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December 24, 2015

Sir George Hubert Wilkins: Over the Top of the World

wilkins_arctic_vega

from 'The Aviators' by William Joy (Shakespeare Head Press, 1965)


GEORGE HUBERT WILKINS of Adelaide notched another "first" for Australia when, in 1928, with American Ben Eielson as pilot, he flew over the top of the world from Point Barrow in Alaska to Spitzbergen in the Norwegian isles north of Finland. Born in 1888 at Mount Bryan East, South Australia, and educated in engineering at the Adelaide School of Mines, Wilkins led a life of constant adventure. As far back as 1916, when he ended three years as photographer and second-in-command of Vilhjalmur Stefansson's Canadian Arctic Expedition to join the Australian Flying Corps, he had dreamt of exploring the icy Arctic wilderness in aeroplanes, chancy and unreliable though they then were. With Stefansson, Wilkins learned to live like an Eskimo. He tramped more than 5000 miles with the expedition and became as much at home on ice as an Arctic seal.

From the Flying Corps Wilkins was seconded as official photo­grapher to the Military History Department, in which capacity he was wounded several times taking photographs in battle. Having won the M.C. and bar, he flew with Val Rendle, Reg Williams and Gar Potts in the first England-Australia race in 1919, navigating the Blackburn Kangaroo aircraft which crashed in Crete. In 1920, Wilkins was second-in-command of a not-too successful British Imperial Expedition in which he helped survey part of the Antarctic coastline, then joined Sir Ernest Shackleton's last Ant­arctic Expedition as naturalist and photographer. Switching back to the sun, he roamed tropical Australia for two adventurous years collecting natural history specimens for the British Museum.

Now (1926) aged 38, he returned again to his earlier dreams of exploring the Arctic from the air and of being the first to fly from America to Europe by the polar route. With his own savings and financial help from Australian friends, Wilkins sailed for America to seek backing there for his polar plans. The City of Detroit voted him a substantial sum. With this and 25,000 dollars from a North American newspaper Alliance for exclusive news coverage of the flight, Wilkins had enough to buy two Fokker aircraft-one tri-motor, the other single-engined. His old Arctic commander, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, put him in contact with Dakota-born 28-year-old Carl Ben Eielson, a crack young "bush pilot", thus forming a partnership that ranks high in Arctic ex­ploration and aviation history.

Sir George Hubert Wilkins
At the beginning it looked as though their plans were hoodooed. Both aircraft crashed during tests. Before they could be repaired the Arctic fogs set in and forced them to postpone the big attempt for a year. To make things worse, their press agent, Palmer Hutch­inson, walked into a spinning propeller and was killed, and Wilkins himself broke an arm man-handling an aircraft out of a snow drift. All they could hope to do that first year was to ferry stores and fuel to their base at Point Barrow, by dog team, snow tractors and by air, in which they flew over rugged snow-bound mountains, never before seen by man.

In March 1927, Wilkins and Eielson, with two new planes were ready for another aerial attack on the Arctic. Admiral Richard Byrd, the American, had forestalled them to some extent by fly­ing from Spitzbergen to the North Pole and back in 1926, but the whole of the Arctic north of Alaska was still unexplored, and no one as yet had flown from one Continent to another over the North Pole. Most experts declared it just could not be done.

Wilkins decided to start his 1927 programme with a 600-mile flight towards the pole to see if there were any substantial stretches of land or islands still waiting to be found in the vast wastes of ice and snow. They took off from Point Barrow with a blizzard on their tail and were going well 550 miles out when the engine fal­tered. Rough ice lay beneath them. There was nothing much they could do. They just had to risk a landing. Eielson eased the plane down. The ice held. She skidded along on her skis and came gently to rest in the first landing ever made on Arctic ice.

While Eielson fixed the engine, Wilkins cut a hole in the ice and made a sounding with a listening device and dynamite. He found the ocean mote than three miles deep at that point. They took off and again were forced down. They worked on the engine for some hours in sub-zero temperatures in which four fingers on Eielson's left hand froze. Black clouds blocked the light when at last they were airborne again. Now they were battling, a gale-force headwind without a chance of getting back to base before their fuel ran out. They were not surprised therefore when the engine cut out. Eielson felt his way down to a landing. The wing tip struck an obstruction and spun the plane into a snowdrift.

