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[Tuesday 2 May 1995 : Cape Town, South Africa] Flew from Cape Town to Paris via Johannesburg on UTA French Airlines; in Johannesburg we endured a tedious two hour layover while ground staff cleaned the plane. At Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris we changed planes and flew to London Heathrow, also on UTA.
[Wednesday 3 May : London, England] From Heathrow Airport we took the Underground (London's commuter train system, also called the "Tube") to Earl's Court, and went to tons of cut-price travel agents (bucket shops). After walking up and down Earl's Court Road, visiting many agents and phoning several more from advertisements we'd seen in TNT magazine, we eventually found the best deal at a tiny one-roomed shop at the top of a steep flight of stairs, right next to the entrance to Earl's Court station. An affable Pakistani sold us return tickets to New York on Kuwait Airlines the next day for 200 Pounds each - at first he said there were no seats left on the plane at that price, but when I pulled out my credit card and said we'd pay in full right now he got on the telephone and after a protracted conversation two confirmed reservations magically appeared. It was a really good deal, although we could have got the tickets for as little as 154 Pounds from a different agent if we had been prepared to go on standby.
[Thursday 4 May : New York, USA] At Heathrow Airport the next day we found that post-Gulf War paranoia was still alive and well and comfortably ensconced at Kuwait Airlines. All of our bags were meticulously examined, although they stopped short of a full-body search (as is done for any flight going to Israel). The poles for my tent were a particular cause for alarm, but eventually the security guy realized they were harmless and they allowed us onto the plane.
After that experience we weren't expecting much, but Kuwait Airlines was actually very good, with fantastic food and professional, efficient air hostesses. Our cross-Atlantic flight to the USA was thus extremely pleasant indeed. We landed at John F Kennedy airport in New York quite late, at 9 PM, so rather than taking the Subway (New York's commuter train system) we went on the Carey Bus to Grand Central Station in Manhattan. From Grand Central Station we caught a cab across town to 1'st Avenue, where we stayed with a friend in her cramped apartment for the next four nights; her place was a couple of blocks from the massive United Nations building.
[Friday 5 May : New York, USA] Explored New York City. This is a BIG place, with BIG buildings - you get a sore neck from looking up at the skyscrapers from street level. Went to the top of the Empire State Building, visited Madison Square Garden and window-shopped in 5'th Avenue. Times Square isn't the romantic and attractive place that Hollywood movies lead you to believe; it's not even a proper square, but rather a big and busy intersection (where Broadway, 43'rd Street and 7'th Avenue meet) littered with rubbish, pornographic shops and hustlers.
[Saturday 6 May : New York, USA] Took the ferry to Liberty Island and climbed the Statue of Liberty; it's a LONG way up, with a seemingly endless weekend queue of people. Afterwards we explored the downtown area - Wall Street and the World Trade Centres. The view from the 107'th floor observation deck of the World Trade Centre has to be seen to be believed [Aside : the twin World Trade Centres in New York were destroyed on Tuesday 11 September 2001 by Arab terrorists, who hijacked commercial airliners and crashed them into the buildings].
[Sunday 7 May : New York, USA] Walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, explored Pier 66 on the Hudson River (a smart new centre containing shops and restaurants) and walked around Central Park.
[Monday 8 May : Washington DC, USA] The streets of Manhattan were pretty quiet at 7 AM as we walked across town to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a monstrously gloomy and cavernous building that spews forth buses to every conceivable destination in the USA. We had tickets on the 8 AM Trailways departure to Washington DC - they cost the princely sum of $22-95, 3 dollars less than the competing Greyhound service. It was our first experience of American bus stations, which for some reason seem to attract every down-and-out beggar, hobo and penniless wanderer for miles around. But we found our bus without a problem and enjoyed a pleasant four and half hour ride south through rolling green countryside; we stopped briefly in Baltimore before getting to Washington DC at 12:30 PM.
Aside : The "DC" after Washington stands for "District of Columbia" and is used to distinguish the CITY of Washington from the STATE of Washington, which is in the north-west corner of the USA and several thousand kilometres away (we eventually got to Washington state five weeks later, on 10 June). The city of Washington is the federal capital and as such is not in any state but rather in its own special district called Columbia.
[Tuesday 9 May : Washington DC, USA] Washington DC is a clean, neat city, a total contrast with New York. The streets are wide, with large pedestrian areas and plenty of trees everywhere. Almost all of the attractions are free. On our ramblings round the city we visited or saw the Capitol Building on Capitol Hill (seat of the Federal government), the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (a polished black stone wall containing the names of over 58 thousand Americans who died in the Vietnam War) and the US Holocaust Memorial.
[Wednesday 10 May : Washington DC, USA] We visited the White House, which (amazingly) is free and very easy to do - you just put your name down for one of their regular guided tours. What the guide shows you inside the White House depends on whether the president is there and what meetings are taking place; we did not see much activity and certainly did not see the president. Spent the rest of the day in the Smithsonian Institution, a series of museums (and all free). There are so many museums, and each one contains so much, that you would need weeks to see them all. I chose the National Air and Space Museum, which was fascinating.
