Sunday, 15 January 2012

A number of people have tried but been unable either to "follow" the fascinating blog of my travels , or post comments, or see more than 3 of my 29 (29!) postings.

"A number of people" I imagine you scoffing cynically. "A number of people", I repeat doggedly in the face of your cynicism. Well? One is a number isn't it? Nay, in my fumbling attempts at humour I do myself an injustice. A significant number of people have made one or more of the above complaints.

This is entirely the fault of Google and their henchpersons referred to earlier in my blog. Incompetent ninnies.

Seeking to get to the bottom of this, and possibly a bit of titillation, I myself tried both to comment upon and follow another blog published on blogspot. That of Peter ("Lord") Wilson, a notorious City rake. If you're interested, it is It's about killing things. Have a look.

Now, I am as computer-savvy* as the next 60 year-old luddite, but I will be damned (Sir) if I could get it to work. And it is not only I. Peter brought in the big guns in the shape of his 14 year-old boy. Ha! If a 14 year-old can't figure it out nobody can. So there. I had been feeling down, disillusioned, despondent, disheartened, depressed and demoralised at the absence of any but a few comments, and any but one "follower". But now I have a new spring in my step, and (in the immortal words of Arthur Freed who put them into the mouth of Gene Kelly) a song in my heart, and (as he went on) I am ready for love.

But, and here is the rub, Michelle my Canadian travelling companion has succeeded both to follow and to comment. On the other hand she is both young and a recognised genius. That last bit is true, even if it is only recognised by me. On yet another hand, she is a North American - but then (in the immortal words of Joe E. Brown in Some Like it Hot, when he found that his fiancee was in fact a man played by Jack Lemmon) nobody is perfect. Apart of course from the wives of any man still reading this rambling drivel.

On the subject of Michelle I might add, in response to her specific request, that she is in fact 3 inches taller and 30 pounds lighter than she actually is in real life.

To the first and second of the above complaints (remember them? I do realise it was some time ago) I have no answer. To the third it is only necessary to go to the foot of the first page, click on "Older Posts" and keep clicking until you get back to Cairo. Duh. Do not (I repeat do not) attempt to read them in reverse order. Marek did so and it seems to have done strange things to his head.

Adieu, as I often say in my facteurp (see earlier postings) French.

Chris (don't miss the P.S)

* P.S. And why (a number of people have asked me) are there no photos on my blog? Just because. OK?

Gieves and Hawkes in the Simien mountains.

We arrived at the grimly poor town of Debark, our base for hiking in the Simien mountains. The altitude is 2,800 metres (9,250 feet), which is 400 metres higher than the highest ski resort in the Alps. It's cold and the grinding poverty is palpable. I don't know what they eat here, but there is nothing to speak of in the grey and dirty market except for onions and cookware made from beaten-out oil drums, spread out in heaps on the muddy ground and ineffectually protected from the elements by rudimentary structures of eucalyptus poles and ragged flapping plastic. Everything is dusty and grimy including the ragged barefoot children, but I fancied the atmosphere was one of determination rather than despair. One man's entire business seemed to be trying to sell one pair of second-hand trainers, but at least he wasn't begging.

But still wherever we go people wave, blow kisses, kiss their thumbs and race the truck in bare feet at altitudes where just walking leaves some of our party breathless.

These mountains are really something. Unfeasibly large sheer-sided rocks, waves, corrugations, egg-box patterns, dizzying drops and vast walls of rock filling one's entire field of vision.

Here the mule outdoes the Hi-lux as the chief mode of transport. I tried riding one. It was a bit like trying to have a conversation with a profoundly deaf person or, better, an autistic child (in this context I will make no mention of Marek - who, having now read my attempts to make him famous, has become uncaharacteristically taciturn with me. He'll come round, I know he loves me). I tried riding a horse too – an ancient pack animal with no teeth. My sympathy that such a poor old creature was still in harness was tempered by the consideration that in most other countries she would have been dog meat years ago. At least here she still had some commercial value. Her tack was made from string and bent wire. This old lady had made love to so many donkeys that she was bow-legged and probably thought of herself as a mule. She certainly behaved like one.

