Sunday 25 September 2011

Bento: week 2/3

I didn't post about my Bento adventures last week, and this week I sort of lost it a little bit: things like late governors' meetings and birthday meals out rather got in the way. But rest assured, I am still experimenting.

Some highlights:
  • Risotto onigiri with a little piece of goat cheese in the centre
  • Bubble and squeak with a side of home made chutney
  • Onirigi made with rice cooked with vegetables - Mr Z's latest experiment
  • A silicone cupcake holder filled with yogurt - the perfect amount, and a positive because I worry about not getting enough calcium (I don't drink milk or take it in hot drinks)
  • Sachets of miso soup
  • Sliced figs - taste much better when they are not served chilled
  • In the sauce pots: a Rolo, and 4 jelly snakes. Perfect.
The whole thing is still really making me think about portion control, which is definitely what I need to work on. I would never have thought a cupcake caseful of yogurt was a reasonable amount, for example, or been able to make a packet of Rolos last 2 weeks. I've made an effort to buy more fruit and vegetables, too.

I have also found out a few things about ONOs: namely, that my favourite combination is tinned pears in fruit juice and chocolate soy milk. The green grocer is still geting British strawberries, so I've been mostly relying on those in combination with other fruit like kiwi or banana. I'm going to start looking at tinned and frozen fruit more as it gets colder, I think.

Sunday baking: Chocolate Risotto

I have to admit, I think calling a sweet rice dish a risotto is a bit facetious. It's blatantly rice pudding, isn't it? However, the texture of this turned out a little different to what I would normally expect in a rice pudding, so I will keep the name.

300ml pot creme fraiche
1 pint of milk
6oz arborio rice
2oz caster sugar
100g dark chocolate (70% is recommended by Delia)

Turn the oven to 150 degrees and put in the dish in which you're going to bake the, risotto, in the oven.
Put everything except the chocolate in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boil. If yours turns out like mine, it will look very unpromising and as though it has curdled but persevere - I did, as I wasn't about to throw the whole lot away. It all came back together in the end.
Bring up to a simmer and then remove from the heat. Break 60g of the chocolate into small pieces and stir through the rice mixture. Whisk it all up so that it's smooth.
Pour the whole lot into the pre-warmed dish and bake for 20 minutes. Stir, then bake for another 10-15 minutes until the liquid is basically absorbed. Stir the skin into the rice and dot with little pieces of the remaining dark chocolate. Serve with single cream.

This serves 6, which I poo-pooed originally: as a dessert lover I reckoned on four servings at most. But, it's quite rich and satisfying. I put the rest in a box in the fridge for my Bentos this week: a cupcake caseful will be about right, I reckon.

Friday 23 September 2011

Weekword: Witty

Junebug picked this week's word.

For some reason, the word makes me think of a dowager holding court in her salon, perhaps in 16th century Venice (my first port of call should I ever invent time travel, by the way) or in pre-revolutionary France. Lady Wittington. She's sipping something eye-wateringly potent out of a tiny crystal wine glass whilst reclining on a chaise longue, wearing some sort of richly coloured silk confection which is either cut too low or showing too much leg (she doesn't care about that sort of thing, you know - her brain supersedes convention) and surrounded by people hanging on her every word. Many of them are sitting on the floor looking up at her, waiting for her to dish out some remark about them: even a negative one is welcomed, because it means she's seen them. People repeat her witticisms to themselves so they can remember them and use them in later conversations to try and make themselves look as interesting.

She's not especially nice, though, and not patient with the dull-witted, whom she lampoons heartlessly for an evening before turning them out, bewildered and rejected. Her late husband was probably one of these poor unfortunates until that night when he tragically, accidentally fell down the stairs. Twice.

In spite of that, she can argue intelligently about events in history, speaks with authority on matters of politics and is well-informed about the cultural happenings du jour, and all these things make her attractive in a way to which people lacking the blessing of wit can only aspire. It's a wit sharpened by her age and her endless, careful observation of all the people she meets and sees around her, and as such cannot be acquired through education alone. That makes her quite unique, a status she enjoys and guards jealously, sometimes through the use of a careully-planned intrigue or two.

This was an interesting Weekword! Thanks, Junebug. I did my homework and thought about it all week on the drive home from work, and Lady Wittington has grown quite lifelike. It's a pity I'm not artistically gifted, or I might try and draw a picture of her.

