Ballinspittle Bluebells

Well, it’s been a while. Amazing how moving to a different county, getting a new job and oh yeah, getting married, tends to divert attention from blogging and even picking the camera up. After Julie got a tip from Jamie on the location of some bluebells, we added it as a pit stop on a fairly short tour around west Cork last weekend.

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I’m not keeping it a secret, the forest is at Ballinspittle. That’s just outside Kinsale. Head towards the Old Head and you can’t go wrong. I put the 60D back into action and borrowed one of Julie’s lenses for once. She bought an 85 f1.8 not too long ago that although a lovely lens, is just a bit too long on a crop camera. That’s not really true, it’s miles too long on a crop camera. I’m really regretting selling the Sigma 30 f1.4 some years back when I thought I’d never have another Canon crop camera. I have been considering buying a Samyang 35 T1.5, but I’ll put that on the ever increasing list of stuff to buy when I win the lotto.

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Yes, I said T1.5 and not f1.4. I believe in a previous post I mentioned I had bought the 60D with the intention of doing some (well, more) video. I loaded magic lantern on it and dug an audio cable out of my huge box of cable junk to allow me to connect a Zoom H1 I bought (again with the intention of doing some video) to it to capture better quality audio than you would ever get on the 60D’s built in microphone. Aside from a couple of small projects, the video never really happened. I’m making another go at it, I just need to storyboard a few projects I can work on that will be accessible for someone that really doesn’t know video but has a decent handle on the whole photography thing. Editing video and coming out with something watchable at the end of the process is still very much a mystery to me.

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I did shoot a small amount of video at the forest and I’ve thrown together a rough cut of clips. It’s below and also on Youtube.

Lessons learned include
1. If I’m going to keep doing this, I need some ND filters. Possibly a cheapish variable one.
2. I may also need one of those clip on viewfinder things. Focus peaking on grayscale display helps but it can’t do much against bright sunlight.
3. I couldn’t hand hold a camera and keep it steady if my life depended on it.
4. Final Cut Pro video stabilisation is terrible and should be avoided unless it’s absolutely unavoidable.

But back to the photography.

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Nice to be back out. Nice also that I was able to remember my blog login. Hopefully it won’t take me over 6 months until I update again.

The Trek back to Ireland

That would unfortunately make this part three of a European motorcycling trilogy. We were back on the road, heading west toward our next Italian stop not too far from French border; Susa. From what I remember, or rather don’t remember, the road over was pretty uneventful. We had more than our share of motorway miles where the group became disconnected and following anyone was a completely pointless exercise. We had some back roads then some more motorways and well, you get the idea. It was another transit day really. The relaxation of Lake Garda was over and done with and it was time to start thinking about heading north again. Not to worry though, the holiday isn’t quite done yet.

Susa is what I can only describe as a typical small central European town. Pick up the people and swap them for French people and it could have been any town in France. Or Spain.  Or in this case, Italy. Having dropped the bikes in the hotel (which, although cheap, cheerful and perfectly comfortable, looked like it might have been a juvenile detention center at some stage). The underground car park was deliciously cool and shaded though.

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Workshop

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Having discovered the extent of the excitement available in Susa, we opted to take a walk around the small town to discover the various Roman ruins dotted about the place. There was an aqueduct, a  couple of towers and an amphitheater. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to perform a one man Monty Python show while seated in a completely deserted amphitheater.   Bloody Peoples Front of Judea! I had my fun and that’s all that matters.

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A couple of cups of coffee were had before meeting up with an undecided bunch for dinner and eventually ending up somewhere really nice. Unexpected.

Being a typically Irish sort of mob, there’s nothing like a couple of pints after dinner to settle everything down a bit. Or, to put it another way, exactly the opposite of how mainland Europe seems to do it. Finding a drink is a tough proposition but we did eventually prevail.

I had the genius plan of tackling Col de Sommeiller (one of the highest roads in Europe, a good deal of which is unpaved) while we were in Susa but it never really materialised. I guess I’d need the day off the next day to recover from manhandling the bike around the rocky roads. Next time. To give you some idea of what I’m talking about, consider the below.