The truck is very inefficient at these altitudes which, combined with the many steep inclines, gives us plenty of time to marvel at the panoramas which greet us at every hairpin turn. We spent two nights camping in the Simien mountains. At the first site, a late-arriving group of tourists made the mistake of asking Marek to move his tent so they could pitch theirs in a neat group. I could have warned them not to mess with a Pole who had just finished a long struggle with aluminium and canvas in less than hospitable conditions.

The second camp was at 3,600 metres, over 12,000 feet. This is now 50% higher than Val Thorens and above the height at which it is a disciplinary offence in the RAF not to use oxygen in unpressurised aircraft. It was miserably cold from the moment the sun set, and it froze hard overnight. Most of us were equipped for the desert and had not expected such conditions in Africa. Even fully-dressed and with a borrowed blanket and knitted hat to supplement my lightweight sleeping bag, I was awake all night with the cold. I have already told you (several postings back) how Marek greeted the dawn.

In order to trek in these mountains our group of 18 had to have 2 guides and 3 armed scouts. My group set off for a peak at 4,400 metres (over 14,500 feet) but the pace proved too much for a 60 year-old former wage slave. Apparently my maximum safe heart rate is 160. Thinking I might be overdoing things I stopped to check – 176. From then on I made regular stops and saw the rest of the group gradually disappear ahead of and above me. I was still a few (OK, a lot of) metres short of the top when I met them coming down, and silently affected a pained expression and a severe limp as a possible justification for my performance. All a bit embarrassing for a newly-qualified ski instructor who had been (very subtly) bragging about his familiarity with high altitudes.

It didn't seem to faze Pierre though, and he's a year older than me – but then he's always been a clean-living man. Not only that but let me tell of one of the scouts, who hung back to keep me company. During one of our breathless conversations (I refer to myself only, his conversation was annoyingly breathful) without more than a few words in common, he communicated to me that we were both born in the same month and year. Smug bastard (forgive that remark, it was only made for effect, he was lovely guy and shared his modest rations with me). I was dressed in full safari gear and butch-looking hiking boots bought only recently at Black's Leisure - in both Chiswick High Road and their sale. I also carried an avalanche probe - not that there was any snow, but because I thought it gave me a rather professional panache, as well as something to lean on. He, on the other hand, was dressed in plastic sandals without socks and, rather improbably you may think, a two piece pin-striped City suit. This is the gospel truth. I didn't embarrass him by asking to see the label but, although ill-fitting and very worn, it was well-made and elegantly cut. It could well have been Gieves & Hawkes. I really should have asked him to show me that label, it would have made a much better story - damn. All in all, as you will have gathered, I felt a bit of a twat.

Fear ye not, there is more self-pitying bleating to come.


Thursday, 5 January 2012

Poor and meaningless content?

Google and their henchpersons have rejected my blog as a medium for their advertising. Here's why:

"It's our goal to provide our advertisers sites that offer rich and meaningful content . . . . . We believe that currently your site does not fulfill this criteria".

This criteria? This bloody criteria? I would accept "These criteria", or even "This criterion" but not sheer bloody illiteracy. Why is there never a pedantic Polish grammarian around when you need one? And why is there no bloody preposition before "our advertisers"? And why don't they learn to spell "fulfil" properly?

They go on to say: "Your site does not comply with Google AdSense policies or webmaster quality guidelines." OK . . . well . . . now . . . . I might have to concede that one. I may have been a little desensitised to profane language as a result of the company I have been keeping. But it's still a load of fucking bullshit - simply speaking - for example - et cetera, et cetera.

