds
Above the clouds
Above the clouds
Snow at the peak of the The Untersberg,Austria.

BACK at the cable car we reached the top. Looking back, the black cables stood out against the grey cloud they disappeared into.

The door slid open, we got out and walked up a few step into a waiting lounge. As we walked to the window, to see the view, there was a gust of wind and the last vestiges of cloud disappeared from the top of the mountain.

We went outside, into bright sunshine and into a day that almost defies description.

On top of the Unsterberg we were literally above the clouds. The clear sky was a delicate blue. Before us, stretching to the horizon, was an ocean of soft whiteness. The high peaks of the distant Alps stood like low islands above this fluffy whiteness.

In the cold, still air it was silent. There was a sense of being alone, on the roof of the world.

It could have been the thinner air, it might have been the view, but the top of Unsterberg is euphoria -inducing. It forced you to stop and admire the work of Mother Nature.

Sitting on rock ledge, surrounded by deep snow, it was possible to see (with the naked eye) individual snow flakes. I’d seen snow before, but as coin-sized fluffs and puffs. Here each crystal of snow seemed to have its own identity. This was not the compacted almost-wet snow of my Irish childhood – instead it reminded me of  grains of sand. The wind forming each flake into dunes of snow, rather than into banks.

Only a handful of people had gambled on a low cloud ceiling and ventured to the Unsterberg to wander the mountain’s top snow-covered walking trials.  The mountain-top restaurant sold local post card souvenir of summertime hikers, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, beaming smiles, walking along gravel trails through Alpine meadows littered with edelweiss blossoms. There were photos of happy wanderers sitting outside, sipping on ice-cold beers while working on their suntans.

In mid-winter, it was very different. The dress-code was thermal underwear – ankle to neck – shirt, jumper, heavy coat, hats, scarves and gloves. No bare skin could be  exposed for long for fear of frostbite. It was now below freezing point.

The warm weather chalet restaurants/bar stood closed, their many tables and benches stood snow-encrusted. Dissolve-at-a-touch ice crystals, as big as fingernails, formed on thin cables making them appear as thick as a mooring rope.

On top of the world – Untersberg, Austria
On top of the world – Untersberg, Austria
On top of the world – Untersberg, Austria


On top of the world – Untersberg, Austria

THREE monuments marked the ridge line path that stretched into the distance.

The first marker was an iron cross, and was a few hundred metres from the cable car station. An already-beaten path had been made in the snow making it an easy trudge. Underfoot, layers of ice and frozen snow made footfalls tricky, but the view made the effort worthwhile.

From this vantage point, the valley below could be glimpsed as the clouds thinned out. Sometimes a slight wind change would force a bank of fog to break away, ride an updraft and smother the top of Unsterberg.

Surrounded by cloud, in a bright white landscape it wasn’t difficult to imagine straying off the path, walking off the unseen edge of a cliff and falling to your death.

The second lookout beckons from the first cross, but on this glorious day few people had succumb to it’s siren call.

In the deep snow a few sets of footprints led off into the distance. I set off the half -kilometre determined to make the monument that offered a better lookout of this already unforgettable view.

I trudged on, taking one step at a time in the thin air. An English woman passed me coming back, I greeted her with a cheery good morning and we chatted, posed for photos with our own camera and went our separate ways.

A few minutes later, I met her boyfriend. “Is it worth it?” I asked. His beaming smile said it all. I struggled on, stopping to catch my breath and to marvel at the ocean of white before my eyes.

The second marker was a monument to the Alpine rescue squad. I sat down, read the plaque, and watched the view.

On nearby bushes, thin branches were transformed into white fingers by the snow. Individual ice crystal glistened in the noon day sun. Overhead was the sky blue that only airline passengers see. Below, windows in the cloud gave a God’s eye view of the valley.

Alone on the top of the Unsterberg the third marker was calling out, offering even more worldly delights.

A blanket of snow covered the bushes, the rocks on the trail to the last post. Nobody had ventured to this final marker to the edge of the mountain’s big cliff. There was no safe path. No foot prints to step in. It would be dangerous, especially if the clouds came back.

I took one last photo, pulled my scarf over my nose and headed down the icy track, ignoring the urge of that ultimate stop.

Chalet near the peak of the Untersberg, Austria

THE Unsterberg was going to stay with me for the rest of my life and kept walking. Inside me there was wonderful sense of fulfilment, of being alive, of achievement.