Neither Wilkins nor Eielson was hurt. For five days they sat out the blizzard in the cabin of their plane, resting snugly in their sleeping bags and living comfortably on their emergency rations of pemmican, biscuits, chocolate, nuts, raisins and malted milk tablets. Then, with a pocket compass and two watches, they set out to walk nearly 100 miles across the ice, back to civilisation. Carrying rifles and with 30 lb. of food bundled with their instru­ments into sleeping bags, they trudged, stumbled and, in some places, crawled southwards over the ice. Eielson, in constant pain from frostbite, plodded doggedly along with Wilkins. Tragedy was near when the ice gave way under Wilkins while he was skirting a lead of open water. He managed to scramble, soaked to the skin, on to firm ice. Only his knowledge of Arctic lore prevented him from freezing to death. After 13 days of privations, the two men reached a trader's house on Beechey Point, a few miles from Port Barrow. Eielson was taken at once to hospital where surgeons amputated a finger from his frost-bitten hand.

Again Wilkins was forced to postpone his main objective, a flight over the Pole from Alaska to Northern Europe. During the winter he went to San Francisco where, as previously recorded, he met Charles Kingsford Smith and C. T. P. Ulm and sold them the sturdy plane he had built from the Fokkers he smashed up in the Arctic. In San Francisco, Wilkins saw and fell in love with a trim little Lockheed Vega monoplane, whose sleek, bullet-like body offered a minimum of wind resistance and was just the plane for Arctic exploration. The money he got from Smithy and Ulm helped him to buy a Vega. In April 1928, he and pilot Ben Eielson were poised at Point Barrow for the great adventure.

As usual, nothing went smoothly. They had to marshal scores of Eskimos to clear a runway through the snow. Twice, the Vega, greatly overloaded, refused to rise. They had to wait for a head wind before, on April 15, the Vega rose smoothly from the snowy runway and headed for Spitzbergen, 2500 miles away. Weather was mixed. After seven hundred miles they ran into black clouds and were lucky to be able to check their position by glimpses of Greenland mountains. Next they encountered a blizzard which cut visibility to 100 yards. Nearing the end of their journey, they narrowly escaped crashing into the sea. Fuel, now, was dangerously low. Wilkins guided Eielson down to a small strip of ice, con­fident they had succeeded in their mission and were somewhere in the Spitzbergen group of islands. The 2500-mile flight across the top of the world had taken 20 hours, 20 minutes.

For five days, however, they were stormbound in the cabin of the Vega. Then they took off and, a few minutes later, saw the masts of the wireless station at Green Harbour, where the Nor­wegian operator and his crew found it difficult to believe they had crossed the Arctic from Alaska.

Honours poured on Hubert Wilkins. King George V knighted him. Scientific bodies and ordinary folk all over the world hailed him as a great explorer and aviator. The newspaper tycoon Wil­liam Randolph Hearst advanced 25,000 dollars towards the cost of an aerial exploration of the Antarctic. With Ben Eielson as first pilot and another famous airman, Joe Crosson, as second, Wilkins arrived with two Vegas at Deception Island and, in Nov­ember 1928, made the first flight over Antarctic snows. In Decem­ber he was off again flying 600 miles out over the high plateau of Graham Land where the foot of man had never trod. On a spot left blank on the map he plotted plateaus, bays, channels and chains of islands none knew existed, returning safely through a fierce storm to base at Deception Island. Not for nothing were Wilkins and Eielson known as "The men who always came back".

Romance came to Sir Hubert Wilkins in 1929 when he married the beautiful Australian actress Suzanne Bennett in America.

Wilkins now took two years off from flying to embark on an­other adventurous project, the possibility of exploring beneath the Arctic ice cap in a submarine. For the token price of one dollar, the United States Navy let him- have an out-of-date sub­marine, about to be scrapped. Lady Wilkins christened it Nautilus. Wilkins fitted the submarine with runners and shock absorbers on top of the hull and with a hollow drill in the conning tower to enable them to cut through the ice for air. In Nautilus, Wilkins hoped to sail from Spitzbergen under the North Pole to Alaska in 42 days.

The Nautilus project was dogged by misfortune. She made one or two trial dives under the ice to prove it could be done before the experiment was abandoned. Wilkins' faith in submarine voyages under ice was vindicated when American nuclear-powered sub­marines made such trips after World War II.

For the next six years Sir Hubert Wilkins was manager of the Lincoln Ellsworth Antarctic Expedition. In 1937 he was called back to active flying to search for Russian airman Sigismund Levanevsky, the Soviet Lindbergh, who vanished with five com­rades on a flight over the North Pole. Before the search was called off, Wilkins had flown 44,000 miles and searched 170,000 square miles, 150,000 of which had never been surveyed before. Altogether Hubert Wilkins made more than 30 polar expeditions. He died at Framingham, Mass., in 1958. His ashes were taken aboard the American nuclear-submarine Skate which dived under the Arctic floes and surfaced through the ice to scatter them in the vicinity of the North Pole.

