Arts and Culture, Food, Running, Stories, Travel

The ALESIA Trail

A long time ago, when the Roman civilization was flourishing and France was still known as Celtic Gallia (Gaul), there lived a chap who dared defy Julius Caesar. He was known as Vercingetorix, and you may have come across his name, which is strewn liberally all through pop culture, most notably in the Asterix comic book series or film. Wikipedia says his name meant Great Warrior King, and  as a chieftain of the Arverni tribe, he attempted to unite the Gauls to rebel against the Roman legions. When Caesar built not one, but two fortifications to cut off both the city, as well as the Gallic allies who came as relief, the Gauls lost the Battle of Alesia and the Roman Empire was created. Vercingetorix was held captive, brought back to Rome, marched the streets and finally executed.

A statue of Vercingetorix in Alise-Sainte-Reine, commissioned by Napoleon III.

A statue of Vercingetorix in Alise-Sainte-Reine, commissioned by Napoleon III.

It’s a sorry end, but the man went down as a hero. So widely celebrated is this part of Gallo-Roman/French history, that the running community has decided to celebrate it with the Alesia Trail, a trail race that takes runners through the forests and villages of Burgundy, in the ancient battle site of the Battle of Alesia (52BC). It offered four distances – 16km, 25km, 34km and 51km. The Ninja Turtle won her bib on RunningHeroes, which included the post-race meal, and she was absolutely stoked.

After fourteen races since the end of February 2015, this was to be the Ninja Turtle’s fifteenth and last race of the year, and as luck would have it, a final hurrah to summer.

The duo rolled into town a day in advance and took a moment to enjoy the landscape of the Burgundy countryside during the bib collection. Alise-Sainte-Reine sits atop a huge hill, and the view was magnificent, but it did mean that the race will finish with a climb back uphill, and what a mother of a hill it was.

The race commences and finishes at the statue of Vercingetorix, which sits atop a huge hill.

The race commences and finishes at the statue of Vercingetorix, which sits atop a huge hill.

GodzillaPin decided to calm the Turtle’s anxiety by taking her sightseeing, so they drove to Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where their B&B accommodation was, and popped by the lolly factory and the medieval crypt. By the time they checked into their B&B, the Ninja Turtle was tired enough to sleep. They were greeted by their host, who was very friendly, but when she inquired who was running the race and what distance, the Ninja Turtle was met with a rather impressed and skeptical look.

But first, a pre-race meal at the Cheval Blanc.

The next morning, the duo woke up bright and early, and their host served up a lovely breakfast of fresh fruit salad, yogurt, breads and spreads. The Ninja Turtle also got a whole flask of coffee to herself, which came to 4 cups! They were joined by the other two guests in the B&B, a couple from Paris who were also in town for the race. The husband was running the 16km, and the same look of disbelief crossed their faces when GodzillaPin announced proudly that the Turtle was doing the 34km.

Some fun facts from the organisers:

1600 runners across the four distances. 26% of all runners were women, and 74% men. 15% (240 runners) were doing the 34km distance, and the average age of all runners was 41. There were to be 160 volunteers, which meant 1 volunteer to 10 runners. The runners will run a combined distance of 41138km in 8 hours!

A map of the 34.2km route.

A map of the 34.2km route, with a climb of 1200m (3937ft) and a total elevation profile of 2393m (7851ft).

While driving to the starting line, the Ninja Turtle decided to err on the side of over-dressing, with the option to remove layers, than to risk freezing through the race. Although the forecast was a nice sunny day, it was 9°C (48°F) at the starting line with cold winds. She made it to the starting line with barely a few minutes to spare. The duo hadn’t counted on a traffic jam to happen, but with the road closures on narrow streets, it was inevitable. GodzillaPin dropped the Turtle off, and she hiked uphill to the starting line. The queue for the toilets were too long, so she found a bush close by. GodzillaPin joined her a few short minutes later for a good luck kiss, and off the runners went.

Ready... steady... GO! (The Ninja Turtle in white cap, lagging close to the back of the pack once more.)

9am flag-off for the 34km race. Ready… steady… GO! (The Ninja Turtle in white cap, lagging close to the back of the pack once more.)

After a long and hard season that culmulated in a half marathon PR just two weeks ago, the Ninja Turtle had just one simple objective: to simply finish the race and enjoy herself while at it. There are some runners out there who snub this absolute lack of competitive spirit; perhaps you believe that if one ain’t pushing hard, there’s no difference from doing just a training run, so why pay the money to join a race? Well, that may be the case for road races, but as far as the Turtle is concerned, there is no way her training would take her through the forests and hills of ancient battlefields, and she runs her trail races as experiences to be lived. Besides the faster one runs, the sooner the experience is over, which makes it terrible value for money. That’s not to say the Turtle doesn’t make an effort, she still runs in these events, because everyone else is doing it and it’s a great sensation to be flying through the landscape. Also, this race had 2 time limit checkpoints.

