… to be back in the UK in May.
Pictures taken on the South Downs, near Brighton, on Sunday 29th May.
So, we’re back from the big adventure and other preoccupations, many of them of a DIY variety, have taken its place in the forefront of our minds.
We have re-occupied the house in Brighton that we bought in the early nineties and in which we lived very happily while our kids grew, did their GCSEs and A-levels and flew the proverbial coop. The house itself has been let for the past twelve years and, when we moved back in, it was showing all the signs of having been occupied by tenants who themselves, were bringing up a house full of teenagers. The paintwork has seen better days!
So we have our work cut out for the next couple of months, rehabilitating the house, bringing it back to its former glory and making it feel loved again, if you’ll for give the anthropomorphisation!
But what of the blog, this piece of inconsequential nonsense that has been my constant companion since the 24th June, 2012? This collection of observations that has taken us through the run-up to leaving on VSO, the 16 months in South Sudan, the evacuation from Rumbek, the four month hiatus back in the UK, the twenty months in Papua New Guinea and then the four month slow progress home, culminating with the voluntary incarceration on board the Good Ship Bougainville.
Over the past four years, 33,574 ‘views’ have been recorded on the blog, from a total of 8,383 ‘visitors’. I have written 1,346 posts, including this one, and although there has been a hard-core of die-hard, followers, who have kept up with ever twist and turn of the adventure, there have also been many casual visitors from places as far apart as Mongolia and Angola, with a regular visitor in Brazil who only started following the blog a couple of months ago, but has clicked in faithfully every day since then. I have no idea who he/she is, but I was very glad to see him/her appearing on my statistics every day.
My best year was 2013 with 10,033 views. My best day was 10th October, 2012, when, for reasons I still do not understand, no fewer than 189 people clicked on to nichollsretirementproject.wordpress.com. I also have a huge file made up of the comments that various readers have made from time to time, which were great fun to read.
I have really enjoyed writing the blog over the past four years. Linda thinks that, especially in South Sudan, the job of keeping me sane was shared, pretty much equally, between WordPress and herself. Checking the daily viewing figures has become an obsession but the best thing is that, at the end of it all, I have an electronic diary that covers our lives from the point at which we retired from paid work up until the present. My greatest nightmare is that WordPress, who host the blog, will suddenly go out of business and that the blog will disappear from the face of the internet.
So, as the title of this piece suggests, the question is, what now?
When we were thinking of a title for this blog the best we could come up with was “nichollsretirementproject”, because, at that time, the idea of going on VSO was exactly that. It was a retirement project, a way of easing ourselves out of the security – and to some extent thraldom- of our full-time careers, without having to face the scary that faces most retirees, once they have made their farewell remarks to their colleagues and collected up their “Sorry You’re Leaving” cards; i.e. What happens now?
But, in a sense, for Linda and myself, the real Nicholls Retirement Project is only just starting. We are currently busy getting our house into a fit state to live in, but that is a temporary situation, which should only last another couple of months. And then the real retirement will start. I wonder whether that is something worth documenting.
Already, things have happened that have made me think, ‘Oh, I should blog that.” But the blog has finished, hasn’t it?
Well, no, perhaps not. I know that I don’t have the self discipline to write a proper diary, but there are times when I feel moved to put index finger to keyboard, when things impress me, amuse me or, like the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, make me cross, and the blog is a way of recording these ideas and impressions, so that when I finally descend into my dotage, I’ll, hopefully, have something interesting to read.
So, for better or for worse, the blog will go on, at least for the time being. It might be a bit less exotic, it might have fewer insights into strange foreign countries and cultures and, I hope it won’t contain too many crocodiles and armed robberies, but maybe, as I look around from our new, retired perspective, it might turn into something that some of my readers might find worth the occasional read.
So stand by for “Nichollsretirementproject – the Sequel.”
And so the last short leg of our epic journey began.
We entered the Solent and started our slow but steady way to Southampton at about one o’clock in the morning. It was strangely comforting to overhear the two, newly acquired pilots casually chatting to each other in Hampshire accents.
This led me to reflect on the differences between the different pilots who had steered our ship during our journey. The Egyptian pilot who engaged me in a long and seemingly inexhaustible diatribe about the evils of British colonialism, especially in the Middle East, and the fact that the British never learn from their mistakes; the Spanish pilot who looked lake a modern day Don Quixote with his sharply tailored, high collared shirt, his flowing, but beautifully coiffed hair, his hand on his hip and his other hand drumming its long, manicured fingers on the controls of the Good Ship Bougainville.
Then came the dashing French pilot who arrived sliding down a rope from a helicopter and radiated bravado and confidence. And finally, the two British pilots who whiled away the early hours of the morning as one told the other, at great length, all about the protracted negotiations that he had recently successfully concluded with his neighbour over the sale and eventual removal of a shed.
By 3.00 am we were alongside and within the warm embrace of the dockside cranes.