Behind me the sun cast shadows in my footsteps. Ahead of me was the promise of a hot meal.

The rest of the party had gone back to the station restaurant and ordered me a traditional Austrian winter warmer, a thin vegetable soup with cheese dumplings.

Now that was going to be a meal to remember.


Snow and ice.

Where in the world is this?


Riding the cable car:


Counting the cost – Ascent and descent:

Adults: €25.
Children: (6-14 years) for one child only € 12.00 – all others free of charge
Students: (up to 26 years, ID required) € 17.00.

Sound of Music connection:

The Unsterberg gained international fame as the “distinctive, lopsided peak” featured at the beginning and end of the 1965 movie The Sound of Music, although the filming was done on the German side, not the Austrian side. It was where Julie Andrews sang The Hills Are Alive at the opening scene and where the family climbed the mountain on their escape to Switzerland at the end of the film. (Source: Wikipedia)

Fast facts:

Around 100,000 passengers enjoying the ride every year.

Between the valley station the lift rises an impressive 1,320 m in elevation.

The ride in  gondolas takes about ten minutes. When you step out at the top, there is a view of Salzburg City, Berchtesgadener Land (in Germany) and the Rosittental. In good visibility, you can even see all the way out to the Salzkammergut lakes as well as Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria.

Numerous hiking routes begin close to the mountain station, too. But if you simply prefer to relax and take in the views,  they suggest renting out a comfortable deckchair.

You have a number of options available to you whenever you get snacky or want to sit down for a drink. In addition to the restaurant at the mountain station, hikers may wish to visit Bergrestaurant Hochalm and sample their delicious homemade regional specialties. Traditional refuge huts, such as the Zeppezauerhaus, also serve refreshments to visitors.

Things to do in Salzburg:



What is the best time of year to go to Salzburg? Here are some average weather facts we collected from our historical climate data:

  • During the month of June, July, August and September you are most likely to experience good weather with pleasant average temperatures that fall between 20 degrees Celsius (68°F) and 25 degrees Celsius (77°F).
  • The months April, May, June, July, August, September, November and December have a high chance of precipitation.
  • On average, the warmest month is August.
  • On average, the coolest month is January.
  • July is the wettest month. This month should be avoided if you are not a big fan of rain.
  • February is the driest month.


Hohensalzburg Fortress

Hohensalzburg Fortress sits atop the Festungsberg, a small hill in the Austrian city of Salzburg. Erected at the behest of the Prince-Archbishops of Salzburg with a length of 250 m and a width of 150 m, it is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe.

Cost:  Tickets start from 13 Euros.

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View of Salzburg in the snow.
Fortress Hohensalzburg is a real eye-catcher, high above the Baroque towers of the city.
A courtyard inside the Fortress Hohensalzburg
A courtyard inside the inside the Fortress Hohensalzburg.
Inside the Fortress Hohensalzburg.
The Festung Hohensalzburg
View of Salzburg from the Festung Hohensalzburg


View of Salzburg from the Festung Hohensalzburg
View of Salzburg from the Festung Hohensalzburg

What airline fly into Salzburg?




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Belgium: At the Atomium

The Atomium represents an iron atom magnified 165billion times and draws millions of tourists to Belgium each year. Travel writer Conal Healy begins a visit to the European icon in a departure lounge in London.


By Conal Healy

Aka Mick in the Middle

“GOOD morning, ladies and gentlemen, this is the 9.15 service to Brussels”.

Instinctively I turned off my mobile phone, switched off my MP3-player and reached for the seat belt . . . to discover it was missing.

The seat belt was gone!

A sensation of panic started to creep up from my throat . . . just at that moment reality kicked in – trains don’t have seat belts.

My body relaxed and I started to breathe again.

I was sitting on one of Europe’s fastest trains, the 300kmp/h Eurostar and now London’s St Pancras International train station was slowly slipping out of view. Next stop, Brussels.

The past few years have been hard on air-travelers.

There are insurance and fuel levies to be paid.

You have to arrive at the airport two hours before departure, there are at least two security checks before you reach your seat.

When you arrive at your destination there is the wait at the luggage carousel and – thanks to town planners – an hour-long trip into the centre of the nearest city. Even a one-hour flight can mean a five-hour ordeal … longer if you live in fear of deep vein thrombosis.