I like to think of myself as witty (though not in the same way as the character I have dreamt up above....I don't have a chaise longue for a start). I can certainly make people laugh without too much effort; though my wit may be dulled by lack of sleep or too much time spent thinking about work on occasion, I can always at least manage some sarcasm, though it be deemed the lowest form of wit. Having an extremely witty husband helps. He's definitely not in for an accidental stair tumble at my hands.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Tuesday Ten

Ten Reasons To Be Cheerful

1. This time in five weeks, I will be skiing on a glacier in Austria.
2. Apple crumble with apples scrumped from my personal trainer. Oh, delicious, delicious irony.
3. Teaching my own tutor group is FUN. Today we made a human pyramid to demonstrate the feudal system.
4. Educating Essex looks like it's going to be really funny.
5. I'm going out to dinner in Bath tomorrow night.
6. Did I mention I'm going skiing in less than five weeks? And then I'll be a qualified ski instructor (sort of) (hopefully)?
7. I've knitted the back of the second ski balaclava (the Rara) and it has a lovely pink intarsia flower on it, which turned out really nicely.
8. Governors tonight was finished before 9pm (absolutely unheard of).
9. I'm half watching some TV program where Robson Green just got stung by a jelly fish and chased by a crab. This, I feel, is karmic retribution for that bilge he released under the label of "music".
10. My new school mug, a present from some ski trip buddies. It is a Scrabble mug! It has an S on it, and a double word score tile painted on the bottom, and a letter distribution chart. I love it.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Busy girl preserving

It's a cruel trick that the glut of fruit and veg I might like to preserve comes just as I start back to school and have no time to do so.

On the first day of term, my deputy head hauled in pounds of damsons and apples from her trees and I meant to pinch all the damsons and take them home for making jam at the weekend, but forgot. I asked her for some more on Monday, and she offered me plums instead - but they did not arrive until the following Monday. She was apologetic because there were quite a few that looked a bit past it, and I envisaged having to bin them all, knowing I'd have no jam time until the weekend.

I briefly considered foregoing circuits on Monday and making jam instead. This was extremely tempting. My leg muscles were positively begging me to focus on preserving; but I'm possibly six weeks away from the ski instructor course (assuming it's not cancelled again) and the leg muscles must be trained.

Then I found this recipe. It seemed too good to be true! Very busy girl friendly. I made it even more busy girl friendly by not cutting up or pitting them; since they were small, and the comments on the recipe said the pits float to the top, I thought I'd probably get away with it.

It didn't take 16 hours. After 16 hours it looked like stewed plums, so I went back and read the comments, wedged the lid of the slow cooker open, turned it up to high, and left it another 10ish. I also fished out all of the pits and cursed myself for not doing this when I put the plums in; and I added some more sugar, because the stewed plums were on the tart side.
After 10ish more hours, it looked like jam, tasted like jam, and I needed the slow cooker to make ratatouille with the courgette of enormity, so I stirred through some almonds (I meant to also add almond essence but couldn't find it at the right moment) and stuck it in a jar.

I may have already eaten some of it....

It worked! Loving my slow cooker just a little bit more this week.

Friday 16 September 2011

Weekword: Wonder

This lovely word, courtesy of my namesake over at Sow and Sew, makes me think of children in mittens and scarves watching fireworks and writing their names with sparklers; and star-gazing with my uncle (who has made this an artform) at Death Valley and, most recently, in Sydney; and of how I felt when I found out how chalk was formed.

It is things too dizzying and large to comprehend, whether it be due to their beauty, their size, their history or any other variable you can think of.

Mostly, though, it made me think of this song, which I have not heard for a long time but which reminds me of a very pleasant time in my life and some of my favourite people, as well as being a really great song. Enjoy.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Tuesday Ten

Ten Books I Can Recommend

1. The Apple: Crimson Petal Stories, Michael Faber
Like little side and back stories to go with The Crimson Petal and the White. Satisfied my urge to find out what happened next, and like its predecessor, meticulously researched. Like peeping through a window into Victorian Britain.

2. Fine Just The Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3, Annie Proulx
More short stories. I read the third volume first because it was the only one available on Kindle. Now reading the second volume. Immensely enjoyable, I think more so because I've spent time in Wyoming and know the history a bit, so it's easy to visualise. She writes beautifully, too.

3. The Big Short, Michael Lewis
All about the sub-prime mortgage crash in the US. This took some concentration and it wasn't a very comforting book, but I feel much better educated about these things now.