So if you want to give something to Susan Aitchison to get bright Ethiopian kids off the streets and into university, you're going to have to put your hands in your pockets and get in touch with me. Seriously, if you are looking for something to do with your undeserved wonga, and if you want to see exactly who it goes to, and exactly how it changes their desperate life chances, and exactly how it will help improve the economy of a shit-poor country, and if you want to know that every single penny ends up in the kids' empty hands - give it a go.

You're not going to live forever, you'll probably die with money in the Bank, and if there's an afterlife you may be struggling to find some good deeds you can lay claim to when you reach the pearly gates (the gates of heaven that is, not the gates of Purley). When the recording angel looks in the direction of your trembling pointing finger and sees an Ethiopian doctor doing something marvellous, who otherwise would have been cleaning shoes and probably dying in the gutter - he's going to look at you and break into a radiant smile and clasp you to his bosom.

Where else can you get all of that for a few paltry quid? There are no tax breaks yet, but it should get UK charity status soon. If not, in the immortal words of Victor Kiam (google him if you're under 50, or some sort of foreign Johnny), I'll give you your money back. I wonder if he's wishing he had done a bit more for his fellow man while he had the chance. Too late now Victor me old mate.


Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Ethiopia from scratch (omitting the stuff I've already bored on about)

Let's wind back to the day we crossed from Sudan into Ethiopia. And get some sense and order into this thing.

But first a brief Marek-style digression:

- this load of old cobblers has had 2478 hits so far - from 17 countries. Please keep looking in, and clicking on the ads (if and when they ever pop up). Some Ethiopian kids will be grateful, and you will encourage me to keep on spouting. A double whammy at no cost to you!

- Marek saw an early draft of this posting. His first comment: "Nothing special" (what did I care?). His second: "This is bullshit - simply speaking" (I cared even less). His third: "Why do you make so many grammatical mistakes?" (that gave me pause for thought - English is his 5th language). Finally: "I am giving this work a school grade of F. F for fucked-up". There you go, the 6 week delay in this posting is his fault for shaking my confidence. See if you can find any grammatical errors now you Polish whotsit. Apart from the deliberate ones of course. (You see, that last sentence did not contain a verb. That was deliberate - it's obvious to anyone but a grammatical nazi).

- Pierre asked me "What means this word Marek say 1,000 times a day"
"What word?"
"It sound like '. . . facteurp . . .' he say it all the time" Have you got it yet? Click on an ad to celebrate (if you can see any yet).

Right, back to business.

Crossing from Sudan to into Ethiopia was an experience I want to record before it is lost forever to my failing memory. We spent an inordinate amount of time at the border in dust and heat before we were able to leave Sudan. The Sudanese bureaucracy is Kafkaesque. Apart from a visa and a police registration certificate, I now have 8 Sudanese stamps in my passport. Once through all that we had to endure the Ethiopian immigration formalities. Much less taxing, but time-consuming all the same. It was strange to be in a typically African temporary “building” in a desert frontier station, but with the most sophisticated electronic identity-checking equipment I have yet encountered.

You'll think I'm exaggerating, but really there is no need to exaggerate when describing the Ethiopian landscape. Within 15 minutes of crossing the border, we passed from desert to rolling green countryside reminiscent of Cornwall. It conjured up the moment in the Wizard of Oz when the picture changes from monochrome to Technicolour©. I suppose it is no coincidence that the ancient Ethiopians struck their boundaries where the topography changed from fertile agricultural land to worthless desert. That was before anybody cared much about oil. As we climbed into the mountains, the landscape changed from Cornwall through Scotland to the Alps.

Ethiopia has produced many of the world's fastest runners. Altitude must be a factor, developing the hearts and lungs of people, particularly those whose lifestyle involves hard physical activity – viz. everybody. Again and again barefoot boys raced the truck and were easily able to keep up with us for long distances - or even pass us on some stretches.

I have to say it again. Nice people. Children run to the side of the road to greet or gawp at us as we pass. Everybody smiles delightedly, or waves or kisses their thumbs at us- a big old dirty British truck a long way from home.