This is why train services across Europe are regaining popularity.

In the week when British Airways was cancelling dozens of flights from its ill-fated Terminal Five, Eurostar was running regular (half-hourly at peak times and hourly, off-peak) services to Paris, Lille, Brussels, Amsterdam and beyond.

Last year 8.26 million passengers used the trainline that goes under the English Channel.


With a travel time of 110 minutes between London and these European cities, travelers arrive with luggage in hand at a destination that’s usually close to the centre of town.


THE Belgian capital is at the crossroads in Europe. For centuries, armies of varying colours, creeds and political persuasion have passed through this part of the Continent.

The region was conquered by the Spanish, the Austrians, the Dutch, the French, the Germans and–for the past five decades–by an army of bureaucrats. Brussels is at the heart of the European Union–it’s the home of the directly-elected European Parliament, and too many of the tiers of bureaucracy that surround it.

When the people of Belgium aren’t fighting off outsiders, they love arguing with themselves.

Despite being a modern 21st century society (population 11 million) with a history dating back more than 2000 years, Belgium is a divided nation.

The population split is between the Dutch speaking Flanders (where they speak Flemish) in the north with 60 per cent of the population, and the Wallonia in the south (who speak French) with 27 percent, and there are the eastern cantons (who speak German) with 13 per cent.

Brussels, despite being technically in Flanders, is dominated by French speakers. Signs are in both French and Flemish.

It is considered bad manners to speak French to a Flemish person, and vice-versa. (This is the reason why a lot of travelers stick to English, at least initially.)

To add to the mix, there are also one million residents from the rest of Europe, Moroccans, Turks, Africans (mainly immigrants from the former Belgium Congo). Confused? Ahhh, Belgium!

BRUSSELS is compact and easy to walk around.

Napoleon decided to help future city planners by demolishing the old city walls which had been an obstacle for invading armies for some time.

In Brussels one of the many “must do” attractions is a visit to the Atomium.

Designed for the 1958 International Exhibition of Brussels, the Atomium is a structure that is “half way between sculpture and architecture, symbolising an iron atom, magnified 165 billion times” and it dominates the city skyline.

The nine large spheres are joined by tubes which comprise the Atomium.

The Atomium was not intended to survive the Brussels Exhibition of 1958.

Its popularity and success, however, ensured its place as a major landmark.


THERE is a debate among travelers about this building as a tourist attraction.

Some people, quite rightly, point out it isn’t worth the entrance price.

But on the cold spring afternoon I strolled around the huge structure, the workmen were hammering away, and I was glad to be out of the cold.

With only three-quarters of the Atomium modules open, the main desk sold me a discounted ticket.

However, I timed my arrival just as a coachload of Germans got to the only operational lift. With the high-speed lift taking just 22 people at a time, it was quite a wait. (Ahhh, Belgium.)

If you dislike the jarring effect that speedy elevators can give, avoid the Atomium.

A clear panel in the roof of the lift gives you an appreciation of the shaft that runs the centre of the structure (see below). From the top module of the Atomium you get an excellent view of the virtually flat Brussels.

The support struts to the other silver modules extend outwards giving you the impression of being in an alien spacecraft. It wasn’t hard to imagine being a Martian invader from The War of The Worlds. You can grab a meal in the top-level expensive restaurant, which was open. Or a tea at a coffee cart, on a lower level, which was closed. (Aaah, Belgium.) A wander around the top module takes 10minutes, maximum.

You can take your photos, try the pay-telescopes, admire the scenery, step around groups hogging the cooling fans…then join the queue for the lift down. (Ahhh, Belgium.) There were stairs down, but the top sections were shut (Ahhh, Belgium.)

Given you have to queue to get in, queue to get out….well, I missed my connecting bus back to the Brussels.

But as I sat on a park bench, watching the Atomium shining through bare branches in the late afternoon sun, I relaxed. I took a bar of local chocolate from my overcoat, opened it and started to eat it slowly, delighting in its richness. There was nowhere I could go for another hour, if that last bus didn’t arrive it would be a long walk or a taxi ride back to the city. Another piece of chocolate melts in my mouth, I relax and sigh . . . Ahhh, Belgium.

Atomium: The facts

■ The Atomium is 102metres (334ft) high; the spheres have a diameter of 18metres (59ft) and weight about 2400 tons.

