30 December 2009

Tired of caves yet?

Most things stop at christmas, only to restart in January. But not the caving group! Dave deemed it a good time for a photo trip. Not very physically demanding, but it does, of course, lead to lots of pictures. I promise to produce some pictures of other things soon! My blog is starting to become a bit of an auxiliary PCG site.

Finbar and the wall

Anyway. We drove to Gunnislake, changed, and thought Finbar, one of the more experienced cavers, who pointed down a serious wall and said that was where we had to go, was joking. He wasn't. And waders are suboptimal for wall climbing, but it turned out to be fairly straightforward. And in we went! This time taking pictures of any mineral we wanted. Next time I bring a torch, for it's photographically unpleasant to have your light source on top of your head when you try to take a flashless picture.

I thought the other mine was on walking distance from the first, but that was proven wrong. We went back to the car and waited for Dave to lead the way. A bit of a strange drive, as the car behind me was erratically switching between parking light and full beam. It looked like they were signalling something... but later it turned out to be a technical problem.

Neil thought it was hilarious I drove with waders and helmet-with-headlight on

The other mine had a nice old-fashioned low and flooded entrance. Further on it was much easier to navigate, and from time to time decorated by nice coppery dripstone, and flooded shafts down. There also was a shaft up! The powerful pull! Must climb ladder must. But without a slave flash you don't achieve very much. But it was fun. Dave went wild with no fewer than three flashes, occasionally equipped with a colour filter. A caver that was new to me; Sam, and I ventured a bit into another vertical shaft without a ladder, but to my surprise I did not go as far as he did. I'm sensible and responsible! At least, it could be worse. No pics there though, as Dave's flashes were busy elsewhere.

One of the flooded shafts...

...in which I took my first underwater picture ever!

I kept on triggering Dave's flashes- they react to any camera.

At some point it had been enough, and we drove to the nearest pub for a poofy German drink (or, in the case of the other cavers, a drink of a different nature) for some afterfun. Next week I won't be joining the trip, but I have enough pics to keep myself busy.

28 December 2009

Christmas in wintery holland

The front pages of all the local newspapers hurled images of crashed cars at anyone who did, or did not, care to look. And I wanted to go to Exeter! And from there fly to the snow-impeded Netherlands. I was scared to drive, which made the decision easy: I had to go by car. Only when driving has become self-evident you don't have to do it anymore. So I was nervous! Forgot my toothbrush, and several other things. But I mounted the satnav and went. And it all went fine! I arrived at the airport without any kind of incident. And could enjoy a comfy chair, a good book, and on the go blogging until the slightly ice-delayed plane would show up. All going well!

The "Koppelpoort" in wintery attire

My first stop tends to be my mother, and this time was no exception. I stayed long enough for two mugs of mulled wine, and then went back to Amsterdam to meet Roelof. It's good to see him so often! Of course there was nice catching up, great food, plenty of alchohol (hics), and 16 Horsepower videos, perfected by additional guitar work of Micha. And of course I went to bed fairly late. And not without consequence! I woke up with a sore throat and a runny nose. After breakfast I took my faltering body to Harderwijk, where I dived headfirst into the chaos caused by my two nephews. The calm conduct of the present adults and my little niece went near unnoticed in that storm. The calmest time was that spent on a game of "kolonisten van Katan", in which all were swept off the board by my sister's husband.

More wintery Amersfoort
After the copious dinner the riot, loosely disguised as my sister's family, left, and I could enjoy a cup of coffee with my father and stepmother. And then it was time to return to Amersfoort, for a quiet Boxing day with my mum. When I arrived she was just in the process of sewing a burqa. People sometimes think I'm strange.

I slept long, and enjoyed a nicely uneventful day. Well almost uneventful; I still had to organise the day after, in which I knew who I would see, but not where and at what time, and that needed to be fixed. This involved contacting Floor. That made me so nervous I immediatley started to send messages to the wrong people, but it all worked out. And a while after the christmas pea soup I went to bed. The next day would be more demanding!

It looks like a very non-descript picture of any part of snowy Netherlands, but it is just outside my birth town Nijkerk

Having breakfast in the train I went to Leiden to meet Frank; a meeting directly resulting from the recent PhD defense. Nothing had changed, really! Well, his kids were hundreds of times bigger now, but beside that all was very familiar. I may become his private shell collector when I'm running around the world poking in salt marshes. I'll try! There's room for improvement in my shell and gastropod knowledge.