4. Girls Like Us, Rachel Lloyd
Interesting look at the trafficking of girls for prostitution in the States. Part memoir, part stats. This woman is really inspiring and founded a charity aimed at helping other women trapped in the life. I feel a bit star struck that I sort of know her. Very tenuously.

5. Dancing to the Precipice, Caroline Moorehead
I haven't finished this yet but I'm really enjoying it. It's about one of Marie Antoinette's Ladies in Waiting and it's a cracking tale.

6. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
I cried and cried and cried. It was NOT a good idea to finish it on the train. Really beautifully written, a great story about Nazi Germany from the German side, and likely to be compulsory reading for my sixth formers this year (I can almost hear the whinging already....)

7. Freakonomics, Levitt & Dubner
I love the whole "joined up thinking" of this book: how the smallest things can have an impact you can't even imagine. The theory about Roe vs Wade reducing the crime rate in the US was actually cited on a recent documentary I watched. I made the mistake of lending this book to somebody, years ago. I may have to buy it again. Though I should probably read that copy of Superfreakonomics I bought, first.

8. Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell
I'm embarrassed to be all fangirl about this book, but it literally changed my life, because it had a big impact on how I teach. It seemed to be full of obvious truths I'd never even considered. "Hard work without a goal is prison": I made this into a poster for a sixth form assembly I did, and I still have it on my noticeboard. I think it's the best advice you can give a teacher. If that kid doesn't know why they're working, it might as well be prison.

9. Birds Without Wings, Louis de Bernieres
I love how there are dozens of different voices in this book. Some bits are written like a historical account and others are like having a gossip with your mate. It flows really nicely, regardless. It also taught me a lot about the demise of the Ottoman Empire and bits of WW1 that aren't really talked about. The descriptions of trench warfare in that part of the world will be a permanent fixture in my WW1 lessons from now on.

10. The Dark Is Rising sequence, Susan Cooper
Amazing books for teenagers which I can read over and over again without getting bored. DO NOT watch the film, it is utter garbage and bears not the slightest resemblance to the original.

Oh um, I like historical fiction. Did you guess?

Monday 12 September 2011

Weekend FO

I present: The Jonty

Fashion never sleeps, though Mr Z does occasionally.

Pattern: Antifreeze from Knitty
Yarn: King Cole Merino Blend DK, about 2 balls
Needle: Various, from 3.25mm to 4mm
Mods: Many, and varied. I knitted a longer chin bit. It took less rows to reach 7 inches for the face hole, so I had to change the number of stitches picked up and that sorted of cascaded into other changes. I went down needle sizes for the face hole, and then did an icord bind off instead of crocheting. I don't crochet. Full details of my mods are on the Ravelry project page.

I have made this before, which is one of the reasons why I messed with the pattern so much, but I think I should have taken into consideration the 4ish years of knitting experience between my first attempt at this one, and I also should have checked gauge. It's kind of long. It wrinkles at the back of my neck. Luckily, it's for Jonty, who does not have the sort of squat, thick neck I sport, so perhaps it will be OK. In any case, it matches his ski jacket which is black with blue trim.

I am making one of these for all the ski tripper teachers, so another 4 to go. I found this a bit daunting until I managed to finish this one in less than a week. It would have been quicker if I hadn't quailed at the thought of picking up stitches knitted with black yarn.

Now I've started the second one and I am already bored with the ribbing so I don't expect it to go as quickly - but I've officially got until April. I'd prefer to finish them by Christmas so I can hand them out then; half the teachers are accompanying me on a ski holiday to France over New Year, and I think a balaclava will be more use in the frozen conditions of December than the sub-tropical ones we usually experience in April.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Sunday Baking

I had a go at Hazelnut Caramel Flapjacks again today.

I made these first for the ski trip in April, but having successfully made Dulce de Leche recently I thought I'd try it with that instead of my usual condensed milk caramel.

12oz oats
8oz butter
4.5oz golden syrup
1 litre milk (I use gold top)
1lb caster sugar
Pinch of salt
8oz hazelnuts, blanched (Sainers sells them ready blanched, much easier than skinning your own)

Melt the syrup and butter. Stir in the oats. Press into a lined tin and bake at 180 degrees C until golden brown.
Meanwhile, combine the milk and sugar in a saucepan. Heat until the sugar is melted, then bring to the boil and simmer until it's thick and caramelly (I paraphrase here, because I only recently wrote this recipe up on my blog). Beat until smooth, then pour over the flapjacks.
While the caramel is cooking, toast the hazelnuts for 3-4 minutes under the grill, then bash with a rolling pin until broken up. Sprinkle over the caramel and press in gently, so the nuts set into it.