■ The escalators installed inside the tubes of the Atomium are among the longest in Europe. The largest is 35m (1148 ft) long. They can take 3000 persons per hour.

■ The elevator speed – the fastest in Europe – is 16.4 ft/sec. It takes visitors up to the top sphere in 23 seconds and its capacity is 22 persons.

■ The stairs inside the bipods – which are 35metres (115 ft high) – have about 200 steps.

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Where in the world?:


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Yosemite: Treasure in the Sierra Nevada

Yosemite  National Park attracts millions of tourists each summer, but  Conal Healy headed to the wilderness in mid-winter and lost the crowds

The scenery in Yosemite National Park is stunning — mountains shoot straight up from the valley floor. Green swathes of forest stretch before the eye.

By Conal Healy

(AKA mick_in_the_middle)

THE road was clear of snow and compacted ice, now it was just mist and trees.

Cloud and cedar, to be more accurate, but on this bleak pitch black winter’s evening there was nobody around to argue.

The place? High in a wilderness called the Yosemite National Park, on the Sierra Nevada Ranges in eastern California. The time? An hour past sundown.

By now we were three hours overdue and the directions to the hotel weren’t making sense.

The car was stopped at a junction and a decision had to be made. Do we take this turn, which might take us to the hotel?

Or, do we keep driving down the winding mountain road and hope there is another turn — somewhere — on the left.

To make matters worse, the needle for the petrol tank was at the three-quarter empty mark.

And there was no petrol station inside this huge park.  Not for the first time I (internally) cursed for not stopping at Groveland to re-fuel.

Groveland was the last town before Yosemite – a park famed for its isolation. And here we were on an old mining road trying to make a decision on where to go.

The two kids in the back seats had picked up on the tension. Their bored bickering had stopped, the niggling had ended, the two of them were sitting quietly together.

Now that was disturbing in itself.

The children were waiting for the adults to come to the rescue, to make that correct decision that would take them to the safety of the hotel.

The kids were obviously scared of the wilderness just outside the car’s thin window, but neither of them were willing to admit their fear.

SAN Francisco was five hours back, and the run to Yosemite should have taken only three hours.

Blame it on a missed exit, blame it on Google driving directions, but here we were on a scary, tree-lined road in the middle of nowhere. In the darkness.

Already there had been signs warning  about bears, of mountain lions and coyotes too. Back at the junction, the map was still being consulted. This could be the minor road that leads to a dead-end at the village of Foresta.

Or the car could have sailed past that particular turning — in the darkness — and this was THE road to the hotel at El Portal.

A ranger — at the park entrance at Crane Flat — told us to “turn left at the bottom of the hill”.

Since then we’d dropped God-knowshow-many-feet down the steep incline from the ranger’s station (a sign on the hut told we were 4872ft above sea level).

The road had snaked downhill, past roadside snow banks, sometimes we hit patches of black ice. Occasionally there would be gaps in the almost never-ending trees, but this inky blackness break only hinted of sheer cliffs and a rocky death.

On we drove, when did this “hill” end, I asked myself, just as we reached this now fateful junction.

FINALLY we  dismissed the turning, slipped the brake and the car sailed on…continuing our trip deeper into Yosemite.

A few minutes later we did reach the valley floor, and there stood a sign to El Portal.

We breathed a sigh of relief. The tension within the car evaporated as we drove on, reassured that a hot meal, a comfortable bed and a soothing television was just minutes away.

The music kicked in, the chatting began, the kids separated and the fighting over who-touched-who started . . . normality had returned to the car.


YOSEMITE National Park is a very popular American tourist destination, about four million people make the trip to the mountain park each year.

In summer — the peak season — a hotel room within the park can cost $1000 a night. There are cheaper options including Curry Kitchen a tent village.

Most travellers try to find a room close to the park and drive in each day, or take the regular shuttle bus service. In addition to the mass of tourists clogging the narrow park roads,  violent afternoon thunderstorms can shut hiking trails leaving travellers stuck in their cars – or at one of the park’s restaurant – looking at the lightning strikes.

On the plus side  there are hundreds of miles of  trails to explore – mainly through the green meadows and woodlands found across a roller coaster of different elevations.

The millions of people who do visit the park every year, usually enjoy — in the warmer, busier, months – rock climbing, hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, camping and — when the days turn cold — skiing, and snowshoeing.

