Monday, August 11, 2014

Boats and Balloons

This was quite a boaty weekend. Saturday morning saw me on Lake Travis, zooming about in a small boat owned by some friendly folks that agreed to take me balloon chasing! It was the annual Lake Flight of our balloon club, and I really wanted to get some different photos this year. So thanks, Jeff, for taking me. Here's some photos:

On Sunday, Alan and I went to Marble Falls to watch the drag boat racing. This is always awesome, and the Top Fuel boats are simply Bad Ass. They run the course in three, maybe four seconds. Raw, visceral power! So loud... you feel it in every bone.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Taking my Jeep Off Road

I recently joined Austin Jeep People, and through them found San Antonio-based Jeep Republic. JRep held a beginner off-road day at Hidden Falls, and I figured it was way past time for me to actually see what my Jeep could do. This is a bit embarrassing, but after almost eight years of Jeep ownership, it's taken me this long to get it off road!

So Alan and I headed out and met with some other AJP folks, and our group was joined by a whole bunch of JRep Jeeps. They brought some experienced offroaders to act as trail guides. Their Jeeps were somewhat taller and more modified than my stock JKU :-)

First order of business was to air down - this means deflating your tyres so there's a bigger contact patch between the tyre and the ground, which means more grip. Curtis lent me his deflator tool which made the job easy, and suggested I take my stock tyres from my normal 35psi down to 20psi. Folks with bigger, knobbly tyres might go down to 12psi.


Second order of business is to disconnect the sway bar, which allows the axle to tilt more than usual underneath the Jeep body. This means you can drive on uneven ground with less fear of rolling over. An 18mm socket and wrench/spanner will do the job, but a lot of folks put quick-release disconnects on which lets you pull a pin to release them instead. Rubicon owners can just push a button; their disconnect is electronic!

Then it's time to hit the trails. Driving with my Jeep in this configuration was an experience. Obviously, it feels very different. I was told to use 4-Low; this is 4-wheel drive low gear. I normally drive about in 2-wheel drive, and also have a 4-high option. 4-Low is very low gearing; I was doing 15mph in third and would normally be doing 30 at least. So we're not racing off.


We first went up a hill in our big group of about 30 Jeeps. There's a steep, rocky part which was Interesting. It looked very steep to my uninitiated eyes! Someone told me that a Jeep is like a mountain goat, and to be honest they weren't wrong. Once I figured out how much gas to give it, we crawled up that hill no trouble at all. There was another obstacle further on; a large rock ledge down the hill. I didn't have the ground clearance to go down there - now I see why people lift their Jeeps. However, all the main obstacles have alternative routes, so I went down the trail next to it, and met with the other Jeeps on top of the ridge.

We had all parked nose-in, before someone suggested we all turn around for photos. So we did! Cue 30 Jeeps all turning round and parking nose-out, which looked awesome once we were all back in place. General milling about and checking out everyone's Jeeps ensued for a while, before Veronica (the organiser) split us all into four groups. Alan and I were in the stock Jeep group, along with at least six other Wranglers and two Liberties. Justin led our group in his much-modified white Liberty.


The park roads are fairly wide but as soon as you get into the trails, it gets very narrow. And there are scrapy, scratchy trees! I didn't expect it to be quite so narrow.... let us just say that my Jeep has acquired some battle scars... (I've since become good friends with a bottle of rubbing compound which has got rid of some scarring). Now I know why people take their doors off! And why the Rubicon usually has non-painted fenders...


I suspect there's all the mud you could wish for after a big rain, here, but this day was hot and dry, and only a little bit of mud remained. Enough to get our wheels mucky. Did I mention it was hot? You definitely want to cram as much water into your Jeep as possible; you're going to need it. It was 100F+ all day.

We crept through the trails, encountering deep ruts and tree stumps and rocks. Tree stumps have to be gone around, or driven over, depending on how tall they are. Ruts can be straddled, or just driven into. Sometimes you have no choice but to drive into them and then you get to see how to drive at all kinds of funny angles.


I got stuck at one point, on a downhill step, on a rock. Luckily I apparently have skid plates underneath, so no damage was done other than to the protector plate; and that's its job. Justin was able to root around underneath and clear some rocks, so after a bit of back-and-forth with my Jeep under his instruction, I was able to extricate myself from the ledge.