Landscape like this.

Landscapes like this. Lovely Charolais cows soaking in the sun, staring at the nutters running by.

The race had four water stations,three of which offered up food, and one of them with a time-check. The first of which these was in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where GodzillaPin waited to capture some photos of the Turtle.

The villages offered up a picturesque change from the countryside and the forest landscapes.

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It was truly a fantastic experience, as most of the race took the runners along soft forest soil, which was an absolute pleasure compared to some of her previous races. That said, the Ninja Turtle does not wish to downplay the difficulty of the race, as there were moments where runners still had to deal with sharp rocks, and at two points, the course became very technical, and runners were obliged to use cords to descend and to climb up the impossibly steep trail. To get an idea of what the Ninja Turtle lived, one of the participants from the previous edition made a video of the race.

The Ninja Turtle passed the mid-point time check and clocked in at 2h 13m 29s, ranking 164 overall. By the time she’d crossed the finish line, she’d finished the race in 4h 11m 3s, and moved up to 134 of 211 finishers. It was a pleasant surprise too, to discover that she ranked 10th among the women (29 finished), and 4th in her age group category (11 finished). Perhaps they’re not terribly impressive results to some, given the size of the competition, and frankly, the Turtle didn’t care. She was simply glad to receive some post-race TLC from a couple of amazing volunteer physiotherapists. She also enjoyed the chance to socialise with some of the other runners (they saw Asterix, a Roman soldier, and here the Turtle poses with Getafix), and quite possibly the reincarnation of Vercingetorix himself! Guilhem had run the race twice before, and this hardcore young man is the face of Alesia Trail. That’s him on the poster! He also did spectacularly well, coming in 10th overall in the 51km. And he’s only 22…

Overall, it’s been a great race season, filled with extreme experiences, new PRs, personal growth and above all, the chance to celebrate the love of running.

The Turtle has no doubt that 2016 will bring more racing fun and adventure, but for the moment, she is ready to hang up her running shoes for a few weeks, for she has earned a much deserved rest.

The happy end to a chapter.

The happy end to a chapter.

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Running, Travel

40th Edition of Les Crêtes Vosgiennes

Hi all, apologies for the spell of silence since the last update, the Ninja Turtle hasn’t fall off the side of a cliff (yet) so she’s really got no excuse for not updating, but the weather here has been swinging between extremes – hot and sunny days punctuated with periods of overcast and cold, so the Ninja Turtle has been trying to make the most of the warm weather while it lasts. Unlike most people, she prefers the heat to the cold, and while she may look foolish in shorts, at least she’s not battling to open her mid-run fuel with frozen fingers despite 2 pairs of gloves.

Last weekend, the duo took another road trip, this time for a race in the Vosges. Thankfully, it was much closer to home than the Alps; there is little worse than being cramped in a car for hours after, or for that matter, even before a trail race. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Les Crêtes Vosgiennes is a well-established trail race in Alsace that offered up 2 distances, 13km and 33km. The longer race commenced at Markstein, taking runners over 13 peaks (or crests), sharing the last 13km with the shorter race, and finishing at Lac Blanc. There were water stops every 5km, and except the first one, all the others also offered up fresh and dried fruits, cheese and sausages, biscuits and gingerbread. Just like at the Trail des Passerelles, the weather promised to be fine – only if you finished by a certain time.

cretesvosgienneselevationprofile

The duo stayed in a cute little bed and breakfast, where the owner kindly prepared the Turtle a super-early breakfast of coffee, pastries, cheese and jam, which the Turtle demolished because #1. nothing like coffee to get pre-race bowels moving, and #2.from previous experience, racing above 1000m above sea level makes the Turtle quite ill so there is no guarantee she’d be able to stomach any mid-race fuel. GodzillaPin drove the Turtle to Lac Blanc, where shuttle buses waited to take runners to the starting lines at Markstein or Schlucht.

Now, it could have been the three cups of coffee, or it could have been the winding mountain roads, but the ride felt interminable, and the Ninja Turtle was feeling rather anxious. In the back of her mind, she couldn’t help asking herself “Are we there yet? How much farther till we arrive? I have to run this whole way back? It’s very far… can I really run this far? It feels very far. Oh my God please don’t let me DNF again…”

To calm herself down, she turned to the runner next to her and started blabbing.