Now in late November, we had the roads just about to ourselves. With skiers and boarders waiting for the first serious snows of winter, there were also none of the summer traffic jams to endure.

The early-Winter air was crystal clear, hazefree, with blue skies overhead. The days were cool, about 10 degrees, the night close to zero.

ALLOW plenty of time if you plan to visit Yosemite, even in winter.

The road twists as it follows the contours of the valley. Tall trees line the road, sometimes you’ll glimpse coyotes, deer and squirrels gathering their last stores of food before the long winter.

Filling the tank with petrol a local will tell you a bear story: “…And the huge grizzly sliced through the boot of the car trying to get to the meat in the cooler”.

Feeding the native animals is strongly discouraged in Yosemite, no matter how cute they appear. Sometimes the animal — squirrels, racoons and birds — become dependant on the food handouts and can’t hunt for themselves.

Other times the high sugar, high salt, preservative-filled junk food is a danger to the health of the wildlife. Visitors have to be aware that Yosemite is a wilderness area and there are risks from the park’s more dangerous inhabitants — bear and mountain lions.

Don’t feed the animals.

DRIVING through Yosemite it’s easy to see what draws so many tourists each year.

The scenery is stunning — mountains shoot straight up from the valley floor. Green swathes of forest stretch before the eye.

Giant streaked-blocks of granite sit graciously, dusted white after an overnight snow shower.

Below, the rivers run clear, but are sluggish. Pools of standing water are frozen, acting like mirrors to distort reflections of trees and mountain peaks. Above, enormous sleets of rock defy perspective – these are Mother Nature’s original skyscrapers.

In Yosemite Valley stands massive Half Dome, a cracked block gnawed by a glacier, that rises 4733 feet (about 1442.6 metres), to dominate the landscape. Across the way, on the 3593-foot (1095-metre) vertical wall of El Capitan you can spot the tiny figures of rock climbers. During their ascent, which may take days, climbers sleep in slings hanging from the cliff.

Given the height elevation of Yosemite from 2000ft to 13000ft above sea level – you can go up one part of the park into a winter wonderland.

The snow-covered forest floor shines in the intense winter light. An overnight shower produces trees shrouded in white. In the still air, flurries of dry snow fall from tall  cedar trees.

At a roadside lookout we stopped to take postcard photographs against this traditional Christmas backdrop, below us was The Big Meadow, a once-glacial lake which filled with silt. It now sits in splendid isolation, a patch of grass green in a forest of dark pine trees.

As the kids started another snowball fight, the car radio gave the weather report for the next few days and announced the mountain passes within the parks which would now be shut probably until spring, four months away.

On top of the list was the road to Wawona and Mariposa Grove, in the southern part of Yosemite, the home of the Giant Redwoods. I realised we’d left it too late for a drive down to see the 2000-year-old sequoias trees. Well, I figured, they weren’t going anywhere.

Next time we’d see them, when we go back to Yosemite.


Yosemite facts

■ The mountains and granite domes of the Sierra Nevada began to take shape about 500 million years ago, when the region lay under an ancient ocean.

■ The seabed consisted of thick layers of sediment, which eventually were folded, twisted, and d thrust above sea level. At the same time, molten rock welled up from the Earth and slowly cooled  beneath the layers of sediment, forming granite.

■ Over millions of years, erosion wore away most of the overlying rock, exposing the granite. While this continued, water and then glaciers shaped and carved the face of Yosemite, leaving massive peaks and bare granite domes.

Wild life: What to do

What should you do if you meet a bear?

■ Yosemite  is home to 300 – 500 American black bears. Although usually referred to as the black bear, very few are black, and they are more likely to be found in a variety of colours ranging from black to brown, blond, or cinnamon.

■ Do not underestimate a bear’s ingenuity, strength, or reach. Should a black bear approach, act immediately: Yell, clap your hands and bang pots and pans together, throw small stones or sticks toward the bear from a safe distance (the intent is to scare the bear, not to injure it).

■ Never approach a mother with cubs. She may attack in defence of her young.

■ Do not  leave food in your car. Never leave food unattended.  Eat it, discard it or use a food storage locker available throughout the park.

■ Store all food and related supplies, including any item with a scent, regardless of packaging, in a food storage locker. This includes items that are not food, such as canned foods, bottles, drinks, soaps, cosmetics, toiletries, perfumes, trash, ice chests (even when empty) and unwashed food items and utensils.