[Thursday 11 May : Washington DC, USA] On our last day in Washington we bought all-day tickets for the Metro (the city's underground commuter train system) and visited many of the sights that were a little beyond walking distance from the city centre. The Washington DC metro is a delight - modern, fast and efficient, with spotlessly clean trains and stations. First stop was Arlington Cemetery, where we saw the sombre grave of the Unknown Soldier with its eternal flame, the graves of the seven members of the crew of Challenger (the space shuttle that disintegrated 73 seconds after take-off on 28 January 1986) and many other graves of famous people in American history. We also visited the Pentagon and the George Washington monument.
We ended the day by collecting our gear from the guest house where we'd left it and taking the Metro to Union Station, Washington DC's main train station. Union Station is an amazing place, with glitzy shops and restaurants. After looking around for a while we boarded our overnight train south to Florida. Long distance trains in the USA are operated by Amtrak, the national passenger rail company; over the next couple of months we discovered that travelling around the country by train was orders of magnitude more pleasant than white-knuckling it on cruddy buses. Interestingly, the toll-free phone number for Amtrak bookings (which we used a lot) is 1-800-USA-RAIL.
[Friday 12 May : Daytona Beach, USA] After a long night on the train travelling south through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, we eventually arrived at Jacksonville in Florida. Sub-tropical heat and humidity hit us as we stepped off the train and into a ramshackle and deserted station building, which we rapidly discovered was in the middle of nowhere and not served by any form of public transport that was of any use to anybody. The only way we could get to the airport to pick up the rental car we'd booked was to take a taxi, a $20 trip. Welcome to Florida, where the automobile is king and a person without a car is either stranded, homeless or on the run (and sometimes all three).
Luckily there were taxis at the station and half an hour later we were at the airport filling out the forms for our rental car, a two-door Mitsubishi Mirage ES Coupe. We resisted the urge to explore the charms of Jacksonville itself, a city which has the dubious distinction of being the largest in the entire United States in terms of square mileage (although its population is only just under 1 million) and instead headed on south. By this time it was already mid-afternoon and heavy tropical rain was bucketing down, so we only drove a short distance to Daytona Beach where we found a cheap motel for the night; the rain hammered down all afternoon and most of the evening.
During the next two weeks we traversed Florida clock-wise, south down the east coast and north up the west coast. On the east coast we mainly stayed on the A1A, a road on the narrow strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intra-Coastal Waterway. The Intra-Coastal Waterway is a sort of lagoon that extends for miles up the east coast of Florida; it is used extensively for recreational boating and allows for three sets of water-frontage real estate (both sides of the waterway plus the Atlantic Ocean).
There are four main north-south roads on the east coast of Florida - the A1A next to the sea and east of the Intra-Coastal Waterway, US-1 on the mainland west of the Intra-Coastal Waterway, the interstate highway (I-95) and the Florida Turnpike (motorway or freeway). The Florida Turnpike is a toll road, fast and boring. The I-95 (interstate highway) isn't tolled but is similarly uninteresting. All the best scenery is on US-1 and the A1A, so although these are a lot slower due to traffic lights, stop-streets and lots of cars we kept to these two roads for our entire trip down the east coast.
There is also a rail line extending from Orlando all the way to Miami. The railway used to continue south from Miami to Key West but this ambitious venture came to an end in 1935 when several of the bridges carrying the rails over the sea to the islands (keys) were destroyed by a hurricane (see the insert further down for more details).
[Saturday 13 May : Melbourne Beach, USA] Visited the Daytona International Speedway (used for Indy Car racing) then drove south through Titusville and over the NASA Causeway to Cape Canaveral, where we visited the Kennedy Space Centre. We went inside the disused space shuttle Explorer. Later on we swam in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean at Cocoa Beach.
[Sunday 14 May : Boca Raton, USA] A blazing hot day as we headed south via Vero Beach and West Palm Beach - opulence, mansions and private beaches, with parking meters that operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We visited the Seguso-Bassett Tennis Centre in Boca Raton, an impressive facility where a friend of ours (Stanford Boster) had been coaching. I had played tennis with Stanford since he was two bricks high and can justifiably claim to have taught him one or two things about tennis, but he outstripped me very quickly and developed into an outstanding player; I, unfortunately, remained no more than a weekend enthusiast (or perhaps that should be "hacker").
[Monday 15 May : Miami, USA] We drove south from Boca Raton and enjoyed a swim at Fort Lauderdale's expansive public beach, but missed feeding the parking meter by one minute and got a $15 fine; to compound our irritation, it took a couple of hours to find the municipal cash office and pay the wretched fine. My sincerest recommendation to anybody driving around Florida's east coast is that you should NEVER park illegally or overstay the period you paid for on a parking meter - traffic wardens in little electric-powered buggies drive around constantly, checking meters, cars and parking lots all over the place. You WILL get caught (as we did).