NT: Do you know how many runners are doing the 33km?
Fellow runner: No idea, but quite a lot. It’s the 40th edition so it’s pretty big.
NT: Have you done this race before?
Fellow runner: Yes, in 2010, and it was rainy but we’ve got good weather today. It’s going to be lovely, you’ll enjoy it.
NT: But I think they say it’s going to rain at some stage this afternoon?
Fellow runner: Well, if you run fast enough, it won’t be a problem now, will it?
NT: How technical is the trail?
Fellow runner: It’s pretty tough, but doable. You know, back in the day, it started at Lac Blanc and finished in Markstein.
NT: Why did they reverse the direction of the race?
Fellow runner: To make it harder.

Not exactly reassuring, but at least it killed time and soon enough, they arrived in Markstein.

The competition was, for want of a better word, competitive, at this race. Laugh all you want but the Ninja Turtle found herself swept along in the enormous crowd and after the first kilometre, found herself panting despite a descent. She had to swallow her pride and let dozens of other runners overtake her as she found her rightful place in the line.

First thing the Ninja Turtle noticed was the difference in landscape. A few short months ago, she was in the area skiing at La Bresse; gone was the snow and in its place, tall grass and rocky, pebble-strewn paths. And mountain ranges are all magnificent in their own special way – the views while running on the Alps were truly spectacular, but the pine forests of the Vosges are no less impressive.

The other thing was the crowds – volunteers at the water stations and supporters en route. While us runners may be grimacing in pain, don’t for a minute believe that you are invisible to us. We may not respond to your words of encouragement, but every one of them is very much appreciated. Being one of the few (or sometimes only) Asian runner in a mostly homogenous competing field, she finds herself in the rather awkward position of drawing more attention than she’s comfortable with.

There are mutually embarrassing moments when she runs with a group and supporters would be shouting encouragements to each individual but as soon as they see her and they just clam up – the Ninja Turtle is just going to assume that they assume she doesn’t understand French, because the alternative explanation is unthinkably racist and if it truly is the case, she’d rather not know. But then there are also some lovely moments when supporters see her, and cheer her on as they would any other runner. At this race, the Ninja Turtle got a lot more encouragement than usual, which only leads to the conclusion that Alsaciens/Alsaciennes are incredibly friendly. Also, they have the cutest accent (c’est bien comes out sounding like “say bee-an” rather than “say bee-uhn”).

A few quick lessons the Ninja Turtle’s learnt from this race:

  1. A mile is a mile is a mile, but racing from point-to-point feels psychologically harder for the Ninja Turtle rather than doing a round-trip.
  2. She doesn’t like mounting several small peaks, preferring do a couple of big climbs and a couple of big descends. This race had an elevation gain and loss of about 2000m (compared to 3500m at her previous race) and yet the constant uphills and downhills felt tougher.
  3. An uphill climb on soft forest soil is ten times easier than flat ground studded with irregularly-shaped rocks where runners have to leap over said rocks or try to balance precariously on them while maintaining a “running” pace.
  4. An uphill climb on any terrain is a million times more preferable to a cliff descent that involves rolling pebbles over sandy and unstable ground.
  5. Don’t put Ventolin or mobile phone in left chest pocket of hydration bag, it’s got a giant hole in it.
  6. If said hydration bag weighs 1.6kg after crossing the finish line, it’s got too much crap in it. (Most of the weight is water, and some just-in-case-I-get-lost-or-fall-down-a-cliff-and-need-to-wait-for-help food which NEVER gets around to being eaten.)
  7. Don’t get cocky. Three 30+km trail races in 5 weekends is naturally going to take a physical toll, and just because the last trail race yielded a better-than-expected result doesn’t mean we’re now in pro territory. Since when did timing mean anything in a trail race for this stop-to-take-some-photos runner?

Results:

Time: 4 hours 12 mins 08 secs
Ranking: 653/940 (Overall), 59/129 (Women) 33/63 (Senior Femmes)

She also beat the rain clouds to Lac Blanc by about an hour, although by the time GodzillaPin arrived (he got lost biking in the mountains, which was bound to happen sooner or later since he never has a map) the thermometer dropped to 14 degrees Celsius and fat droplets of cold rain pelted upon a shivering Ninja Turtle. GodzillaPin bought her a giant sausage sandwich and French fries with mayo and ketchup, so all was forgiven.

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Stories, Travel

Reflections on China

Prior to the Ninja Turtle’s visit to China, she had certain preconceptions about the place. Having only visited the country once – and this was way back in 1999, on a primary school trip to Beijing – her knowledge of China was vague at best. Sure, she knew the country had made progress in leaps and bounds, but when one is stuck with the memories of a public schooling system with too many hyper-disciplined, super-enthusiastic students crammed into a tiny classroom fighting to answer every single math question, and public toilets in a brand new state library with no doors on the cubicles, it’s hard to know just what to anticipate.