After a month in Arab countries, and despite the almost shockingly green landscape and cool climate, this is real Africa at last. Women with loads on their heads, naked children driving bony cattle, woollen cloaks over bare legs, ragged clothing which is indefinably African and that constant feature of real black Africa – people walking. In the middle of nowhere, walking, walking, walking.

Our first base in Ethiopia was the mountain town of Gonder, once the seat of Royalty and fabulously-rich but now rather the opposite. It's a nice enough place though, situated in a bowl at over 2,200 metres. Nestling is probably the right word. There's a lot of ancient stuff – ruined palaces and fortifications – and one church spared by invading Muslims when they occupied the town centuries ago. You can google them if you want – I won't.

The sharp contrasts with Sudan were not finished though. Suddenly thunder cracked and a huge downpour ensued. We can all probably remember the greatest deluges we have experienced. This came third on my personal scale, and I have been on the planet for 60 years. And here comes the cliché: it was lashing down. But the really big deal was that only that morning, not far down the road, we had been kicking our heels in the arid heat and dust of a squalid Sudanese desert town.

It was actually cold here. So much so that an open fire was lit for us in the bar of our hotel as we congregated for our first beers for a long while. This being Africa, there was no nonsense with kindling or firelighters. A liberal application of diesel and some plastic bottles produced a blazing fire in seconds.

Down in the town, I engaged the services of a shoe shine boy. We agreed a price of 10 Birr (40 pence). Job done, he demanded 40 Birr insisting that he had quoted 20 Birr . . . . per shoe! Either, times being hard, his normal clientele can only afford to have one shoe shone at a time, or there are a lot of one-legged men here. I had intended to pay him 20 birr in any event, but in the circumstances he got 10. I doubt I will be hearing from his lawyer.

The next amusing little scam went like this:
- A boy approached offering a SIM card for about 6 quid. The normal price is nearer 2, but you have to find a telecoms office, bring your passport, 2 photos and a completed application form whilst the counter clerk takes private phone calls, converses with other customers, argues with his boss, fiddles with the aircon control, switches off his brain as a blond western woman in shorts walks past the window, and other T.I.A. delaying tactics.
- It was evening and the kid's proposal would save me a lot of time and hassle the following day, so I agreed on the basis that he first installed it and showed me it was working.
- He did, making great play of breaking it out of the backing card. I paid him and the transaction was complete.

Next day I started getting text messages from a Scandinavian lady. I don't understand Swedish (if that's what it was) but some of the words were international – if you know what I mean. At first I took this as an expression of anger, but smiley faces and closer reading suggested that she was communicating deep affection (at the very least) to someone of the contrary gender.
Clearly the card was lost, stolen or discarded and after a couple of weeks of test messages from the phone company it was blocked. I had to jump through the hoops and pay another 2 quid after all.

Danny our Anglo-Ecuadorian driver laid on an educational trip to the premises of a local business. After two dry weeks in Sudan he was able to demonstrate his impressive ability literally to organise a piss-up in a brewery. On the way back (no. Danny wasn't driving) we found a great little music place in town. If it's not called a shebeen, it should be. A rudimentary building in which we were the only westerners (and very probably the only ones out on the town that night). It was clearly a popular venue with the locals, most of whom were traditionally dressed. The entertainment largely comprised percussion performed by a matronly lady sitting cross-legged on the floor kicking up a storm with 4 drums. A couple of young men strolled around playing one-stringed fiddles and collecting small tips. We got some valuable instruction in the Ethiopian style of dancing – which I will happily demonstrate to anyone who cares to see it. One of those great nights out.

At a historic site the next day, a group of Germans took some photos of me whilst I was on the phone to Shelagh. According to my companions it was not my hangover that interested them but my pose. In my crumpled travel clothes, with my cheap cotton knock-off of a panama hat pulled down over my eyes and my hands cupped in front of my face to shield the phone from the wind, I appeared the very picture of furtiveness. I feel quite proud of that – one does aspire to be a colourful character.