Literary connoisseurs will know that Fort Lauderdale was home to John D MacDonald's fictional character Travis McGee - this masculine hero of many adventure novels lived aboard a boat moored in Bahia Mar Marina, directly across the road from Fort Lauderdale's public beach. McGee had won his boat in a poker game and had thus named it The Busted Flush. Although slip F-18 (where McGee's boat was moored) does not actually exist, Bahia Mar Marina is almost exactly as John D MacDonald describes it in his books. There is a bronze plaque on the quayside commemorating the famous author (he died in 1987) and the ficticious slip F-18 is classified as a literary landmark by the American Literary Society. I have read most of the Travis McGee books, and the main difference between the Fort Lauderdale described by John D MacDonald and what we saw is that Fort Lauderdale is now a very posh and upper class place - the marina is filled with "floating gin palaces" (massive and luxurious yachts owned by billionaires), the shops are mostly expensive boutiques catering to the rich and famous and parking for budget backpackers like ourselves is non-existent.
[Tuesday 16 May : Marathon (Florida Keys), USA] Briefly explored Miami - South Beach and its Art Deco district, Bayside Marketplace over the MacArthur Causeway, Coral Gables and Coconut Grove. We then headed on to the Florida Keys, through Key Largo, Islamaroda, Conch Key, Grassy Key and many others until we found a self-catering chalet ("efficiency" as the Americans call them) in Marathon at mile marker 50 for the next three nights.
[Wednesday 17 May : Marathon (Florida Keys), USA] Drove over the huge and impressive 7-mile bridge to Deer Key, where we went snorkelling with a bunch of other people on a dive boat. We snorkelled at two sites in Looe Key Marine Sanctuary, which was about a 20 minute ride from shore. A fabulous day, very hot. No need for wetsuits in this water ...
[Thursday 18 May : Marathon (Florida Keys), USA] Spent the day in Key West, the south-western tip of the Keys. We visited Ernest Hemingway's house (now a museum), Sloppy Joe's Bar (one of the many, many places round the world where Hemingway used to drink), the southernmost point in the continental USA and watched the sun set from a tiki bar just off Mallory Square.
[Friday 19 May : North Port, USA] We left the Keys and drove north and then west on the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades to the west coast of Florida. We crossed the wide Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers, went through Port Charlotte and spent the night in our tent in a rather run-down trailer park (campground).
[Saturday 20 May : Tampa, USA] Continued heading north up the west coast of Florida through the attractive city of Sarasota to Bradenton Beach, where we swam in the Gulf of Mexico - the water wasn't as warm as it had been in the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast but was still way warmer than the beaches around Cape Town. We crossed the wide expanse of Tampa Bay over the Sunshine Skyway, a massive bridge with a huge arch in the middle to allow ships to pass underneath. After setting up our tent in rather upmarket campground we drove into Tampa and explored Ybor City, a bohemian, cosmopolitan part of town teeming with bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
[Sunday 21 May : Kissimmee, USA] Drove north-east from Tampa to Orlando and then south to the suburb of Kissimmee, where we booked into a recently-renovated motel for the next five nights for the incredible price of $21-95 a night (for both of us). The place had a fridge, microwave and air-conditioning. Spent the afternoon in the motel swimming pool.
[Monday 22 May : Kissimmee, USA] Had an "all you can eat" breakfast for $2-50 then we went to Walt Disney World's "Magic Kingdom" theme park. It's HUGE - you have to take a tram from the parking lot to the monorail station and then a monorail train to the park itself. There were long, frustrating queues at all of the rides, most of which are quite tame. Went on the Jungle Queen cruise, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Railroad, Space Mountain and many more. A long day, VERY hot, very tiring.
[Tuesday 23 May : Kissimmee, USA] Visited Walt Disney World's EPCOT centre (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), but found it be quite an overrated place. Came back again later for the evening laser light and fireworks display on the lagoon.
[Wednesday 24 May : Kissimmee, USA] Visited Universal Studios and went on several rides based on movies - King Kong, Jaws, Earthquake (very impressive), Back to the Future and others. Also saw a live display put on by stuntmen, the "Wild, Wild West Stunt Show" and an amazing exhibition by trained film animals (cats, dogs, ducks and others).
[Thursday 25 May : Kissimmee, USA] Went to "Wet 'n Wild", a water-based theme park. Spent the whole day going down slides and swimming in artificial waves and rivers. There was one slide that comprised a vertical drop straight down, with two variants - "Der Stuka" and "Bomb Bay". Quite unnerving at first, but I went down "Der Stuka" several times and "Bomb Bay" once.
[Friday 26 May : Orlando, USA] Checked out of the motel and drove to the Amtrak train station in Orlando. I left Gail and all our luggage there then drove to the airport and returned the rental car. I took the free shuttle from the rental office to Orlando airport then a city bus from the airport back to town and the train station. That afternoon we caught the overnight train to New Orleans - The Sunset Limited, a twice-weekly train that travels from Miami in southern Florida to Orlando, New Orleans and across the USA to Los Angeles on the west coast.
