Wow – I suck at blogging

I guess it could be down to the fact that I have a real life job, a real life wife and 5 cats but I really do need to update my blog more frequently than once every 18 months! I’ve been up to a whole bunch of fun stuff. Car reviews, tech stuff, travel bits and the usual exasperation about politics and real world stupidity. I promise to get something out in the next couple of days to make it look like I even deserve a this site.

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An open letter to Nigel Farrage

Dear Nigel,

As a fervent supporter of both you and UKIP, I thought you should know that just this morning, while travelling back through the Channel Tunnel from Europe to England (not the UK), I saw the arm of a black person extend from the car in front and wave some sort of foreign ID card at the Border Agency guard. How did they react? They just let him in! So, the purpose of this note is to alert you to the fact that yet another foreigner has flooded into our country and by the time you read this will probably be claiming benefits, have taken my job and have sold drugs or kidnapped at least one of my eight children.

Please make sure that you add this miscreant to your impressive list of immigration statistics. I thank all that is holy that you were brave enough to alert us to the millions of Romanians and Bulgarians set to flood into our country. They were clearly so embarrassed by having their nefarious plans exposed that they decided not to come. In fact, it appears that 25,000 of them left! Bravo Nigel, you really showed them!

I’m not a racist but this is supposed to be the land of St George (OK, so are Russia and Syria but let’s not go there right now) and I expect English benefits for English people. I’ve had enough of Brussels telling me how to spend my job seekers allowance!

In closing, please let me know if you need help with any of your less developed policies. I feel I may have something to offer on the education front. Perhaps maths, as your party seems to have great difficulty with numbers or maybe even history as you have clearly failed to learn from it.

Tally ho Nigel and see you in Downing Street!

Jonathan

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The Toyota FJ Cruiser

“It looks like a Hummer and a Jeep had a kid” I proffered as I clambered into the FJ Cruiser for the first time. Seats and mirrors adjusted, we set off out of Joburg’s Oliver Tambo Airport and into the nights’ traffic, bound for Soweto.

I generally don’t like these sorts of car. I’ve driven enough of them to know that the “show to go” ratio is all in the wrong direction and Toyota’s new FJ Cruiser looked like just another hairdresser’s 4×4 whose idea of “off-road” is pulling into Starbucks for a skinny latte. However, looks can be deceptive and this 4 litre V6 automatic turned out to be a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Around town, it was well behaved, almost silent, a real pleasure to drive and for the first 2 days of our African adventure, it drank in as many admiring looks as it did gallons of petrol (17mpg).

On day three though, things got real for this particular motor car as we drove up to the Madikwe Game Reserve on the Botswana border to show the FJ a few holes in the road. “We deliberately designed the suspension for ride comfort” said the nice man from Toyota when he first dropped the car off. “It’s pretty much US style – much softer than the Europeans produce. It does ride well over the bumps but the trade-off is in the corners”, which is about as honest a statement as I’ve heard from anyone with the word “Marketing” in their job title.

The final 20 Kms of the road into the Madikwe reserve is a dirt track which starts at gravelly but quickly changes to Afghan. I did most of that stretch at between 70 and 80 mph – I kid you not. Had supplies not already been exhausted, my good lady wife would have barely spilt a drop of her G&T as we glided along. With a new found enthusiasm for this oddly rectangular SUV, we ploughed on into the reserve to further explore its limits.

The Toyota Land Cruiser long ago replaced the erstwhile Land Rover as the weapon of choice for people to whom tarmac is a theoretical concept. I’ve not been on a Safari in the last 6 years where a Land Cruiser was not used and as we drove into camp at Jaci’s Lodge, the owner Jan Van Heteren and his assembled rangers looked at the car with that same look Hell’s Angels give to people riding pink scooters.

So, game on. “Do you have anything challenging that we can drive the car through?” I asked Jan, our generous host. He listed a few areas we could look at and, given his years of off-road experience, offered to drive so I could take some photos. More tellingly, he also offered to have us followed by a couple of his rangers in a “proper” Land Cruiser, replete with tow ropes, welding gear and all the other essentials for a trip into the bush with two idiots driving a “girls car”.

Still set in 2 wheel drive mode and a with a Land Cruiser in hot pursuit, we set off at speed through the winding tracks of Madikwe that Jan knew like the back of his hand. The FJ behaved well enough and although the Land Cruiser kept pace, when we stopped, it turned out that the rangers had lost far more teeth than Jan or I.

Now it was time to engage the 4WD. The FJ in its automatic form comes with 2WD plus 4WD in both high and low ratios, a limited slip differential, traction control and stability control. That the limited slip diff is lockable, should have given some clue as to this cars credentials.