We eventually made it back to the center of the park, for a breather and rest stop. By this time it was well through the afternoon. The group went off to do another trail, but Alan and I chose to head home - we had animals to look after who were also out in the hot sun. And I have to be honest, I was pretty tired after all the driving about - constantly looking at unfamiliar terrain for several hours; trying to pick out a decent driving line. I went to sleep that night still able to feel the rocking motion!

Big thanks to Jeep Republic for organising the day, and to Austin Jeep People for generally being awesome.
Check out the video below to watch Jeeps in action.



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A couple of ballooning videos

Here's a couple of videos I made recently with the Central Texas Ballooning Association, of which I am a member. In this one, I gave Greg one of my GoPro cameras on a monopole and told him to have fun with it. This video shows a couple of balloon inflations in Zilker Park. The general public are welcome to come and watch, and to help crew if they like. I used my quadcopter to get some aerial shots of the balloons.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Road Trip 2014: Time Lapse Video

I have one more thing for you here; a time lapse video shot in Utah and Arizona. I set a GoPro Hero2 camera running at 5-second intervals. We start by going into, and then out of Monument Valley, before crossing the desert landscape towards Page, AZ. Sadly the camera ran out of battery just before we dropped down from the hills. Bear in mind this is a two-hour drive and this is what the vast majority of the trip was like; hundreds of miles of desert between the occasional town.

Next up is the drive into, and through, Zion National Park, stopping at various parking lots on the way. We had to search for parking spaces in some of them which is why the video gets a little dizzy in places! Just pause it; and look at the mountains :-)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Road Trip 2014: The Voyage Home

Day 8

I got a very early start this morning, delivering Alan to the airport around 5am. Coupled with the late night before and the fact the clocks changed for Springtime, this meant none of us got as much sleep as we'd have liked. Hey ho. I returned to the hotel, prised Diane out of bed (OK, she was up already!) and we hit the road. We followed the road back to the Hoover Dam, but this time drove over the bridge instead of down to the visitor centre. A few miles further on, we paused at a pretty viewpoint overlooking Lake Mohave and the Black Canyon.


Two hours down the road, we stopped for coffee. I was fairly dozy and so was Diane. Caffeine-fueled, Diane kept me awake for the next two hours, before we reached the town of Williams, AZ which is on Route 66. Of course, we stopped for souvenirs :-)


The road north out of Williams leads to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I've been to the West edge before, which was spectacular enough, but the South rim is really special. Between eight and ten miles across at a rough estimate and a mile deep, and one of those things for which the word 'awesome' should really be reserved. Just look at it:


This is a close-up of the bit on the right of the picture above.


On the way up to the Canyon, I was surprised to spot an aviation museum! Yay! On the way back, I wheedled Diane into agreeing to stop there, if only for a few minutes. It was only a _little_ museum... It turned out to be a satellite of Planes of Fame, whose main site is in Chino, CA. I zapped around the museum in ten minutes flat, since we still had a lot of miles to travel and an appointment to keep.


Inside, they had many gems. I always love the Grumman F3-F, it's about as cute as aeroplanes get :-)


Onwards, rode the 600, towards Meteor Crater near Winslow, AZ. (Yes, you can stand on the corner in Winslow, Arizona. No, we didn't.) This is the biggest and best preserved meteor impact site on the Earth. It's about a mile in diameter. We maybe should have visited this _before_ the Grand Canyon, but it was impressive nonetheless!


This is the largest chunk they found of the 45-meter meteor that created the crater. They have a very nice educational museum here.


Another three and a bit hours down the road, we ended up in Phoenix, after driving for about 30 miles down a really large amount of downhill. I've certainly never seen my gas mileage so good! My wagon gets 22 mpg on a good day (US gallons, British readers, don't be too horrified); I saw 24.9 after this.

We checked into a Hampton Inn in Chandler, on the south side of Phoenix, and phoned friend Mark. We met him and his wife in a nearby BJ's Brewhouse for dinner, which was very pleasant. Both Diane and I were glad to get into our beds however, that was another long day on the road.


