Former RAF Navigator John Nichol was determined to make the most of a recent business trip to New Zealand.
Sounds great doesn’t it? Your company phones and tells you you’re off on another all-expenses paid trip. Call me churlish if you like, but the trouble is that every business trip is the same. Before each one I vow that this time I’m not going to sprawl on my hotel bed, listlessly watching the in-house movie, eating a club sandwich ordered from room service and drinking a beer liberated from the mini-bar. Nor am I going to prop up the hotel bar for hours, nor sit in the restaurant reading a paperback while I eat my dinner.
This time I’m going to know where I am without having to refer to the complimentary stationery in the letter-rack. This time I’m actually going to get out and do something. So much for the theory. A couple of weeks later I invariably return worn out, older, wiser, and several pounds heavier, having seen nothing of the countries I’ve visited apart from the view from my hotel, taxi and aircraft windows.
When my publisher phoned to despatch me on a whirlwind publicity tour of New Zealand, I faced the bathroom mirror and solemnly repeated my catechism: ‘This time I’m really going to get out and do something.’ The only thing that worried me was that I couldn’t meet my gaze as I said it.
I had an early chance to put my good intentions to the test. After a 33-hour marathon via Bangkok and Sydney, I arrived in Auckland at three o’clock on a glorious autumn afternoon. My publishers had been unusually generous with acclimatisation time; my first meeting wasn’t until five. I surveyed the magnificent view from my top floor suite at the Carlton. Fighting the overpowering temptation to obliterate all trace of it by closing the curtains, lying down on the bed and switching on the TV, I changed into my running kit and consulted the concierge.
Ten minutes later I was following the spiralling road through One Tree Hill Domain. Beyond the formal parks and gardens was a broad expanse of woods and grassland, the countryside in the middle of the city. In the middle of a working day, it was full of strolling people, taking time out to enjoy the autumn sunshine. There were strolling players as well, a couple rehearsing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet on the conveniently steep hillside.
I soon had my first taste of the legendary friendliness of New Zealanders. A middle-aged bloke greeted me with a ‘G’day,’ and when he heard my Pommie accent, started jogging alongside me. The fact that he was wearing a Hugo Boss shirt and tie, trousers and brogues, didn’t faze him at all. He kept pace with me for twenty minutes, chatting about his friends in London, then waved goodbye as he turned back towards the city. When I reached the top, I was alone apart from the obelisk and the solitary tree that gives the hill its name, savouring the stunning views of the harbour of the City of Sails.
I ran back to the hotel, making rather quicker progress on the downhill leg and by five o’clock I was showered, changed and wonderfully refreshed, ready for whatever my publishers could throw at me. This turned out to be interviews and more interviews, interspersed with liberal quantities of food and wine. The pattern for the next three days was soon established: dawn to dusk interviews, followed by an evening flight to the next destination. Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch passed in a blur, but by some major scheduling error which has probably led to wholesale sackings in the publicity department, I had two hours to spare before the flight home. Surely this time the call of the in-house movie would be too strong, but no! With one mighty bound I was free. Less than fifteen minutes later I was being strapped into a lifejacket and helped into a jet boat on the river Waimakariri or the mighty Waimakariri as the jet boat publicity preferred to put it.
I began to see what they meant as we bulleted up a river the colour of agate, nearly drowning in spray from the torrent we were battling. The boat scraped the sides of steep gorges so narrow that the cliffs seemed to blot out the daylight, and swerved between jagged rocks. A 300-horsepower boat shouldn’t have been much of a thrill to someone used to flying in a Tornado developing 50,000 pounds of thrust. But I can assure you that a trip in a jet boat piloted by someone I swear was called Lothian Trussock, is a lot more scary than flying at low-level at 700 miles per hour.