Next up came the swamp. It got in and then got out again. Cue amazed looks from Jan and his rangers and me hanging up the call to Toyota’s Press Office to let them know the GPS coordinates for where we’d buried their car. So far, so good.

In the same way that some people get a tattoo after a nights heavy drinking, in our post swamp euphoria, someone (and I’m not sure who) made the suggestion “let’s see if we can get it airborne!”. So, off we go to find a suitable jump and again, the FJ took everything we could throw at it. The approach to our “jump” was  more winding track and the car sliced through it like it was on rails. On the rare occasions it veered off line, it was quickly and easily corrected. Over the jump the car sailed and it landed on the other side as if it had just gone over a speed bump. Impressive stuff.

If I were to be critical, I’d have to point out that the rear seats are a little cramped, visibility both front and back is not great and fast cornering is not really an option but that’s not what this car is about.

After more pounding around the terracotta dirt tracks of Madikwe, it was time to leave. Having thanked our hosts, we drove back to Jo’burg in quiet reflection. We had just totally abused this car, taken it to places that most normal owners would never think of and done the sort of stupid things that you would only do in a car that is not your own. It laughed it off and even the hardcore game rangers of Madikwe had a new found respect for the well groomed little brother of their beloved Land Cruisers.

Despite its good looks, airco, hugely comfortable front seats and iPod bits, this car is for people who like to go off-road but still be comfortable on it.  It’s huge fun, has massive GPM’s (grins per mile) and is highly recommended.

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So what for Soweto?

20120204-135547.jpgI recall as a 14 year old child the news reports of trouble in South Africa and graphic images on the TV showing white policemen with dogs, bursting out of armoured cars and shooting at terrified black people running for their lives. I recall it being referred to as the Soweto Uprising but this was as far as my memory of these things went. At the age of 14, I was more concerned with what was going on in my trousers than in South Africa and the “black’s” fight against apartheid.

Once my hormones had diminished to more manageable levels, I began to take notice of events in Sub Saharan Africa. I learned about townships, Mandela and the struggle of the black majority for political power. The older I got, the more I learned. The British media railed against the actions of the white minority, we all went on “free Mandela” marches and some of us even bought the record. Meeting and working with (white) South Africans added a different view of the situation where the name Soweto became a byword for violence, crime and an absolute no go area for anyone whiter than Michael Jackson.

20120204-140225.jpgWhat Soweto is, is the Southwestern Township of Johannesburg and was named as such by the white government in 1963. For me, it was also the unlikely destination for the first two days of my latest African adventure. Accompanying SWMBO in my role as driver, camera bitch and general factotum, I have to admit to being more than a little sceptical of her idea to visit the place to write about it as a potential holiday destination. However, I am now used to her eccentricities so decided to give it a whirl.

To say that my preconceptions of the place were shattered would be to do an injustice to a U-turn that would make Nick Clegg’s head spin. Soweto is a hopeful place, parts of it truly prosperous and it’s residents (of whom there are 4.5 million) imbued with an aspirational spirit that shames us in the west.

20120204-140329.jpgIn July 1976, black students and school kids started the uprising that resulted in thousands of deaths over its course, the first of which was 12 year old Hector Pietersen, whose dead body was carried from the fight by his crying brother and screaming sister, a scene captured in an iconic photograph seen the world over. At the site of the memorial that now stands in Hector’s honour, I was privileged to meet that same sister, Antoinette, and to photograph her by that now famous picture which stands on the site. In the discussion that followed, a quiet and gently lady with more reasons than most to hate, spoke of forgiveness and a very real hope for the future and in doing so summed up, more eloquently that I could ever hope to, what Soweto is all about.

20120204-143549.jpgYes, there is still poverty but it is financial poverty, not a poverty of ambition. At every turn you see people working hard to make a living, not waiting for handouts. As a visitor, the welcome you receive is as warm as it is genuine, from the no electricity shacks of Kliptown to the smart new homes of Diepkloof.

A visit to Soweto is highly recommended and very good for the soul.

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Lotus Evora IPS – First Drive

“No man is an island” claimed the 16th century English poet John Donne and now, in the 21st century, neither is a Norfolk based sports car manufacturer. With only 2000 Evoras sold in the UK since its 2009 launch, clearly something needed to change, so sights were set further afield than these fair English shores. With the global sale of automatics for the first time surpassing those of manuals, plus the US and Asian markets having a very clear preference for stick-less automobiles, now would seem to be an excellent time to bring out an automatic version of your car.

