Thursday, July 31, 2008

Panama Canal Transit

For anyone interested in canals, I have set up a Squidoo site purely about the Panama Canal transit passage.
You can find it at
The rest of my trip is outlined in the following posts.

Photo: 23 April 2008 - Leaving the Gatun Lake lock at the end of the day's transit

Monday, July 28, 2008

Touched by the spirit of South America

Maté – Flamenco – and the language
Like the guanaco and llamas which run free in the Andes, South America has a free spirit of its own. It draws you back.
This was my second visit.
But when I returned home, I was still caught in its spell.
So I ordered some maté - it’s the traditional drink which is passed around in a gourd and drunk through a silver straw.
Basically it’s a green leafy drink - like tea, but less caffeine than coffee or tea.
The drink in the photo is quite different. It’s made from Coca leaves (the basic ingredient for cocaine), it's a stimulant and given to tourists to combat altitude sickness in the Andes.

I signed up to learn the Fandango – a lot of foot stamping and heel tapping.
I’m also enrolled in conversational Spanish – the South American version is not very different to that spoken in Spain. In fact in the Barcelona region, the Spaniards speak Catalan and not Spanish!
And I have pulled out an old poncho which I’ve had for a long time.
In the freezing Tasmanian mornings, I don’t feel out of place.
Photo: Guanaco in the Andean foothills (Chile)
Photo: Coca leaf tea - and yes, I did get a touch of altitude sickness

Back home & Writing with a Vengeance

Sorry about the long gap with no blog entries.
I was away for 6 weeks travelling to UK via South America
Then when I came back it was head down and bum up writing.
Pleased to say after eight weeks of blood sweat and tears, I have just sent off another manuscript – THE CONDOR’S FEATHER but more on that later.
Below is my trip: Clockwise around the world.
I have included a couple of pics from each port.
I think I took about 1000 photos
Photo: Andean Condor in Punta Arenas (Photo 2004)
Did you know they have a 12 foot wingspan?

Booking a cheap cruise on the Internet

When my Tibet holiday was cancelled (due to riots and closed border), I checked what Vacations to Go had to offer. Visit: hppt://
They have the most fantastic last minute deals on cruises if you search for ones which are less than 90 days from departure.
I was lucky.
Departing only 9 days later was an 18 cruise from Santiago (Chile), sailing via Peru, the Panama Canal, Costa Rica, Key West - Florida, to Boston (USA).
The last minute price was - $399 US (about the same $AU).
I emailed the company in Huston, Texas.
I could upgrade to a stateroom with a window for $449 – Wow!!
Only trouble was that was double occupancy price, so as I was travelling alone I had to pay double.
But I reckon for 18 days cruising on a luxury ship from South America to the USA via Panama, it was the bargain of a lifetime.
I can recommend Vacations to Go for the cruise component to anyone especially if you live in the US or UK.
The number of cheap Caribbean and Mediterranean voyages available is amazing.
One thing to remember – never pay the full brochure price for a cruise!!!
Photo: My stateroom for 18 days on the Norwegian Dream

Santiago to Valparaiso by bus

After flying into Santiago (Chile), I took a local bus to one of the city’s bus terminals.
As I could speak no Spanish and they could speak no English I did have some problems but I managed to get a connecting coach to take me to Vina del Mar near Valparaiso on the coast – 3 hours drive away.
The cost about $7. The taxis or tourist coaches charge you about $100.
I’d booked a room in a modest hotel in the seaside resort over the Internet. When I arrived they didn’t have my booking.
Again there was some language difficulty but I managed and found everyone most helpful.
I spent two nights there.
From Vina del Mar there was a local bus to Valparaiso about 5 miles away.
Cost about $1.
Photo: Apartments on seafront at Vina del Mar

Ascensors (funicular railways) in Chile

My second novel, The Twisting Vine ends in Valparaiso and I mention the Ascensor Artillería in Valparaiso.
It was built in 1893 and is still in constant use.
I saw it when I was in Chile 3 years earlier.
This time I had to ride on it.
It travels up from the busy streets of the port to the Old Custom House which is now the Naval Academy and a wonderful Maritime Museum.
From the top of the cliff you can see across the whole bay.
Photo: Ascensor Artillería built in 1893

Chile's National Maritime Museum, Valparaiso

The National Maritime Museum at Valpariso in Chile is perched at the top of one of the many ascensors in Valparaiso. Its position offers a fantastic view over the harbour.
If you love ships and history – this is the place. I spend three hours there and could have easily spent three days. My only regret is that I couldn't speak Spanish.
Much of the museum's exhibits reach back to the days of the Spanish Conquistadors, but there are also many later artefacts e.g. a pair of pistols owned by Lord Cochrane, and models including this magnificent recreation of the 'Esmeralda'.
Lord Cochrane captured the first 'Esmeralda', a wooden frigate, in 1820 off Calleo, Peru.