While we were sitting in the station waiting room, another train arrived from the west and a young South African couple got off - the first South Africans we'd met on this trip. They were travelling around the USA in a similar fashion to us but in the opposite direction, anti-clockwise rather than clockwise. They'd just been in Los Angeles and New Orleans and were now going to explore Florida. We wished each other luck then headed in our separate directions, never to meet again.
[Saturday 27 May : New Orleans, USA] Spent the night on the train as we rolled north then west through Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, getting to New Orleans at about 11:30 AM. On the way in to New Orleans we passed a cemetery and saw the above-ground graves for which the city is famous - New Orleans is below sea-level so graves fill with water; people have to be buried above the ground. That night we went to the French Quarter and walked down Bourbon Street, where there are an incredible number of bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs. The whole area was so jam-packed with party-goers that the streets were completely clogged with people; cars had to inch their way along, waiting for the crowds to move aside to let them through. We went back to our digs that night on one of the vintage trams that clank around the city all day and most of the night.
[Sunday 28 May : New Orleans, USA] Walked down Canal Street and took the free ferry across the Mississippi River to Algiers Point and "Mardi Gras World". Spent the rest of the day exploring New Orleans.
[Monday 29 May : New Orleans, USA] Mid-morning found us back at the train station, boarding the train to Los Angeles in California. It was the same train we'd travelled on two days earlier to get to New Orleans, The Sunset Limited from Miami via Orlando, and we knew we were in for a LONG trip - from New Orleans in Louisiana through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California (three days and two nights).
[Tuesday 30 May] A boring day on the train, although American long-distance trains are very comfortable, with big lounge cars and movies. Watched the movie Forrest Gump (starring Tom Hanks) as we rolled westwards through the endless expanses of the deserts in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Every few hours we set our watches back an hour as we changed time zones, but there was seldom any change to the dry, flat landscape that stretched away to the horizon, shimmering in the heat. A few kilometres west of Langtry in Texas we crossed the Pecos River on a high, rattling metal bridge supported by two massive concrete pylons. In the old days it used to be said that "west of the Pecos" was Wild West country, so from this point on we knew we were in the land of Cowboys and Indians, six-shooters and cattle drives.
Near El Paso the train tracks run right next to the border with Mexico, with the broad Rio Grande (Great River) visible to the south. The Rio Grande (known in Mexico as the Rio Bravo del Norte, or simply Rio Bravo) forms part of the border between the USA and Mexico. It is 3034 kilometres long and serves as a natural boundary between the American states of Texas and New Mexico and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas.
[Wednesday 31 May : Las Vegas, USA] After two nights and three time zones on the train we eventually rolled through southern California into Los Angeles (LA). From LA's Union Station we took a bus to the airport (called "LAX" by locals) and collected the rental car we'd booked a few days before. We headed straight out of the city on the most mind-boggling set of interconnecting freeways I've ever seen, eventually finding our way to the I-15 interstate road to Las Vegas in Nevada.
Los Angeles is spread out over such a vast area that we drove for 100 kilometres on a series of criss-crossing, five lane freeways before we got out of the city! Once out of Los Angeles the road to Las Vegas is ruler-straight through the desert, a five hour drive in searing desert heat. After finding a cheap motel on Las Vegas Boulevard (also known as "The Strip") we explored Caesar's Palace and Treasure Island Casino - the whole place is crass, glitzy and completely tasteless.
[Thursday 1 June : Las Vegas, USA] Spent the day visiting various casinos and redeeming all of the many coupons we picked up for free stuff like peaked caps, mugs, playing cards, drinks, popcorn and hot dogs. Las Vegas is a budget backpackers' paradise - everything is unbelievably cheap (or free) and open 24 hours a day. The valet at Caesar's Palace will even park your car for free in their free multi-storey parking garage!
[Friday 2 June : San Bernardino, USA] Had a HUGE breakfast for 99 cents (yes, less than ONE DOLLAR) at the Holiday Inn then left the bright lights of Las Vegas behind us. Rather than heading straight back to Los Angeles, we drove east on route 147 to Lake Mead and followed the scenic lakeshore road to Hoover Dam. The dam blocks the Colorado River at the western end of the Grand Canyon and straddles the states of Nevada and Arizona. You can walk across the dam wall and look down the canyon, with the blue waters of Lake Mead on the other side, as well as ride an elevator down into the wall to see the workings of the machinery that controls the sluice gates and supplies hydroelectric power to much of the western United States.
All of this took time, so when we eventually hit the I-15 to drive back to Los Angeles it was already mid-afternoon; that meant we reached the outskirts of LA in the dark. While looking for somewhere to stay we saw a sign for a campground, so we drove in and put up our tent in the meagre light provided by the ablution block. Only later did we discover that the rock group "Bad Company" were performing live in the Blockbuster Outdoor Arena, directly opposite the campground ... which meant we had a VERY noisy night and not much sleep.
