Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Domestic dramas

August 30th, 2011

Domestic flight it might have been. Domestic bliss it was not. Honolulu to Anchorage, Alaska. Five hours of hell. Or, put another way, can a small child scream, virtually without pausing, for the entire time? Yep. A few fortunates, those closest, were moved to the precious few vacant seats further up the cabin. The rest offered ear plugs. I gladly accepted. Actually, in my already sleep deprived state, I initially mistaken them for complimentary chews. Bright red. Strawberry flavour. Did seem a bit tough.

Don’t want to sound unsympathetic, but some sort of sedative would have been in order. For fellow passengers that is, just in case you think I’m being a tage harsh. Maybe that’s why Alaskans elected Sarah Palin. Tape of her favourite speeches would have really hit the mark.



Packing up

August 23rd, 2011

Packing up from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken packs up his trusty steed for the 16,000 kilometre on-move from Melbourne, Australia to Anchorage, Alaska



Flying free

August 11th, 2011

I can cope with the sleep deprivation. The check-in queues. The seemingly endless security controls. Even sitting next to the odd fellow passenger who, you suspect, just loves to super size their meals. If there’s something worth it at the other end. Like Alaska. But, add a boxed bicycle and another forty kilogrammes of awkward baggage and mustering any enthusiasm becomes a bit of a struggle.

Fortunately, thanks to some help from The Outward Bound Trust, there’d been a phone call from Robyn at DHL South Pacific. Yep. That well known international shipping and courier company. Yes, she explained, they’d air freight everything for me. Details to sort out of course. Assured her I’d make sure everything was in order so not as to cause embarrassment with US Customs. Clean tyres and tent pegs. Just as I’d done for flying into Australia.

This was good news, I thought as I put the phone away. Really good news. One company rather than three different airlines. No struggling with boxes of kit around four airports, two terminal changes and an overnight stop in a Hawaiian hostel dorm. And a substantial saving in excess baggage charges. Of the order that would buy you a return airfare from Heathrow to Washington. No. Seriously.



Trials and tribulations

August 4th, 2011

Frustrating. Tedious. A bit dull. Organising the on-move from Australia to Anchorage, Alaska. Melbourne, my final stop down under, three weeks away. But always best to plan ahead. Usually cheaper for one thing. Friends had very generously let me have use of their holiday home in Jervis Bay. Hundred miles or so south of Sydney. Ideal for knuckling down and putting the plan together.

I’d allowed a fairly generous margin for unexpected delays in reaching Melbourne. And time to locate a box to package Emma, my trusty steed, into. She’d need a good clean first, along with the rest of my kit, to get past US Customs and Border Protection. Straightforward enough. Had done this before. Back in Hong Kong.

Airlines a challenge. Three different carriers. Virgin Blue from Melbourne to Sydney. Then Hawaiian Air to Honolulu. I hope. Finally Air Alaska into Anchorage. Delving into the black arts of excess baggage and bicycles. Juggling metric and imperial. Confusing tariffs. In the end, reckoning on close on four hundred pounds to ship the bike over. Even then, that assumes I’m pretty much wearing my wardrobe. Hope it’s not too warm in Hawaii.

One unexpected hurdle. Hawaiian Airlines don’t accept UK credit cards. Online or otherwise. Period. Instead you have to use a UK agent. I’d been a bit suspicious. Was the one I’d found genuine? Waiting on direct confirmation from the airline. Keen to secure a seat as I’d flights already booked either side. Flying economy so changing them costs.

One little oversight. International Dateline. Hawaii is actually twenty hours behind Sydney. Which means you take off late evening and arrive late morning. The same day. Not the next as I’d thought. So. Got an unexpected day in Hawaii. Must remember to pack the bikini somewhere handy.

When I do eventually make it to Anchorage the plan is simple. Sleep. Then put Emma back together. Track down the Park Rangers. Advice on bears. Get my bearings. Then head off to Canada.



Air miles for Emma

January 18th, 2011

Air miles for Emma from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

One bike. Two airlines. Different baggage regulations and allowances. The joys of flying with a bicycle.


Bah humbug…

December 9th, 2010

New Years Eve in Sydney. Australia’s cultural Capital. And I wasn’t looking forward to it. Not a bit. Truth was, I’d be arriving early in the morning on an overnight flight from Hong Kong. Then there’d be a twelve hour wait for my connection to Cairns, the starting point for my southerly run along the east coast. Reckoned on arriving at lodgings close to midnight.

Much as I might want to see in the New Year – and my third continent – in style, the grim reality is that after being deprived of all but a modicum of sleep the previous night, a vat or two of caffeine in domestic departures… I think you get the picture. Of course, there are earlier connections. And better days to travel. But a lot more expensive. Even toyed with the idea of temporary membership of an airline lounge to take some of the pain away, but the airlines have already wised up to that scam one.