Photo: Model of the ship, Esmeralda (I think this is the second 'Esmeralda' sunk in the Battle of Iquiqui in 1879, Chile, but there were eventually 6 ships which bore the same name) - Maritime Museum in Valparaiso. Please advise if I have got it wrong.)
 Note the copper bottom.

Norwegian Dream - cruise ship

I joined the ship in Valparaiso.
It’s not big by today’s standards – about 50,000 tons. But it has all the usual – 6 restaurants, 2 swimming pools, casino etc.
The guest capacity was 1700 but I am not sure if it was fully booked.
It’s a reasonable ship though not as classy as some I have been on but it was heading to the US to do one final season in the Caribbean. Then it was to be sold to Asia to become a floating casino.
Photo: Norwegian Dream in Florida

Coquimbo, Chile

This part of the Chilean coastline was once a haunt of pirates.
I visited the old lighthouse.
The capital of the region is La Serena. The area makes its money from Copper mining and through it supports some excellent universities.
Every child, no matter how poor, is guaranteed a good education.
Photo: Old lighthouse at Coquimbo

Iquique, Chile

This a big duty free commercial centre in Chile but yet walking through the heart of the old town is like stepping back over 100 years.
Many of the houses were built in the 1800s.
I didn’t do a tour here but went into town looking for an internet café.
The prices the ships charge to use their internet is exorbitant.
Photo: Old Street in Iquique

Arica and Ancient Putre, Chile

This port is only 18 km from the border of Peru and it is situated on the edge of the Atacama Desert.
With less than 1mm (0.03inches) of rain a year, it is one of the driest inhabited places on earth.
From the port I took a 7½ hour trip up into the mountains.
The town of Ancient Putre is located at about 10,000 feet and the effects of the sudden change in altitude were quite evident with light-headedness and loss of breath.
To combat the problem we were given a cup of Coca tea. Made with Coca leaves, it increase the absorption of oxygen in blood and helps combat altitude sickness. The leaves of the coca plant are used to make cocaine.
The scenery on the way was just amazing.
The mountains appeared to be of sand without absolutely no vegetation as far as the eye could see. The fact that the roads zigzag up the steep sides is also quite remarkable.

How the Spanish conquistadores crossed this region is unbelievabale.
In the distance we could see the peaks of the Andes Mountains.
The sights were awesome.
I’m sorry the pics just don’t do any of this justice.
Photo: Road to ancient Putre
Photo: Valley near Putre and Andes Mountains

Callao and Lima, Peru

Photo: Note the size of the fishing trawlers in the foreground
From the sea Peru must have one of the most inhospitable coastlines on earth.
Lima and its port is the second largest urban area in a desert next to Cairo.
That desert if the Atacama Desert which stretches up from Chile.
Whatever made the Spanish Conquistadors bother to stop here in the 1500s, I do not know.
Or what made the Incas (1400s) and the other mighty civilisations who came before them (700AD) settle here is remarkable.
Lima is built on the side of the sand mountains of the desert.
Apart from that the whole coastline is shrouded in a continual thick mist – like a sea fret which is present most of the time, so the town hardly ever sees the sun.
I found it a very depressing place and despite visiting the Inca ruins at Pachacamac I was not sorry to leave Callao.

It’s also not a recommended city to visit alone. The local police remind you of that.
Callao is the port for Lima though today with 8 million inhabitants it’s impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. Many of its people live in poverty.
Photo: If you can pick the yellow staircase - there must be a thousand steps lading up to the houses.

