Author Archives: DiploStrat

Bringing Home the 917

California to Colorado – September 2017 

After selling our Tiger in the spring of 2017, we looked around for a different vehicle, one which would give us a little more storage space and permit us to use the high sulphur diesel fuel found in Central America.  In the fall, we decided to purchase a Mercedes Benz 917, a former fire truck from Austria, which had been converted into an overland camper by XPCamper. (


So, armed with a couple of boxes of enough camping equipment to get us home, we flew to Grass Valley, California, the home of XPCampers, to pick it up.  We had previously seen the XP and knew we would love the camper part.  After a few tweeks and a few additional purchases, we set off over the Sierra Nevada towards Route 50, through Nevada and Utah.  This was a route we had taken and enjoyed in 2016.  We even managed to stay at the Cave State Park Campground just east of Ely, Nevada, so we could have dinner in the Chinese restaurant on Main Street.  We had enjoyed our lunch there on our previous visit to Ely in 2016.   In Utah we took a detour off road, down Route 21 towards I-15 to so we could test our new vehicle on dirt.  It drove beautifully and we were pleased.


We had made plans to visit La Junta, Colorado to get some work done at Rob Pickering’s shop, Terry Lee Enterprises.  ( ) Rob is an expert on Unimogs and old European trucks and, because of the 917’s age, we had arranged that it be completely inspected and overhauled.  We had no idea when such basics as an oil change had last been done and were sure that other issues would come to light.  As indeed they did, although somewhat sooner than we expected!


While on I-70, about ten miles from the Colorado border, just west of Grand Junction the truck began to swerve violently.  Huge clouds of smoke appeared in the rear view mirror and keeping the vehicle on the road was a major challenge, especially as we were being passed by a tractor-trailer at the time. Things were quite sporting for a moment, but Fred was finally able to pull over to the side.  We got out to take stock of the situation.  We had a shredded and burned tire, minimal tools, and only one jack.  Fortunately, we had good cell phone service so we called for roadside assistance and with the aid of the charming gentleman who responded, we mounted the spare.  A this point we discovered that the problem was not a defective tire, but rather that four of the 40 bolts which held the two halves of the wheel together had sheared off.  And we still had Monarch Pass ahead of us. The manufacturer of the wheels basically told us that it was our fault, implying that we kept driving on a flat tire – NOT a company that we would ever recommend! Grrr!

Denise points to the missing bolts.

We continued very cautiously towards La Junta, checking the wheels every hour or so.  We replaced several more bolts on other wheels as they sheared off, before arriving at the KOA campsite in La Junta on the Sunday evening.  The next morning we presented ourselves bright and early at Rob’s shop and set out the list of what was needed, which now included new wheels, as we could not drive further with the current ones.


We spent about four days in La Junta, waiting for the wheels to be delivered and planning the truck’s renovation.  Among other tasks, all fluids and filters were changed, the spare tire was moved to the rear, and, to Denise’s delight, we installed swing away steps on the cab. We also ordered air conditioning for the cab and the camper.

The 917 on the lift at Terry Lee Enterprises.

While waiting, we borrowed Rob’s truck and had a wonderful visit to the Bent’s Old Fort, a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service. Bent’s fort was a trading post on the Santa Fe Trail.  Built in 1833 in adobe it is of considerable historical significance.  A most interesting place with costumed interpreters explaining the life and times of the era.

Towards the Fort

Inner courtyard

Rob managed to find five wheels for us but it became clear that the wheels would not arrive in a time for us to make it to Overland EXPO East on time, so we decided to fly back to DC from Colorado Springs and return when everything was closer to completion. So we gave our money to Frontier Airlines and flew home.


Following the Arkansas River – November 2017


We discovered that the final direct flight from Washington to Colorado Springs on Frontier Airlines (ever or for the season, it was unclear!) would be on October 31. As we were flying with our cat, who, as a rescue, had probably never flown before, we wanted to make the transit as simple as possible.  So we booked our flights and packed up a bit more camping equipment and headed off to pick up the 917, which was still not quite finished, but would be soon! Staying in it this time was impractical, so we headed to the Midtown Motel, which was in easy walking distance.  ( We ended up staying a week and now feel we know La Junta very well!  It was a pleasant week, the motel was friendly and helpful and as a fridge and microwave were provided, we were quite comfortable.  We did eat at the three best restaurants at least twice each!  Meanwhile, the wheels had arrived and the tires mounted, the air conditioning installed and the camper battery charging system upgraded.

