May 30, 2015

Struth! Joan Crawford and her six metre Cadillac


IN his continuing search for the world's more weird, wacky and wondrous, David Ellis says Hollywood star Joan Crawford liked to reflect her growing screen success by flaunting it with the cars she owned.


Beginning her movie career with bit roles in 1925 when flicks were still "silent," it wasn't until 1929 she got a speaking role starring in an early "sound" movie called Untamed – and went out and bought a 1929 Model A Ford to celebrate.


But she soon moved on from that, although when the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, to be seen as doing the right thing Joan Crawford did her part by sacking her chauffeur and driving herself – albeit her car by then was a Cadillac convertible - to show her prudence in tough times.


By 1933, with the Recession largely over, and having acquired a love of the Cadillac make, she had a gas-guzzling V16 engine Cadillac Town Car custom-built for her, while also picking up a 1933 Ford Roadster as a wind-in-your-hair plaything on the side – one of several roadsters she owned over the years.


Joan Crawford often had a second or third car in the garage, with her biggest chariot a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham Sixty Special that weighed-in at 2.3 tonnes and was 5.8m long (19 feet.)


Joan Crawford died in 1977 aged 72, and her big Caddy went on to become a sought-after collector's item, changing hands several times at auctions and car fairs.

It is said to be owned by a Los Angeles Cadillac devotee today.






[] JOAN Crawford celebrated the move from "silent" to "sound" movies and her role

    in Untamed, by buying this 1929 Model A Ford – she later went on to marry

   Douglas Fairbanks Jnr she's seen with here.

[] HER 1932 Cadillac convertible: to be seen doing the right thing during the

   Depression, Joan Crawford sacked her chauffeur and drove herself.

[] WITH the Depression over she had this 1933 V16 engine Cadillac Town Car

   custom-built for her.

[] HER biggest plaything, a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham Sixty Special that

   weighed-in at 2.3 tonnes and was 5.8m (19 feet) long.


(Images: Fans of Joan Club)


Mauritius Mourns the Dodo



david ellis


A SIGN outside a building in Port Louis on Mauritius had us wondering, proclaiming proudly: "We glue broken Virgins."


Thankfully, and to our relief, it turned out to be a repair shop for spiritual statues…


And down the road, a plaque below a statue of Queen Victoria read: "To the Memory of Our Beloved and Much Regretted Queen Victoria."


That something can get a little confused in translation on this tiny dot in the middle of the Indian Ocean probably isn't surprising. It's been handed down through the Dutch, the French, and the British, and is today populated by descendants of all of these as well as Indians, Singaporeans, Malays, Thais, Chinese and Africans. Plus probably a few we missed on a visit to this almost-secret paradise.


And we suspect some possible Aussie unionist initiative at one stage in the island's cultural affairs: with its eclectic mix of religions – Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims – it was once decided that in the spirit of multi-culturalism, everyone could celebrate each other's religious festivals' public holidays.


It reached the point where so many people were taking so much of the week off work, that the government finally put a stop to it before the place went broke.


The Dutch were the first Europeans to occupy Mauritius, in 1598 establishing a base to protect their precious spice ships on the run from the East Indies. And needing fresh food, they turned to the flightless Dodo bird, that scaling-in at around 20kg gave an easy and much-needed meat supply – never having previously had a predator, the poor old Dodos just standing there looking up the barrels of their attackers.


Within a few years almost the entire population of tens of thousands of the birds had been shot out, and those not shot fell victim to domestic and farm animals the Dutch had brought with them.


Every last one of them gone. Dead as Dodos.


The Dutch walked out of Mauritius in the early 1700s and fourteen years later the French moved in, bringing slaves from Africa to work their sugar plantations that flourished in the ideal tropical climate. But in 1814 Britain seized the island from the French, abolished slavery in favour of indentured labour from India, and eventually in1968 gave the country its independence.


Today its remarkable blend of ethnicities has resulted in a population of around 1.3m who speak the indigenous Creole (a sort of Pidgin French with bits of English, Hindi and a few African dialects tossed in for good measure.)


And for holidaymakers its almost heaven in the making: kilometre after kilometre of powdery white-sand beaches, warm electric-blue waters and bountiful water-sports off magnificent resorts, and such fascinating places to visit as tea plantations with their colonial-era mansions dating back over 200 years, a Crocodile and Giant Tortoises Park, a wonderful aquarium, Sugar Museum and Factory, rum distilleries… and for the more-active exceptional mountain walks, while fishing's out of this world.


And a cuisine that's a paradise of French, African, Indian, Chinese and spicy Dutch.


Take your pick from stunning street stalls, restaurants, hotels and resorts, all places where the most-wondrous meat and seafood creations are often served with a tasty sauce called rougaille that's made with tomatoes, onions, garlic and chillies… and with influences of cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric and cloves.