Scenery near where Frank lives

The next rendez-vous was the most unnerving. Floor! Who I hadn't seen or spoken with since we broke up. Dripping with cold rain I stumbled into the pub that would be the stage for this encounter, and almost immediately I saw a familiar shape walk in through the other door. Again, nothing had changed! Somehow it was not strange to see him. Due to very crappy live music we decided to go somewhere else. And when we sat down we caught up 1,5 years. He'd lost none of his magic. And I had lost none of the complete null and void I had to offer. So it wasn't really easy, but I'm glad we met again. Maybe next time I'll hear it from him when something major happens in his life.

Castle near where Frank lives

I was glad my next goal was Erik. Good one to catch ladies with shaken hearts! And he did. And of course the evening ended with nerdy things online. New tradition! This time without alcohol; I was still suffering from a general physical not quite well-being, and I went to bed well before Erik did. But I slept well! I could breath through my nose, and that helps.

I did not fly until three, and initially that meant a long morning for social interaction. But my throat had decided otherwise. So I took it easy, felt a bit guilty at the small number of people I had met, bought some cheese, and went to Schiphol, for an uneventful flight back. It was way above zero, so no ice on the roads, so even the drive back was uneventful. That was another christmas! Not my favourite holiday, but seeing family and friends is good. And in only two months I'll be back, to see at least my mum.

23 December 2009

Caving can be done modestly

I'm still convinced the Caving group can even top last week's trip. But this week was not the time for it. This time we would keep a low profile, and leasurely walk the even grounds of some local abandoned railway tunnels. I presume they owe their existence to Brunel, but I'm not sure.

Picture by Dave

The tunnels were only a few minutes on biycle away from me. Excellent! No need for cumbersome hauling around of cars. But a completely different challenge this time; as the careful reader might have noticed, I travel to such gatherings in alliance with Neil. And he's a Brit. And the Dutch may not appreciate what a non-biking people the Brits are. It is unbelievable. And though Neil is typical in the sense that I never heard of him in association with a bike, he is atypical in the sense that he has a penchant for doing unusual things that his compatriots tend to discard as uncomfortable and ridiculous. So I offered him the use of my spare bike. And he accepted!

Stared at as if I was the world's most skillful juggler, but a shrieking madwoman in a straightjacket at the same time, I biked with two bikes towards Neil's place. There was time for some tea, and some exchange of caving pictures, before we set off. And it must have been a bit like the trip to Wheal Fanny, but then the other way around; for one of us the transport there was all in a day's work, but the other was out of habitat, and a bit apprehensive. And justly: the roads were icy. Neil pulled off his Plymouth biking debut almost like a Dutchman, though, and without incidents we reached the meeting point, which we recognised by almost colliding with Dave and Dave. Soon afterwards Dave also showed  up, and then the waiting was only for Rupert.

Picture again by Dave. The whole lower row consists of Daves, but the middle one is the one responsible for all the beautiful pictures.

When he appeared we could go. I thought the caving group had keys to all closed off tunnels in the West Country, but that apparently was naive; Dave had brought a ladder, and soon I found out why. We used it for scaling one closed fence, and squeezed through the next, somewhat less carefully closed one. These tunnels were obviously in use by some scoundrels as garbage dumps and places for burning random objects, but a bit further in they were acceptably pristine. In several places the humid climate had teamed up with the mortar to create dripstone formations worth photographing, even within the timespan of British rail traffic.

Dripstone formations as Dave sees them

And as I see them, with my modest camera

My camera could only do so much, but Dave had, as he generally does, brought some slave flashes, and these allowed some overview pictures. In a cave you're nowhere without slave flashes, so in the new year I hope to join the legion of slave commanders. Without that the dark and the often dusty, or drippy, air frustrates many attempts at catching the magical atmospheres.

