… To Hong Kong

This time for real, for the first time in over 30 years. It’s, er, not the same.


The only building Johnny recognised was the Connaught Centre, now re-christened Jardine House. Opened not long before he landed in the city, it was notable for its round windows and, in the left-hand image above, was an obvious landmark. Today, it is barely visible (centre-right in the RH pic) among the much taller buildings.

The area around the former HMS Tamar is all reclaimed but, roughly where we would have tied up, now lies a marina. There’s still the Star Ferry, and the Peak Tram and the Peninsula Hotel (of Cleopatra Jones and the Dragon Lady fame — and my glittering wide-screen debut). Otherwise it’s high-rise enterprise all the way, from Chai Wan to Lantau, and beyond.


L-R: ET, David, Ryan & Cheryl on the ferry

We walked peacefully round the summit of the Peak and then crammed ourselves into the descending tram with hordes of tourists — who knows from whence they came? We took the Star Ferry; about the only bit of the entire visit that was familiar to me (the wooden seat-backs, that the first passenger aboard flips to face the front, made me smile). Over in an equally frenetic Kowloon, we saw no Rollers at the Peninsula but an MD902 took off from the roof so standards there are being maintained.

The MTR is impressive and largely accessible, although step-free routes at some stations require a degree of creativity. The taxis are familiar, but presumably new models, and the drivers helpful.

In no particular order we also enjoyed racing at Happy Valley, champagne at a rooftop cocktail bar, dim sum and jellyfish (surprisingly tasty). We pottered around Chai Wan, to the east of the island, where life was equally industrious but somewhat lighter on limousines. And we took a cab over the hill to Stanley Market, where I bought the first set of chopsticks that caught my eye and a small water colour of Central District that may just have featured Victoria Basin, back in the day. You have to learn to let go, Andrew.

Then, before we knew it, we were saying goodbye at the airport. Vaya con Dios, muchachos!

HK airport farwell


… with Thresher Sharks

They can be seen most mornings — early mornings — at the Monad Shoals, off Malapascua Island in the northern Philippines. The vertical wall, with a convenient viewing point 30 metres down, provides a convenient cleaning station for the graceful beasts with the elongated tail flukes. Johnny and the Varmints hitched themselves to the guide-rope.

IMG-20171021-WA0001The small island of Malapascua lies a 40 minute boat ride from the northern tip of Cebu, which itself is 200km from the international airport on the southern tip. The journey between these two points can be covered by a rental vehicle, either a car, van or in our case, a float plane. Never assume that the fastest vehicle will be the most convenient; we had arrived at the fag-end of a typhoon so adjustments were necessary. As it turned out, including the plane, the poor weather meant we utilised nine separate modes of transport to reach our destination.

Some transfer or another

One of several boats and chairs. This one was in brown rattan

For the final leg the dive centre sent its boat (there is a public service but it was now way too late for that). We made a night assault on the beach and I and the kit was dragged round to the shop. Johnny’s hotel was next to the Fun&Sun PADI centre, one of several dotted along the fine sandy beach on the southern island coast. An idyllic setting for grown-ups but never less than challenging for wheelchair users. Luckily, son Ryan would be at my side throughout the adventure.

To visit Malapascua from the UK and return after only four nights may seem an odd use of one’s time and money. But Ryan was joining Cheryl, his girlfriend, for a family reunion and a subequent invitation to me seemed too good to turn down. I love my diving; I knew this would be difficult but was also confident there would be plenty of willing hands.

Our programme began the next morning, bright and early. The boat’s ever-resourceful crew would experiment with ways of getting me on board from beach, boat or ocean, before settling on a plastic chair lashed to a pole and hoisted by them onto the fore-deck.

We made several dives during the build-up to the thresher descent; one to the small marine reserve of Gato, where we swam through a tunnel that was long enough for us not to be able to see the other side. It took a small leap of faith to make the dive into the abyss but it was probably only half a minute before the pale blue exit hove into sight.

And thrillingly, there were white-tipped reef sharks! Several of them, more of a conventional shark shape than a thresher and more menacing for that. By the time we saw them I was clear of the swim-through but others behind me inadvertently hemmed one in, and it darted towards them before finding a way out.