Our patented “Twisted Sister” charing system – 24v to 12v and vice versa!

During the weekend, we again borrowed the pick up and went exploring locally.  One day we went to Boggsville, one of the first non-military settlements in southeastern Colorado.  It was most prominent in the early 1860’s to the 70’s.  The inhabitants were a mixture of Spanish, European and Cheyenne.  It was also the last home of Kit Carson, who died there in 1868. Several homes remain and the location is interesting, on the banks of the Arkansas River and on the Santa Fe Trail.

The next day we went southwest of La Junta to the Comanche Natural Grasslands and Vogel Canyon.  We enjoyed two short hikes within the canyon, one of which gave us a good view of the canyon as a whole and one of which led to some Indian pictographs on the cliffs.

Then we set off, back on Route 50, heading indirectly south en route to Orlando, Florida. After getting interested in the Santa Fe Trail, we stopped briefly at the Santa Fe wagon track site, just west of Dodge City in Kansas.  The grass was high at the end of summer so it was hard to see the tracks, just the irregularities in the earth showed where the wagons had been.

The old wagon ruts are well eroded and hard to see

We went looking for the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Foraker, Oklahoma. After wandering the countryside, courtesy of the GPS, we reverted to Siri and found it.  Definitely a low-key site, it was fascinating to see what the prairie looked like when the first Europeans arrived.  You can also see what your lawn would look like if you allowed it to revert to its natural state.  We did not see many of the bison, which roam the prairie there, but we enjoyed the short walks laid out nearby.

We had a strict timetable for this trip so we were not able to discover Arkansas, though we were still following the river!  We shall reserve that for a future trip.  We did stop at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Mississippi on our way south.  We drove the battlefield, which is huge and of course visited the museum.

Cannon on the battlements

We also liked the display of the remains of the USS Cairo, an ironclad, which sank nearby.  The most fascinating was the selection of personal items, retrieved from the sunken ship, which are now displayed in a separate museum, definitely a site worth visiting. (

After an overnight at a favorite campground on the banks of the Mississippi in Natchez, we continued south.


Our next goal was New Orleans, which Denise had long wanted to visit. We were able to get a reservation at the French Quarter RV Resort, which, while expensive, worked out beautifully as we could walk everywhere.  (  And walk we did….We wandered the French Quarter enjoying the architecture and eating beignets at the Café du Monde.  (  )

Fountain in Jackson Square

Classic French Quarter building

We visited the Cemetery as part of a fascinating carriage ride.

We discovered a wonderful courtyard restaurant

We sailed on the Creole Queen paddlewheel boat to the Chalmette Battlefield ( to learn about the defense of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

New Orleans is famous for many historic homes that you can visit. The 1850 house, on Jackson Square is an interesting example of a town house, built above a store. (


We shall most certainly be returning to New Orleans, there is a lot more to see!


After visiting our son for a week or so in Orlando and spending Thanksgiving there, we returned to DC after making a fascinating stop at the Fort McAllister State Park in Georgia.  The campground at the park was lovely but the Fort itself, a State Historic Park, was most interesting.  It is a massive earthwork with seven gun emplacements and a mortar battery built by the Confederacy and guarding the Great Ogeechee River as well as local plantations. (


A visit to the island of Malta was also on our “Must Visit List” as Denise had spent a month there with her family when she was twelve and she was keen to see how much she recognized. In fact, Floreana and Valletta had not changed much at all but most of the old decorated buses with crucifixes hanging from the rear view mirrors were nowhere to be seen, only a few preserved as tourist attractions. The island’s history is long and varied. Held by the Arabs from 870 AD, it was given to the Knights of St. John in 1530 by the Holy Roman Emperor.  Charles V. Napoleon captured it in 1798 but left in 1800 after British involvement. It was an important British naval base during World War II and British influence continued until independence in 1964. You can read more of Malta’s amazing history here:

The day dawned cool and cloudy and we watched as the island came into view. We took on the pilot and then approached the breakwater. The Queen Elizabeth maneuvered slowly into the port and made a compete 180 degree turn to her docking space. Valletta is a challenging port to enter with hard turns and minimal clearance. Fortunately, the winds were low. I grew up traveling by sea and later served briefly as a Midshipman. Put bluntly, the maneuverability of modern passenger ships, equipped with pods and thrusters is amazing. And it is generally all done without tugs.