First and foremost, the infrastructure is pretty well established. There are certainly a lot more cars than bicycles on the roads now, which also explains the constant curtain of grey that hangs on the horizon. Let’s just say those aren’t rain clouds.

Since it has been over 10 years since the Ninja Turtle has lived in a Mandarin-speaking environment, her confidence was initially shaky. Sure, she occasionally speaks Mandarin with Mother and Papa Turtle, but mainland Chinese will very quickly point out that the Chinese diaspora speak bastardised versions of proper Mandarin.

This is especially so in Singapore, where the people arguably speak a creole. What some people take pride in as bilingualism is in fact, generally a substandard ability to faintly grasp two languages just enough to get by. To the Singaporean-Chinese ear, mainland Chinese speakers have a very strong accent when speaking in Mandarin.

After a day or two however, the Ninja Turtle got accustomed (thanks perhaps in part to her 4 years of Chinese-school education… yes yes, she went to a Chinese-education school, no need to point and laugh hysterically). She even got complimented on her Mandarin skills by a few people, which is not so different from when the French back in France compliment her for speaking English really well…

Another pre-trip concern was the food. Shameful confession of the week: the Ninja Turtle loves food, but food doesn’t always love the Ninja Turtle. This is especially the case in Singapore, where the Ninja Turtle lives like royalty – she eats a plethora of exciting dishes in food courts, hawker centres, restaurants, and inevitably, spends a lot of time the following day sitting on the throne… So there were questions as to just how well her guts could handle food in China (Mother Turtle could offer no real helpful advice in this area) and also, whether she’d get used to the taste.

A quick word on the standards of service in China: it is AMAZING, and the Turtle isn’t just measuring this against shoddy French service standards. The hotel staff were almost creepily efficient at their job, and it took the Ninja Turtle until the end of her stay to appreciate and get used to it. On day one, she requested a quiet corner, and was given a very comprehensive explanation of how buffet breakfasts worked while shown to her table.

Ironically, when she asked where the coffee machine was, she was told that the coffee would be brought to her table. Now the Turtle likes her coffee in a very particular way, so she said no worries, she could serve herself, it was a buffet after all. The service staff gave her a very injured look, as if the Turtle had challenged her very purpose of existence by cheerily suggesting self-service at a buffet breakfast. A few back-and-forths of insisting who would get the coffee later, the Turtle relented.

Day Two onwards, everyone on the team seemed to know everything. She was greeted warmly each morning, no repeating her room number, automatically shown to a quiet corner, served her coffee and glass of water, and checked upon every 15 minutes to see if the meal was up to standard, and the coffee topped up like magic. As she left, she was waved off by no less than 5 people, wishing her a pleasant day. It felt like these wait staff were customer service angels, and the hotel restaurant Customer Service Heaven.

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There was one thing the Ninja Turtle was looking forward to in China, but sadly, it did not eventuate. Not often does the Turtle visit a new city and not take the opportunity to run in it, exploring the sights. Sadly, the quality of the air was enough to make this asthmatic Turtle think the better of it. After all, running is meant to improve one’s health, not compromise it. And truly, it’s not fun at all when one is wheezing like Darth Vader after 500m.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she's ever used in her life.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she’s ever used in her life.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water. It was the one and only time on her trip she feigned complete ignorance of the language and pretended she didn’t understand a damn word that was being yelled in her face.

So there you have it, some reflections of China. A vibrant and exciting country that’s straddling two worlds – developing and developed – with most of its ancient history and culture still thankfully preserved despite the Maoist regime, and a culture of keeping up with the Joneses driving its domestic consumer spending (although that is probably still peanuts in the grand scheme of its economic growth). Five days isn’t enough to go by, but this simply means one thing: the Ninja Turtle will definitely be returning to China for more.

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Running, Travel

Lessons from a DNF Race

On 2 May 2015, the Ninja Turtle attempted her first ultramarathon trail. The following video tells the story.

After a week of grieving and moping, the Ninja Turtle exhausted her emotional response to the disappointing outcome, pulled herself together, and made that video.

Six months of preparation, discipline and sacrifice; hundreds of euros spent on the trip, and her race was truncated by bad weather. She has cried, she has sulked, she has mulled over it. She has cursed the gods, her fate, and the ill-aligned stars. She has rehashed the event in her mind over and over, trying to draw some lesson from it – something, anything, to pinpoint her errors, her faults, her weaknesses. Something to blame, and to avoid repeating the next time.

The thing is, there’s probably none. She has followed her training plan to the T (save for a week after her accident of falling onto concrete from a loft 2.5m high), fighting against incredible pain on several occasions. She’d run in the heat of the Australian summer, the humidity of Singapore and the frigid winter in Europe.