But the threshers were the highlight and they didn’t disappoint (video by Warwick Ngan Kee. The shadow at the end is of the diveboat, 100 feet up). As we were deeper, our sightings were limited to appearances through the gloom. Later there were arguments about just how many we had seen — several in succession or just one swimming in circles? Their mouths, while the familiar sickle shape, are far too small to pose a threat. But sharks of any kind have this mystique and thresher tails, which they use to stun their prey, are especially impressive.

Again due to the depth, our bottom time was limited and we needed to make a decompression stop while surfacing. On our way back to breakfast we were an excited group.

I always enjoy night dives, from the tip backwards into the blackness to giving the thumbs-up signal and piercing the silver surface above. And you always see good stuff; to improve my chances I tied a torch to my mask strap. This evening’s highlight was a writhing mass of green and black sealife, presumably feeding on some corpse, looking for all the world like the fabled snakes on Medusa’s head. They looked like eels but I later learned they are a type of catfish.

IMG-20171028-WA0000Now, back in England, having spent most of the past week either in the air or under the water, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I also feel shattered, which is odd considering others were doing most of the hard work. Would I go back? I initially thought never again. But on the other hand the hotel quickly put up several ramps, one permanent (Ryan christened it before the concrete set). I eventually found an almost sand-free route between the hotel and the dive school (the FreeWheel was again invaluable). The chair device works, although we must have stressed this particular one to its limits. And I finally made it into the shower without Ryan’s help (the exiting manoeuvre requires more thought).

So, with all that infrastructure now in place — madness not to, really.


Johnny gets a pressy. Thank you all!

… to Malapascua, Philippines

The 7P principle

Odd, you might think, to write a travel blog about a place that you haven’t yet visited. But scuba-diving this remote Philippine island, lying off the northern tip of Cebu, will present something of a challenge for Johnny Sombrero and his trusty steed. And as the departure date approaches, as is Johnny’s wont before any trip (ask Juanita), he starts to worry.

It’s not that he’s alone. Ryan and members of Cheryl’s family will be there to provide all the support he needs. His concerns have nothing to do with the distance, or the flights, or the Hong Kong stopover, or climbing into the minibus for the four-hour drive north — or even the scuba diving itself.


The paraw dive boat

It’s getting on the damn boat. Ordinarily, this is my favoured method of starting a dive. You get driven to the site, you kit-up, you sit on the side like a frogman and, boom, there you are surrounded by bubbles, above what you came to see. Getting on a modern dive boat is also a cinch; you wheel along the side of the marina and balance onto the stern dive platform. Still in the chair, job done. Well, more or less.

In this case, the stem of the local vessel, a paraw outrigger, faces the beach and access is via a plank. For an able-bodied person, negotiating this requires no more than a few steps up (maybe with arms outstretched for balance/effect). For me, well, I’m still not sure.

Plan A

If the plank is wide enough for my arse-cheeks, and if I can get purchase on it with my hands underneath them, I propose to sit on it and bum-shuffle my way backwards, up to the stem. If someone is standing either side of me in case I overbalance and if a third helps me reposition my feet in front of me as I mount. I can see that working.

My concern is that, from a manoeuvering point-of-view, my arms and shoulders are all I have. And after decades using them to pull myself up from the ground into my chair, my shoulder joints aren’t as secure as they once were. They have no effect on my day-to-day mobility and, for weeks now, I have been exercising to re-stabilise these joints. I have made progress, but I don’t want to undo this good work by being manhandled.

And while I’m at it, helping me out of the water after each dive needs some thought too. After passing my kit up, I do not want to be dragged up by my wrists until my belly folds over the side of the boat. That will hurt. We should find a point from where I can be pulled up using a twist-lift.

IMG-20171002-WA0006Most sailors will be familiar with this method. The deal is,  from in the water I face the side of the boat with my upstretched arms crossed above my head. A crewman takes each hand. We start a plunging motion into the water and, on my count, we all lift on the upstroke, untwist the arms and (in theory at least), I end up sitting on the edge. Minimal strain on the shoulders that way.

If this option isn’t available, again, we will find an answer. I may end up being towed. As long as we talk it through first. Because, as we used to say in the Navy, Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

Johnny feels better now. Andale andale muchachos!