With a modest camera you develop an eye for detail

At some not too drippy place we, again, settled down for a small christmas celebration. This time the whisky came out! The advantage of being able to bike in. And after having managed to scale these fences again, and making it to the pub, we could add some beer to the whisky. The pub was empty apart from us, the bar lady, and a very charming and playful dog. He liked the game of wrestling for a rubber bone, all jerking and growling and whatnot, a game I like too, so now I think the cavers too think I'm mad, but well, I might just as well get used to that.

We had biked in, yet we did not bike out. The other cavers thought the amount of ice on the road was such that we shouldn't. How that means driving cars is reponsible is lost on me, but all these Daves (and Rupert) get away wth it anyway. So one Dave drove the bikes to my place, while we hitched a ride with the other two Daves. Very luxurious! Caving for ladies and gentlemen this week. The new year will bring more of the barbaric version, I trust!

22 December 2009

Modern times

Nobody else was impressed when I thought I had become stunningly modern by acquiring an iPod, many months ago. Maybe the admiration will be a bit more widespread now, as I have taken the next step: it is connected to my stereo. I can now play all my music on shuffle if I want. And that's only the beginning! I should really make an effort of covering up the wire spaghetti that is overgrowing my living room like the most aggressive type of ivy. Electric appliances as far as the eye can reach! I'm starting to be ashamed of myself...

20 December 2009

Quiet breakfast, or: a convertible in the snow

If you spend enough time with people splashing around in uranium mines, crawling through narrow spaces,
slushing through muddy water of over a meter deep, and dangling from ropes in intimidatingly endless spaces underground, you start to be curious what they are like under more mundane circumstances. So on a sunny sunday morning I was going to have quiet, civilised breakfast with Neil, somewhere on or near Dartmoor. No waders, no helmets, no mud, just two inconspicuous civilians modestly enjoying some nutrition.

The thought of Neil got me in a muddy mood anyway, it seemed, for when negotiating the garden path I fell flat on my face, which did nothing to enhance my inconspicuous civilian look. My antics may, however, also have had something to do with that it had been snowing and thawing and freezing. I managed to make it to the car without injury, and I was somewhat glad I did not have to drive. Driving on ice is piece of cake, but not on summer tires... at some point a 4WD that had given up on a road advised us to not try it as well, a warning we decided to heed.

Not a great shot, but I was trying harder to not fall over on the Tromso-like pavement than to get a good view

In a fairly random village we stopped. There were ruins of a monastery to be seen, so we went to have a look at these, and assumed there would be something to eat as well. Another attraction of the village was the pannier market, a somewhat posher version than the Plymouth one. And pannier markets are dangerous. They tend to have second hand bookshops in them. This one did. We did not manage to get past without each buying a book about old crap (or, more precisely worded, industrial archaeology) in the surroundings. Restraining ourselves we made our way to the market cafe: we were getting hungry.

The cafe solved that. Easy. The breakfast they served was very English. Very high caloric, of course. We did what we could with it, and found we had time to go explore some more old stuff. The goal was a church on a hill with a mine beside it. We drove through fairytalish snowy Dartmoor while the church was getting more and more prominent on the horizon. Then Neil looked at the ice on the road, and the gradient, wondering if he would be able to come back up if he would drive down that road. And tried to reverse. With no luck. We decided we may have to abandon this mission, and tried to turn around, getting back to the flatter part. But too late! The car performed all sorts of ballet moves, but did not make it up the hill again. At some point we needed to give up and call the AA (the UK ANWB, or NAF). While waiting for them we could see if we could reach the church on foot...

The church in the distance, and some Dartmoor sheep as bonus

Neil saw the fun, and the photo opportunity, of the stranded car as well

Frost is photogenic!

After an excellent walk in the beautiful weather (quote of the day from Neil: "seeing you in bright daylight is very disturbing") we saw the AA van approaching. Much more careful than we had come. It was a 2WD! No way that could pull us out. But no panic; the guy was not discouraged that easily. He let out some air
from the back tires, and helped push. By coincidence a passing elderly couple showed up as well, and helped along. The man pointed out his wife looked much lighter than Neil, so that it would be easier if Neil would push and the old lady drive. I had thought of that before, (I am lighter too), but the thought came along with visions of what could happen if a driver like me is combined with an insane racing monster, and I had discarded that thought. The lady, however, was skilled and fearless, and all together we pushed the car over a precarious, rock-lined hole back onto the road, and onto the flat stretch. Huzzah! The lady could have just nicked the car, but she was too polite. So after the AA man had re-inflated the tires we were on our way again.