The best way to get around Gonder is by motorised rickshaw (tuc-tuc). They cost nothing, and I am wondering whether it would be possible to hire one with a driver for a month's tour of the country. Or I might just stick with that Toyota hi-lux I'm going to get.

En route from Gonder to the more remote parts of the hinterland, we passed numerous roadbuilding sites. Men sitting at the controls of huge machines. Women in twos or fours carrying large stones on stretchers. I have no further comment on that particular subject.

All along our route new roadbuilding is going ahead alongside the old dirt roads. It will all be different in a year or two, but for now the old rutted track takes us through the centre of villages and even farmyards, and it's all surrounded by a green landscape increasingly reminiscent of the nicer parts of England. Except for . . . well, well, there's another Chinese factory.

Here, looking like a line of motherless ducklings, comes a convoy of six brand new shiny red trucks carrying roadstone. Is that script along the sides Amharic? Nope – it's Chinese. The manufacturer's name is Sinotruck – a Chinese company of course.

How long before the kids here are learning Chinese at school, wearing Chinese branded clothing and listening to Chinese pop music? A new, possibly more benign, colonial era seems to be beginning. I hope the Africans will get a fair share of the benefit. At least it is increasingly worthwhile for kids to study and train for the skilled jobs the Chinese will create. It seems probable that part of what has held African countries back for so many years is that there has been little incentive to sacrifice time and money developing skills for which there is no job market.

In remote poor areas there are frequently packs of children wearing over their ragged clothing the bright pastel shirts which pass for a rudimentary school uniform, walking to or from school. You can be certain some benign foreigners are supporting these schools. Sometimes there are notices: the subsidies may come from the EU, or UNESCO, or the Norwegian Government (who, rather than spread their foreign aid budget so thinly around the world that it makes no measurable difference, have chosen to focus mainly on Ethiopia). If the Chinese get in on the act, and they may already have done so, the Western powers will have to get used to steeply-declining influence in these countries whose land and natural resources are going to be so vital to the world economy in the future. The not-too-distant future.

Look, there go more Sinotrucks. And those diggers, tankers, earthmovers, rollers, bulldozers - all Chinese.

Our road again takes us through the heart of farming communities. No tractors, just mules. It struck me, looking out over the fields in this green and pleasant land, how much it looked like 18th century landscape pictures of England. And then the reason hit me: everything that happens in these fields and pastures is achieved with muscle – animal or human. There is no mechanization yet, but it is coming – from China.

What will happen then to all these people whose work and strength is needed to farm the land now? One high probability is an increasing tidal wave of humanity pouring into the cities, boosting their slum populations to frightening levels. Meanwhile here’s a statisitic which shocked me: in 1980 the population of Ethiopia was under 40 million. Today it is over 80 million. In a society where there is no welfare provision for people too old to work, long-term food security comes from having children. That can only be cured by increasing affluence, but rapid population growth engenders only poverty. Scary isn’t it?

Further along our route, the landscape is lovely. Groves of trees beside winding streams and neat patchwork fields give way to craggy mountains and steep-sided volcanic plugs creating a fantasy scene scene of the kind one might only expect to see in a childrens' picture book.

More (and very probably more) anon.


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Monday, 2 January 2012

It wasn't my fault this time.

I promise I will get some discipline into this thing, and provide some sort of chronological account of where I went and wot I done. Eventually. But first there is something I want to get down. Like Marek I am developing the habit of having so much I urgently need to say that I can rarely get to the point or communicate anything of any interest or value. Anyway, I promised earlier I would tell you about this incident.

Oh, by the way (the preface to a typical Marek aside) it seems nobody can post comments on this blog - or only those with exceptional IT skills. Never you mind, like Marek I am now stuck on transmit and nothing will stop me - even the realisation that nobody is listening (or in this case reading). And, by the byway, somebody is reading. So far I have had 1,909 hits from 11 countries. So there.

