Tagebau Hambach Mine, Germany

As we were sitting plotting (the conservatives downfall bwa ha ha.  No, not really, the route west from Cologne with google maps), we noticed a bloody huge hole in the ground to the west of the city.  A little research showed us the Tagebau Hambach mine. It’s a lignite mine – low quality coal.  Reserving commenting on the environmental impact, we could not resist stopping off at the visitors centre for a look.  The scale of the place just boggles the mind. There are perhaps ten bucket wheel excavators moving overburden from above the lignite.  At the other end of the pit, machines put the overburden back one the lignite layer has been extracted. The whole shebang moving ever Southeast.  Throughout the pit a huge conveyor network moves the spoil and the lignite around.

The photos won’t do the scale of the operation justice.  It was about ten minutes before we could focus on any details that we recognised – in the end it was a pickup truck dwarfed by one of the excavators.  The mine is around 500 meters deep.

The bucket wheel excavators are the largest in the world and if you really want to geek out, check out some stats: they are around 100 meters tall, 200 meters long and weigh nearly 15,000 tons.  Each drinks about 16 Megawatts of juice to run.

The mine has plans to operate for at least the next 20 years, so it’s unclear what this will mean in the context of Germany’s commitment to stop burning coal by 2038.  Again, to give an example of scale – one of the plans after the mine is closed is for a man made lake. Using water from the Rhine, they still estimate that the lake will take decades to fill taking the final cleanup beyond 2100.

We tried a quick drone flight here – not over the mine as that would not be permitted – but just a panning shot as the drone climbed.  But it was rubbish – the place is just so big that moving the drone results in almost no change to the shot. Still, it was nice to chalk up another country and justify the effort of getting the fireproof tag fitted to the drone!

Steinhuder, Lower Saxony, Germany

Sadly, we had to miss out Hanover – the logistics for the mothership and the available motorhome stellplatz and campsites made it too much like hard work.  Maybe we can go back out of season when it will be easier to find a pitch!

Anyway, from Wolfsburg, it was 100km west and a lovely camper-van site near the 30 km square  lake Steinhuder Meer (lake).  The afternoon looked like it would be a washout with rain showers predicted.  But as the forecast for Sunday was worse, we decided to set out for a lap of the lake (35km).  In the end, it was wonderful. We had one sudden downpour, but there are shelters all around the lake, and we stayed dry.

Sunday we went into Steinhuder town and had a wander around. It’s mainly a tourist town – the lake is hugely popular and draws in large crowds every weekend.  There was also an American car show running so we checked out more American muscle!

Monday was a down day planning for the next month of stops and generally doing all the hundred of little jobs that build up!

Berlin, Germany

And so we arrive in Berlin.  This is about as far East as Selina is comfortable travelling, so this is home for a week.

It’s a long drive, so our first day is more of an evening.  We scope out the local area buying groceries and generally mooching around.  From the camping platz, we can see the Humboldhain Flak tower standing on the hill, so we wand over and take a look at that.  It seems that only organised tours are allowed inside. The flak tower is a repeatable design and we had already spotted one in Hamburg.  When the Germans designed them, they already had in mind post-war uses for the buildings and so they were actually designed to be clad in stone.

Our first day into town is a large walking tour.  We take in the intact section of the Berlin wall over at Mühlenstraße – now an outdoor art gallery.  We visit checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg gate, the parliament buildings, and we even have time for an impromptu visit to the cultural fair which was on for three days.  Pulled pork burgers for lunch. Nom nom!

It’s really busy in town, so many of the things have huge queues.  Even though queuing is a supposedly British national pastime, we eschew waiting and continue the wander.  Many kilometers of pavements pounded!

Second day in town and we intended to go back to Potsdamer Platz to check out the Lego experience and the German Espionage Museum.  But we didn’t get that far. We got to Potsdamer Platz okay, but then spotted ‘Die Welt’ a tethered helium balloon that we had previously seen from the top of the Flak Tower on the day we arrived.  It was only 25€ each, so we splurged out on it. We were really lucky: We were the 8th and last flight of the day because the wind picked up.  So glad we did this. A great view of Berlin from 150 meters. Very apt that the Balloon is positioned beside the Luftwaffe HQ from the war.

After that we needed beer with sauerkraut hotdogs for lunch.  Then it was over the road to the Topography of Terror – the old site of the Gestapo.  From there it’s back to Potsdamer Platz and the Espionage museum – which was really interesting – Toby _finally_ got to see another Enigma  machine = two in fact. The Lego Experience was a non starter – it was just shy of 20€ each! That’s too rich for us non-earners 😉

The next day and it was a trip to the outskirts of town and the Computer games Museum. Even Selina played some of the games.  Toby now wants to raid the loft when we get home and get out the Amiga, the BBC and the Atari ST! Selina even played ZorkInternet Rabbit Hole warning: Play Zork and HHGTTG online.