These aren't as good as the original. The dulce de leche is a bit too subtle for the other flavours, so the result is very sweet but without any of that lovely caramel flavour. It also hasn't set particularly hard so they're quite sticky. I'll take them to work tomorrow for proper testing, see how they go down.

A gigantic courgette also arrived in my kitchen today.

Look at it! It's a monster.

Father Z rang me this morning. He asked if I still ate ratatouille, and whether I'd like a courgette. It did cross my mind to enquire what good a single courgette would be, but now I understand. I can see myself hacking bits off this to use all week, like it's an enormous ham or something.

This evening I cut off the end, grated it, squeezed out the liquid, mixed with a beaten egg and seasoning, and then baked in mini cupcake moulds to make little courgette cakes for my Bento boxes. It worked very well, but but the test'll be lunch tomorrow.

Saturday 10 September 2011

Bento: week 1

Who said don't play with your food? Don't listen to them.

Arranging bento boxes for lunch this week has been huge amounts of fun. They take somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes to prepare, so a little longer than a normal work lunch, but they give me such pleasure at lunchtime, it's totally worth it. Even a rather drab lunch of hard boiled eggs, rice and sugar snap peas was something to be cooed over.

Monday: Top left. Raspberry and chocolate soy milk ONOs with banana and raspberries, for breakfast. Two hard boiled eggs, two onigiri, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, watermelon, a couple of chocolates and a prune for lunch, with soy sauce and sweet chilli in the bottles and mayo in the little yellow container.
This was my first try and I was STUFFED. It's funny, because I feel like I'd usually have a bigger lunch, but it took longer to eat it, so I think I got fuller quicker. Bringing the ceremony back to the meal has made it more fulfilling. Now I have typed that, it seems obvious, but really - who knew?

Don't say the Japanese.

Tuesday: Top right. I had ONOs with mango, guava juice and a little coconut yogurt (this was a bit too sweet), and a banana. Lunch was Meatballs (as detailed in last Sunday's post), two onigiri, cherry tomatoes and sugar snap peas and wasabi in the little tub, with a bottom layer the same as Monday's. This arrangmenet drew a comment from the head of English about my rice "nests".

Wednesday: Bottom left. Same breakfast. Lunch was a wholemeal chapati thinly spread with goat cheese and topped with a slice of turkey, then rolled and sliced, with veggies and chutney in a little blue tub which replaced the centre tomato. To begin with I just bunged the slices in but then felt I should try to get in the spirit of it, so they went flowery. If I'd been eating this as a wrap, I'd have made two, with double the amount of turkey. One was definitely enough.

The bottom layer was a fruit salad of watermelon, melon, passion fruit and pomegranate seeds. I am quite proud of the two melons, because I bought them before I went away to Australia and they were still good to eat. Fruit from the green grocer's has a much better shelf life, I find.

Thursday and Friday: Both the same, so only one picture. Breakfast oats were chocolate soy milk and sliced, tinned pears, which was a total win, and a sliced banana. Lunch was onigiri and veggies, with Mr Z's home made crispy chilli beef. Definitely not the healthiest option but oh, so good! And I made it last two lunches when I know I would have scoffed it all for one, given the option.
Friday was the day I worked out I could squeeze four gummy worms into one of the little sauce tubs. The lunch table watched, captivated, as I opened the box to retrieve them, and my friend Lou said, "I want your lunch! It's so much fun!"

This has definitely been a lesson in portion control and eating until full. I feel like it's made a difference this week and it's so enjoyable! I am actively looking for little sweet things that will fit into sauce cups for the end of lunch treat, and also trying to think how I can squeeze a few more veggies in there. I think I need to stop having fruit at lunch and have veggies instead. This seems to be the advice from the new Bento cook book I bought, anyway.

Friday 9 September 2011

Weekword: Disposition

Katy at Creating Misericordia picked this week's word, with the instruction that it needed to be used as a noun.

Mr Z took this picture of me on our honeymoon. I can't believe that was over five years ago now! We went to Lake Garda, in Italy, but this was taken on the journey there, in Germany.