She’d cut back on alcohol, modified her diet to become fat-adapted, sorely missing out on beef hor fun, curry puffs, Hokkien mee, sushi rolls… (it’s a list too heartbreakingly long to continue so she’ll stop there).

She’d trained in the prescribed heart rate zones. She’d done the mileage she had to do, and for a while, she celebrated PRs for her 10K, 10 miles and marathon distances all in the same racing season. It seemed as if all the fatigue, sleeplessness and ravenous hunger were worth it, promising a celebratory finish to an amazing race season.

The DNF was thus an incredibly bitter pill to swallow. The Ninja Turtle’s boss, an ultramarathoner himself, told her there are many reasons for DNFs, and indeed, the weather is one that’s truly beyond the scope of runners’ control. She’d trained well, toed the line in peak condition (no injuries, having tapered brilliantly), and stuck to all racing conventions: nothing new on race day, stay hydrated, poop before running, smile for the cameras, enjoy the experience and make friends with fellow trail runners.

She did all that and still she DNFed.

After 7 hours in the relentless rain, having covered 49.4km and about 1000m+ elevation according to her GPS, her clothes and shoes were soaked through, and she’d lost her gloves. Despite all the noodle soup, sandwiches, coffee, cake, tea, chocolate and bananas she’d eaten, her temperature dropped. With the winds picking up in the darkness of the night, the rain still pouring and the temperatures dropping even further, she suffered her worst defeat ever when a gust of wind blew just as she turned around a corner, making her feel so ill, like she’d been violently punched in the guts, and her knees buckled.

Thankfully, GodzillaPin was there to witness it all. He’d come to St Julien du Sault to meet the Turtle for a moral boost, and was in fact, holding her hand and walk/jogging alongside her the very moment she’d caved, remarking only 2 seconds before that how icy cold her hand was.

The volunteers arrived, and shortly after, the medics whisked her into a heated ambulance where her pulse and breathing were measured. She hadn’t stopped shivering, and was begin to feel slightly drowsy and a little confused. Her bib was removed and she was declared out of the race, and brought back to Sens in the vehicle, with GodzillaPin following behind in his car.

The heartbreak came slowly, in waves. That night itself, the Ninja Turtle was simply numb with cold and the only thought she had in mind was: DNF. Sitting in the hot bath back at the hotel, having washed away the mud, she could only console herself with the thought that at least she was not passed out in the forest between St Julien du Sault and Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, in the rain, in the middle of the night.

Over the following two days, the physical ache of running almost 50km of muddy trails was frequently matched by the emotional devastation of failing to finish. The Ninja Turtle felt betrayed by both the inclement weather, and a constitution too weak to handle the rough elements. Mentally, she was certain she would have made the 85km, but physically, despite the 1000 miles she’d logged on the hills of Moselle, in the valleys of Meuse, along the coasts of Sydney and on the sandy beaches, in gorges and ravines of South Australia, along the highways of Frankfurt and Marseille, through the villages on the outskirts of Paris and on the country roads of Lorraine, the canal networks of Singapore and Metz, morning, noon and night, she was still unable to support the cold rain in wet clothes and shoes. She had found her limit.

So that’s it. Life isn’t fair; if it had been sunny like last year, no doubt she wouldn’t have cracked, but there is no point speculating. She couldn’t possibly have trained for these conditions, so she’s not sure she can regret anything. That’s the lesson out of this race – she’s given her 100% and she has failed through no real fault of her own. Sometimes, we cannot seek to blame anything or anyone, but rather, we must simply accept how things are, learn to let go, and move on.

Above all, her spirit has not been beaten by this experience, and she shall rise from the ashes to try and try again. One day, the stars will align in her favour and she shall be ready to claim the victory of daring to chase a dream.

In the meantime, all that’s left to do is to turn away from her grief, and properly thank every single person who has supported her on this remarkable journey with their faith, confidence, and words of encouragement when the Ninja Turtle needed them most. Rod Lowe, Baby Turtle, Sonic the Hedgehog, Krazy Cow, Yellow Jersey, and above all, GodzillaPin.

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Travel

Bushwalking, Australian-style

Australia. Large, isolated, arid. We get a sense of this just by looking at postcard images or watching television programmes featuring outback travel. Yet, there are other ways to experience just how wild, how different Australia can truly be. In the company of a very knowledgeable friend, who majored in and is quite the expert in geography, the Ninja Turtle went on a walk and learnt a little bit more about Australia through its flora.

A walk through the Warriparinga nature reserve.

A walk through the Warriparinga nature reserve.

The name means "windy place by the river".

The name means “windy place by the river”.

Warriparinga is a ceremonial meeting place for the Kaurna people of South Australia.

Warriparinga is a ceremonial meeting place for the Kaurna people of South Australia.