Crayfish, shrimps and crabs come big on menus too, and try the fried octopus that's been marinated in mustard seeds, chilli, garlic, oil and vinegar, and is eaten with rice, pickles and dahl.


And curries that unusually can include octopus and duck, while Chinese restaurants are big on an equally unusual crispy squid, and "spring rolls" that are fried in a flour batter rather than the thin wrapper we know.


Or if you are not all that adventurous, go for restaurants offering such delights as shrimp and sweet potato cakes, lamb casseroles with garlic mashed potatoes,  chicken breast stuffed with wild rice and pecans… and to finish, French-influenced tarts, pastries, cakes and shortbread, or abundant tropical fruits.


And then there's rum, that's been made here since the Dutch dabbled with it as far back as the early 1600s, and the French and British more so from the mid-1850s.


For information about holidaying in Mauritius, contact  Mauritius Attractions on





[] ALMOST heaven in the making: Mauritius abounds with much to captivate the

   holidaymaker, including beachside resorts like the luxury Shanti Maurice.

   (Shanti Maurice Resort)

[] QUEEN Victoria – beloved but "much regretted" if you can believe the inscription.


[] PORT Louis' busy Central Market is an Aladdin's Cave that's a must-visit on a

   Mauritius holiday. (Mauritius Attractions)

[] THE market dates back to 1844 and is today heritage-listed.


[] JAY is a 4th generation Mauritian herbalist whose family is almost an institution at

    the Market. (Air Mauritius)

[] THE Dutch first dabbled with making rum on Mauritius in the early 1600s, but the

   British and French got serious about it in the mid-1850s; the Rhumerie de

   Chamarel is a major maker today. (Rhumerie de Chamarel)




May 26, 2015

Blitzing Belgrade - Sixty minutes in the Serbian capital

View of Belgrade and Danube River
WWII tanks outside military museum in Belgrade
Artillery display outside military museum in Belgrade
Downtown Belgrade

#RailEurope Challenge - 23-27 May 2015

Arriving in Belgrade at dawn was just a bit more cheerful than Sofia in the middle of the day, but still grey and drizzly. There was a Vienna train sitting on the platform leaving in about an hour, so I booked it. First Class day train via Budapest, arriving about dinner time.

The touts were up early and one could see my moment of indecision and latched on.

"Where you go? I take you hotel, airport, sightsee," he said enthusiastically while I winced. At least was better dressed than the dishevelled hermits hovering around Central Station in Sofia.

After a few minutes ping-ponging glances and gestures, I decided to take his proposed lightning tour of Belgrade.

"I have 20 euro, that's it," I relented, knowing I won't be in Belgrade again any time soon.

"Ok, good, my name is Zoran," he said in reasonable English, "I am taxi driver in Belgrade 30 years."

And my luggage was packed into the trunk of his sparkling Mercedes and away we went into the surprisingly light morning traffic. A good start, I thought, and the conversation flowed.

Belgrade Fortress
We made a beeline for the old fort on the hill overlooking the river and city where the remains of a Sunday festival were being blown about. The old fort, or at least parts of it, where around since 1450 with numerous modernisations done over the centuries.
A substantial military museum is housed in one portion of the fort, closed at 7am, but with numerous artillery pieces and tanks displayed in the yard including some quite rare items like a Panzer I and II from pre-war Germany. More German, Soviet and Allied tanks made up the balance.
Railway destination board on train carriage
After a quick detour through the city centre, Zoran announces," on the left, coming up, you can see remains from the war."

Sure enough, there in the middle of the city, a massive charred bite has been taken out of the upper corner of a high rise block, leaving a deep blackened scar in the structure. A similarly mangled building is adjacent. While Belgrade was not heavily bombed during the Serbian wars of the '90s, these two modern ruins are a salient reminder of the deadly tensions prevailing around that time.
Zoran and his cab

My Vienna train is now beckoning and the station is just at the end of the road and I'm pleased with my short premium tour of this city.

"Now," Zoran says abruptly, "you must pay me more ..." Argh!

Goodbye Belgrade, nice to meet you too.

Reminders of the 1999 NATO bombing

May 11, 2015

Elvis Loves Peanut Butter



David Ellis


IN case you didn't know it, Elvis Presley's favourite snack was a peanut butter sandwich loaded with fried bacon, bananas and honey, and pan fried.


Jerry Seinfeld still loves a bagel today, split, toasted and topped with peanut butter and honey and cinnamon, and for Lee Zalben culinary heaven is a sandwich of peanut butter smothered with bread and butter pickles…


OK we're cool with Elvis and Jerry, but Lee Zalben? Unless you're a New Yorker, or an American from elsewhere with a passion for peanut butter, you've most likely never heard of Mr Zalben. But all that is a-changing, for the fame of America's revered "Peanut Butter Guy" is now (if you'll excuse the pun) fast spreading across next-door Canada and further afield through the UK, Japan and Hong Kong…


Mr Zalben has had a love affair with peanut butter since a toddler, his Mum even resorting to giving him his own container of the stuff after growing tired of finding the family's jar with a primary schooler's finger marks gouged across the contents.