Photos courtesy Cheryl Kng


… with a new bedroll

The Unstoppable gearbag clips to the rear rail of a wheelchair for hands-free carriage. It is not only hugely practical but possibly the first bit of kit ever designed for the disabled community that actually looks cool. Consisting of an 87 litre capacity main bag and a 31 litre back pack, the two fasten together for towing behind the chair or, if required, separate for check-in and carry-on baggage.

Unstoppable_1Designed in the UK by Andrew Slorance, the Unstoppable also features a nifty set of wheels that turn in two axes, allowing the user to spin as well as roll. It doesn’t affect balance in the chair so you can cop a wheely up a kerb as usual. The zips and materials look pretty hard-wearing too so we shall see how they behave during next month’s Far East trip. While the wheelchair clip appears tough as well, it protrudes and so appears more likely to be vulnerable to the tender ministrations of the world’s airport baggage handlers. If damaged, the component is simple to replace.

Zips, straps, handles and clips abound on the Unstoppable in fact, so much so that Andrew thoughtfully places stickers next to the ones you need to fasten the bags together. Another zip at the top allows access to the main bag while it is attached to the wheelchair, if say you feel the need to panic-stow your liquids at check in. There’s a telescopic handle too, for the use of a companion.

20170913_172723The Unstoppable costs £289. If you’re a regular traveller, Johnny doesn’t even think that’s overpriced.

Which makes a change.

… to Hong Kong

Me Monkton

On watch with our CO, Lt Cdr Nico Franks

But not until October, en route to and from a diving trip in the Philippines. Johnny is seeking commissions for both adventures. It will be his first visit since 1974 when, as a skin-and-essence 21 year-old Sub Lieutenant, he spent a year navigating patrol boat HMS Monkton from Victoria Basin, in the heart of the then British colony.

I arrived in June ’74, fully expecting to be deployed for social duties only. One of five patrol boats in the squadron led by the Salisbury-class frigate Chichester, we would set sail for day-trips two or three days a week, rarely in the dark and never at weekends. We patrolled the limits of the colony’s waters and I must have done a decent job as I cannot remember any dramas (there are admittedly few underwater hazards). I water-skied behind her once.


It can be done at 15 knots. Just not for long

It all changed during our annual deployment further south, in August of that year. We sailed to Bangkok and thence to Singapore, where our ships’s company was one of the last to experience its less salubrious side, in Bugis Street and its environs. Kai-tais and Merry Monks abounded. Very soon the burgeoning cruise ship market and its better-heeled clientele would necessitate a swift overhaul. (I visited again the very next year and there was no trace of the bars, brothels and massage parlours.)

We were about to sail for Penang before being recalled to HK, where the government had decided to put a stop to the increasing flow of IIs (illegal immigrants) who were making the perilous journey from the People’s Republic to the better life they expected in the British colony. We had already encountered a few; most were being smuggled by junks but the most desperate swam for it, sometimes aided only by inflated plastic shopping bags.

Unfortunately, between us and Harry Honkers lay a typhoon, one of several that plague the region each summer. Our passsage north therefore involved some pretty lively weather, less than ideal conditions for a wooden-hulled former coastal mineweeper. With the sky obscured for three days I was forced to navigate via Dead Reckoning, plotting our last known position on the chart and using corrected course and speed to predict our track. When the stars finally appeared and I could take a sight, we were only a mile or so off track.  After three days in the middle of a storm that’s nothing!

On our return to HMS Tamar, we soon discovered that life had substantially changed. Two of the boats would henceforth be required at sea all the time, to recover any IIs we could find and hand them over to the police for repatriation. I know, even at weekends. AND in the dark!


Nothing to declare

We worked quite closely with the professional and surprisingly firm Royal Hong Kong Police in their launches, joining them on numerous night patrols into the border regions of the New Teritories. We picked up a few swimmers who were alive (and heard of some who weren’t, having allegedly been attacked by sharks) and stopping both junks and sampans that mostly turned out to be innocent. I remember wearing an empty yet still surprisingly heavy 9mm Browning automatic at my waist and it may have been about then that I realised that, while clearly an ace navigator, I was not destined for great things as a leader of men.

Honda S800

800cc of uncontrolled fury (note power bulge on bonnet)

During my 2017 stopovers, I will have an opportunity to see how life has changed. Victoria Basin (visible on the right in the headline image) and HMS Tamar are definitely no more and our various bachelor haunts will surely have been absorbed into the world of international commerce.