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From the town of Bardonecchia, the road (marked in red) snakes its way around the mountains until it reaches the location at the inset picture. Two roads diverged. Left, to the car park and the end of the line. Right, further up the mountain. I’m no expert on Italian road signs (like much of the Italian  motorist population) but the sign on the right seems to indicate some kind of no vehicle entry. However, the barrier is up. I’m conflicted. Like most off-road motorcycling, the thing to do is feign ignorance until advised otherwise. “Well your honour, the barrier was up and there was nobody in the hut to tell me not to ride up there”.

Back up and somewhat bright eyed the next morning, a few of us headed off north into the hills. Then, after I realised the bike was running on fumes, I had to turn back and get petrol. No, still not really very awake. I made a curious decision, one that confounds me even now. Instead of just heading back down into Susa and finding a petrol station, I asked the GPS where the nearest one is. A fairly safe proposition one would imagine. Although I suspect the only people that would imagine that are people that have never actually owned or used a GPS before. It routed us onto a motorway via a batshit crazy series of on ramps and off ramps and then, typically enough, there was no way off that motorway for 28km. To add insult to injury, that stretch of motorway took us through one very long tunnel (which resulted in a fairly hefty toll on the other end) and then around something else of great importance (which resulted in another toll). Then, as the bike was almost coasting to a stop for lack of fuel, an Esso station appeared. I didn’t really care at this stage that the petrol was €1.93 a liter. Well, I did. I wasn’t about to ride past and look for somewhere cheaper though.

Col De L’Iseran on Vimeo.

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We did eventually get back on plan and into France to ride Col de l’Iseran, one of the loneliest mountain roads I’ve ever been on. Miles and miles of lunar landscape only broken by the occasional car or cyclist passing. It was bloody cold too. The summer riding gear was great while at sea level but your worst enemy above 1000ft. Brr.

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Back down to Italian sea level at La Thuile then north to the Swiss border. Switzerland, although a beautiful country, is a profoundly odd place. Swiss German is weird and wonderful language. I think the biggest pain in the arse of this day was knowing that once we crossed into Switzerland, we wouldn’t be just casually stopping to buy a can of coke or a sandwich. The reason; Swiss Francs. Lunch and/or dinner was going to have to be an orchestrated effort in aid to use credit and debit cards less (therefore avoiding being gouged with the exchange rate). It’s too easy to take the Euro for granted while on holidays. Just buying a bottle of water would mean visiting an ATM, getting out the smallest denomination possible, grimacing at the exchange rate then buying the water and grimacing further about how much everything costs in Switzerland. Yes, overly dramatic.

Switzerland also made me realise how important it is to be a good traveler. By that I mean having a basic grasp of the local language, enough to order food, pay your bill and say thanks to the staff (assuming they deserve it of course). I’d put not being fussy in with being a good traveler. Eating what the locals eat. Just because you have steak pie & colcannon at home, doesn’t mean you’re going to get it in a small town in Europe. That kind of thing.

The experience of attempting to communicate with the locals in Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland made me realise that in many ways, I am not a good traveler. By the end of our couple of days in Germany I was reciting “ein Weißbier bitte” like a local and while that seemed to carry over into Austria quite well I was lost for just about everything in Switzerland. To restore my confidence somewhat, even our German group member that joined us while we were passing through the Black Forest had massive trouble in Switzerland.

It did make me start learning German at the start of this year though. Basic German anyway. I’ll always be a staunch supporter of hand signals while attempting to speak foreign languages.

But I digress; Back to Switzerland. We were on our way north east-ish to stay in a small, cheap (for Switzerland) hotel in the middle of nowhere. Nearest city is Lucerne I think. There was a chunk of motorway in the way and I fancied neither getting on a motorway again nor being further gouged for a Swiss vignette. For those not accustomed to the ways of European motorways; In Ireland we have tolls. In France they have whopping great tolls. In a few other European countries they have vignettes. Basically, its a sticker you affix to your vehicle that permits you to use the motorway. If you don’t have one and you get stopped by the cops on the motorway, you’re screwed. The varying levels to which you’re screwed depend very much on the country. From what I heard before traveling, in Switzerland, you’re the most screwed. In Switzerland, you have to buy a vignette for a year. That’s €33. In other countries, you can buy one for a few days for a few quid. In summary, I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay €33 to spend maybe an hour on a motorway. Unsurprisingly, some other people were of the same opinion. Equally unsurprisingly, it was the members of the ‘Bold Children MC’. The decision allowed us to take in some local sights and have a relaxed lunch in a nice quiet spot.