The site is also home to native plants and animals.

The site is also home to native plants and animals.

Upon entering the Cultural Centre, they were greeted by the sight of artists, working on contemporary aboriginal art.

Upon entering the Cultural Centre, they were greeted by the sight of artists, working on contemporary aboriginal art.

After a brief chat and observation of the dyeing techniques, it was onwards through to the wetlands, where the real adventure began.

This is a nesting box for birds and possums. They are usually oriented in a direction facing away from the winds. In Australia, people can buy these and install them in their own backyards to invite the birds to their gardens.

This is a nesting box for birds and possums. They are usually oriented west, facing away from the winds. In Australia, people can buy these and install them in their own backyards to invite the birds to their gardens.

See those reeds? These are called bullrushes, and the Aborigines traditionally used them as cables in raft-building to bind up the wood. They also ate the roots of this plant.

See those reeds? These are called bullrushes, and the Aborigines traditionally used them as cables in raft-building to bind up the wood. They also ate the roots of this plant.

Australia is a harsh place and survival is tricky. Identifying what you could eat without it eating you first, or killing you from the inside, is quite a remarkable skill. While some of these plants don’t merit a second glance from most of us, the indigenous Australians have identified what they could exploit to maximise their survival in such a harsh territory.

This is a sheoak tree, also known as casuarina. There are male trees and female trees.

This is a sheoak tree, also known as casuarina. There are male trees and female trees.

The sheoak resembles a pine in several ways - instead of leafy foliage, it has spindly needles which are segmented. When pulled apart, it reveals tiny "teeth", the real leaves. The female sheoaks' fruits resemble a pine cone.

The sheoak resembles a pine in several ways – instead of leafy foliage, it has spindly needles which are segmented. When pulled apart, it reveals tiny “teeth”, the real leaves. The female sheoaks’ fruits resemble a pine cone.

Apparently, the Aborigines consume this spiky, woody little fruit to help slake their thirst. The Ninja Turtle found the taste to be acidic and astringent; and extracting the tiny amount of sap from its wooden spikes wasn't really worth the effort in the end.

Apparently, the Aborigines consume this spiky, woody little fruit to help slake their thirst. The Ninja Turtle found the taste to be acidic and astringent; and extracting the tiny amount of sap from its wooden spikes wasn’t really worth the effort in the end.

Spindly needles in place of leaves, woody and unpalatable fruit… starting to get an idea of just how harsh the Australian climate is? Plants have evolved some truly incredible adaptations to survive, and even thrive in this country.

Fruits that wait for a fire to come along before they explode to release their seeds into the winds.

Fruits that wait for a fire to come along before they explode to release their seeds into the winds.

Ask any foreigner to name as many Australian plants as they can think up of, and chances are, the eucalyptus is always going to be the first/only one mentioned. With good reason too! The air in Australia tingles with the scent of eucalyptus, and the sailors who used to traverse the Indian Ocean would remark that 40km from the shore, as they come in to Western Australia, claimed to be able to smell the eucalyptus from that distance away.

The word eucalyptus means "well-covered", as the flowers of the eucalyptus were protected by a little "cap" that would eventually fall off to reveal the blossoms.

The word eucalyptus means “well-covered”, as the flowers of the eucalyptus were protected by a little “cap” that would eventually fall off to reveal the blossoms.

Of course, the eucalyptus is well-known for its oil, which has medicinal properties in microdoses, but is toxic in large quantities. This oil is found within the leaf, which has a leathery texture, present as globules.

Of course, the eucalyptus is well-known for its oil, which has medicinal properties in microdoses, but is toxic in large quantities. This oil is found within the leaf, which has a leathery texture, present as globules.

FUN FACT! Know how sunflowers turn to face the sun? Well, eucalyptus leaves do the same! Except… they face the sun with their profiles (sideways) rather than with their surfaces. This is an adaptation to reduce heat stress and water loss.

Eucalyptus trees have another very cool feature - epicormic buds on their trunks. In the event of a bushfire, all is not lost! These epicormic buds will sprout new shoots, and life simply goes on.

Eucalyptus trees have another very cool feature – epicormic buds on their trunks. In the event of a bushfire, all is not lost! These epicormic buds will sprout new shoots and life just goes on. As the saying goes: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

When the plant suffers an attack by disease or insects, it grows "galls". This is the plant equivalent of a tumour, and can present on the trunk or leaves. On the trunks, this wooden growth is sometimes favoured by furniture makers or woodworking craftsmen.

When the plant suffers an attack by disease or insects, it grows “galls”. This is the plant equivalent of a tumour, and can present on the trunk or leaves. On the trunks, this wooden growth is sometimes favoured by furniture makers or woodworking craftsmen.