Johnny’s life has changed too, and he will want to see how easily an independent wheelchair user navigates the high-rise skyline of his former posting.


… to Aerobility

This well-supported charity – known as the home of disabled flying – aims to get people living with a range of handicaps airborne. It has a fine record of fulfilling the ambitions of youngsters and veterans alike; indeed, it prides itself on finding an aviation solution for everybody.

Alex Krol and Tecnam2Aerobility is based at Blackbushe Airport in Hampshire with outposts in the Midlands and Scotland. Its fleet of four aircraft has recently been augmented by an Italian-built Tecnam two-seater (left), the first production aircraft to be designed with a hand-control option for paraplegics. That’s quite a breakthrough, considering I’m not aware of any cars that fit the bill. Prove me wrong.

Aerobility offers taster flights and Private Pilot’s License courses, comprising full air and ground-school programmes. The fleet is  available for hire by suitably-qualified pilots. Students can also practice their procedures on  a bang up-to-date cockpit simulator.

Current plans include the establishment of a formation team, “The Bader Bus Company”, to be crewed by disabled pilots and set to fly next summer (and scheduled for TV coverage). A Build-A-Kitplane project, with every single component funded by charitable giving, is nearly ready for lift-off.

And right now, teenagers are being sought to participate in Aerobility’s second Aviation Education Programme. Aimed at young people aged between 14 and 18 years old with mild to moderate learning and/or physical disabilities, the AEP strives to provide them with transferable skills and strengths that they can take into further education and employment. It covers introductions to Airfield Operation, Air Traffic Control, Fire and Rescue, Aircraft Engineering, Meteorology and Principles of Flight.

… to British Summer Time, Hyde Park

This series of open-air concerts is becoming a familar part of the London season. I bought a ticket this year out of love for Tom Petty’s back catalogue and respect for his longevity — this event was part of the band’s 40th anniversary tour and their only European date. My daughter took the free companion slot with me to see the running order in reverse; she had barely heard of Tom.

As a disabled punter I could have brought the car to a Blue Badge area within the venue and if we do it again I just might. The tube run to Green Park may look straightforward but it ain’t:

  1. From the newer Jubilee Line platforms such as Waterloo, to avoid a big step at the older GP station, use the raised rear of the platform. Follow the wall-markings
  2. While otherwise step-free at GP, you must negotiate several lifts and sloped connecting tunnels in order to regain, panting, the fresh air
  3. From GP it’s a 20 minute trek to the venue and even further to the accessible entrance. Do your research. We asked a copper and followed C’s phone but detail was lacking.

That canopy’s not for you, boys, it’s for the Vips

The accessible section consisted of a ramped platform and a ground-level area. I assumed we would be on the former but our wristbands (and our tickets, we discovered) were for the latter. However indignation born of ignorance got us onto the platform, where we snuck into line and I resolved not to leave for the duration. With a companion’s swing-tag C could come and go at will, so it was clear who would be getting the beer in.

The show was great although, for an area billed as close to the VIP enclosure, we depended on the video screens to see what was going on, just as much as the rest of the audience. Leaving the venue was straightforward but why-BBC-why would I, a seasoned live music veteran, stop by the merch and spend 35 quid on quite the crappiest tour T-shirt I have ever seen.

… to Pisa and Florence

Lovely compact old cities, easy to navigate but bumpy roads and high kerbs make a companion and a Freewheel something of a must. Johnny and Juanita flew BA to Pisa airport and took the new Pisa Mover shuttle to the Centrale railway station, from where they set off on foot to the famous tower. Most of the route is pedestrianised so it is easy to find after a 30-45 minute stroll.

You can imagine how popular this place is with tourists and, indeed, it’s a thrill to finally see an edifice so familiar from Year 3 Geog. Everyone strikes the pose in some form. We stopped en route for ice-creams at La Bottega del Gelato, north of the Ponte de Mezzo in Piazza Garibaldi.

For the rail journey from Pisa to Florence (trip times range from 40 to 80 mins), it’s a good idea to contact SalaBlu (SalaBlu.firenze@rfi.it) who will help you with timetables and the luggage, and get you onto the right bit of the train. The transfer to the train itself is level so they are not essential but for a first-timer, why not?