Day 8: 610 miles



Day 9

Diane and I started separately on this day; she elected to have a little longer in bed, while I went to the nearby Chandler Municipal Airport, to meet friends Jay and Jeff for breakfast. It was good to see them, and we had a very pleasant meal in the airport's excellent diner.

By day, we could see all the plant life in the Phoenix/Chandler area. There were many flowers; spring obviously comes sooner to this area than in Texas. The southern Arizona area is much more lush than the northern end, perhaps unsurprisingly after losing so much altitude. They also have a ton of the giant Saguaro cactus; those big, iconic cacti you see on Western films. These things are everywhere; they grow in forests and each stand around 20 feet tall. We stopped at an RV park to have a closer look at some.


I always thought they were full of bullet holes in the films, but it turns out they have holes in from natural causes; mainly birds making nests in them.


An hour down the dusty desert road, we pitched up at Biosphere2. This is a long running experiment which seeks to learn about the planet we live on (aka Biosphere 1). It was originally designed to be a sealed system, in which lived eight people; four men and four women. They stayed inside for two years, living only on what they grew inside. They could only grow enough coffee beans to have one cup every two weeks. There's no evidence they grew any hops, either ;-) Here's the outside of the main greenhouse:


This is the entranceway, with the pressure door and living quarters in front. Behind are three smaller greenhouses.


Inside the main greenhouse; we're about 2/3 of the way along. Behind us is a rainforest area, below us is ocean, next is a temperate area, and at the end is a Sonoran desert zone. They grew a multitude of different plants, but now the experiments are evolving. There are separators between the zones where they used to be all one, for example, and they're about to change the ocean area to have some islands and new plants, since the original coral reef died.


All this glass means a ton of sunlight getting in, which heats and cools the air. To prevent pressure blowouts, they had a pair of lungs in the system. This is the interior of one of them. It sits under a geodesic dome. When the system is sealed, the central disc rises and falls; surrounded by a rubber diaphragm, with the air pressure. These days, it's held up by vacuum pressure and will fall to a resting position.


We drove on after this; past Pima air museum (sob! I could see hundreds of tails in the distance... another time...) another four hours or so along I-10. We made it as far as Deming, NM, by which time I was knackered again. We weren't going to make it to Las Cruces as we'd envisaged, but that was OK. Deming appeared to be mainly closed (and sadly, their brewpub appeared to be permanently closed), so we ended up eating at the Sonic drive-in next door to the Comfort Inn. Perhaps not the most nutritious of meals (particularly the ice cream) but when in Rome...

Day 9: 337 miles



Day 10

It was an hour's drive from Deming to Las Cruces, which I was definitely glad we hadn't done the night before. Just on the north side of Las Cruces lies the Space Murals Museum. I'd originally put this on the list as a mere curio, thinking it was just a bunch of murals at the roadside. That part was true - they have painted up a water or gas tower (not sure what it is) with space murals right enough. However we were very pleasantly surprised by the museum - there's a ton of interesting information, records and memorabilia from all kinds of NASA missions inside. Up to and including a giant scale model of the ISS that fills half the building.


Next stop was up and over the nearby mountain range, into the plains below where we found the White Sands Missile Range Museum. This is just inside the gates of the White Sands military base; you have to park up and go to the gatehouse and show your ID to get in. Bizarrely, the gate guard presented us with a load of Christian literature. (Really?!) We then went inside the gates to the missiles, of which there are many, fulfilling all kinds of purposes from weather monitoring to nuclear warheads.



I knew from my history that Dr Werner Von Braun had come from Germany to the USA after WW2 and worked as a rocket scientist. I didn't realise, however, just how much his V-2 design had influenced American rockets and missiles. There were many missiles whose plaques told us they were descendants of the V-2 you see preserved here:


Von Braun obviously got around; he had his own personal light twin aircraft, with this plaque on the nose.


Leaving Las Cruces, we headed east into Texas; past El Paso where you can see Mexico from the interstate, and about 40 miles on we came upon the US Border Patrol Checkpoint. For the second time that day, Diane was glad she'd brought her passport for ID, and it was the first time someone had actually asked me for my green card (outside of an airport, anyway). The guard was happy, and we continued westwards, taking the road towards Marfa.