We were at the end of what had, in effect, been a four-year journey. As regular and faithful followers of this blog will know, the whole adventure started in 2012 when we were sent by VSO to South Sudan. In the four years that followed, we had travelled to Kenya and Tanzania, back for a very unsettling sojourn in the UK, then on to Papua New Guinea for another 20 months and, finally through New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia and, thanks to the Good Ship Bougainville, back home safely to the UK.
The whole thing has been a blast! We have met and worked with some fascinating people, we have seen some unforgettable landscapes. We have had conversations about everything from the cost of bride price to the rising price of broccoli, from gender issues affecting the lives of millions to the difference between an adjectival noun and a gerund. We have swum on the Great Barrier Reef and seen a turtle in its natural environment. We have crossed the vast emptiness of the Australian outback and seen the Suez Canal. We have been stopped in the dead of night by a pick-up full of nervous, AK47 toting policemen in Rumbek and robbed at gunpoint, (and bushknifepoint, if there is such a word), in a hotel near Madang.
And now, here we were, sailing quietly into Southampton harbour, listening to the unbearably thrilling drama surrounding the sale of a shed! It was wonderful to be back!
After a few hours’ sleep, it was time to say our fond farewells and leave the ship.
Our last view of the Bougainville, as we sat in the crew bus on our way to the gate and the outside world, was the wonderful Felix who had looked after us for over three weeks and still insisted on carrying our bags to the bus.
We have had a wonderful adventure. We had intended to be away for two years but, in the event, it turned out to be four. The decision to take early retirement and go abroad with VSO cost us each at least two years’ salary at the peak of our earning capacity.
If we could re-play the tape and think the whole thing through again a bit more carefully in the light of experience, would we make the same choice?
Damn right, we would!
And so we reached the last leg of our journey from Australia to Britain, the short hop from Le Havre to Southampton. Some people have asked me whether we thought we were in danger of cabin fever during our 23 days on the high seas. Well, I am perhaps not the best person to judge the extent of my own sea fever.
All I know is that there is no limit to the time that I can watch containers being loaded onto and unloaded from a ship. Surely everybody finds containers endlessly fascinating, don’t they?
Do I need help?
There was only supposed to be one stop on our voyage from Port Kelang to Southampton and that was going to be in Algeciras. However, at the last minute, at one of the ports in China, the Good Ship Bougainville picked up several hundred containers bound for Le Havre. Apparently the consignment contained the sections of a bridge and walkway destined for one of France’s new regional airports. Presumably this was another example of cheap Chinese steel being dumped on the European market! Sorry, Port Talbot!.
All the way from Port Kelang up the straits of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, up the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean, the seas had been remarkably calm. However, once we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and out of the Med, we were at the mercy of the Atlantic winds and currents and the infamous Bay of Biscay, (or the Golfe de Gasgoigne, as the French call it.)
The captain had warned us that we could expect bad weather on this last stretch of the journey although he assured us that CMA/CGM would not be taking any risks with their newest flagship where the containers were stacked 22 high and could be swept off into the deep by a freak wave or a heavier than usual roll.
(By the way, for those of you who are studying for your Elementary Seafarer’s badge, let me explain that ‘rolling’ is the side to side motion of a ship that can cause you to have to steady yourself against the walls from time to time. “Pitching’ on the other hand is the motion of the ship as it dips into the waves in a heavy sea, before, hopefully rising back out on the top of the wave before plunging into the next one. Rolling isn’t too serious. Pitching can often result in you being re-acquainted with your breakfast.)
Although we were on a huge ship, our Captain was experienced enough to know that you don’t take risks with heavy seas. In his younger days he was on a ship that did tackle the Bay of Biscay in bad weather and at one time the ship was travelling at full steam ahead and averaging a speed on minus three knots!
As it happened, we managed to get through the Bay of Biscay before the storm broke, but when we arrived in the English Channel there were dozens of ships that had obviously been told by their owners to wait out the storm and not risk sailing south.
By the time we got to Le Havre, we were very glad to see the breakwater, the cranes waiting for us and the calmer waters at the quayside.
Well someone has to inspect the unloading …
and make sure that the stevedores have taken away the right containers.
By the way, have you ever thought what happens to containers full of frozen meat that are shipped to Europe from the other side of the world? What happens if they have to be offloaded and the transport hasn’t arrived to collect them. No problem. Just group them all together and plug them in to little generators and they’ll stay frozen for as long as you want.
Finally, while the Good Ship Bougainville was tied up alongside in Le Havre, the bridge was usually deserted, which meant that, as I watched the loading and unloading, until late in the evening, the Captain’s jacket was lying unused.
I am sure he would have wanted me to use it!
Although the Good Ship Bougainville was less than a year old, rust was a constant problem, so a programme of painting was ongoing.
Every bit of rust was ruthlessly hunted down and treated with not one, not two but three coats of paint.
And there are an awful lot of nooks and crannies on a big, ocean-going ship.
And lots of places for rust to lurk.
Don’t ask. I have no idea!
All I know is that I’m glad it wasn’t me.