[Saturday 3 June : Los Angeles, USA] Drove north up the west coast of California on the Pacific Coast Highway towards Los Angeles, through Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach. California beaches are long, straight and wide, with big waves, but the water is cold (unlike Florida). The beachfronts near Los Angeles are extremely run-down, with decrepit clapboard houses facing the sea. The north-south road next to the sea (the Pacific Coast Highway) is typically about four rows of houses INLAND from the sea, with a pedestrian walk on the sea side of the last row of houses and many short cul-de-sac roads leading to the pedestrian walk. Thus many of the sea-facing houses are not accessible by car.
On the whole the California coast was a disappointment - it wasn’t blazing hot like Florida, the water is cold, you can’t park anywhere and most of the beachfront areas are dilapidated and tacky. Stayed the night in a flea-bag motel in Long Beach, a run-down, mostly Hispanic part of Los Angeles.
[Sunday 4 June : Los Angeles, USA] Explored Hollywood and Beverley Hills. Hollywood is rather run-down, but Beverley Hills is plush and opulent in the extreme. We bought a "star map" and visited a few movie stars' houses (Charles Bronson, Barbara Streisand and others) - police cars patrol the streets and ensure that tourists do not stop and gawk over walls. Drove down Sunset Boulevard and spent the night in a hotel in Santa Monica.
[Monday 5 June : Los Angeles, USA] Walked around Venice Beach, location of the famous open-air "Muscle Beach" gym. We made the mistake of parking our rental car on Pacific Coast Boulevard, and while we were walking around the car was broken into and all our gear was stolen. Luckily we had our valuables with us (passport, money, etc), but our backpacks and all our clothes were taken, as well as all the cheap CDs we'd accumulated over the past several weeks. All we had left was a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and a towel each.
We reported the break-in at the police station on the beach; the officer we spoke to told us that there are often five or more car break-ins on Pacific Coast Boulevard every day. The thieves are Guatemalen and Cuban gangs who operate in groups of three - one guy in a pick-up truck who drives slowly alongside a line of parked cars, a second guy who rips open the boots of the parked cars with a crowbar and a third who heaves the contents of each car's boot into the back of the truck. They hit as many cars as they can before the alarm goes up then they scarper at high speed. The police station is less than a block away but by the time the police get there the thieves have gone and they are seldom caught.
The police were a bit of shambles and could not give us an official case number for the crime (which we needed for our insurance) - they had to send the paperwork to the main police station to be captured or some other story. They gave us a phone number in Los Angeles to call the next day to get the case number. After all that we spent the rest of the day buying clothes and essentials like toothpaste. That night we returned the rental car and caught a bus to the train station; unfortunately the next train to San Francisco was only at 1:45 AM the next morning so we had quite a long wait in LA's cavernous Union Station.
Aside : The full story of our unpleasant experience dealing with the Los Angeles Police Department can be found here.
[Tuesday 6 June : San Francisco, USA] We boarded an early-morning train north to San Francisco. For some reason trains from Los Angeles weren't running from Union Station itself so we were taken by bus on a long and tedious trip to Bakersfield and got on the train there. The train we eventually caught wasn't terminating in San Francisco so it didn't go into San Francisco itself but stopped in Oakland, across the bay - due to the location of San Francisco at the north end of a long peninsula, the train line into the city is a major detour for trains that are continuing onwards. Thus, only trains that end their journey in San Francisco follow the tracks up the peninsula on the WEST side of the bay into the city; all other trains stay on the EAST side of the bay and stop at the nearest station (in the suburb of Oakland). Passengers for San Francisco are then taken by bus across the Oakland Bay bridge.
The train arrived in Oakland at 7 AM, with the two of us half frozen after an extremely cold night - after all our gear had been stolen at Venice Beach we had very few warm clothes. The bus from Oakland station into San Francisco deposited us and our meagre luggage on the Embarcadero twenty minutes later. We were in a fairly dispirited frame of mind from the ordeal of losing all our stuff, a night without sleep in a station and then on a train all the while shivering with cold, so we trudged up Market Street in gloomy silence, trying to get warm in the weak sunshine and looking for somewhere stay. At least that task didn't tax our stretched resources any further - we easily found a decent, reasonably-priced hotel a few blocks away.
After settling in we walked back down to the bay and strolled round the Embarcadero, past Valaincourt Fountain to Pier 39 where there are shops and restaurants. San Francisco is VERY cold compared to Los Angeles, and the wind off the bay is icy - what happened to sunny California? I thought June was supposed to be summer ...