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So instead of the motorway, we took a few scenic back roads, took our time and then when we’d covered a suitable amount of ground, we began to look for options. Option 1, get on the motorway for the rest of the journey. That was almost certainly a non runner for reasons above. Option 2, get the ferry. Option 3, use th… wait a minute, get the ferry? Now unless I’m very much mistaken, we’re landlocked. Also, we’re in the middle of the mountains. Ferry? Curiosity, cat. The GPS was set for the ferry terminal and the five of us set off into the mountains again.

We rode through some amazing scenery in the now somewhat cooler late afternoon, the thought struck me on more than one occasion that I’d have paid to see this kind of stuff rather than paying a premium to use a long, flat, boring motorway. After several miles and some nervous exchanges between us, we reached this ‘ferry’. Ferry my arse.

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After paying a few quid and waiting a few minutes, we were loaded onto a vehicle carrying train that appeared as if it last saw service during World War 2. It was like the Eurotunnel’s great grandfather. After riding around in the mountains all day and expecting to roll up on a ferry across a lake, it was a very surreal experience to be loaded into a train and stick your head out the window as it pulled off. The journey was only about 20/30 minutes or so but it brought us significantly closer to our destination for the evening and it was great to have a break from riding but still be moving. Getting off the train was a bit of an off-road style riding experience but we all managed it without any spills.

We were rewarded for our perseverance in finding the ferry train with a beautiful sunset against the mountains as we rode the final few miles to the guest house. Ironically, I’d have liked a longer ride in those conditions. The sun was just going down as we pulled in and the light was amazing. If I didn’t want my dinner so badly, I’d have been out with the camera. Oh and point of interest, this was the only day that we arrived last at the hotel. Just thought I should point that out.

Dinner was unremarkable. Apparently the idea with stopping in Switzerland was to have fondue. The majority of the table opted for a very less heartburn inducing meal of various meats and vegetables.

The next day we were up, out and on the way to France. Ever the intrepid explorers, we didn’t cross the border in the usual ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ motorway fashion. Roughly, it went as follows. We followed a back road, then another back road then turned onto a smaller back road. Realising we didn’t have a bloody notion where we were going, we consulted the most up to date GPS we had between the three bikes. A route decided and a leader elected, we were rolling again. Another back road, a dirt road, trees. Wait, were on a dirt road in a forest!?! Are we still in Switzerland? 200 yards later, the answer to that was no. We were still on the same dirt road in the same forest but the GPS was now telling me we were in France. We passed an elderly gentleman walking in the woods. He looked suitably confused that three Irish registered motorbikes, laden down with the trappings of holiday making were on his dirt road, in his French and/or Swiss forest. I’m sure as we passed he was thinking ‘bloody foreigners’ to himself in French and/or Swiss German.

But wait, we’re in France now. We can understand a larger proportion of what people are trying to say to us. We can read road signs. We know what we’re eating. Wonderful! The Route des Crêtes was waiting patiently in our path from our current position to our overnight stop in Verdun. But alas, the weather had other ideas. We were spoiled with beautiful sunshine on our tour around the Vosges the previous year. We wouldn’t get the same treatment this year.

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It was still a great ride. Cool, dull, moody. Like myself. Well, apart from the cool bit. It was wonderful to be back in the Vosges, our first European mountain motorcycling experience. On the other hand, after riding all the other mountain passes in other countries, it made me realise how poorly surfaced French mountain roads are compared to those in other countries. Ah well, no real problem for the GS.

Through all the mist and attempts at rain while climbing the various peaks, we passed quite a number of cyclists. Not entirely unusual, although worthy of mention given that most of them were being followed by Dutch registered vehicles. When taking photos at the above (usually scenic) stop, we got talking to one of the drivers. He told us that there was a big event on in the mountains that saw a couple of thousand (if I remember correctly) Dutch cyclists coming all the way over to cycle the mountain pass.