Panama Canal

This was an experience I will not forget.
We entered the first lock at about 8.00 am and it was dark when we sailed out into the Caribbean Sea.
There are only three sets of locks and most of the transit is through the cut and a huge natural lake - Gatun Lake.
The canal has only 3 sets of locks at the western end, middle and eastern end.
They lift the level 26 meters to cross over Central America. The cut is on a north/south axis (not east/west as I had imagined).
Passing through, it is hard to imagine that 22,000 of workers died of yellow fever when the canal was built almost 100 years ago (opened 1914).
Photo: Container ship passing through Miraflores Locks ahead of us

THE BLACK THREAD & the Panama Canal

My third novel THE BLACK THREAD was set on the Leeds and Liverpool canal so I was particularly interested to see how these enormous locks operated.
In the old days they probably used real mules to warp the ships through. Today they use 4 – 8 powerful electric locomotives called ‘mules’ which run along tracks beside the ship – hauling the cables which align and tow the ships through.
Each chamber is 33.5 m wide and 305m long.
The lock gates are 25m high and weigh 730 tons.
They are removed for checking ever 15 years.
With the huge container ships almost grazing the sides of the locks, it is no wonder that a new cut and locks are being built.
Seeing the huge vessels being lifted by the inflowing water – is amazing.
Photo: ‘Mules’ keeping the contrainer aligned

Puerto Lemon, Costa Rica

Not to be confused with Puerta Rica which is an island.
Puerta Lemon was founded in 1502 when Christopher Columbus landed here during his exploration of the New World.
I took a tour which incorporated a short trip on a 100 year old train, a bus and a boat ride on the Tortuguero canals (a type of everglades).
I saw a cayenne (??)(type of small crocodile).
Sloths sleeping in the trees – slothfully!
Bright green lizards.
And ate the sweetest pineapple you could ever imagine.
The part of Puerta Rica we passed through looked very poor.
I would not be on my list to visit again.
Photo: Green lizard on the canal

Crossing the Line Ceremony

For passenger who had never crossed the Equator before it is necessary to be initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep.
If you have never entered King Neptune’s domain before you are called a ‘pollywog’.
After initiation you become a ‘trusty shellback’.
Not sure if these are names made up on the Norwegian Dream, but I do know the traditions date back to the middle-ages.
I made use of such a historic event in my first novel, SEA DUST.
Photo: Yours truly during the initiation ceremony

Key West, Florida

Apart from changing planes in Dallas and Los Angeles on a previous holiday, this was my first real experience on US soil.
Talk about millionaire’s playground.
The marina was packed with yachts but they were more like mini-Royal Yacht Britannia.
No doubt owned by the likes of Greg Norman or Tiger Woods.

And cruising the streets were more Lamborghinis than I knew existed.
I visited the very interesting Shipwreck Historium and feeling ready for anything booked myself on a snorkelling trip.
We sailed out for an hour on a catamaran out to one of the reefs and dived in.
The sea was quite choppy but I did see several coloured fish and enjoyed the experience.
Photo: Going out on the catamaran
Photo: Key West, Florida

Sea Dust or Gold Dust?

Once we left the calm waters of the Caribbean, the ship met the Atlantic rollers though it was never really rough.
Standing on deck one evening to watch the sunset (there is no where quite like it), I was awed by the burnished gold of the sunset shining on the spindrift blown from the crest of each wave.
I though about my book SEA DUST – perhaps I could have called it GOLD DUST - or maybe I will save that title for a later story.
Photo: Gold dust on the sea

Boston, Massachusetts

I disembarked in Boston and before going to the airport for the flight to London took a three hour tour around the historic city.
The tour guide gave us so much detail and we saw so many sites it was impossible to take it all in.
One thing for sure, it’s a very clean and modern city and worth another visit.
I wish I had longer as the sailing ship USS Constitution was in dock for refurbishing.
I managed to see the top of its masts as the bus flew by – shame – but never mind.
Photo: Attractive Boston architecture

Family time in UK

Battling the crowds on the tube with luggage is a far cry from a stateroom on a cruise ship. But it was great to catch up with my son, Rob and his girlfriend, Marion who in Putney.
The prime reason for my visit to England was to see my mother who lives in a very nice Nursing Home in Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.
Mum is almost 98.
Photo: Family photo – Rob, my son on right, me next and Marion seated. Nephew - Andrew and his wife, Sue with daughter Amelia and baby Ellis. Mum’s not hard to pick!

A tourist in London

I did several of the usual tourist things.
Went to see a show in the West End – Billy Elliot – excellent.
Walked to Buckingham Palace, along The Mall, round Trafalgar Square and visited Westminster Abbey.
It’s amazing to see the tombs of Elizabeth 1 and Mary Queen of Scots among so many others.
I particularly enjoyed a boat trip down the Thames to see the Thames Barrier and visit to The National Maritime Museum and Observatory in Greenwich.
Photo: The building designed by Sir Christopher Wren was originally the Royal Hospital for Seamen

National Maritime Museum - Greenwich

The magnificent group of buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren was originally the Old Seaman’s Hospital.
It is set on the banks of the Thames and I have used the setting for a scene in my Age-of-sail novel.
Today the Maritime Museum houses a brilliant section on Admiral Lord Nelson.
One display is the uniform he was wearing when he fell at Trafalgar with the bullet hole in the shoulder.
His stocking are stained with the blood of one of his men.