I've always considered myself to have a sunny disposition. I am glass half full, optimistic, easily amused, cheerful and quick to laugh. I'm certain this makes my life easier, because it takes a lot of effort for me to stay fed up about things. Sometimes it takes a bit of effort to feel sunny about things, admittedly, but the pay off is much higher.

My first week back at work has been a little like being punched repeatedly in the face by a boxer (I imagine) and it has left me bereft of surplus creativity for Weekword day, so this is just the first thing that popped into my head.

Speaking of popping, pop over to Katy and read the other entries for this week. There's a particularly good story from Mary which I have enjoyed reading.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Wednesday Beauty: Australia Special

I was on the prowl for a couple of Australian goodies during my recent holiday.

Firstly this

Lucas' Papaw Ointment is featured in many glossy magazines and lists of wonder products. I bought a tube of it for a fraction of the price it costs in this country. It is not what I expected. It has roughly the texture of Vaseline though it smells much nicer and has an a bit of a tingly thing going on, especially when used on lips. During my sojourn in the Red Centre, I found myself without lip balm and slathered this on instead, but it's a bit of an exfoliant thanks to all that papaya so it probably wasn't the best idea. However, it worked magic on the hard skin/blisters from the walking, and I used it on my scaly ankles on the plane home and it sorted those right out too. I will definitely be replacing it when it runs out.

Secondly these

I cannot remember where I heard of Inecto Coconut Milk Wipes. I can remember seeking an online vendor of them, and being disappointed to find they were only available shipped from Aus and accompanied by enormous shipping charges, and finally giving up on the idea. So I was really please so find them sold all over the place in Aus, and very impressed with them, and consequently overjoyed to find they are now easily purchasable in this country.

I am not a regular user of wipes on my face because (a) I prefer a wash off cleanser and (b) my cheeks can be a bit sensitive, but these are very moisturising and gentle. They are gentler than my usual facial wipe of choice, the Good Things fruity one, and they were very helpful in taking the sting out of the sun burn I accidentally picked up during a walk around Cape Tribulation. Coconut is one of my favourite scents, so the product already gained points for that, but the formulation's the important bit, and I'd say this is a win.

I do like a good rummage in the chemist while I'm on holiday. It's second only to an hour spent wandering around a supermarket.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Tuesday Ten

Ten Things I am Currently Loving

1. Inside Nature's Giants. Tonight: the cassowary. Amazing.

2. My shoulders. Kettle bells work - who knew?

3. Having a tidy work desk. It won't last, but it's nice that there's nothing much on it at the moment. I think Ian is worried I've been taken by the body snatchers and replaced by someone who actually cares about being neat.

4. Knitting. I'm defo back into it. I have three-quarters finished a ski mask since Saturday.

5. Wearing boots again. Winter's coming. It's pouring with rain outside, and it won't be long before I get to wear my brand new winter coat.

6. Overnight oats - breakfast of champions.

7. Being able to do easy little things that make people really happy. Today I took one of my ski buddies a cup of coffee, knowing he had a 5 lesson day and a break duty. He was so pleased I feared he was going to kiss me.

8. Meeting new classes. So full of promise! No grudges!

9. Spinning, again. I've got my trusty spinning bruise back on my inner thigh, from the saddle. I have been hobbling. It's definitely working.

10. BENTO! So much fun!

Sunday 4 September 2011

Sunday, cooking

I didn't bake today. Shocking! There were still some cakes leftover from last Sunday, however, and I wanted to play with my new toys.

Long-term readers of this blog may have deduced that I am a long-term chobber, battling with my weight. I have for several years been an online member of a slimming group, but when my card expired over the summer and I couldn't input new details, they told me they'd freeze my account until I returned - and then deleted it. They are no longer returning my emails. I wonder if it's because I've failed to maintain a steady weight loss for the past couple of years.

I momentarily panicked, as though the pounds were insidiously creeping back onto my thighs just because I was no longer paying a monthly subscription; but then I gave myself a good talking to, had some thoughts about portion control and healthy eating, and bought myself this.

I'd like to claim this was all I bought from the fantastic Monbento site, but since they were shipping it to me all the way from France I really felt I had to get my money's worth, and the kitchen is now filled with a variety of cute Japanese lunchbox paraphernalia. While I waited for said items to arrive, I scoured the web in an attempt to absorb as much bento advice as I possibly could, and I have successfully planned a week's worth of bento lunches for my first week back, and even cooked some of it too.