Somebody who did manage to comment advised me to beware of hubris. I think this was a reference to my suggestion that my luck (hitherto rather bad) was about to change. It didn't. And here's why:

Some bugger stole my iPhone. Oh no he didn't! Oh yes he bloody did! It wasn't just the money (and on close scrutiny of my insurance policy I wasn't going to get back even 10% of the replacement cost), it was all my contacts, diary, music, apps and the sheer sodding aggro of putting it all back together. Yes, yes. I know: you can back all this stuff up into a bloody cloud or something. But I couldn't - although I'm damn well going to learn now.

As someone younger and wiser than me pointed out, bringing valuable stuff to Africa implies the acceptance of a certain probability of theft. But it wasn't my bloody fault. And the thief carefully selected MY phone out of all the tempting and valuable kit he could just as easily have laid his hands on. I'm not going to bang on about whose fault it was. It was a forgivable (and forgiven) mistake. The chap who let the villain on the truck, against all the rules, has apologised nicely, he can't afford to cover my uninsured losses, and he is an exceptionally good guy. And we came to an arrangement which distributed the pain in a manner we both concluded was reasonable. But read on - he's not going to lose out.

The police (whose investigative skills and persistence I now admire so much) arrived and demonstrated yet another useful policing skill. A bystander who must have witnessed the theft denied having seen or knowing anything. The police took him aside for the briefest of moments, and when they returned he was ashen-faced and had told them everything they needed to know. I was a pinko until I came to Ethiopia, but now I will give my vote to any party who is tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime - and also promises to kick the shit out of any scumbag who nicks my stuff.

Again the police explained that they were 100% certain they would get it back. They now knew who it was, and that he had left his workplace and disappeared. Oh me of little faith. I tried to write off in my mind any hope of recovery by means of the application of liberal amounts of beer and, when that ran out, neat vodka. It worked - for a while. The next day my fellow travellers fell into two camps: those who greeted me jovially with much back-slapping, and those who would not meet my eye. I genuinely could not remember half of the things I said and did until I was reminded. They were, in general, not good things. I do recall having to be physically restrained and a bottle prised from my fingers as I attempted to murder a sneering passer-by who looked just like the sort of chap who might steal a phone. Such are the effects of stress.

Back to the boys in blue. They were mystified by my request for a crime report to pass on to my insurers. There wasn't going to be an insurance claim. They were going to get my phone back. I accepted that the guy could not evade them for long (thank God for ID cards. It is only miscreants who need fear their effectiveness in maintaining law and order), but I opined that he would have sold the phone long before they got him. "No problem" quoth the sergeant allocated to my case (as interpreted by Dasta - and yes, I will get round to Dasta eventually) "he will tell us who he sold it to, and if that guy sold it on he will also co-operate fully". I believed him - particularly when I saw a handcuffed "crime person" in the yard with a large surgical dressing on his face. I was so angry I asked if I could attend the interrogation when they had their man. I was politely told that it might prove a little too disturbing for a westerner. Jolly good, I say. No more bleeding hearts for me. Africa sure toughens a man up.

I won't keep you in suspense. This time there is a happy ending. It took 4 weeks for the police to nail the blackguard and recover the phone. Imagine leaving your job, your home, family, friends and the town you have probably never previously set foot outside, and hiding out for 4 weeks with a phone (some superfical damage, locked, no useable SIM card, no charger, no earphones, no cables) with extremely limited saleability - unless the purchaser was happy to live with the strong probability of a late-night visit from the Shashemene police intent on a spot of light finger-breaking. So another malefactor, doubtless bruised and walking bow-legged, is languishing in a prison whose comforts and facilities are well off the bottom of Marek's "shit" scale for African accommodation. An example to the rest of the town no doubt. And he was never going to get away with it. In Ethiopia (as you will learn when I get round to telling you about the phone card scam in Gonder - I will. Eventually) you cannot buy a SIM card without full photo ID and detailed record-taking which will make you instantly traceable.