Sure enough, by the time we reached the top of Grand Ballon, we could hardly get parking for the bike with the number of Dutch cars, vans, buses and motor homes. For a few minutes, it was like being in Holland. Well, a very hilly version of Holland anyway.

With so little scenery visible and the threat of rain, there was little to compel us to spend extra time in the Vosges so we took off in the direction of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges and continued our route to our overnight stop in Verdun. We were keeping mostly to back roads. There wasn’t much point hitting the motorways given the relatively short distance and the abundance of time we had to do it. We didn’t really have any plans in Verdun. It was more or less a transit town for us. Others had plans to visit several military graveyards and other sights in the area but that wasn’t really our thing. Having said that…

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In the pretty much ‘made up on the spot’ route I was following, I spotted a sign for an American military graveyard and in a moment of not knocking it until I’d tried it, I diverted off course. As expected, the graveyard is immense, in a very peaceful area away from everything else and kept in impeccable condition. There was a lone caretaker working the grounds when we arrived and the now light rain or remote location must have kept some people away because we were pretty much the only people there.

It’s as you may have seen TV, row after row of perfectly symmetric headstones, each inscribed with the details of a fallen soldier. It puts the scale of the wars into context when you are standing with fields of crosses laid out in front of you and remember that this is only one of many such graveyards.

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We weren’t on the road again for too long before we reached Verdun. On reaching the hotel (Cloche D’or), one of the owners hurried out to us to instruct me where to park the bike. They turned out to be a friendly couple, which may only have been discernible if any potential visitors speak French. Neither of them appear to have any English whatsoever. After checking in, getting a demo on how to use the front door and being questioned on when the rest of the group would arrive, we retreated to the room to peel off the bike gear and change into civvies to explore the town.

Exploring was short lived. The sun had reappeared and we ended up making it as far as a river front bar for some wine and a Leffe. After some limited exploring, we found possibly the best newsagent in the world. In the front window, they advertised the usual magazines, newspapers, cigarettes and tourist trinkets. For the more than casual observer, they also had an extensive display case around the corner. This one was full of replica guns, swords, knives, machetes and various other ‘collectibles’ that were created with the intention of causing serious harm. I thought for a second how I might explain a machete strapped to the side of the bike to customs officials in the UK, then we moved on when I couldn’t come up with a suitable story. Neither “It’s for traffic” nor “Just in case” sounded very plausible when I said them out loud.

After sheltering from a short lived deluge of rain in the French equivalent of Michael Guineys, we returned to the hotel where we met up with the rest of the group, who were furiously drawing pictures of beds on scrap paper and making wild hand gestures in an attempt to check in.

A couple of beers were had and then a stroll down back into the town for the most poorly orchestrated meal I’ve ever had in my life. It wasn’t just us thankfully, other people that chose to eat at the seemingly popular ‘restaurant’ were also having trouble being served the correct food at a reasonably decent temperature. Sadly I can’t recall the name of the place but if you’re in Verdun, avoid the red fronted restaurant on Quai de Londres.

Thankfully it wasn’t too hard to forget awful service and questionable food considering we’d be in Belgium the next night. I think if we were going back to that area overnight in a kind of ‘transit day’ way, I’d be more inclined to return to Reims or give Epernay a try rather than staying in Verdun again. After all, there are lots more Champagne caves to visit!

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I had Belgium (or at least Ypres) pretty adequately researched before we left Dublin. I was only too keen to return to Belgium after the couple of hours we spend in Brugge at the start of the holiday. This time we’d be staying in Ypres which was tantalisingly close to the home of Westvleteren, Abdij Sint-Sixtus. A hold was soon put on my excitement when I saw that the cafe across the road from the abbey was closed on the day we were in the area. So no samples of Westvleteren 12 for me. Bugger. It gives me something to do when we’re in Belgium next anyway.