What plants do you think best represent the country you live in?

What plants do you think best represent the country you live in?

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Arts and Culture, Food, Travel

A Visit to Mulhouse

This last weekend, GodzillaPin and the Ninja Turtle headed towards why-the-hell-would-you-go-there?, also known as Mulhouse in Alsace. Truly, this was the sentiment of every single person whom they’d met along the way, most of them were Mulhousians themselves, and truly could not comprehend why the duo would want to visit a town they were clearly not very impressed with, nor very proud of.

What most people didn't know was that Matt Damon was in town that weekend.

What most people didn’t know was that Matt Damon was in town that weekend. For this alone, Mulhouse was worth visiting.

We jest.

Mulhouse is really quite a nice little town, and we had Lady Luck smiling upon us with great weather to boot. Two glorious days of sunshine saw the trio going wild.

Oh yes. Truly dangerous characters, they were.

Oh yes. Truly dangerous characters, they were.

Comparisons – and unfavourable ones at that – have been drawn of the Old Town of Mulhouse to Colmar and Strasbourg. While it’s true that the same architecture can be found in the latter two, there is something in Colmar and Strasbourg that cannot be found in Mulhouse: too many tourists.

You get the same pretty buildings, without a surfeit of tourists crawling around like insects to ruin the photos.

You get the same pretty buildings, without a surfeit of tourists crawling around like insects to ruin the photos.

Also, this may be the reason why Mulhouse is surprisingly friendly on the wallet. Mulhouse is known for its museums, and within the old town itself there’s the Historic Museum within the Hôtel de Ville (pictured above) and the Museum of Fine Arts, both of which are free to visit. A fun fact learnt during this visit is that prior to being a part of France and Germany (albeit for a very short while), Mulhouse was an independent state, and a part of the Swiss confederation.

The dominant religion was Calvinism, which meant the town's main church is not a Catholic cathedral, but rather, known as the Temple Saint-Étienne.

The dominant religion was Calvinism, which meant the town’s main church is not a Catholic cathedral, but rather, known as the Temple Saint-Étienne.

Architecture aside, the town is also full of little artistic surprises. From sculptures to graffiti, there was beauty lurking in every corner.

Some art to make a statement...

Some art to make a statement…

Some art for good fun...

Some art for good fun…

And some art, we simply cannot understand.

And some art, we simply cannot understand.

There was even interactive art in the train station of Mulhouse – a piano open to anyone and everyone to play. There’s an ongoing competition where people can get their friends to film them for two minutes, upload the performance on YouTube, and the winner gets a piano.

Here, GodzillaPin was attempting a rendition of Riders On The Storm.

Although we’re not entirely sure that GodzillaPin would win with his rendition of Riders On The Storm.

Among the big-name museums in Mulhouse, they settled on the Cité du Train, not because they’re particularly fond of trains, but because it’s the biggest train museum in the world. After all, the biggest anything in the world merits a visit, right?

It's not a museum of trains, it's a CITY of trains. It was truly impressively huge, even with about half the museum currently shut for health and safety reasons due to a damaged roof.

It was impressively huge, even with about half the museum currently shut for health and safety reasons due to a damaged roof.

It displays a collection of various trains used by the French railway network through the last couple of centuries...

It displays a collection of various trains used by the French railway network through the last couple of centuries…

And is good fun for the family, especially the kids.

And is good fun for the family, especially the kids.

Fun and games aside, it was an indulgent weekend…

With plenty of good food...

With plenty of good food…

Great drinks...

Great drinks…

And naughty in-betweens.

And naughty in-betweens.

Twice they missed out on dining in their first choice restaurant – the first because it was inexplicably shut on a Saturday afternoon, and the second because the restaurant was filled on the Saturday night and none among the three of them thought to make a booking in advance. Nonetheless, they found substitute restaurants, and in the span of two days, dined upon Thai, Italian, traditional Alsatian and Japanese.

Mulhouse – the city of gastronomy?

Not quite, but if you’re thinking of visiting Mulhouse, don’t let the strange looks and worrying comments put you off. Perhaps these people are simply discouraging the rest of the world from discovering this little gem in Alsace.

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Arts and Culture, Travel

Driving through Les Pyrénées

There are certain times in a relationship when one looks at the other all starry-eyed, thinking the world of their partner, who could clearly do no wrong. Yesterday was NOT one of those moments. In fact, yesterday was three-point-five-plus-two hours of headbanging why-am-I-here-God? driving through the Pyrenees.

The fact that GodzillaPin’s car comes fully pimped out with a built-in GPS is no barrier to GodzillaPin’s insistence on getting lost. The GPS calculated x hours for y kilometres to destination, and most people would just leave it be. Not GodzillaPin, no. Heaven forbid he doesn’t outsmart this piece of technology.