The publicity brochure had described it as: ‘Scenic, exhilarating, exciting.’ They forgot to mention terrifying. When the boat turned 360 degrees in its own length while travelling flat out through a river gorge, I let out a shout that I like to think was sheer exhilaration, though I’m forced to admit there’s a pretty good chance it was actually sheer naked terror. An hour later, as I settled back in my seat for the BA flight home, I weighed up the trip. I’d done a hundred interviews, flown twenty-five thousand miles in ten days and shifted more Chardonnay than I cared to think about, but for the first time ever I’d seen and experienced something of the country I’d visited and I got back in better shape than when I left. This time I really did get out and do something.
The Mail On Sunday - WASHINGTON
On March the 6th 1991 I was one of 36 relieved yet proud men and women who walked down the steps of a Red Cross DC-9 aircraft and stood on friendly territory for the first time in many weeks. We were the Allied Prisoners Of War captured during Operation Desert Storm, the war to liberate Kuwait from its Iraqi occupiers. Although we were battered, bruised and exhausted we made a pact to meet again in 10 years time to celebrate the things we now valued above all else; life and freedom.
Last month the pact came to fruition and I found myself walking down the steps of a far more convivial British Airways 747 flight to visit the seat of American power, Washington DC. Twenty-nine of my fellow POWs, one of their widows and all of our partners had made the trip to DC from around the globe as far afield as Alaska, Kuwait, Italy and Bosnia. There was one thing on our minds; celebration, we had all agreed to have just one quiet drink. Luckily, the limit on extremely loud drinks was never set.
As a location for a crowd of people dedicated to partying DC was a great choice; bars, restaurants and clubs abound. And for those so interested, females outnumber males by a ratio of five to four. Needless to say, this minor statistic was of little interest to a group of former and serving fighter pilots, as our partners helpfully informed us. Enthusiasm and intent soon gave way to reality and it transpired that partying for the whole of the 7-day visit was likely to be pretty difficult, sightseeing was also going to be the order of the day.
As people who had spent our working lives in the air there was only one place to start, the National Air and Space Museum. Even though this is the world’s second most popular museum entrance is free, as is entrance to almost every attraction in Washington. Its cavernous halls exhibit aeroplanes, spacecraft and rockets and the 23 galleries trace the history of aviation and space exploration through the ages. But there was only one exhibit that our group wanted to see; the 1903 Wright Flyer. This is the actual machine that Orville Wright flew at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina when he became the first man to fly a powered aircraft. He had flown a distance of some 120 feet at a speed of about 6mph yet looking at the construction of spruce and ash covered with muslin it seemed almost unbelievable that it had ever left the ground. But it was Orville and his brother Wilbur who had begun a process that created the machines we would fly to war at speeds in excess of 700mph. Sadly our sense of a place in history was lost on most of our partners, in the midst of our recollections a voice piped up, "this is truly smashing darling, can we go and see something more interesting".
Much of the tourist trail in Washington has links with the military, Arlington Cemetery, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Navy Museum to name but a few. And I soon found that Americans love their Armed Forces, something not really evident in Britain. The first thing you notice when you travel around is the thousands of people wearing military uniform. In restaurants, on the underground, and in hotels Army, Navy and Air Force personnel go about their day to day business proudly wearing their country’s uniform, a sight you would never see in the UK. The phrase "military discount?" is one that you regularly hear, whether buying a plane ticket or a pair of trainers military personnel will normally receive a discount of between 10 and 30%, merely for serving their country.
This dedication to the military is no more evident than at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Close to the Reflecting Pool in the West Potomac Park made famous in the film, "Forrest Gump", it was designed by a 21-year-old student, Maya Lin, who won the commission in a national competition. When it was first dedicated in 1982 the nation’s wounds from Vietnam were still raw and it was highly controversial. Many Americans didn’t want a memorial at all, others thought its unique design didn’t do justice to the sacrifice of the dead and missing. Since then attitudes have changed and it is now the most visited monument in DC. In 1984 opponents of the design insisted that the more traditional "Three Fighting Men" sculpture be added nearby. The life-sized bronze statue of three battle weary soldiers, fatigue etched in their faces, certainly brought back memories of war for me but I was far more touched by the original memorial with its myriad names carved into the surface. The two polished walls of Indian granite meet in a 10-foot arrowhead and, at a slow stroll, it takes about three minutes to walk past the names of 58,209 servicemen and women, average age nineteen, listed as killed or missing in action in a land thousands of miles from home. Letters, poems and flowers left by the loved ones who remain litter the base of the memorial. There were 46 British servicemen killed during the Gulf War, a tragic loss by any standard, but standing in the shadow of 58,209 men and women brought the realities of conflict crashing home.