At school and later college he would captivate classmates with the most outrageous sandwich combinations, winning their admiration with such concoctions as one early effort he made for them with peanut butter, carob chips, dried apricots and orange marmalade.


Today that seems pretty bland fare as he makes a living creating taste sensations using peanut butter whipped, stirred, blended or spread with anything from jams to chocolates, Nutella to cream cheese, spicy Thai sauces, with bacon, on celery sticks, dipped in honey or on apple slices, topped with coconut, or whipped into chocolate brownies, parfaits, pretzels, ice-creams, sundaes… and smeared with celery salt and paprika over the Christmas turkey.


When he left school in Philadelphia, Lee Zalben moved to New York City and got a well-paying job in magazine publishing – but never lost his passion for peanut butter, and all the mouth-watering things he fantasised about creating with it.


He also began dreaming of owning a store that would sell those creations, and one day in 1998 in Greenwich Village came upon a boarded-up shop with a For Sale sign on it.


Next day, still in his mid-20s, he walked into the publishing house where he worked and resigned on the spot, went to the real estate office and put a deposit on the boarded-up shop in Greenwich Village, and then went to the bank and wangled a $150,000 loan.


In the days that followed he registered the business name Peanut Butter & Co, turned the forlorn-looking Greenwich Village store into a smart-looking sandwich shop, and set about going into the fast-food business… with, until then, his only experience in the industry being some casual work as a teenager in a frozen yoghurt shop.


And when he finally opened the doors of his sandwich shop, he trumpeted loud about his extra-special sandwich, The Elvis with all The King's favourite ingredients. Intrigued buyers flocked in – numbers helped by the fact the New York University was just down the road. Within days Lee and a couple of staff were making hundreds of Elvises a day.


He took on more staff and put his thoughts to other exotic sandwich creations: The Pregnant Lady (peanut butter and pickles,) The Heat is On (peanut butter and spicy Thai sauce,) Black & Tan (peanut butter with chocolate syrup,) a peanut butter topped BLT, Jerry Seinfeld's bagel with PB, honey and cinnamon, Mighty Maple with crispy bacon and maple sauce, and The Bee's Knees with honey


And for good measure peanut butter with white or dark chocolate, cream cheese and apple slices, even one topped with Marshmallow Fluff, a peanut butter and chocolate dessert pie, peanut butter infused cookies and brownies, waffles and sundaes… specialty peanut butter 'shakes and smoothies, and a baked sweet potato topped with PB and jam.


Not content, he bought a factory to make and bottle his own products, and today sells 4,000,000 jars a year of ten different peanut butter blends through 15,000 supermarkets in America and Canada, as well as in the UK, Japan and Hong Kong, and online here through


And he's found time in-between to write a peanut butter cookbook.


Not bad for a bloke still just 42 years of age.






[] "THE Peanut Butter Guy," Lee Zalben has been hooked on the stuff since a

   toddler – stuffed into sandwiches, pies, cookies, waffles, sundaes and shakes.

[] ELVIS' favourite snack – a peanut butter sandwich loaded with fried bacon,

   bananas and  honey, and pan fried.

[] DESSERT with a difference: peanut butter and apple pie, with chocolate

   topping as an option.

[] LEE Zalben's Peanut Butter & Co factory now makes ten varieties of peanut

   butter blends, with sales of 4,000,000 jars a year.

(All images Peanut Butter& Co)


May 04, 2015

Struth! Yukon Gold Rush survival guide

CRUEL Chilkoot Pass from Dyea in Alaska to Canada's Bennett Lake –
to build up supplies for a year in the wilderness, some Yukon Gold Rush
miners made the 100km round trip over a dozen times, including
backpacking-in wood-fired steel stoves. (Wikipedia)
IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says that when gold was found in Canada's Yukon Territory in 1896, thousands of hopefuls swarmed to the area with just one thing in mind – get in, get rich and get out.

But with initially few trading stores around, the government soon found itself bailing out those who'd run out of food and other supplies while on their quest for riches. So it decreed that every miner entering Canada had to have enough food, clothing and tools to last them an entire year.

And while they could get those supplies to the Alaskan port of Dyea relatively easily, they then had to backpack them 50km to Canada's mountainous Bennett Lake, and from there by row-boat to the site of the Gold Rush – some making over a dozen of those 100km round-trips before even starting digging.