What should you do if you meet a mountain cat?

■ Never approach a mountain lion, especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid confrontation. Always give them a way to escape.

■ Don’t run. Stay calm. Hold your ground, or back away y slowly.

■ Face the lion and stand upright. Do all you can to appear larger. Grab a stick. Raise your arms. If the lion behaves aggressively, wave your arms, shout and throw objects at it. The goal is to convince it that you are not prey and may be dangerous yourself. If attacked, fight back!

■ The chance of being attacked by a mountain lion is quite low compared to many other natural hazards. There is, for example, a far greater risk of being struck by lightning than being attacked by a  mountain lion.

Yosemite fast facts:

Cost:  Effective June 2018 the park entrance fee will be $35 per vehicle or $30* per motorcycle. An annual park pass will cost $70.

Where on earth is this?


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Keem Bay: On the edge of Europe

By Conal Healy


IT was a perfect spring day out on the West coast of Europe.

The sun was shining, and yesterday’s gale had dropped to a whisper.

From the last beach – some would argue – in Europe I looked out on cobalt-blue Atlantic Ocean.

Over the horizon, just out of sight, was America. There was nothing between me and USA but 3000km of water, cold water.

Keem Bay, for all its picturesque magnificence, has to be the coldest beach on Achill Island, County Mayo, Ireland.

I had been told as a child that five tides met at Achill Head – one of the arms that sheltered the yellow sandy beach.

Despite my childhood warning I pulled off my heavy woolen socks and stuffed them into my much-travelled walking boots and ambled down the golden sand beach.

The first wavelet stung, so did the second and the third. This was cold water, seriously cold water.

“It’s warm today, don’t you think? It’s not that usual mad cold,” remarked a local, who was enjoying the sun after a long winter of grey short days.

I agreed and hobbled to a nearby volcanic-black rock in an attempt to warm up my almost-numb toes.

Socks-in-feet again, I sat back to admire the view.

On that perfect day I wished I had packed a pair of shorts. The previous night the weather forecaster had warned of a risk of sunburn if people stayed out for more than 25 minutes.

A HEAT haze hung over the Minaun Cliffs, among the  highest seacliffs in Europe, the distant coastline of south Mayo   shimmered…everything blended together like a watercolour painting.

Two days previously – when I arrived on the island – the mist had rolled in, erasing temporarily the tall mountains and the rest of the view. It was a day for writing post cards.

The next day a thankfully rain-free gale force wind had cleared the view but you almost had to weigh yourself down with rocks to stop from being lifted off your feet.

On this third day Achill shone like a new pin. Like an emerald in a sapphire sea. This had to be one of Europe’s best kept secrets.

ACHILL takes its name from the Irish word for “eagle” –  from the Golden Eagles that used to hunt over this beautifully desolate place,  Achill, the Island of the Eagles.

The eagles are long gone, another footnote to an island which has been moulded by nature for millions of years.

Bleak granite mountains – nurtured by glaciers – are now covered by brown heather and thin grass form a dark backdrop to an almost empty landscape.

The forests – like the eagles – are long gone, only their bleached roots remain, buried in the bog that time dissolved into over the millennia.

FOR at least the past 5000 years people have worked the land in Achill. Their stone-age tombs remain on the slopes of Slivemore. However more recent history hasn’t been kind to the island. The famine of mid-19th Century started a string of tragic events that started an exodus that has only slowed in the past couple of years.

A long deserted ruined village – beside the local graveyard in Keel – stands as testimony to this dark times.With little industry on the island there was little for successive generations to do but join the millions of Irish people on the emigration trails across the world.

But things are changing. The Celtic Tiger economic boom proved to be godsend to the island. A seedling of infrastructure planted in the early 1980s have also blossomed making this west coast island a holiday destination waiting to be discovered.

ABOUT 300kms from Dublin, Achill is about a half a day’s leisurely drive from the Irish capital. There is a coach service too. However – if you have the time – a train to Westport and coach to Achill is perhaps the best way to make the trip. There is also a bicycle trail from Newport.

A sheltered rural scenery is gradually transformed after you leave Newport and take the coast road by the shore of the drumlin-filled Clew Bay.

After Mulrany you skirt around the edge of Curran, an ugly lump of heather covered granite, the road ribbons between bog and rock only the occasional sheep or a weary-eyed dog noticing you.