A short walk across the park to the south of The Reflecting Pool brought us to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. A troop of nineteen, heavily cloaked, stainless steel soldiers are shown, mid-stride, stalking an unseen enemy on a night patrol. On a bright spring morning the statues were life-like but in the dark of the night each one is individually lit and the effect is positively eerie as the haunted, anxious faces glare out from the artificial light. The soldiers flank a black granite wall bearing the inscription "Freedom Is Not Free", as our own small group of men and women who had once given their freedom stood silently by, it seemed a rather apt message to be reading.
Our final stop on the tourist trail was at Arlington National Ceremony where over 245,000 servicemen and their families are buried in a sombre counterpoint to the soaring monuments across the Potomac river. The granite and marble gravestones reflect the tides of American History from the Civil War to the present day; about twenty burials are still conducted every weekday. Our group split up as we each went in search of colleagues we had known, you don’t serve long in the Armed Forces before someone you know meets their maker. Row upon row of memorials reach out over 612 acres of Virginia countryside and it is a curiously quiet place, especially when another funeral ceremony begins. We waited as an honour guard accompanied a coffin draped with the Stars and Stripes, a drum beat sounded the slow march as the procession moved to a freshly dug grave. An immaculately uniformed squad fired three volleys over the remains before the coffin was lowered to the bugler’s call of "The Last Post". Finally the flag was folded and presented to the next of kin. As we returned to our hotel to continue our reunion celebrations there was no sense of embarrassment at having intruded into private grief, just a stark reminder of how lucky we all were to still be around, able to enjoy the tourist trail.
The Express On Sunday Magazine
ST LUCIA - THE LAST PARADISE ISLAND
"The roads are tracks - no left, no right, just everyone vying for the center.
I stumbled across St Lucia by accident whilst trying to book a last minute all-inclusive holiday to another Caribbean island. A computer error resulted in the booking being made for Sandals St Lucia and, always relying on luck, I decided to throw caution to the wind and give it a go. As I stepped from the aircraft I knew that fate had served me well, the friendliness was palpable, no surly customs inspectors or grumpy baggage handlers here. Everyone was smiling and the greetings flowed as though I was a long lost family member being welcomed back into the fold.
"Paradise island" must be the most over-used phrase in today’s travel brochures, but in St Lucia's case it really is true. From the shimmering green of the lush tropical rain forests to the impossible blueness of its waters St Lucia remains a relatively unspoilt and thankfully under-developed haven. The largest of the English-speaking Windward Islands, St Lucia’s history is one of conflict and struggle between France and England. Having changed hands 14 times in two centuries it finally gained independence in 1979. Despite this battle for power the Island exudes an ambience of serenity and relaxation whilst still retaining the elsewhere-vanishing vestiges of West Indian culture - the perfect tropical escape.
That the Island is under-developed became apparent on the journey from Hewanorra airport in the South to the resorts on the north-west coast. The roads are little more than pot-holed country tracks where there seems to be no left or right; just a middle with everyone vying for position regardless of their direction of travel. The taxi drivers, some of the most knowledgeable and polite in the Caribbean, have the disconcerting habit of turning around to chat to their passengers at what seems like the most crucial moments during the journey. They insist on describing each landmark as it comes into view, especially the famous Pitons. Twin towers of volcanic rock rearing 200Oft out of the ocean they are the most famous, and the most photographed, feature of St Lucia. Geography lessons and a few close shaves with donkeys and steep sided ravines later, I arrived, white knuckled, at my resort. And all was forgiven.