Step forward (or should that be roll forward?) the Evora IPS – Lotus’s first automatic for over 20 years. IPS stands for Intelligent Precision Shift and to a larger degree; it does what it says on the tin. The 6-speed unit in question here, like the 3.5 litre V6 engine, is from Toyota. In this version however, those clever boffins at Hethel have totally rewritten the control systems to give it a much sportier feel, replacing the usual “slushy” change associated with torque converter ‘boxes to the more “thumping” positive feel of a dual clutch unit.

There is no shift lever in the car. Gearbox modes are
selected from buttons located on the centre console (Drive, Neutral, Reverse and Park). A “Sport” button is also present and transforms the car from its default “fun to drive” mode in to full on “bitch“ mode as my wife likes to call it. Superbly designed “paddles” mounted either side of the steering wheel switch the car into full manual which will revert back to automatic if you make no further changes within 10 seconds. In “Sport” mode you get 30 seconds
before it switches back.

So, how does it drive? Well, in full automatic with your hands off the paddles, it is a very well behaved yet fun ride. We drove almost the entire width of the UK from Norwich to the Welsh coast in one sitting. Neither of us required chiropractic treatment upon arrival nor did we consume our own body weight in Ibuprofen during the trip. As around 90% of the drive was on A roads, the automatic box proved its worth. There was plenty of
immediate power when required for quick overtakes and no unnecessary gear changing while cruising along.

As you would expect from Lotus, the chassis is superb providing ride and handling right out of the top drawer. It has a taut
precision that feeds back to the driver all he needs to know about the road through the hugely tactile steering. This car loves corners like a fat kid likes cake and I’m sure it could climb vertical walls in the wet.

Put it in “Sport” mode and gear changes get longer, the straits shorter and the grins wider. The throttle becomes more responsive and when using the paddles, you can bounce the revs off the engine limiter without a gear change.

The only negative to this is the down changes. With “bitch
mode” engaged and paddles flapping, you hurtle into a corner, brake hard and the engine blips the throttle to match the engine revs to the gear below. However, you can often find yourself at or past the apex by the time the next gear engages. Given the number of times it’s actually possible (or legal) to drive like this on our roads, this is a minor irritation and takes little away
from the overall quality of the driving experience.

Inside the cabin it’s all finely stitched leather and shiny bits, though I did get the impression that some of the switch placements were more to do with aesthetics than ergonomics. Visibility to the front and sides is excellent, the door mirrors providing a particularly sumptuous view of the Evora’s curvaceous hips which I never tired of looking at. The rear view is mainly of the cover to the gently burbling V6 engine but a thoughtfully placed rear view camera ensures that you don’t kill too many children when reversing into your parking spot at the gym. The Recaro seats hold you in all the right places and the driving position is so pleasurable it should be in the Karma Sutra.

What Lotus always do well, they have done very well with this car. To this they have added luxury and refinement to create a car that can do the long trips in comfort and the short ones in ecstasy!

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Doctors? Oh Please….

I have just watched a very sad news article on the BBC about a healthy young guy who died suddenly. The cause of death has been stated as “sudden unexpected death syndrome”.

I have a question for the medical fraternity. After 7 years at university, largely at the tax payers expense, is that the best you can do? I can’t wait for “sudden death from being hit by a bus syndrome” or “no longer alive because the heart has stopped beating syndrome”. Come on fellas – at least try to look like you’re interested!

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God Bless Dubai

Because international travel is just not stressful enough, the good people of the United Arab Emirates have seen fit to add a new twist to help raise the blood pressure of the average chap just that little bit more.

Emirates airlines, who I use extensively when travelling east, have exclusive use of the pristine terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport. The vast majority of people landing there (I am told around 80%) are actually going on elsewhere and not even visiting Dubai. So, having completed security checks to get on the flight to Dubai, why on earth are we expected to do it again immediately after disembarking? If I had a bomb, surely I would have used it on the first flight. Although I am not an expert, from what I understand, terrorism is about blowing up planes, not some perverse competition to see how far through the airline network you can actually smuggle an explosive device without being caught. To add to the overall experience, the UAE have chosen to staff these checkpoints with people ranging from imbeciles to the criminally insane. Here’s an extract from my last trip there:

Security: Please take off your belt
Me: I did
Security: Please take off your belt sir
Me: I really did
Security: do not be difficult
Me: It’s the long leather thing with the gold buckle on it in the tray in front of you with my jacket, phone, change etc
Security: do not try to be difficult sir

This does however raise an interesting option for the airlines – frequent terror miles. Smuggle enough explosive across the airline network for your particular terrorist paymaster and then you get to go bomb the location of your choice, regardless of them being infidels or whatever. If someone in Andorra has really pissed you off or you got a parking ticket in Luxembourg – it’s payback time 🙂 how good is that??

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