Further Reading:


December 23, 2015

Struth! Seattle’s Market Theatre - artists sticking to their gums


By gum, they reckon this is art


IN his continuing search for the more weird and wondrous in this world, David Ellis says this popular and colourful "art wall" in Seattle, Washington is made up, would you believe, of 1,000,000-plus pieces of used chewing-gum.

Or was. Local authorities have finally got to work with super-heated steam sprays and good ol' fashioned muscle power, to clean off the sticky mess that's been building up since the early 1990s.

That's when patrons queueing for tickets to the Market Theatre began sticking their used gum on the surrounding walls, and pushing small coins into it in the belief it would bring good luck. After some years they gave up on the coins that kept falling off, but continued to attach their gum to any empty spaces.

And when they ran out of these, they piled layer upon layer of the stuff so that in some places the mess is up to 15cm thick for 15m along both walls outside the Theatre.

Authorities concede that while the bizarre wall is doubtless one of the world's most germ-laden tourist attractions, it is in fact not as great a health hazard as kissing Ireland's Blarney Stone – and is being cleaned down not for health reasons, but because the sugar in the gum is corroding the theatre's brickwork.

And after the US$4,000 clean-up job is complete, the faithful will be able to return to their old habits of sticking used gum wherever they like along the walls outside the Market Theatre.

                                                            ……………….

PHOTO CAPTION:

[] SOMETHING to chew over as you contemplate what awaits in the night's production at Seattle's Market Theatre – this colourful "art wall" is being cleaned of its 1,000,000-plus pieces of stuck-on chewing gum.

(Pic WikiMedia)



December 14, 2015

Struth! It's all Greek. Minack Theatre in Cornwall

ONE woman's dream: Rowena Cade spent every winter for
ver a half-century from 1932 to her death in 1983, improving
the unique Minack Theatre in her home's back garden in Cornwall.
(Image: Minack Theatre
IN his continuing search for the more weird and wondrous in this world, David Ellis says that it looks like a typical open-air live theatre in Greece or elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

But in fact this is at a little village called Porthcurno 6.5km from Land's End in Cornwall in England, and has been home to local and visiting theatre companies since the early 1930s.

The theatre was the brainchild of Rowena Cade who had built a home for herself and her mother on Porthcurno's Minack Point just after the end of World War I, and when a local theatre company was looking for an ocean-side setting to stage Shakespeare's The Tempest, she had offered her home's garden with its appropriate open-sea background.

Then she and her gardener, Billy Rawlings spent weeks hauling materials from the rocks and beach below to create a stage and seating – so successful the play being, that Ms Cade spent every winter until her death in 1983 aged 89, improving and developing the site with the assistance of gardener Rawlings and a friend, Charles Angove.

Today up to 20 plays are performed at the Minack Theatre every summer by UK and visiting overseas companies, with an average 80,000 a year coming to watch – and an inquisitive 100,000 more paying to simply have a sticky-beak of the unique site.

Travellers: Beware of Pickpockets



YOU'VE GOT TO PICK A POCKET OR TWO

David Ellis

TRAVEL writing colleague David Potts says it was over in the blink of an eye:

standing in line for a bus outside the Prado museum in Madrid, a well-dressed man bumped him from behind.

When David suggested "There'll be room on the bus for all of us," the man seemed embarrassed and walked off. David stayed in the line – and when he went to pay his fare, realised his wallet was gone.

"I'd been pickpocketed by that man. And then came the hours of inconveniences: reporting to police, the credit card company, getting onto the bank….and the feelings of invasion of privacy – and my own stupidity."

Unfortunately, too many travellers can relate to these experiences, with professional pickpocket theft on the rise, tourists primary targets.

So sometime later when David coincidentally met Bob Arno – who reckons he's the world's only legal pickpocket – he asked him for advice, and got such a fascinating response he offered to share what he learned with us.

Swedish-born Arno was, David says, a war photographer in Vietnam when he encountered his first pickpockets, their targets mainly American servicemen and about whose misfortunes Arno wrote several newspaper articles.

These exposés caught the attention of the U.S. Military, and when Arno was invited to give lectures on the subject they were so well-received he took his "act" into show business, and with wife Bambi today travels seven months a year with his pick-pocketing lecture-show that's been seen by millions world-wide.

Now living in the USA he also works as a security consultant to high-profile business clients, law enforcement agencies and corporations world-wide on how to combat street crime… and never misses an opportunity to film pickpockets and other street thieves in action against unsuspecting tourists.