[Wednesday 7 June : San Francisco, USA] Rode the cable car from Market Street over the hill and caught the ferry to Alcatraz Island, now a national park but formerly a notorious high-security prison [Aside : San Francisco's cable cars are not aerial but street-level trams that are pulled by cables just under the road - normal, electrically-powered trams would not be able to ascend the steep hills in the city, nor be able to descend safely]. The prison buildings are derelict, dilapidated and falling down in places, and the whole island is cold, foggy and depressing. But it was interesting to see the grim cell blocks and hear about all the various escape attempts that took place between 1936 and 1962. Although the official records state that every single escape attempt failed, resulting in either the death or recapture of the prisoners involved, the fate of five escapees is not known for certain - two in 1937 and three in 1962. The two men who escaped in 1937 almost certainly drowned in the treacherous and icy waters of San Francisco Bay but the latter three may well have made it to safety; their bodies were never found and multiple inconclusive pieces of evidence suggest that they did indeed reach the mainland.
Aside : In 1979 a big budget Hollywood movie called "Escape from Alcatraz" was made; based on fact but with a great deal of speculation thrown in, it starred Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, the leader of the three prisoners who disappeared from the island in 1962 and were never seen again.
Back in San Francisco we walked around the edge of the bay and through the Presidio, which is a military area but nobody stopped us and there were no fences that we could see. From there we climbed onto the Golden Gate Bridge, an impressively-huge piece of red-painted iron, and started walking. However, the distance across the bay is immense, much further than we thought, so we gave up any idea of walking all the way across the bridge and turned back. So my "mini goal" of walking over the USA's two iconic bridges (the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and the Golden Gate bridge) remains only partially fulfilled ...
[Thursday 8 June : San Francisco, USA] Explored San Francisco on foot, seeing (inter alia) the crookedest street in the world (which has no less than eight U-turns in the space of a city block), the Trans-America Pyramid and Ghirardelli Square (once home to the famous Ghirardelli chocolate factory, long since closed; now there is merely a shop selling ice cream).
[Friday 9 June : San Francisco, USA] Caught the bus over the Oakland Bay Bridge to Emeryville, where we boarded the overnight train (The Coast Starlight) to Seattle in Washington state. The Oakland Bay Bridge is a beautiful piece of engineering - it's a "double-decker" bridge, with incoming traffic from the bay area on the upper level and outgoing traffic from San Francisco on the lower level. Emeryville station was brand new and spotless, which was great because we had to wait quite a long time there for our train.
[Saturday 10 June : Seattle, USA] Spent a long day on the train, although much of the scenery was quite stunning. In Oregon the tracks run next to plunging ravines and through thick forests. The train was very comfortable, with an observation coach that had large windows all the way round allowing uninterrupted views of the spectacular countryside.
We arrived in Seattle at about 8 PM and found a place to stay for the night quite near the station. Big mistake - after looking round the hotel lobby and the room we were given we quickly realized that the place was a flea-pit, frequented by what looked like drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes. So we abandoned the room, walked straight out and caught a taxi the short distance into Seattle city centre. By now it was quite late and dark, but we eventually found a room at the Moore Hotel, a great little budget hotel right in the middle of town, within walking distance of the waterfront and Pike Place Market.
[Sunday 11 June : Seattle, USA] Despite being a relative backwater in the remote north-west corner of the United States, Seattle has become well-known for a variety of reasons - Starbucks, the international chain of coffee shops, was started in Seattle; Frazier, the popular television comedy series, was set in Seattle, as was the movie Sleepless in Seattle starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. There are also some huge international corporations based in and around Seattle, the three most notable being Microsoft (a software company started by billionaire Bill Gates), Amazon.com (the first global internet retailer) and Boeing.
Seattle's fame didn't concern us directly, but the city's weather did - it rains a LOT, with only 58 days of clear sky per year on average. That means it rains FIVE days out of SIX in Seattle, so I guess we were pretty lucky to get a couple of dry days while we were there ... Even so we got wet a few times, but luckily buses in the central city area are all free, which is great for getting around. Apart from dodging rain and hopping on and off buses we managed to take the monorail to the Space Needle and walk around the waterfront area.
[Monday 12 June : Seattle, USA] Relaxed and did nothing much other than have an "eat all you can" pizza lunch for the astounding price of only $3-99 each. After that we went to see the famous "fish flingers" in action at Pike Place Fish Market at the waterfront (note the spelling - FLINGERS (as in "throw") not FINGERS). The place is amazing - there is a counter in the front where a guy takes orders from customers, he shouts the order to a guy in the back who prepares the fish, wraps it and literally throws it across the shop towards the front counter. In the meantime the front guy collects the money from the customer, gives them their change then turns round just in time to catch the wrapped fish hurtling through the air towards him and hands it over. There were crowds of people there, most of whom were tourists like us taking photographs (rather than actually buying fish).
[Tuesday 13 June : Seattle, USA] Took a bus into the suburbs to Redmond and found Microsoft's head office at number 1 Microsoft Way. Microsoft consists of several low buildings in a leafy, tree-lined suburb, and looks like a really pleasant place to work. And no, we didn't get to see Bill Gates. On the way back we got off the bus at a shopping centre where there was a huge electronics store selling all CDs for $8-88 or less; we bought several each.