My favourite thing so far is the eggs. I'm instituting Meatfree Mondays at Bunny Towers (Mr Z is not on board and will be wildly gnawing leftover Sunday roast and adding salami to his omelette tomorrow; not quite sure how the cat's going to cope) so I hard boiled a couple of eggs for lunch and then popped them, dubiously, into my new egg moulds. They squelched. Little bits of white popped out of the sides. I started to mentally plan what I might do with two squashed eggs. However, when I popped them out they were perfect little star and heart shapes. I can't remember the last time I was so pleased with the shape of a foodstuff.

(There may be a picture tomorrow, if you're lucky).

To try and maintain this high-maintenance lunch strategy I prepared some food in advance and put it in the freezer. Here is the recipe for some meatballs I made today, because I've gotten so used to posting a Sunday recipe now it will feel weird if I don't.

500g pork mince (turkey mince would also work well)
1 tsp galangal paste
1 tsp tamarind paste (hey...they were in the cupboard and I'd never used them)
1 heaped tsp grated root ginger (I used Very Lazy Ginger: I made mango chutney on Wednesday and have grated enough ginger for one week, thanks)
Good splash soy sauce
Generous tbsp finely chopped coriander

Mix everything in a bowl. Shape the mixture into small meatballs - I got 24 out of this mixture. Bake at 180 degrees C for about half an hour, until browned. Cool, bag and freeze until needed (I froze mine in portions of five).

These taste good with a dab of wasabi but I wish I had had some lemongrass, which is all they are missing in my opinion. I was a little bit gutted when I realised we didn't have any in the fridge. Oh well - next time.

I will blog about my bento lunches. I predict they will last until I have a busy weekend and can't do any prep for them, whereupon I may revert back to my old staples of Alphabetti Spaghetti on Ryvita, or Supernoodles with tomatoes and cheese.

Friday 2 September 2011

Weekword: Friendship

John at the Healing Seed picked this week's word. Sorry I'm late with my post! (I sneakily backdated it...) I am trying really hard to get back into a routine but I guess it's going to take a few more days!

My closest Bristol friends, taking afternoon tea at House of Fraser.

Work friends on holiday in Cornwall. Check out our alternative Cornish cream tea, with the Bombay Sapphire...

(As an aside here, I do occasionally do things with friends that don't involve eating scones).

I feel very fortunate in my life to have such amazing friends. I was an awkward, unpopular teenager and it is still a source of delight and surprise to me that I seem to make and keep friends easily as an adult. I'm a sociable person and I enjoy other people's company as much as they apparently enjoy mine.

I do think good friends never go away. I have some old friends who I haven't seen for years and what I love about them is the easy slip-back-into-it relationship. It's not even about being able to make comfortable small talk or remain in companionable silence: it's more about knowing someone well enough to be direct and not have to worry about pussy-footing around issues. Over the years I have managed to keep in touch with almost all of the people with whom I've reached this enviable point, and I feel quite proud of that.

The friends pictured above are my day-to-day rocks. This year has been so tough workwise that I don't know if I would have kept my sanity without them; but my long-distance friends have been equally valuable to me because they help me get a perspective. It's useful when they don't know all the players in my dramas because it makes me selective about what I tell, and that has often helped me to think through issues which seemed impossibly tangled to begin with.

I love my own company, but I value my friendships highly. This was a great word for the week, because it has made me think a lot about my friends and that's no bad thing!

There's a new Weekword portal now. It appeared in my blogging absence over the summer and I am still not totally sure how it works, but I do know there is a list of word pickers over there so it's easy to find the Weekword if you want to join in.

Thursday 1 September 2011

The Rock Tour: part 1

My favourite bit of my Australia trip this summer was my three-day excursion to the Red Centre with the Rock Tour. It was the first thing I found online that I wanted to do: a tour of Uluru, Kata-Tjuta and King's Canyon, with under-the-stars camping for that truly outback experience. I was definitely not disappointed.

It was an eye-watering 6am start from Toddy's backpackers. There were a lot of people waiting to be picked up, but only seven of us were destined for Oggy's bus: myself, a pair of French sisters and a German man with his three teenaged daughters. The bus fairly full, we set off for our first stop: Uluru. Everyone attempted to sleep for the first few hours until we got to the Erdunda rest stop, although Oggy seemed determined to counteract the Zs with lots of loud music.