Arno, who dubs himself Professor of Pickpocketry, even sets himself up to be robbed in known pick-pocket hang-outs – so he can make contact and get to understand better both they and their methods, and thus get to know more about the game than many professional pickpockets themselves..

"We lure them into conversation and pick their brains the way they pick their victims pockets," he says. "Most thieves love to brag."

And so what's his advice to travellers?

"Prepare before you leave home," he says. "Make photocopies of all travel documents, including tickets, passports and itineraries, phone numbers of your credit card companies, your insurer and other important contacts, numbers of your travellers' cheques, and carry them separately from the originals.

"Also scan these documents and email them to yourself – so you can internet access them when travelling.

"As well, carry three credit cards, each on different accounts, and always leave one with your valuables in the hotel safe... and make sure your room number is not on the hotel key or card, because if you lose either, a thief has your hotel address."

Attach two labels to each piece of your luggage with your name, country and email address – but not your home address, which would tell thieves where your home's empty. Put a third label inside your bag.

"And very importantly, at airport security checkpoints don't put your valuables on the scanner belt until you are certain you can walk through the metal detector without delay. Be especially wary of someone cutting-in to separate you on one side and your belongings on the other side of the scanner – phones and laptops are commonly stolen this way."

Pickpockets, however, are the worst hazard facing tourists. "They'll spill something like ice-cream on you, then helpfully offer to wipe you down – and in doing so dip into your pocket.        

"Or they'll brush against you in a crowd to feel where your wallet is. Back pockets and loose and gaping front pockets are easy targets – the safest place for valuables is a small pouch that hangs from your belt and inside your pants, or from a string around your neck and under your shirt or blouse," Arno says.

"Carry minimum cash and spread it around your pockets and pouch, and if you need to carry passport identification, carry only a photocopy of the relevant pages…. And beware thieves who take-off with laptops in hotel restaurants while you're filling your plate at the buffet."

For more tips on how to travel safely, visit Bob Arno's website www.thiefhunters.com

                                                    ……………………

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] OH so easy: Bob Arno shows how easily it's done during an "accidental" bump in the back.

[] A COUPLE of deft fingers and a wallet sticking carelessly out of a back pocket is gone in seconds.

[] ALL in a day's work – Bob Arno with what a good pickpocket can get away with on a successful day.

(All images courtesy Bob Arno)

December 02, 2015

Chopin and Party Time in Majorca

CHOPIN and his mistress Aurore Dupin painted by their friend, French artist Eugene Delacroix. Persons unknown ultimately cut the original in half and sold each "portrait" separately; this is a Photoshop of how the original would most likely have looked. (Wikimedia)
VALLDEMOSSA outside Palma where Chopin lived
and worked for a year in a former monastery-cum-hotel. (Wikimedia)
THE Valldemossa monastery/hotel is now the Chopin and
George Sands Museum with items from the time of their stay –
although not this piano which was purchased after Chopin had left.
 (Wikimedia)
PALMA's grand Cathedral of Santa Maria has towered over
the local harbour since the early 1600s. (Helen Read)
MAJORCA WEDS PARTY CENTRAL AND CHOPIN

David Ellis
with
Malcolm Andrews

THERE'S no escaping it: to the majority of the 12.25 million who invade the place every year, the tiny Mediterranean island of Majorca off Spain's southern coast, is Party Central.

For here on this little blob that would fit into mainland Tasmania some 18 times over, and where all those visitors outnumber the locals by more than 12-to-1, the capital Palma de Majorca is crammed with 24 hour hip bars and cafés whose operators don't believe in Happy Hours – to them their customers come here for Happy Days

And this means carousing around the clock and, for some bizarre reason in a place where the local cuisine can be amongst the most-tempting in Europe, frequenting countless cafés that boast not wonderful Spanish temptations, but 24hr  'English Breakfast' – eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans, hash browns, toast, and more, all fried-up in copious amounts of sizzling fat any time you want.

Crowding around tables and tucking into these grease bombs you'll find Germans (3.4 million last year,) Brits (2.25m,) Scandinavians (340,000) and others in their equally hundreds of thousands from across Europe, and to a lesser-extent other parts of the world.

Yet there are thousands of others come to Majorca for a very different and certainly quieter reason. And that's to pay homage to one of the greatest classical composers of all time, the Polish-born Frédéric Chopin who spent less than a year on the island, but whose influence on local life in that short time remains indelibly etched 177 years later.

PLAYTHINGS of the rich and famous fill Palma harbour,
attracted by 300 days of sunshine a year. (Helen Read)        
The 28-year-old Chopin, wracked with tuberculosis, arrived during the winter of 1838-39 with his mistress, the French, somewhat-Bohemian, cigar-smoking, male-dressing author Aurore Dupin, who published under the pseudonym George Sands.