We stayed in the ground-floor accessible room at the Kraft Hotel (krafthotel.it) on the Via Solferino. Three steps in Reception are negotiated via the slowest platform lift ever, but it arises from flush with the floor which will impress a small child. Meals are taken on the roof terrace with romantic views over the city.


See Davis last or, so the legend goes, everything else will disappoint.

If you’re there for the art, the good news is that wheelchair users skip the queues (over two hours at the Uffizi when we visited) and get in free everywhere. Access to the attractions is good but the Ponte Vecchio is usually crowded and always steep; get someone to take a pic of it for you. We recommend the food at Mercato Centrale; browse the products on the ground floor and eat them on the first. They know their meat in Florence; Johnny had a great steak at Trattoria 4 Leoni (not far from the Pritti Palace) and Juanita’s spag bol contained five per cent boar and scored a palpable hit.

We also did opera (a new venue at Viale Fratelli Rosselli looks a bit like the Basingstoke Anvil, which is not meant as a criticism). It turned out to be a school performance of the Magic Flute; the principals were adult but, at the drop of a hat, 50-odd blooming kids were wheeled on to wave their arms about like Mr Gumby. Still worth seeking out a ticket if you can decipher the poster.

… to the Moat Barn National Nature Reserve


Along what locals call the ‘Elstead straight’ towards Thursley in southwest Surrey lies the carpark to this network of ponds and natural wetlands, a former army training ground traversed by more than a kilometre of easy boardwalk. It’s a haven for bird and insect life; our visit on a warm May day caught the dragonfly breeding season and, to the delight of local twitchers, a quartet of rare raptors – hobbys – had taken up residence. We saw lizards and marsh orchids, and our dog made a small boy drop a frog (not a euphemism).

20170528_130525Part of the trail is dedicated to the 20 species of dragonfly that frequent the wetland and one viewing platform features an etched panel describing their life-cycle.

The walk is plenty wide enough for a wheelchair and there are passing places along the way, as it rather elegantly wraps around individual trees and winds through minor thickets. We have yet to venture out on a spur that takes you to a mysteriously-wooded area. On a couple of platforms the ecology of the area is described on touch-panels for the visually impaired.

It makes for a fascinating visit. If you take the Thursley turn-off the A3, before the tunnel, you will pass the Three Horseshoes, a village-owned pub with good beer and  stockbroker belt food.

… to the Edinburgh Fringe

Fed up with bleating that we’d just never got around to visiting Edinburgh for the annual comedy festival, we decided to give it a go. We requested a brochure online and the hefty document told us all we needed to know. Based on the accessibility of each venue we booked around 10 shows to visit over three days – a mixture of household names, Fringe stalwarts and some that sounded good, like for instance A Play, a Pie and a Pint. We had no idea what to expect.

We took he train north as the programme was getting into gear, but before the hotels hiked their prices, and checked into the Bruntsfield, run by Best Western. It has friendly staff and an excellent accessible basement room.

We immediately fell in love with the spirit of the Fringe and the good nature of the people who make it happen; most visibly the hundreds of students whose sole job was to hand out flyers. Each of them showed an interest in us and were happy to talk about ‘their’ act and, if they were able to, the features of the venue. The audience members we encountered in various bars were extremely pleasant and several of them bought us drinks, which was kind since the queues were long and the beer dear. We never encountered anyone who wasn’t having a great time.

While we stuck to the pre-paid plan, we also allowed ourselves to be hauled off the street into one free show by its eager promoter. This made us feel supportive.


There’s a Blue Badge button on the railing!

Each venue delivered the promised access, bar one. The le Monde at 16 George Street is perfectly accessible, once you have negotiated the five steps up from the street. The management thought that the staff they had available to manhandle one up and down made it qualify as wheelchair friendly. Indeed, inside it featured lifts to all floors and an impressive bathroom. I took some time to explain this flaw in their otherwise impeccable strategy and I’m still not sure they got it. But the moral is, the Fringe Society doesn’t have the resources to check every venue.

The other issue is the labyrinth of steep lanes, some I swear occupying three or four dimensions, and cobbled courtyards in the very centre of the action that you will be unable to avoid. Bring a friend and a Freewheel.