Along this road lies an art installation; Prada Marfa. This is meant to be a high fashion shop in the middle of the desert. They have handbags and shoes inside, laid out as for sale. Sadly, it's been vandalized several times; today there were muddy lumps and paint thrown at the windows; in fact the glass has been replaced with Perspex since the glass was being broken too often.


There was a friendly horse in the field here, who enjoyed some attention and followed us back towards the car.


I swung the Jeep round before we left to take this shot. Had to be done.


We had hoped to get a room in the Hotel Paisano in Marfa that night, but it was fully booked. So here's a picture of the pretty courthouse instead.


Onwards, then, to Alpine; about 30 miles up the road, over another mountain range. We ended up trying about eight different hotels before we could get a room, and the room we did find was the last but one in the Ramada (and possibly the whole of Alpine). It turns out that it is Spring Break, and all the Texas kids are out here on holiday. The Ramada was on the very edge of Alpine, so we ended up eating at the Oriental Express next door rather than going into town. More jasmine tea! Their hotel transport was pretty cool, though:


The sky was lovely and clear, so we headed back up into the mountains after dinner with the camera. I'd spotted a picnic area nestled in a bowl in the landscape, about three miles outside Alpine, which would block any glow from the town. There was half a moon that night which made the sky fairly bright, and painted the landscape with moonlight. I managed to get plenty of stars, though.


Day 10: 374 miles



Day 11

We only had one stop to make on this last day of travelling. Three hours from Alpine took us to Sonora, where they have a show cave. In the parking lot, as Doctor Who appreciators, we were most amused to find this Tardis Chase and Recovery Vehicle, complete with Gallifreyan symbols on the side, Daleks on the dashboard, a Tardis light on top and Dalek/Cyberman kills on the door! We encountered the lady who owned it inside the gift shop; she said she'd been in Austin at the big SXSW festival, and the trailer contained a full size Tardis...


We bought tickets for a guided tour of the cavern, which was to last an hour and three quarters. This was worth every cent and minute; the cave was truly spectacular. I'm just going to let the pictures do the talking here. I tried to include some people for scale otherwise it's hard to know what you're looking at.


This is an 11-million year old cave with active formations everywhere; we had to be sure not to touch anything or it would kill the growth. Here we have a pool, coloured green from copper deposits. It's apparently eleven feet deep although it doesn't look like it.


Stalactites were everywhere; you had to be careful not to hit your head. That said, the trails were easy, although there's about 300 stairs.


These columns are some of the biggest in the cave. They're what happens several million years after a stalactite and stalagmite grow to meet each other.


Almost at the end of the tour, these rocks are near the surface. The cave was originally carved out by water and would have all looked like this, before being coated in all the formations.


After visiting the cave, we continued east, taking 290 off of I-10 towards Fredericksburg. We ended up coming into town on the other side of the fork from which we had left. Three hours after leaving Sonora, we were HOME.

Day 11: 400 miles

Total mileage: 3,427
For my British readers, this is the same (within a few miles) as driving from Land's End to John O'Groats, four times...
A big round of applause for my trusty Jeep! She carried us unfailingly, with vigour, style and comfort.
Hope y'all enjoyed the ride.



Sunday, March 16, 2014

Road Trip 2014: Las Vegas

Day 5

On this day we elected to visit the Hoover Dam, which is a mere 40 minutes drive or so out of Las Vegas. Alan drove though; I had had quite enough of driving by this point and was glad of a day off. The Hoover Dam is very large and very impressive, it’s a wonderful piece of engineering. We did the full Dam Tour, which takes you inside the dam to view the water-driven turbines, and then into one of the vents that opens out half way down the dam wall. Here’s the view from the vent, showing the beautiful arch bridge next door:

We were amused by this part of the display inside the museum section. It seemed relevant ;-)

This is the view from the bridge, looking back at the dam.

Next to the bridge is the Welcome To Nevada Sign. There’s a similar one for Arizona on the other side, since the river forms the state boundary here.

Back in Vegas, we went for a walk along the Strip. The whole point of this road trip was to show Diane around Las Vegas, as she's never visited before. She wanted to see lights. I think we can provide that! We visited the Bellagio Shops and City Center. City Center is one of the newest parts of Vegas and contains some of my favorite buildings. They’re all angles; those towers are deliberately leaning.