Armed with our sweatshirts, we set off to Mdina, along with the rest of an organized tour. Mdina flourished under the Romans, and was held by the Saracens until the Normans took over in 1090.


View from Mdina looking back towards Valletta.

We liked Mdina with its curved streets and small squares and escaped from the group for a short wander around.

The doors of the traditional houses were fascinating. Each door, with its individual lock and knocker, almost certainly led into a lovely and unseen courtyard. Some were in better shape than others but all were interesting.


Knock or ring the bell.

We also came across a lovely little church with ornately painted ceilings and paintings.

It has been written that some church ceilings were intended to be literal representations of looking up to heaven – this church certainly reflected that image – the Virgin, the Christ, and the angels were looking right down on us.


We then returned to Valletta where we were shown the main street, the new outdoor theater and we visited St. John’s Co-Cathedral. The Cathedral was completed in 1577 and was dedicated to the patron saint of the Knights of Saint John and linked to the Cathedral in Mdina. ( The interior is incredibly ornate and there are many great works of art.


Not exactly the same as the typical American protestant church interior.



Highest of High Baroque.


We then seized the opportunity to escape from the tour and set out to find lunch. We ate al fresco (and it was windy and chilly) in a small restaurant behind the Cathedral. Lunch was excellent, Denise’s swordfish was fresh and Fred’s ravioli with Maltese sausage was tasty.

We noted that the sun was finally breaking through so we decided it was time to head out. As always we did a little shopping and then we headed for the Lascaris War Rooms 40 meters underground.

We had heard that the War Rooms had recently been restored and opened to visitors and, naturally, Fred was keen to see them, having seen them in any number of WWII movies.

The War Rooms are located in a network of tunnels and chambers, which housed Britain’s War headquarters in Malta. Operations rooms for the Air Force; for Anti Aircraft Gun Operations, for Cyphers and Code Encryptions etc. can all be seen. The War Rooms were used by General Eisenhower and his team during the Allied advance on Sicily and they remained in use throughout the Cold War until 1977.

We received directions towards the port and set off through a Government ministry to the street. The offices were all open to a wide verandah through which we walked, which felt rather odd but no one seemed to mind! One advantage of Valletta is that ships dock very close to the city and no transportation is needed to return to our ship. We had planned to take the Barrakka Lift to carry us down the cliff but we emerged much further down than we had expected so we went for a cup of coffee and an ice cream instead in a little café beside the water.


The famous lift. Note the massive scale of the fortifications everywhere. Malta was besieged many times and the Knights took defense very seriously.

We then returned to the ship on foot.



Denise had  visited Athens in 1964 and had memories of a coach tour to the Acropolis with Beatles songs playing in the background. Remember Eight Days a Week?!!


Porch of the Caryatids (Denise Photo from 1964. We had a nicer day.)

We chose to join a Cunard tour here and while we are now sure that we are not big tour people, in Athens this worked, as viewing the Akropolis was part of a group effort with at least 25 tour guides and buses at the same time. No way to get far from the madding crowd. Also Athens was basically closed for the Orthodox Easter weekend, so options were limited anyway.

We stopped first at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.athens-18


The honor guard performs an interesting, slow motion, drill.

Our first view of the Acropolis.athens-17

We fought our way up onto the hill in company with all the other tour guides speaking various languages and bus loads of tourists from all over the world. All seemed to concentrate on the Parthenon and it was impossible to hear anything! The Parthenon was finished in 432BC and dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patron of Athens. Considerable renovation is being undertaken on the site to stabilize it and give a better idea of how it looked. It is fascinating to see the new column pieces waiting to be put into place.


We managed to escape the crowds on the rear side, where there is a view over the city of Athens towards the port of Piraeus. We could admire the Queen Elizabeth in the distance.

We also managed some photos without the hordes near the Erectheion, an ancient temple to Athena and Poseidon built around 406 BC. Supporting part of the roof are the famous Caryatids, or female figures as supporting columns. All are replicas as the originals are kept away from the corrosive air of Athens in the Acropolis Museum. One original can be seen in the British Museum, as it was appropriated by Lord Elgin, along with the Parthenon marbles, back in the 19th century.