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We stayed at the superb Ariane Hotel, an ideal spot to shed the bike gear and take the short walk to Grote Markt, a place we were informed was the most lively part of the town. After some strolling, some photo taking and some beer purchasing (and generally lamenting about the price difference compared to Dublin), we had a superb dinner at one of the restaurants on Grote Markt. Faultless, apart from when a few of the noisiest Londoners on the planet turned up and sat opposite us. A swift table move before our meal had even begun sorted that problem. The move was aided greatly by a very accommodating waitress, although she did appear to see exactly what was going on and the reasons for the move.

And well, that really is the only issue with Ypres, like most cities I suppose. A small percentage of the  tourists do their best to ruin it for both other tourists and locals. If you can’t go somewhere and remain the least bit dignified and respectful, just stay at home and watch TV. Ok?

This would pretty much be the end of the holiday. I’m not writing about the trip back across the UK because it was a hell of a lot of motorway with a Premier Inn at the end of it. There could have been nicer ways to end the trip. Wales was nice. But then Wales is always nice. Until the next foreign jaunt…

Brew Day

Brew Day on Vimeo.

I think I can call this the first brew day of 2013, given that my last brew day was New Years Eve 2012. I decided to try a bit of time lapse video with this one. Nothing too well planned as you can probably tell. Just stuck up a few cameras and took it as an experiment to see what I came up with.

As you’ll notice from my furious re-positioning of cameras and tripods, I also shot some video on my Nex but haven’t dared go near that yet. More scripting and story boarding required on that venture for the next brew I think.

This was a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone, about 5.1% abv and in around the 40 IBU mark if I remember correctly. The original brew day plan was to brew up a batch of high abv porter to bottle for Christmas (I never said the ‘C word’ by the way) but as I’d stupidly forgot to buy any chocolate malt on my last trip to the home brew supplier, the SNPA clone would have to fulfill my need to brew something for now.

It’s a little over a week since it went into the fermenter and now sitting pretty at 1.010, down from 1.049. It’ll be transferred to secondary tonight and be treated to some Amarillo hops for about another 5 days.

In related news, this is one of those rare occasions that I appear in content posted on my own blog. I’m not going to be making a thing of it, don’t worry. If you should feel the need to view the video bigger and in HD, head over to the Vimeo link posted under the video.

Bealach Na Ba

HD on Vimeo

Bealach Na Ba, once the only road into the remote western shores town of Applecross. Now a ‘must ride’ road for those that prefer the two wheeled mode of transport. Think of the road like any country road around Wicklow, except on steroids. Oh and with a perfect surface. Oh and with no cow/sheep/pig shit in the middle of the road just as you carve through a bend at speed. Oh and… You get the idea. I’ll spare you from the ‘if we pay so much road tax, shouldn’t the roads be better’ rant.

Just like the panorama you’ve already seen except not a panorama. Next time we go up here, we’re bringing a picnic. Very entertaining watching the bikes sweep around the hairpin bends, followed by the cars almost having to perform three point turns to get around them. Not long before we started the climb up to the top, we all (six bikes) overtook a vintage truck crawling out of a nearby town. Some time later, and while standing at the top admiring the view, a local passed by in his car informing us there was an old truck coming up the road and if we wanted to ride the rest of the road in style (my words, not his), now was the time to leave. I was quite tempted to hang about and see exactly how someone in a 30ft long truck was planning on negotiating the switchbacks. My guess; Slowly.

So you get down to Applecross eventually and you do what pretty much everyone else does. You go to the Applecross Inn for lunch. The above is taken from the car park of the Inn. Apparently rooms are expensive but from what I can see, they’re worth it. The problem now is that as Bealach Na Ba is the only good way into Applecross, it’s also presumably the only good way out. You can travel back the way you came or as we did, you head north about 13 miles, then east about 11 miles until you get back to an A road.

When we came back to Dublin, I checked the price of land and/or houses in the area. Although I think I’d have to change career; I take it there isn’t much in the way of demand for network engineers up there.

Detour

A little bit delayed but better late than never. Premier Pro was driving me nuts so after upgrading to 12gb ram, it’s driving me slightly less nuts. Nuts slightly less. Either one. For some reason (after doing some minor colour corrections), it took about 1,000 times longer to export this video from Premier Pro than it did pre-corrections. I’ll figure that one out eventually.