One feature of the old building is the Painted Hall.
It is in this hall that Nelson’s body was laid in state for several days before he was taken upriver to be buried at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Photo: Nelson at Trafalgar (well a London pub by that name!)
Photo: Part of the Painted Hall

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Golden Hinde

The full size replica of The Golden Hinde is tucked away on a small dock on the Thames near London Bridge.
Sir Francis Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth 1 for his voyages of discovery from 1577-1580.
When you look at this 16th Century galleon, it is hard to image how it stayed upright when it was at sea.
It appears very topheavy but this replica galleon has sailed over 140,000 miles including sailing around the world.
Photo: MM London 2008

Visit to International Scripts

When I visited London two months ago, I spend two hours with my literary agent, International Scripts.
I have been dealing with them for four years but always through brief emails only.
I was made to feel most welcome.
If I ever feel bogged down as a writer with a manuscript to read, I should think of the agent’s desk stacked one meter high with prospective novels.
Although the next Harry Potter could be amongst them, the pile probably represented a lot of writing, much of which will go unrewarded.
As I said before – writers deserve full marks for perseverance - but they also must be little mad!!
Photo: London. Me and the Thames Barrier - built to stop the Thames from flooding the city. An amazing project

The Condor's Feather

A historical novel set in Patagonia in 1885Having just returned from South America, I had to produce another book quickly (for contractual reasons).
After eight weeks of burning the mid-night oil and nearly burning myself out, I’ve succeeded.
THE CONDOR’S FEATHER is set in Patagonia.
The idea for the novel come from ‘{Riding} Across Patagonia’ published by Lady Florence Dixie in 1881.
After reading Lady Flo’s book and ‘Wanderings in Patagonia’ by Julius Beerbohm (1878). I must admit that true life adventures are more thrilling to read that any ficiton.
My agent will receive the manuscript of The Condor’s Feather this week and I am hoping that publisher, Robert Hale will accept it.
Pic: M Muir – Criollo horses on an estancia in Argentina. Note the gaucho's belt studdied with silver and the felon (dagger) held behind it.

Age-of-sail adventure novel

When I was in London, I handed my agent an Age-of-sail adventure set in 1802.
This nautical adventure is quite different to anything I have written before.
It is written for a male readership and the story is on the lines of the Patrick O’Brian and CS Forester novels.
This manuscript had not yet been presented to any publishers but if accepted for publication, it may be published under a pen-name.
Therefore at the present I will not divulge the title or any of the details.
Photo: Stained glass window at Maritime Museum (Naval Academy) Valparaiso, Chile
Features Lord Thomas Cochrane who served in Chile and Peruvian waters in early 1800s.

Writing children's picture books

Last week I attended a writing for children workshop run by Christina Booth, Tasmanian children’s author and illustrator.
Children’s picture books reputedly pay very little - about $3000-$4000AU for the author for a 500 words picture book.
Compare that with $1000 for writing a 70,000 word novel.
People who write for small publisher like myself and never make the big time are either mad or have a psychological need to write!
Photo: Kids at Greenwich straddle the line of Zero meridian with one foot in the Western hemisphere and one foot in the East. (I did the same and photoed my feet)!

Writing to create and alternative world

It can be like an addiction once it grabs you.
I sometimes spend all day at the computer and forget mealtimes exist.
One quote I like is: “Writers need to create an alternative world”.
I do that, and when I am writing, I am totally engrossed in my characters and the situation they are in.
Photo: Ice, snow and mountains of the Andes and the Antactic Peninsula were the world I entered from my last two novels. Photo: M Muir 2004

Writing to heal

Whether you are a writer or not, putting words on paper is a great way to ease long standing personal pain suffered through loss of a loved one.
Hurt, anger, guilt can also be from loss of job, loss of body part, house, rejection etc.
Some of the deaths/misadventures/traumas in my books, even though well veiled, are my way of writing out some of my personal grief.
I don’t aim to do it. It just happens.
And sometimes I don’t even recognise it until after the book is published.
Last week I attended a one day workshop on healing through writing.
Since then, I am seriously considering writing a non-fiction book on ‘Writing away the pain’ or similar title.
There are numerous books on the subject, but most are written by psychologists and are cold and clinical.
I’d like to have a go.
Pic: Sunset over the Tamar Valley, Tasmania.