After the first rest stop, everyone woke up a bit and we all had to go and sit at the front of the bus and introduce ourselves, running through a list of questions, including ideal superpower and first and last kiss. The latter was probably the least answered question. It was a bit awkward because, of 21 people on the bus, only six were native English speakers, the rest being French, German or Japanese; but it didn't seem to matter too much and we rubbed along quite well from that point.

On the way to Uluru we had to stop and collect firewood for the night's campfire and then it was on to the Rock. We stopped first at the Mala walk carpark.

We tutted in disapproval at all the people climbing it, in spite of the signs requesting that people don't. Oggy told us that in order to close the climb, they need all 12 of the National Park board members to vote yes, and the tourism person won't agree, claiming that people won't visit if they can't climb. I think this is a crock, and the research carried out supports my view, but there you go. At least there are fines for people photographing the other sacred sites at the rock, so that's better than nothing.

Realistically, it looks very dangerous to climb anyway. The rope and post (erected by the park's previous owner, at a time when you could still get a permit to shoot Aborigines - not as long ago as you might think) is really low - kind of thigh height - and it's really steep. Coming down must be a mission. Oggy told us a rather grisly story about the last guy to die on the climb, earlier this year. He slipped and then slid down the rock. It's very rough sandstone. He was dressed for summer. I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

We did the Mala walk and then drove round to the other water hole and walked about half of the base. It was really spectacular. I really got my geology geek on looking at the different formations and the way the rock has weathered in different ways. I think I prefer the Aboriginal stories about how they were formed, though. We spent some time at the visitor centre before doing the walks, which filled in a lot of the blanks.

Then, it was time to go and watch the sunset. As we pulled out of the Mala walk carpark, the music seemed to be a little louder than before, and it was Elton John - or was it George Michael? No...just Elton - singing "Don't let the sun go..." Oh, very funny. I caught Oggy's eye in the mirror and shook my head but he just nodded back, smirking. The rest of the bus seemed oblivious and I enjoyed the private joke for a bit before pointing it out to the others. There were some other musical moments: driving round and round the mini roundabout, chasing the other Rock Tour bus, while the Vengaboys blared out and Oggy switched the lights on and off rapidly; various sun-related tunes for the journey to the Uluru sunrise lookout the next morning; and some rather brow-raising obscene stuff at moments when it seemed everyone was just dropping off to sleep. I suppose when you drive 18 hours over three days, you have to get your kicks somewhere.

Anyway. The sunset spot was full of tours, some with barbecues and some with glasses of bubbly. We stayed longer than anyone, and so got to see the full moon rise just to one side of Uluru. It was a really amazing moment, because it rose red and orange to begin with. It was one of those moments that's almost impossible to catch on camera, especially when you are toting around a camera you don't really know how to use properly like I was. I think some moments are best left in memory, though.

I strung all my stills together to make this little movie of the sunset. I was taking pictures at roughly 2 minute intervals, with one significant gap of about 5 minutes when I went to get some food. It was Oggylove Stirfry and I didn't dare let it, go cold.

The thing I liked most about the sunset wasn't exactly the changing colours of the rock, but rather the changing texture. As it was thrown into shadow, the ridges and weathering showed ever more starkly and it was like watching a flower bloom, in a way.

We camped that night at the Uluru campground with the other Rock Tour group, and had a big fire and drank wine. We camped in swags under the stars, which sounds cool but with the full moon it was pretty bright and I made the mistake of going to sleep with my arms outside the swag so I got a bit cold. But since we got up at 5.30am to go back and watch the sunrise, it wasn't really a problem.

After watching the sun come up over breakfast, we scooted off to Kata Tjuta, or "Many Heads". This is a rock formation near Uluru; it's a bit different because it's formed from conglomerate rather than sandstone. I surmise this is because it was formed in the same enormous river, but was closer to the source where the energy of the current was higher. It was proper spectacular, especially against the amazing blue sky.

Most of us wimped out a bit here and took the short walk to the lookout, though a few people hiked all the way around, and in retrospect I kind of wish I had. But I was getting a blister, and although I packed blister plasters I handily left these in my suitcase in Alice Springs. I thought it was probably better to save my energy for the King's Canyon hike the next day.

After stopping on this dirt road for some pictures, we were off towards King's Canyon for our second night of camping.

Click here for part 2.