Compare with Denise’s 1964 photo, note that the steel supports are gone.

We then took advantage of free time and wandered the streets before finding a café, where we could sit outside and enjoy a sandwich.

A little more wandering and then back to the ship.


Taking on Fuel from a Lighter


Unfortunately the weather was dull and overcast as we passed through the Dardanelles but the sun came out as we reached Istanbul. We were going to have a beautiful day in one of the most spectacular cities on earth!


The Dardanelles with Gallipoli on the left.

Istanbul’s two most famous mosques as the sun rises.


Istanbul’s two most famous mosques.

Denise had visited Istanbul in 1964 and had really enjoyed her visit. So we splurged and ordered a private vehicle and guide so that we could see as much as possible and not be constrained by a coach tour. And it proved to be an excellent choice as we were able to add an extra visit to our day.

We started our visit by walking up the Hippodrome to the Blue Mosque. Another “Ben-Hur” moment. Byzantium was famous for chariot racing:

The Blue Mosque is everything you expect; simply stunning. (


Couldn’t resist a bit of moon/aircraft/minaret.

We passed muster with the guards at the entrance and Denise was not required to add a long skirt to her outfit though she did cover her head. Part of the interior is reserved for Moslem men, of course, but there is a large area for tourists and the beautiful mosaics of the interior can be admired.


Perfect place for the family tourist shot.

We then headed to the Hagia Sophia, which was built as a Christian church, then used as a  mosque, and is now a museum and under extensive renovation. It is simply huge. (



Almost nothing can prepare you for the sheer volume of Hagia Sophia. Expand this image and take in the size.

It is also interesting in that the Turks are removing some of the Moslem frescos, which had been placed over the Christian mosaics to hide them so that you can see the building in two styles. Quite fascinating.



Politicians never change – the emperor and empress making offerings to the Virgin and Child. Politics aside, the mosaic artistry is amazing.

We wandered through and also climbed the stairs to the upstairs balcony for the best views.

Finally, we came to this, the cenotaph of Henricus Danolo was the Doge of Venice who directed the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. ( Ironic that despite all of the conflict between Christians and Muslims, it was the conflict between Christians themselves which caused the greatest damage. (And, of course, made it possible for the Muslims to take Constantinople.)

And, for a bit of human (and bird) scale:


Hot lunch!


Clean, and happy, bird.

Our next stop was the Cistern. Denise had not visited this previously so neither of us knew of it and we added it to our itinerary. A most interesting part of the former water system for the Topkapi Palace, it is no longer in use except as a tourist site. Fascinating to visit and see the carp swimming in the water in the dark. (


One of the most amazing sites we have ever visited.


And on to the Topkapi Palace Museum. Here we saw various exhibits of life under the sultans and grabbed a sandwich at the snack bar. The views over the Bosporus were amazing, but we found the palace itself a bit flat.


Apparently the tulip beds are famous but we were a little too late to enjoy them. One shady bed at Topkapi was still in flower so we appreciated that!


Finally, after a quick visit to the souk, we returned to the ship.


Istanbul’s answer to Tyson’s Corner. (Denise got lost here as a child!)

The weather was perfect, we had an excellent guide and had enjoyed an excellent visit.


Denise and Guide.

Suez Canal

One of our reasons for returning by sea was the itinerary of the Cunard liner, Queen Elizabeth, which included calls at Istanbul, Athens, and Malta, all of  which Denise had visited as a teenager and wanted to revisit. (Cunard was also offering a really good rate so we had made arrangements with Cunard to join the Queen Elizabeth at Aqaba.)

After living in Panamá, we were really looking forward to a transit of the the Suez Canal. We started our transit early in the morning, following the Europa II (which we had seen in Aqaba) and the Queen Mary 2, which we would join in Southhampton.


Line ahead through the Canal. Note the tugs close by in the event that the side winds cause problems. (The winds can be so strong that the ships actually “crab” just like airplanes.)