They'd chosen Mallorca with its 300 days of sunshine a year to escape the freezing conditions of winter in Paris where they lived, and after finding lodgings in a suite of former monks' cells in an old monastery-cum-hotel at Valldemossa 20km outside Palma, Chopin wrote to friends back home: "A sky like turquoise, a sea like lapis lazuli, mountains like emerald, air like heaven…"

But one of Majorca's most brutal-ever winter's bore down upon them, and after seeing several doctors for his deteriorating condition, Chopin wrote again on December 3: "Three doctors have visited me. The first said I was going to die; the second said I was breathing my last; and the third said I was dead already."

But he continued to produce some of his finest compositions, including Prelude in D-flat major that later was appropriately re-titled Raindrop (Chopin never named any of his works, giving just the genre and number of each composition, with devotees after his death giving suitable word-titles to his scores of pieces.)

Today, an annual Chopin Festival every August is centred on that old monastery-hotel in which he'd spent that short time in 1838-39 and which is now a Chopin/Sands Museum… visitors to the Festival, and any other time to the museum, able to see the rooms in which he stayed with Sands (and her two children,) some of his original furniture, rare photos, and his extensive and much-loved garden.

And while in Palma an also must-visit is the Cathedral of Santa Maria (also known as Le Seu) that is one of the tallest churches in the world, its 45m high central nave just 1m lower than that of the Vatican's St Peter's.

Interestingly the cathedral, that was begun in 1229 but not completed until 1601, sits atop the site of a former mosque, and which in turn was developed over the remains of an even earlier Roman temple.

The cathedral overlooks Palma's harbour that plays host to a drool-over collection of mega motor-yacht playthings of the super-rich and famous, and daily visiting cruise ships.

And also on your must-visit list should be Palma Old Town that's the city's historical centre, and where motor vehicles are forbidden so that pedestrians can safely amble it's pretty squares and courtyards, the narrow yester-year laneways, and admire the Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic architecture…

And take a quieter coffee or meal away from the more frenetic waterfront area with its 24hr Majorca Party Central and fried-up English Breakfasts.

(Frédéric Chopin died at home in Paris in October 1849 during a tuberculosis coughing fit; he was just 39.)

Struth! Charging into Southern Highlands



IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in this world, David Ellis says that while Australians may not yet be taking as enthusiastically as some other nations to the concept of electric cars – Britain's Aston Martin is even developing an electric version of James Bond's favourite 4-door Rapide – there's one popular NSW regional centre believes it's jumped the gun on many others with a just-opened electric vehicle (EV) recharge facility at its local visitors' centre.

The Southern Highlands, embracing Bowral, Mittagong, Moss Vale, Berrima, Bundanoon, Exeter and surrounding villages, is already one of the State's most-visited tourism regions with wineries, gardens, antique and boutique shopping, abundantly diverse dining, galleries, history and heritage, caves and bushwalking.

And at under 1.5hs south of Sydney it attracts 1.4m visitors a year. "Being just 113km south of Sydney's CBD, and with most EVs having a driving range of up to 170kms, we're easily accessible for a day, a weekend, or longer to enjoy all we have to offer here," said Southern Highlands tourism chief, Steve Rosa.

"Plus with Goulburn having a recharger suitable for owners of the major Tesla brand electric vehicles, that can also recharge at our facility, we see ourselves as a-now focal attraction on a developing 'electric highway' from Sydney to Canberra."

The Mittagong recharger can service two EVs simultaneously, and is compatible with 58 of the 60 known EV and plug-in hybrid vehicle models in Australia, with the other two able to access with an adapter.

For more information about the Southern Highlands' EV recharger, and things to do and places to visit locally, check out   www.southern-highlands.com.au

FOOTNOTE: The Aston Martin Rapide that's currently being developed in England will have a range of 300km on one battery charge, and will boast all the performance and agility of the present V12 petrol engine model favoured by James Bond. It is planned for release at the end of 2017 at an estimated BP128,000 (AU$268,000.)


PHOTO CAPTIONS:



[] CHARGE it! The NSW Southern Highlands now have an electric vehicle recharge facility, giving an 'electric highway' from Sydney to Canberra for select model EVs. (Image: Southern Highlands' Visitors Welcome Centre)

[] JAMES BOND would love this: England's Aston Martin is developing an electric version of the super-hero's favourite Rapide that will have all the performance of its V12 petrol engine model – and a battery range of 300km. (Image: Aston Martin)