After days of phoning the police in Los Angeles and trying to get a case number from when our car was broken into a week before, we gave up on the useless LAPD and simply reported the crime all over again on the phone. This time they said they'd fax the official crime report document to us at our hotel, but of course by the time we left Seattle it had not yet arrived.
[Wednesday 14 June : Victoria, Canada] Took the ferry from Seattle across Puget Sound and up the coast of the USA to Vancouver Island in Canada, a very pleasant trip in water that was as flat and calm as a lake (perhaps we were lucky ...?). It was short walk from the ferry terminal on Vancouver Island to Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia.
Victoria is a charming place, more of a town than a city, and is VERY British compared to the USA. The hotel we stayed in punted the British theme extensively, to the extent that its bar was called the "Sticky Wicket Pub". I guess this obsession with all things British stems from Victoria's proximity to the USA, the fact that Western Canada is almost exclusively English-speaking (unlike Eastern Canada, which has a significant French-speaking population) and the name of the state - BRITISH Columbia. Be that as it may, it was a welcome change from the relentless assault of "Americanism" that we had endured over the previous six weeks.
[Thursday 15 June : Vancouver, Canada] After an enjoyable morning spent strolling around Victoria, we left in the afternoon and headed for the city of Vancouver on the mainland. Bearing in mind that Victoria is on an island (Vancouver Island), getting to Vancouver proved to be quite an exercise, involving
- a bus from Victoria north to a little village called Swartz Bay (about 45 minutes);
- a ferry from Swartz Bay across the Georgia Strait to another little village called Tsawwassen on the Canadian mainland;
- a bus from Tsawwassen north to Vancouver (about 45 minutes).
In Vancouver we checked into the "Hotel California" (I know, odd name for an hotel in Canada). Finally, after yet another expensive phone call to the Los Angeles police, we at last received a faxed copy of the report of when our rental car was broken into on Venice Beach - no less than ten days previously. The LAPD were utterly useless and inspired no confidence whatsoever; I feel sorry for the people of Los Angeles who have to rely on them to solve more serious crimes.
[Friday 16 June : Vancouver, Canada] Explored downtown Vancouver, a very nice city. We saw the world's skinniest building (about a metre and a half wide), the statue of "Gassy Jack" Deighton (who opened the first saloon in Vancouver), the only steam-powered clock in North America and went up the "Lookout!" tower for a panoramic view of the city. Stayed for the next two nights with Thomas Dirkse, a friend and former colleague who had moved to Canada from South Africa a couple of years before.
[Saturday 17 June : Vancouver, Canada] Watched the South Africa-France Rugby World Cup semi-final match on TV (a very close encounter, which SA won 19-15) then went for a long walk through Stanley Park to the Seawall Promenade, Lion's Gate Bridge and North Shore, round Prospect Point and Ferguson Point. Back in the city we marvelled at the huge multi-level underground shopping arcades that exist beneath the streets of Vancouver; there are relatively few street-level shops in the city centre - almost everything is below ground.
[Sunday 18 June : Vancouver, Canada] Caught a late-night flight from Vancouver east to Toronto. The thieving airport authorities in Vancouver ripped us off just as we were about to board the plane with a cash-only airport departure tax. Swines.
[Monday 19 June : Niagara Falls, Canada] After a brief stop in Calgary we got to Toronto at about 7 AM, and were lucky enough to find a bus that would take us directly from the airport to Niagara Falls without having to go into Toronto itself. In Niagara Falls (the Canadian side) we stored our backpacks in a locker at the bus station then went to look at the falls - a STAGGERING volume of water. We walked across the river over the Rainbow Bridge to the USA (a pedestrian bridge for which you have to pay a 25 cent toll), looked at the American Falls from the observation tower and Goat Island then walked back again to the Canadian side (the Horseshoe Falls are in Canada). Turns out that the day before we arrived two people had gone over the falls in a barrel and survived, the first time ever that a couple had successfully managed this crazy (and pointless) stunt.
That night we caught a bus to Boston in the USA, which entailed getting out at Buffalo in New York state at about 2 AM to have our passports checked and to change buses.
[Tuesday 20 June : Boston, USA] After a long, rough overnight trip on the bus we arrived in Boston early in the morning, knackered after two nights virtually without sleep - one on a plane from Vancouver and one on a bus from Niagara Falls. We checked into a guesthouse on Beacon Street and slept like the dead. That afternoon we only had enough energy to visit the Dunkin' Donuts take-out just up the road and stuff ourselves silly on doughnuts and coffee; they had a special on, two doughnuts for the price of one after 8 PM [Aside : Boston is the biggest city in the state of Massachusetts and the unofficial capital of the area of north-eastern USA that is frequently referred to as "New England"].