A couple more Vegas shots - here’s Paris:

and Excalibur:

We finished the evening in The Pub at Monte Carlo. This advertised over 100 beers and turned out to be filled with NASCAR fans, since the race was in town this weekend, and they were doing a radio interview as we arrived with someone who we didn't know. They all dispersed once the interview ended and we enjoyed our meal in relative peace...

Day 5: 64 miles, none of them mine!



Day 6

We started the day at the Black Bear Diner up the road a bit, where we met friend Frank for breakfast. He turned up in his Model T Ford which was most excellent! Alan and I hadn't seen Frank in years, so it was good to catch up. After breakfast, he gave each of us a ride in his T which was a lot of fun. Here it is parked next to my Jeep:

We detoured back via Rio to buy some tickets, then drove over to the old part of town, and parked at the Golden Nugget. We spent a few bucks on the slot machines in here, since they're cheap! Or at least; you put a dollar in and get several turns, rather than one turn as in the newer casinos. We won just enough to lose it all again without feeling like we lost anything; except Diane who kept her $10 and bought us coffee :-)

We walked down the big covered archway through Fremont Entertainment District and checked out another casino or two, before driving back and parking the wagon for the day.

Then we took the monorail down to the Venetian, to have a look in the shops there. These are cool; there is an entire underground area that looks like Venice. They have canals outside too. Look at these gondolas! They are apparently 1/3 scale versions of the true Venetian ones, although they're big enough, so I wonder if they're maybe 1/2 scale ones.

We took a ride :-) We had a very entertaining gondolier.

A quick refreshment at The Rockhouse, before heading back towards the Bellagio to look at the fountains. Here's a few views of that area.



Finally, we headed towards the Yard House, a beery restaurant in The Linq, which is the newest bit of Vegas. At the end of the Linq there is this new ferris wheel called the High Roller; apparently it is bigger than the London Eye. Sadly it was yet to open; they were saying maybe in April but it has to run for 20 days without passengers to test the bearings. It wasn't yet moving at all, but it looks great.



Day 6: 20 miles.



Day 7

We had breakfast in the hotel (we had a twin-room suite with kitchen and living room, so could look after ourselves somewhat more easily than in a regular hotel room) before heading out to look at the southern end of the Strip. We started at New York-New York, since Alan wanted to ride the roller coaster. This is an old school roller coaster that wraps around the building.


I was somewhat nervous about riding it, but got on anyway... I coped with the steep downhills by pretending I was doing aerobatics.... but planes are a lot smoother than roller coasters, the jolting is what makes me cope with it less well... OK, I guess I enjoyed it; at least I can say I've been on it! Diane took the sensible route and remained ground side, playing the arcade machines :-)


We continued on south, towards Luxor which is the Egyptian styled hotel. Here's a view from inside the tram - sorry about the reflection but it's the only one I took with the pyramid from the outside!


And here's the scale of the Sphinx at the front; see the people walking in?


Inside, the pyramid is hollow. It's pretty impressive. I'm still not entirely sure how you would get to the hotel rooms, since normal elevators aren't going to work. Maybe they have steep escalators that run up the walls.


Above the entranceway, you can walk into the middle. I don't think the Egyptians had lit-up segments on their obelisks, mind...


We had lunch at the Slice Of Vegas Pizza, which had an entire vegan menu; awesome! Then we walked on through the Mandalay Bay casino, before getting the tram back towards our hotel. Here's a view of the Vegas strip by day, taken from the walkway alongside Tropicana Avenue:


We spent a relaxing afternoon by the pool and in our suite, before driving back to the Rio. Here's a shot of my wagon driving down the Strip, just to prove we did :-)


We had our dinner at the Royal India Bistro, which turned out to be the quietest place in Vegas, at least when we arrived! To be fair, we were probably a bit early for dinner, and the place filled up as we ate. We enjoyed a very nice curry. Then we wandered through the hotel to the Penn & Teller Theater, to see Penn & Teller's show. This was very good indeed, we thoroughly enjoyed it.



And thus finished our time in Vegas. We started very early the next morning to get back on the road, and that will be the next blog post...

Day 7: 5 miles

Vegas segment: 89 miles