I’m still pretty much in the testing phases with these drift cameras, their first big trip will be in a couple of weeks time to the highlands.

The above is the first part of the Easter weekend trip to Cork. We took the road to Cork less traveled by riding down to Carlow, into Wexford and onto Waterford before hitting Cork from the east. A surprise attack on a Friday afternoon to get the weekend off to a flying start. The reason for the detour was to get some otherwise pain in the ass photo rally points in the bag, namely the ones in Wexford near New Ross and the slightly less pain in the ass Waterford point just outside Dungarvan. From Dungarvan it was a straight run (via the perfectly twisty main road) to Cork.

As before, until I pay my $60 a year dues to Vimeo, the above embedded video is in bog standard SD. If you want to view it the way nature intended, go to the video page on Vimeo for some HD lovin’.

Part 2 will be along shortly and will be a much less time lapse affair. Off into the wilds of west Cork & Kerry for that one.

Maiden Voyage

If you cast your mind back to this and lived to see the other side of it, you’ll understand why I recently bought a couple of Drift Stealth cameras to make the filming process a little easier and a lot less stomach churning. The above was the maiden voyage and very much a learning exercise. I need to see what the hardware can do, what it can’t do and what I shouldn’t make it try to do before the ‘big holiday’ to the Alps in August. This was a routine trip from Dublin city down to Wicklow and back again. Thankfully back again that is, the low/no petrol light was taunting me for most of the ride back to Dublin.

With the included mounting hardware, I ended up with a camera on the engine bars (more on that later) and one on the side of my helmet. That still left me with oodles of spare hardware, velcro pads and elastic straps to play around with so I’m going to need to come up with a few more mounting locations. The helmet was the winner, video (shot at 720, 60p on both cameras) turned out smooth. The engine bar location, if I decide to reuse it, will need some work. Perhaps a kind of shock mount. Thankfully the cameras have standard tripod mount screws on them so I can spoil myself with the myriad of mounting options out there.

Things I learned
1. I don’t need to check that the camera is still on the side of my head every 5 minutes. The velcro is strong and all the bobbing around to look at the camera in the mirror just screws up the footage.
2. Nodding or generally acknowledging other bikers on the road leads to further footage foul ups. I think I’ll have to adopt the standard European leg waggle. Not that many bikers in Dublin return the salutation these days anyway.
3. Mounting on the engine bar is generally going to be a no-no. There are certain speeds it works beautifully at and if I continue to use that point I need to become aware of those speeds. Otherwise it’s a rolling shutter fest.
4. Syncing footage between two cameras is a bit harder than I previously imagined it would be.

Another interesting thing I learned is that the majority of car drivers behave a lot better when they spot a camera on the side of your head. Some even slowed down to stare.

A note on the music is perhaps required. When I go out on rides like this, I never fail to default to two albums. “Between Two Lungs” and “The House That Dirt Built”. It’s proven to be great back road riding music. So before I get takedown notices from and/or sued by Florence And The Machine and The Heavy I invite you to play the above at the appropriate volume.

Also and somewhat vitally, the above is standard definition but the footage is actually in 720p. I can’t currently do HD embeds from Vimeo because I haven’t paid my dues to them for a ‘plus’ account. ($60 seems a little overkill at the moment and I may just end up using Youtube). So if that kind of thing bothers you and you want to view it as I intended it to be watched, you can get the 720p version on the video page.

Next stop, Austria.

Shakycam is Go!

What was intended to be a mostly entertaining way for me to record and review my very limited off-road jaunts while in the UK in April has turned into a public service video on the effects of motion sickness and a case study on why people buy those expensive little helmet cameras. While I wasn’t expecting Steven Spielberg results, I imagined in what I now know was supreme, unwavering naivety that I might get something other than a dodgy late 1990’s horror movie.

This is a very cut down version of the full experience, I didn’t want to subject anyone to the full six minutes. My most sincere apologies to sufferers of motion sickness and indeed to those that contract acute motion sickness as a result of viewing the above. Next on the shopping list, a helmet camera and possibly an Adobe Premier manual.