GodzillaPin: It’s gonna take us about 2 hours to get there.
Turtle: That’s OK, we better hurry then, it’s already past noon.
GodzillaPin: What if I take out the highway?
(fiddles with GPS while driving)
GodzillaPin: Hey it takes 10mins less if we take the small roads!

So off they merrily went, oblivious to what "small roads" meant in this area of the country

So off they merrily went, oblivious to what “small roads” meant in this area of the country

Occasionally, they'd come across a peculiar detail in the landscape

Occasionally, they’d come across a peculiar detail in the landscape

Marvel the signs written in both French and the Basque language (Euskara)

Marvel the signs written in both French and the Basque language (Euskara)

But it was mostly winding roads, less-than-gentle slopes...

But it was mostly winding roads, less-than-gentle slopes…

And breathtaking views

And breathtaking views

After about 45 minutes, they approached a village with signs saying the road ahead was closed, and a deviation was offered. Nobody said a word, and in retrospect, the Ninja Turtle realised that her brain did do a short-circuit at that moment when GodzillaPin decided to continue merrily as the GPS indicated. As if the roadblock would magically evaporate upon their arrival or something. Unsurprisingly, they came upon the roadblock 7km later.

GodzillaPin: Shit. The road’s closed.
Turtle: Yeah, there were a couple of signs two villages ago saying so.
GodzillaPin: What do you think we should do?
Turtle: (sighs) My honest opinion? Just head back and take the deviation.

GodzillaPin proceeds to coolly ignore this piece of advice, and did what he does best – pretend he was mastering the situation.

Turtle: Where are you going?
GodzillaPin: I think if I take this road, it’ll hopefully bring me somewhere on the other side of the roadblock. I hope it won’t make us drive around a mountain though.
Turtle: You don’t know where you’re going. This looks like private property. We should go back.
GodzillaPin: No no, let me see.

They roll on in awkward silence.

Turtle: I really think we should turn back.
GodzillaPin: Just let me see… (continues to drive without a clue, while fiddling with the GPS, that kept instructing to do a U-turn)
Turtle: The GPS says to go back.
GodzillaPin: Babe, I’ve already gone 3km, I can’t go back now.
Turtle: You’re going to ruin your tyres on this gravel… Watch out! Don’t hit those chickens!

At some stage, GodzillaPin decided to cut his losses and head back. The Ninja Turtle may or may not have gloated about being right yet again. Then, on that already-too-narrow gravel path, a giant tractor comes rolling towards them…

The tractor driver stared suspiciously at GodzillaPin. No doubt they don’t get many visitors in the area. GodzillaPin said good day, and informed the tractor driver of the road block. She replied slowly “yes…” GodzillaPin explained that he was trying to find a way around it, and a look of incredulity clouded the tractor driver’s face. A look that said something like “no one takes shortcuts through my backyard, mate”. Instead, she replied “you’ve got to take the deviation.”

So that was 45 minutes lost, as once again, GodzillaPin versus GPS yielded an unsurprising outcome. They managed to get to their destination in one piece, however, so that’s all that matters. The only thing to note about driving through the Pyrenees is to expect the unexpected. The drive back took longer than expected too, mostly because:

It's only normal rush hour traffic, no?

It’s only normal rush hour traffic, no?

And then of course, if your driver decides to jump out the car to start chasing around the sheep on the hillside, what can the passengers do but wait?

And then of course, if your driver decides to jump out the car to start chasing around the sheep on the hillside, what can the passengers do but wait?

There, he caught his sheep. Now they could continue driving.

There, he caught his sheep. Now they could continue driving.

But wait! There's more! You won't believe where we found this Bessy...

But wait! There’s more! You won’t believe where we found this Bessy…

At 1060m above sea level. Having her dinner. It's actually a pretty good argument against vegetarianism, since a lot of the land would be hard to cultivate crops on. Plus, free-range grass-fed cattle that went hiking? It's quite a happy life for these animals.

At 1060m above sea level. Having her dinner. It’s actually a pretty good argument against vegetarianism, since a lot of the land would be hard to cultivate crops on. Plus, free-range grass-fed cattle that went hiking? It’s quite a happy life for these animals.

The final traffic jam

The final traffic jam

With one straggler overtaken, as it was too busy enjoying the grass and got left behind

With one straggler overtaken, as it was too busy enjoying the grass and got left behind

So that was the adventure of getting lost in the Pyrenees...

So that was the adventure of getting lost in the Pyrenees…

If good for nothing else, at least it brought to our readers this crazy story, and all these photos.

If good for nothing else, at least it brought to our readers this crazy story, and all these photos.

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