[Wednesday 21 June : Boston, USA] Explored Boston thoroughly on foot. We followed the "Freedom Trail", a red line painted on roads and sidewalks that goes past all the important sights. We climbed 294 steps to the top of the Bunker Hill monument and watched a musket firing demonstration by a park ranger dressed as a colonial militiaman. There is a replica of the original Boston Tea Party ship moored in the waterfront area.
Of course, back in the 1990's Boston was well known as the city in which the famous and long-running TV series Cheers was set. We duly visited the "Bull & Finch" bar in Beacon Street, ostensibly the setting for the series, but of course it was completely different inside. From across the road the Bull & Finch looks exactly the same as the fictional bar in Cheers, but the TV action was shot in a studio which bore no relation whatsoever to the inside of the bar in real life. This hasn't stopped the bar's owners from exploiting the connection with Cheers - in a side room of the bar there is a TV set which shows old episodes of the series non-stop, all day and all night, and all kinds of kitschy Cheers memorabilia are for sale.
[Thursday 22 June : Boston, USA] Walked across the Charles River and had a look around MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Harvard, two of the most prestigious universities in the world. Nearby we found Boston's Hard Rock Cafe, called the "Massachusetts Institute of Rock" - guess that would be MIR, not MIT.
[Friday 23 June : New York, USA] Took the "T" (Boston's efficient partly-underground tram system) to the bus station and caught a greyhound bus south to New York. There was so much traffic on the turnpike that the bus driver abruptly turned off, doubled back and headed through the back streets of The Bronx and Haarlem. The broken streets, crumbling tenements and desolate housing projects we saw during that ride were in stark contrats to the glitzy shops of Manhattan ... In Manhattan we walked around Central Park one last time.
[Saturday 24 June : New York, USA] Our last day in North America; we went to an Irish pub called McCormack's and watched the Rugby World Cup Final between South Africa and New Zealand, which SA won 15-12 after extra time (the dropped goal that Joel Stransky kicked to win the match has become the stuff of legend). The place was packed with happy South Africans and glum Kiwis. Later that day we took the subway to John F Kennedy Airport outside New York (a LONG trip) and flew back to London on Kuwait Airways.
[Sunday 25 June : London, England] Arrived in London at 11 AM. That afternoon we went to Lord's Cricket Ground and watched part of the England-West Indies test match. The first streaker ever at Lord's (a buxom, lively young girl) ran onto the pitch while England was batting and precipitated a minor collapse by the home team! She was stark naked and evaded capture for several minutes while managing to run down the length of the pitch and vault over the stumps at each end; she got more of a cheer than the England batsmen. After the close of play we walked onto the hallowed turf of the home of cricket.
[Monday 26 June : London, England] Took a VERY early bus to Wimbledon and queued for hours to get into the tennis stadium for the first day's play of the 1995 All England Championships. Late in the day we were lucky enough to get onto centre court and watched the end of a ladies' singles match involving Gabriela Sabatini. Just as we'd done at Lord's the previous day, we waited until the end of play and then went down the stands and actually strolled around the grass of Centre Court at Wimbledon ... the same grass that has seen the likes of Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Steffi Graf and Chris Evert loft the coveted champion's trophy above their heads.
[Tuesday 27 June : London, England] Another long day at Wimbledon, first in the queue to get in and then amongst the crowds of people all jostling for places on the "show" courts. Very hot, very tiring.
[Wednesday 28 June : London, England] I couldn't face another day in the endless queue to get into Wimbledon so I merely watched on TV.
[Thursday 29 June : Cambridge, England] Took a bus (or coach, as long-distance buses are called in the UK) to Cambridge and spent the night in a B&B in this delightful town. On the way out of London the coach driver managed to hit a stationary car and was later stopped by a traffic policeman, which caused a lengthy delay and meant we only reached Cambridge quite late.
[Friday 30 June : London, England] Took the coach back to London (horrors, it was the same driver from the day before, can't believe he wasn't suspended) after ambling round the village.
[Saturday 1 July : London, England] We had luckily managed to get two free tickets to Wimbledon; it was great to walk in just before play started without having spent four hours queueing.
[Sunday 2 July : London, England] Visited some of the sights of London I'd not yet seen. We took the Docklands Light Railway to Island Gardens via the huge new Canary Wharf office and shopping complex and walked under the Thames River through the Greenwich foot tunnel (wet, dripping and eerie). On the south side of the Thames we saw the Cutty Sark, Greenwich Pier and the international date line (the meridian) at the old Royal Observatory. Further down the river we saw the Thames Barrier (built to prevent flooding up-river) and the captured Russian submarine permanently moored nearby. We went to Petticoat Lane, but by the time we got there all the stalls were already shut.
[Monday 3 July : London, England] Took the Underground ("tube") to Heathrow and flew back to Cape Town via Paris. Pieter Dirk-Uys was on the same flight as us, in economy class too.
[Tuesday 4 July 1995 : Cape Town, South Africa] Arrived back to rain and wind in Cape Town. Next stop the UK and Austria in 1996.