Our final expedition for this trip to Berlin was a guided underground tour with berliner-unterwelten learning about the tunnels that were used to escape West Berlin in the early days of the cold war. We learned many of the heroes of Berlin that rescued hundreds of people from the wrong side of the wall and reunited many families for example Tunnel 57.  None of the actual tunnels exist today – they were normally destroyed with hand grenades on discovery, but the Berlin Unterwelten have access to the sprawling basements of a number of buildings and each story is told in an underground setting.

Why Facebook for updates, aren’t they evil?

Why on earth are you using FB – they are evil data slurping, privacy eroding, advertising behemoths driven by greed and who are just part of the military industrial complex dedicated to laying waste to the planet and turning us further into sheeple blah blah blah?

We already use facebook a lot for keeping in touch with family and friends. We made this page as a way to keep them up to date on what we were up to if they do want to know, but without the constant in-your face stream of pictures of places and descriptions of meals on our personal feeds annoying hard working people 😉  

The compromise is to use FB to post the odd photo and links to blog articles which you can find here on the wordpress site.

What you could do is turn FB notifications off and instead occasionally look at the tour map to see where we are and if we have posted anything new: – the tour map is on the front page of the blog.

Three months by the numbers

So here we are three months in and we’ve not yet even toured three countries!

In case you are interested, here are some details by the numbers: We have travelled 4500 kilometers visiting over 50 towns and cities. We’ve put 580 litres of diesel and 35 litres of LPG in the tanks. That LPG usage will increase over the winter as we need to start using the heating at night to stop us turning into Selina and Toby popsicles!

We’ve spent around £5000 – of which the largest spend is on groceries, then site fees and then diesel.  These three categories account for about £3.5K

Sel commented that we have saved a lot of money over our expenditure at home as there have been no spur of the moment toy/hobby purchases.  We are surprised Amazon have been able to cope with the loss of revenue!  

A typical town visit plan

Here is a quick post showing what one of our city plans looks like.  This is the Google map for Evora – we intended this to be a one night stopover, so it’s a simple plan, but the town was great so it was two.  In orange we have the potential stopovers. We have a few sources of info and so typically we get a few versions of the truth about good places to stop and sometimes we don’t decide until we arrive which it will be.  

The light blue pins are the things we want to do – we may have researched them heavily over the last few years, discovered them the previous day or perhaps people recommended them to us, but light blue is where they end up.  The purple colour are the utilities and facilities: high on the agenda for Evora was washing, so we checked out the Lavandaria and popped them on the google map, but sometimes it’s tourist information, garages, supermarkets or LPG gas stations.  You get the idea!

Working with the Euro

Sticking to a mainly European tour means that there is only one key currency to work with plus a few principalities, but there are still issues for brits trying to spend the good old GBP in Europe.

When holidaying for three weeks in the summer and three weeks in the winter, it’s easy to just suffer the poor exchange rates and the currency conversion fees that the major banks and credit cards all charge, but for a whole year away we need a more cost effective way to convert £ to €. Obviously we don’t want to take lots of cash in the van.

Europe have legislation aimed at stopping the banks fleecing their customers in Europe when moving currency from country to country, but those slippery banks have special tricks to make sure that the SEPA regulations don’t apply to their operations in the UK and £25 fees are pretty standard. 

Long story short, it’s hard to get GBP into Euros without stinging fees. Selina has found a deal with Barclaycard that should cover us for two years without transfer fees (but we don’t know the exchange rate) and Toby has a Monzo card that expressly notes that there is no currency conversion fee and no inflated exchange rate.

The trip has already get more expensive than we thought – the pound has taken a bit of a bashing recently – wonder why?

So we’ll experiment with Monzo and Barclaycard and see where that gets us!

We’ve gone!

We have been very relaxed about exactly when we would leave. It doesn’t make too much difference to us exactly where we are and when, so there was no pressing schedule.

We heard about some issues at the St Malo terminal for travellers coming to the UK, but that doesn’t really affect people coming out of the UK. So St Malo it was. We’ll worry about getting back later – much later hopefully!

Brittany Ferries don’t inflate the prices much as it gets close to departure date (at least not for the 7.5M mothership), so we booked the day before travel.

A relaxed trip down to Portsmouth, topping up the LPG and diesel on the way and we were amongst the first onto the ship.

The St Malo overnight crossing from Portsmouth means a lot to us – all the times we have been to France over the last few years, we have always tried to book the same ship, Bretagne. It has a wonderful restaurant, Les Abers, and it has always set our trips off to a fine start. The Grand Marnier souffle is bloody fantastic.

This time being among the first on the ship meant that we were first into the restaurant too and were greeted with a sunset over Portsmouth while enjoying a wonderful meal.

Saturday AM and a fantastic sunrise over St Malo & we were among the first off the Boat. The only buttock clenching moment of the day was when the border force in France directed us into a lane that was narrow and low – just 20 cm to spare on the height and probably 10 cm on either side too, including pulling the mirrors in, but it was fine in the end!

Then a drive down to Oudon by the Loire to a free ‘Aire de Service Camping Car’. Yes, free as in beer and speech.

At the moment, we are on a schedule to be in Bessines near Limoge on Monday and then we will relax for a week or so.