In the harsh evening light of early spring everything is usually burned into silhouette. Drooping telegraph hang like shining silver cobwebs.

You round a corner and the narrow bridge crossing to the island can be seen, it is Achill Sound.

There are the traditional white-washed cottages, putting up wisps of sweet-smelling turf smoke, crouching low against an almost perpetually blowing gale force wind.

New houses are there but the bogs, the mountains, the islands and the ocean haven’t changed.

You drive up a rise and look down a wide valley to the village of Keel – a collection of cottages strewn between the domineering Slievemore (literally translated from the Irish as Big Mountain) and the curved beach of a horseshoe bay.

An almost diesel-blue bog lake is held in place by a barren golf course of green, rimmed with gold – a sure sign of the precarious hold the grass has on the sand underneath. You are never far from a sand bunker when you play golf on the Keel Sandybanks.

Down the valley and into the village itself, the money from the EU has got this far (in one form or another) and there are backpacker hostels, pubs have been extended and it is possible to hire anything from surfboards to AirBnB cottages.

It seems incongruous to sometime see old satellite dishes on the gables of traditional white-washed cottages, with a reek of turf against the side wall, potato drills in the garden and a scarecrow guarding the onion patch.

Unlike a lot of European rural communities, Keel (and the rest of Achill) appears more like a scattering of white Monopoly houses than something actually planned.

While a lot of Europeans prefer to tour the island by bike, a car is a better option especially when it comes to climbing mountains.

Drives in Achill

Three of probably the most exceptional drives in Europe can be done in half a day – if you are in a rush. A full day – with leisurely stops and a picnics – is far more enjoyable.

The Atlantic Drive – starting just outside Achill Sound – takes you winding past a real pirate’s castle through small villages until you are faced with a panorama of the Atlantic Ocean. At times the road shears away to boiling breakers and the view should take your breath away (if the usual gale doesn’t).

The next drive is up to the Minaun Heights. Originally the road was dug out of the mountain so a TV transmitter could be erected. The view from the top of the (466-metre mountain is top-of-the-world stuff and is a must for anybody with a video recorder.

Then follow the road to the end of Achill, Ireland and Europe to Keem Bay. Over the mountain,  past the estate where Captain Boycott (the man made famous when Irish people refused to work for him and gave the English language a new word) and around by the cliff road and down to Keem.

A word of warning, however. None of three drive should be contemplated if you have unsteady nerves – or your car has dodgy brakes. If you suffer from either complaint you run the great risk of becoming part of the scenery.

Also: We aware of sheep straying onto the road.

Five things to do in Achill

1. Climb the Minaun Heights (on a clear day).

2. Walk the golden beach at Dugort.

3. Climb to the old lifeguard station at Keem Bay. The Victorian era  station has been left to fall into ruin, it is a good climb to the top. The view is amazing.

4. Walk from Keel to Purteen Harbour (via Nun’s Cove).

5. Walk the streets of Achill Sound.


Summer: Bright at about 5.30am, dark by about 10.30pm. (About 15 hours of brightness).

Winter: Bright from about 8.30am, dark by 4pm. (About 7.5 hours of “brightness”)

In August 201:  Keem Bay  was voted the 11th Best Beach in the World. The travel organisation Big 7 Islands announced their Top 50 Beaches in the World list and in among some of the most beautiful and stunning locations on Earth is Keem Beach. Not only that but it just missed out on a Top 10 finish!

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Famous people who visited Achill Island?



Touch of textures – Ben Quilty



“I just want to touch them” said my companion as we stood in awe at the work of Ben Quilty currently on show at GOMA, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

And it is easy to see why my companion wanted to reach out and touch the sometimes violent swirls of paint. It is beautifully raw, emotive and confronting. Great stuff.

Quilty is the first major survey exhibition in a decade of one of Australia’s most acclaimed artists.

As GOMA says: The exhibition extends from Quilty’s early reflections on the initiation rituals performed by young Australian men to his experience as an official war artist in Afghanistan and his campaign to save the lives of Bali Nine pair Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. It also includes his revisions of the Australian landscape, and raw, intimate portraits of himself, his family and his friends.”



Coming soon ….

In the coming months some of the adventures of Mick_in_the_Middle will be revealed. Words and photos combined.

Stay tuned.