A very staged picture: I was way too busy trying to enthusiastically make beautiful frost pictures to sit in moody resignation beside the car. But who cares...

I could have guessed it would end with strange adventures instead of just absorbing some nutrients, but it was a morning well spent! And on Tuesday we can go back to the normal, dark, muddy, helmet-wearing routine. Probably for the better.

Brits can't party

Brits can dress! Dutch people in a suit look silly, but Brits pull it off. Who saw Alex receiving his masters degree, or Paul meet the Dutch ambassador, knows it's true. So I had good hopes for the departmental christmas party! Rob had been asking about opportunities for wearing his tuxedo since he got the job. Roland has one too! I really saw all that come together. Unfortunately, Brits are also very passive, conventional people. Nobody dares to be overdressed! I tried for weeks convincing everybody to dress up for the christmas party, but I met such tar-like resistance I lost all motivation myself.

The actual party took place in a soulless venue, where it was freezing cold. Nobody looked smart! Nobody danced. We went to a nearby pub by 9 or so. I was in bed early. This was a bit of a disappointment! Thinking back of Carsten and Rafael in three piece suits, of Erlend in black and red, of dancing the night away with Audun, Harald, Yngve, Stein, Per... who would have thought that the normally GoreTex-covered, outdoor sweating Norwegians dress and dance the Brits straight into the ground! Would it only be the Brits that leave the country that have any style? Makes one wonder...

19 December 2009

Goodbye to a home

I live in a good house! It's a good place to be. But I do live alone, which I am used to, but which has disadvantages anyway. And the best way of throwing such disadvantages out of the window is by dropping by at Roland and Maria. I already spoke of what a welcoming place that is. And Roland I see almost every day, but Maria only when I visit her at home. And from my wish to see her, and the practical considerations regarding Rosa (who now has teeth!), has grown a sort of a tradition. Once in a while I take over the kitchen at the Gehrels household, and then we eat together. Cooking is much nicer if you do it for others. And despite Maria's undeniable culinary talents I am always welcome to replace her for a day. By this tradition we all win!

The tradition will change, though. Soon they'll receive the keys of their new, temporary house. I don't think there'll be another kitchen conquest before they move. But let's hope it will continue in the new residence.

Arbitrary picture of my neighbourhood, recognisable from the spire of the cathedral

Caving in superlatives

I was very nervous this Tuesday! There was going to be a very spectacular caving trip. A mine we would have to rappel into. The biggest copper mine of its time! And that's all good and fine, but having testdriven my car on saturday I had decided it was time to volunteer as a driver. That would mean picking up Neil from the narrowest street in town; a dead end, even, and then driving through pre-christmas England. Ohno! Yet what would life be without doing what you're scared of. So I went! I needed a few tries to get my car backwards and uphill in the narrow space left by parking cars, which made enough noise for me to not have to bother ringing the doorbell. In a short time we were off. And it went well! I still don't know why all these other people are on the road as well on a Tuesday night, but despite the endless traffic lights we came to the meeting place. There was already one other car. Owned by a couple I had only met on my first encounter with the caving group, in the pub. Good to cave with them this time!

The actual place from where we would start was deeper into the dirt tracks. We parked, and quickly found the entrance, where Dave was already fazorzling with ropes and carabiners and pulleys and whatnot. We the rookies got handed harnesses, and were shown how to put them on. And then we could go down the first stretch. The mine started with a horizontal tunnel, followed by a few meter vertical drop, another short stretch of horizontal tunnel, and then the actual mine.

I was used to just rappel down with an 8, but here we had more advanced equipment. I'm not quite sure what they're called, but we had devices for rappelling that would lock unless explicitly stated otherwise. Safer, in a way; if you accidentally let go of the rope while rappelling on an 8 you go down, unless you're too light. Fortunately I tend to be too light. Here, however, weight was no issue. I find an 8 more pleasant, but I understood this choice. Especially as they let rookies like me go down here!