Farangis are too important to the prospects of the Ethiopian economy to let anyone get away with abusing them. The Ethiopian police make the Met look like a load of half-soaked patsies.

Next time, I promise, I will get back to doing this properly. Unless the Marek effect has taken such a hold on me that I will never be able to communicate coherently again. Simply speaking. Et cetera, et cetera.


Bogged down and sweating

The last thing I want to do is to "dis" Tom and Danny, our leader and driver respectively. They are two of the greatest guys I have ever met, utterly charming, polite, hard-working, entertaining, highly-experienced travellers, very good drivers, excellent mechanics, great company, marvellous lovers probably, and able to control extremely diplomatically but firmly a bunch of individualists some of whom are more than twice their ages. With the possible exception of Marek who I doubt can be controlled by anyone alive.

They may be kids from my ancient perspective, 25 and 30 years old, but almost unbelievably mature, experienced and capable in every possible respect - except one. Like I said, I don't want to dis them - but I've got to get this off my chest. If they ever read this I hope they will understand.

Far be it from me to claim superiority on the subject of getting bogged-down motor vehicles back on the road - but not to put too fine a point on it this is a matter upon which I am effortlessly superior to almost anyone I know. I learned from the age of 12 to drive on the beaches of Somerset and Wales where numerous land speed records were set. At times in my father's 4.2 litre Jag, at up to 120 miles an hour. Later in my own cars I went back, perfecting high-speed drifting, handbrake turns, skid recovery, oversteering, countersteering, left-foot braking and so on. Those were the days - it's all been stopped now of course. We frequently got bogged down in soft sand and so I also had to perfect techniques for getting out. Sometimes in the face of an incoming tide, so there was no time to waste. Look, I could go on about my off-road driving in sand and mud, and the inordinate amount of expensive time I have spent driving in the Alps over several decades. Just accept that unsticking motor vehicles is a field in which I excel. I know that an old, heavy truck is qualitatively different, but the same principles apply.

I don't want to bug anybody by going into too much detail, but on the occasions when the truck got bogged down, some things mystified me:
- pushing on forwards and downwards into the sand or mire, rather than concentrating on reversing back up onto known firm ground
- using 10 man power of human muscle to assist the forward motion, rather than the 200 horse power of a helpful local's 4-wheel drive standing idly by
- digging and digging into the sand or mud so that the truck sank ever deeper. Digging through snow to find tarmac is one thing, digging down through sand to reach, well, more sand is another.
- when a tractor turned up on one occasion, allowing it to use forward gear to try to pull us out, rather than reverse so that at least its wheels stayed on the ground and the tyre treads were facing the most efficient way
- taking weight off the rear axle so that our drive wheels spun even more freely.
- applying excess torque to the drive wheels by revving hard in low gears and choking the tyre treads.
- when we once had the good fortune to get help from a 4-wheel drive lorry, moving the weight forward directly over the rear axle of the towing vehicle rather than back to benefit from the cantilever effect (it is basic physics). I feel particularly aggrieved about that one after being shouted down by my fellow-travellers when I tried to explain.

Look, I could go on (and on, and probably on) but what can you do at the time? There was one callow "expert" already irritating our grim-faced boys, who were doing their level best to get us out. Any interference was only going to infuriate them further and undermine their hard-won authority. Or maybe it was just cowardice on my part. Or maybe, with no deadlines, it wasn't really my problem. In any event I held my peace. And gnawed my knuckles.

I can't claim all the credit for my forbearance. When, with wide eyes and outstretched palms, I shared my doubts with Marek (20 years driving experience in Canadian winters) he silently signalled me to keep quiet. Pierre (another car-borne skier, and a wiser man than I) responded with: "Je n'ai pas aucune opinion, aucun avis".

Fair play to the boys, they got us out but only after hours of hot, sweaty and back-breaking work.

Good. I feel better for that. But maybe, now that the therapeutic effect has worked, I might just delete this tomorrow so as not to annoy two of the nicest guys alive.