Booking the flights has been enough of an experience. Shades of colonic irrigation. Some people enjoy it. I don’t. Actually, that’s the easy bit. The real fun starts with the excess baggage rules and charges. For which possession of a bicycle appears to be viewed as something of an aggravating factor. Complicated further by using, of necessity, two separate airlines with different requirements and fees. Makes the various Central Asian visa and immigration rules look like they’d merit a Plain English award.

Scales - web

So. No plans to saw the handle off my toothbrush. It folds. Or fly into tropical Cairns wearing my down jacket. Far too light. But I do know exactly how much all the kit weighs. Courtesy of a set of children’s bathroom scales. About £2.50 from a Chinese Walmart.

And I’ve also worked out how to legitimately exploit the carry-on luggage rules to their fullest extent. I’ll be the one boarding with a full seven kilograms in my bag. Maps and notebooks (’reading material’) in my pockets. Netbook and cameras carried separately. Whilst wearing my iPod. Pondered – albeit briefly – what to do with one of my spare folding tyres. Ressembles a cricketer’s protective box. Sort of.

Frustrating? Yes. Time-consuming? Yes. And I’d had help. A lot. No need to shop around the various airlines. My parents had very kindly done that for me. Simply had to follow their advice. Which I’d done. To the letter. And also pleased I’d already got my Australian visa. Saved a few more hours online. And my sanity. Just needed to get across the de-facto border from mainland China into Hong Kong. But that’s another story….

[Author’s note: You may be surprised to know that the English language version of the Kazakhstan visa and immigration rules probably does merit a Plain English award. Invaluable for fending off corrupt border guards. Sadly not available in hardback]


Outbound to Almaty

July 19th, 2010

Across the aisle a woman sat painting her nails, the solvent quite noticeable in the confines of the aircraft cabin. She was English, but expressed her frustration at the delayed departure in fluent Russian, delivered with native passion. Her two young children seemed oblivious, content with their crayons and a small jotting pad between them. Her husband sat behind, snoring loudly. Further up, a young man stared intently at his map. Pamirs. North West shading. Neatly groomed beard. Plastic mountain boots tucked under the seat in front. Clean, barely scuffed.

My own travelling companions appeared to share my stoicism. A Canadian mining engineer, bound for Bishkek, quietly spoken, unflustered, probably just resigned to the situation. He’d flown from Toronto the previous day. Had done quite a bit of cycle touring in the past, and shared a few anecdotes. And a young woman studying the fashion business. Paris. Haute Courtière. Freelance writer for Harpers Bazaar. We chatted about films for quite a while, her love of old movies, Casablanca, Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn.

Two hours into the supposed flight back to Almaty and we were still on the apron. Technical problems. The only 757 left in the airline’s fleet, a single in-flight film that flickered between colour washed technicolour and black and white. Teased by the cabin magazine extolling the virtues of their other, rather more modern, aircraft.

I’d spent my last night in the UK for some time in one of the smaller London hostels, enjoying a final coffee in the well-kept courtyard garden. Listening to opera being performed in a large marquee in the adjacent park. Retired early, only to be woken suddenly by the fire alarm. 3.32am. Hastily dressed, standing for a while in the barely perceptible drizzle before the inevitable all clear. Dozed for a few more hours, restless, before rising just after five. Pensive.

Courtyard garden

I sat once more in the courtyard, alone, the damp air invigorating, helping stave off the inevitable weariness for a little while longer. Reflecting on my time back in the UK. A perfect, orderly world. I knew it wasn’t, it just seemed it. I’d kept myself busy, securing visas, a second passport, a stab at documentary making. And time spent with close family. My parents. And a chance to see my young niece, just a few weeks old when I’d last seen her days before departure the previous autumn. Memories for the road.


Playing the game

May 24th, 2010

Taking a bicycle and all your kit on an aeroplane is, at best, not the simplest of evolutions, the risk of damage ever present. And potentially quite expensive. But imagine two scenarios. At one airport that’ll be two hundred dollars for excess baggage, take it or leave it, and pot luck as to how much your bike gets thrown around by the ground handlers. And lots of pointless carriage requirements, such as having to deflate your tyres. Or remove the pedals.

At another airport, Emma is carried out to the aircraft, intact, placed in the hold, other luggage carefully packed around her. Ground crew so proud of their efforts to protect her, they insist on showing you their efforts before you board the aircraft. Even if it’s an ageing Russian built jet that looks like it belongs in a museum. And the excess baggage – most of the panniers and the bike itself – well, always scope for negotiation. Cash helps.

The first scenario could be many a First World airport. But the second? Baku’s international airport. So, it would seem, Azerbaijan is, quite unexpectedly, actually a pretty good place to fly out of with a bike. Of course, I’d been in the city for a while and had learnt something of how things work. Knew how to play the game. Like a firm and generous handshake. Mind you, still had to put the entire bicycle through the X-ray scanners. Three times. No way around that piece of fun.

[Author’s note: If you are planning to follow in my footsteps and fly with a bike from Baku to Kazakhstan, I’d be delighted to share more details – hints and tips – with you. Contact me via the website]

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