To help, the Northern Pacific Railroad published a recommended survival list for a year in the Yukon. It included thirty tools for mining and construction, tents, mosquito nets, axes, ropes, enough fleecy clothing, Long Johns and oilskins to counter the harshest winters, rifles for hunting and rods for fishing, candles, and cooking and eating utensils.

Food-wise it suggested 800kg of staples from flour, rice, yeast cakes and bacon, to dried fruits and vegetables, salt, sugar, condensed milk, tea and coffee.

And for good measure, recommended lugging-in a wood-fired steel stove to cook it all on.

Send a letter by Pony Express

David Ellis

ALTHOUGH William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell were already well into the transport business with 3,500 wagons and stage coaches,  40,000 oxen to haul them, and with somewhere around 4,000 men on their payroll, they came up with an idea in 1860 for yet another money-making venture.

And an advertisement they placed in a St Joseph, Missouri newspaper in America's Midwest for adventurous youngsters to sign up to their new scheme, contained a most eye-opening clause.

For the ad read "WANTED: young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week" and gave a St Joseph address at which to apply.

And the reason for "Orphans Preferred," was because they didn't want angry mums and dads bothering them if their sons died in the line of duty.

But despite the forebodings, apply youngsters did, and in their hundreds – for the job offered obvious outdoors adventure, and $25 a week (about AU$765 today) was an absolute fortune at a time when unskilled labourers and farmhands were lucky to earn $1 a day.

Russell, Majors and Waddell registered their new company as the Central Overland Express, advertising that it would offer a "speedy" 10-days for letters, newspapers and small packages to be delivered some 3,100km between St Joseph and Sacramento in California.

And because it would be by horse-back, it quickly became known simply as The Pony Express.

The men hand-chose 400 horses, built some 190 small relay stations, leased larger buildings for home stations along their route, and hired 120 riders – who at an average 45kg, were more like racing jockeys than those expected to face long hours in the saddle in sun or snow, and to fight-off attacks by unfriendly Indians and less-savoury other travellers.

Russell, Majors and Waddell dreamed-up their new venture to cater to the rapidly bourgeoning population that followed the discovery of gold in California in 1848.  A population that came largely from America's East, and which was reliant on mail, newspapers, parcels, freight and household items coming by lumbering stage coaches that could take weeks to cross from one side of America to the other.

Because St Joseph was already well-connected to much of the country's east by numerous railroads and stage lines, the Pony Express would collate its mail and start from there, travelling through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada, including across the Nevada Desert and conversely the high snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains, to Sacramento.

From there the mail could then be quickly distributed by coach and wagon along roads that in 1860 now fanned out to reach a California population of over 380,000.

Young riders were given a revolver, rifle, waterbag and Bible, and made to take a bizarre oath that they would abstain from swearing, drinking alcohol and quarrelling with fellow employees while on the job…

And they were required to gallop their horses non-stop for roughly 16kms between relay stations, change mounts at up to seven of these, and finally after around 120km by day or night get some well-earned rest at home stations while someone else urged fresh horses onwards with their precious mail pouches.

The pouches, called mochilas, were like a second saddle with four pockets into which a-near 10kg of mail and small parcels were packed, and were simply thrown across the horse's regular saddle and kept in place by the rider's weight. Customers initially paid a whopping US$5 per ½ ounce an item (14gm,) although this eventually dropped to $1 (about AU$30 today.)

Amongst earliest Pony Express riders was "Buffalo Bill" Cody who enlisted at 14 years of age, and later went on to serve in the Civil War, become an Indian scout, travelling showman, and ultimately own his own Wild West Show.

Many Pony Express riders reported doing up to 20 hours in the saddle at a time in extremes of heat and cold, some told of leading their horses through metre-deep snow for days in winter, others were killed in conflicts between Indians and white settlers, and yet others died in riding accidents.

But although the mail always got through, the Pony Express lasted a mere year and a half, killed off by the coming of the instant trans-continental Electric Telegraph in 1861.


[] ORIGINAL advertisement for adventurous young riders for America's Pony
   Express. (Civil War Daily)
[] SOME of the earliest Pony Express riders. (WikiMedia)
[] "BUFFALO BILL" Cody (right) was a Pony Express rider at just 14 years of age;
   the monument now stands outside the Pony Express Museum in St Joseph,
   Missouri. (Pony Express Museum)
[] HOLLENBERG home station in Kansas; at these home stations riders could get
   some well-earned sleep after 120km and up to 20 hours in the saddle. (Pony
   Express Museum)
[] REMAINS of a Pony Express relay station in Nevada's Ruby Valley; riders
   simply changed horses at these and rode on. (Pony Express Museum)
[] THE 'mochila' saddle that sat across the horse's normal saddle and had four
   pockets for carrying 10kg of mail, small parcels and newspapers. (WikiMedia)

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