Sandals St Lucia is an imposing group of properties set amidst 150 acres of lush greenery rolling down to a private crescent shaped beach. The accommodation is truly luxurious with a king size four poster bed large enough to have a party in, a sumptuous lounge, a private patio, cable TV and a large drinks cabinet which was re-stocked each day all included in the price.
In an attempt to ensure that guests never wandered far the five gourmet restaurants and beach grill served food for twenty out of the twenty-four hours available each day. Evening feeding time became a real chore as one had to choose between French, Italian, Mexican, Japanese and Creole restaurants whilst ensuring that you retained a tiny space in your ever expanding stomach for that midnight snack of ribs and rice. Luckily I was only staying two weeks so managed to get away with increasing my weight by a mere16 pounds. The smallest meal of the day was breakfast with a choice of only thirty or so dishes with anything from fresh fruit platters to waffles or sliced beef on offer. After a hearty breakfast there were a multitude of activities, again all included in the price, to help you while away the hours.
The scuba diving was something that had caught my eye but I had presumed it was only available to fully qualified divers. Not a bit of it; after a brief chat from George, the resort instructor, I found myself being trussed into jacket, tank and mask to have my first practical lesson in the hotel pool. Not an activity for the faint- hearted, I took to my flippers and aqualung like the proverbial fish to water. The morning was taken up with basic instruction and emergency drills and by early afternoon I was chugging away from the diving centre in the resort boat. Heading out to the dive site we paralleled the rugged coastline punctuated by sandy coves and dotted with flourishing blooms of jasmine and passionflowers. Sprawled around me on the deck, soaking up the Caribbean sun, were a mixture of seasoned divers and nervous first timers like myself but any fears we had disappeared as we rounded the headland into Marigot Bay. Made famous to the older generation as the location for Dr Dolittle this is by far the prettiest natural harbour on the Island. Framed on three sides by verdant green cliffs the bay is skirted by coconut palms which beckon gracefully in the gentle breeze. As the sun danced off the glistening blue surf it was difficult to imagine a more exquisite view. But there were far more alluring sights waiting to be discovered just a few metres below the shimmering surface.
It is no exaggeration to say I was overwhelmed by the experience of my first dive. My initial reservations were swept aside by the unbridled beauty of the sub aqua world, within seconds of entering the silent water I was surrounded by the sort of sea life you can normally only discover in wildlife documentaries. I had been forewarned that the bay's inhabitants were partial to banana and as I peeled one, blue and yellow sea horses began to suck at my fingers. Just like their four legged, earth bound, namesakes these delightful, almost cartoon like, creatures, seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors on their territory. I swam deeper through vast shoals of fish displaying a living kaleidoscope of colour. The red and yellow stripes of the flat fish gave way to the majestic markings of the golden spotted eels as they wove effortlessly through the intensely clear water.
An inquisitive barracuda glided up to meet me, his skin glowed green in the light then seemingly transformed to a glittering electric blue as he twisted around me. After a few moments of inspection my new found friend obviously decided I was of little interest and with a contemptuous flick of his tail he magically disappeared.
As I descended further the water transformed from deep, almost mystical, blue to luminous purple until eventually, I found myself floating inches above the coral reef. A myriad colours, representing the whole spectrum from red to green, and a whole new world of organisms had sat peacefully on the seabed for many thousands of years. In the acute silence I felt privileged to be suspended above such beauty.
But sadly, with only thirty minutes of air, it was an experience that had to end and as our boat returned to the resort the Caribbean sun was just setting. As the dark of the sea swallowed the yellow gold of the sky I stepped ashore onto the warm sand. The sun sank behind the swaying palm trees as I watched the last vestiges of light fade into night. If a paradise were to be created they would surely use St Lucia as the blueprint.