The actual mine must have been a massive vein. Several meters thick! And laterally and vertically stretching as far as the eye could see. And probably much further. It was no longer there. What was left were the yawning jaws of the rock, with the decaying teeth of the half collapsed working floors in them. We lowered ourselves many of these old levels down, careful not to dislodge some remnant beams. I was one of the first down. What a mine!

At the level we touched down we ran around like children on a playground. Every time another caver came down the others showed these what they had seen, and if someone turned out to have overlooked something we simply went back and had another try. There was also a lot of taking pictures of one another with dripstone formations. It was an amazing place!

It was also going to be the PCG christmas reception. So at some point all the bags were opened, and the samosas, cheese, olives, shortbread, and chocolat came out. Unfortunately we had to make do without Dave, who was still suffering from an injury and did not risk going all the way down. But if he would have it would still have been a strange assemblage! We joked around a bit about not recognising each other in "normal" christmas reception circumstances.

In the middle of the celebrations there was also science going on: one of us was an archaeologist, who took the opportunity to describe some of the disintegrating mining relics that were laying around. How some nondescript plamks come to life under the scrutiny of a trained eye...

It was going to take a while to get back up. We would go up by means of ascenders: cunning devices that can only move up along a rope. You have one on your chest, and one attached to a loop that you stand in. When you hang on the chest ascender you can move the other ascender up. Then you stand up in the loop, which makes your chest ascender move up. And that way you get up! Fairly elegant. For those who had issues with this there was Dave with his pulleys: on request one would be simply pulled up.

I got the hang of it, and was chuffed when on reaching the level where Dave was wielding his scepter I heard him say, on looking down: "well, she's definitely done that before!". Which wasn't true! I'm glad I gave that impression, though.

Back up we were all in high spirits. What a mine! And we were mentally prepared for a long trip, with all the rope working and samosa eating and all. So we chatted away some more at the cars, until it was past one in the morning. Time to head back! This time over empty roads. It ended well, and all was well! And by now I think that whatever PCG throws at you, they can always top it, somehow...

17 December 2009


Life is hurtling past so fast it has become a nondescript stripe on its way to the horizon! I am trying to scurry after it. And a result is that I do not manage to keep up with the blog. Bear with me! Soon I will manage to post an impression of the truly amazing caving trip of this week. And of whatever else is going on.

Just a pretty harbour picture for the heck of it

15 December 2009

English birthday

I went go-karting once! I was an absolute non-talent. I just shot over the track (well, I crawled, probably, but it felt like shooting to me), and frantically tried to keep up with all the curves and whatnot that appeared in my way. Life seems quite like that!

One of the creatures that jumped in front of my wheel was my own birthday. I managed to somehow make it past without injury! I did not feel like throwing a party: too much fuss, and all the probable dates were already taken by christmas parties. If I reincarnate I want a different date of birth. Anyways, I did not want to do nothing, so I thought the best way around was having a quiet pint with those nearest. And some of these thought it was a good idea.

When I woke up it felt like just any other day. But before I left home my phone already signalled the first incoming congratulations. And my mailbox was overflowing with them! I had brought pepernoten and chocoladeletters for a coffee break; with time whizzing by in such a flurry I could just as well blend Sinterklaas and my birthday. And then I bumped into Roland, who gave me a huge mug (huge mug! For gallons of coffee! Yay!) and furry dice. I seem to radiate either chavness or a painful lack of it, for I tend to get these for my birthday. By then I really felt festive!

And the day continued all the way to pub-time with more messages coming in through various media. I even got a christmas present from the dearly missed NP coffee people! So sweet. I won't be here with christmas, so I figured my birthday was actually a perfect day for opening that. I was touched! And then we went to the pub. More and more backed out, but well, the hardcore evidently was left. And a real English pub, with "lauw kwezelig bier" as Roelof so eloquently puts it (here my English fails me in translation) on your birthday is quite nice. I even was phoned a few times from the Netherlands. And when only the hardest of cores was left Roland took his harem (he was the first, and the last, man standing) around town for hidden gems of pubs only he would know about.

The hard core: Sam, Lou, Roland and me

I was home at a reasonable hour, and I spent the rest of the evening finishing my book, immersing myself into war, death, cold and loss. Dead Danes left and right! And then it was time the sleep of the 34 year old. Today it was me, soon it will be the year itself that has a birthday! And thanks to everybody who made mine a good one.