As ships cannot pass in much of the Canal, ships are grouped in convoys and timed to pass in the lakes or the new double section of the Canal. In the early days, ships tied up to piers on the banks in order to pass. We had 24 ships in our convoy, beginning with three liners of which we were the third. The entire length of the transit we were greeted with cheers, whistles, and a cacophony of horns. Three liners in a row, two of the from Cunard, was quite a spectacle and the folks loved it.


Container ships falling in line to follow us through the Canal.

There was plenty to see. Various monuments, security outposts, ferries crossing the canal and lots of towns, all with trees and green plants in contrast to the desert elsewhere.

At one point ships were travelling south on a different channel and their stacks and containers could be seen through the sand dunes. Quite an interesting sight as there was no water to be seen!


Ferry. Notice the container ship going south in the other channel. Zoom in to see all of the people on the ferry cheering and whistling. 

In addition to  opening the second lane, there is constant maintenance all along the Canal. The sheer amount of sand is impressive. Not the mountains of Panamá, perhaps, but still a lot of work.


The lakes were full of ships.


Never one to miss a photo opportunity, we maneuvered with the Queen Mary 2 after we left the Canal.


After the transit, we headed for the Dardanelles and Istanbul.



Heading for the desert

After leaving Petra, we headed for Wadi Rum, a desert area with spectacular scenery made famous by Lawrence of Arabia, the man and the movie, and by filming for various other films including the recent “The Martian”. Fred was skeptical – “We’ve done the Sahara, the Kalahari, and even the Great American Desert. Why do you want to go to the Valley of the Moon?” Denise held firm and we had wonderful time! (

Everyone goes to Wadi Rum to see the desert. But, in fact, the Bedu have stayed at Wadi Rum over the years because there is so much water. You won’t see it immediately, but once your eye gets trained, the signs of water are everywhere.

Wadi Rum-15

Water Trap

We stayed in a luxury Bedouin camp (or tented hotel) novel and quite comfortable. We arrived rather early and found the place deserted. Probably should have made a stop en route but we were a little short on information at that point. A little more Arabic would have been useful at times!

Wadi Rum-5

View of the Dining Area

However, once we sorted out what was happening, we crashed a party of Italian tourists and enjoyed a great buffet lunch of salads with chicken and rice. The meal was cooked traditionally – buried in the sand with a wood fire on top.  This, of course, made for great photo ops. The meal was further enhanced by a dancing waiter! We then relaxed for the early part of the afternoon in the shaded divan with the desert coolers running.

As the temperature began to cool, our driver arrived to take us on a tour of the desert. We made ourselves comfortable in the back of the pickup truck and headed out to our first stop; the site of the filming for the “base camp” in the movie “The Martian”. Our guide had been present at some of the filming so was very enthusiastic about it all.

Wadi Rum-9

Site of Matt Damon’s base camp

We also saw several sites relating to Lawrence of Arabia (the person, not the movie) along with scenic sites like a natural rock bridge.

Our guide stopped just before sundown and made us tea in the desert before our return to the camp just after sunset.

Wadi Rum-16

Tea on the Sands

Wadi Rum-17


Dinner was a traditional meal called sarb, cooked in a fire pit in the ground. We were served an excellent chicken and mutton with assorted vegetables and pilafs. The temperature was starting to drop so we headed back to our tent for the night.


After an excellent Arab style breakfast with hard boiled eggs, bread, foule and toppings, we headed out. We made a stop along the way at the historic train station of the Hejaz Railway where  old carriages and a locomotive could be seen. The Hejaz Railway was an engineering marvel. It was a tragedy that it was never really rebuilt following the First World War. And, in today’s political climate, it probably never will be. (

A modern train still runs, carrying potash, we saw it several times as the camp is close to the main line.

And on to Aqaba where we hope the Queen Elizabeth awaits us! Our driver had arranged access to the port and he left us right beside the ship. Other than the fact that we were trying to go up the gangway while thousands of passengers were coming down, it was the easiest ship boarding we have ever had. We were greeted by the Purser’s office and escorted on board to our cabin. We had hoped to visit Aqaba a little before boarding but we seized the moment and a nearly empty ship to do laundry and settle in.

Wadi Rum-23

As we waited to sail, we watched the Europa II depart.

Petra from on High

Our second full day at Petra was one of the highlights of the trip. Fred had been impressed by several  photos taken of the Treasury from above and he had heard rumors that there was actually an easy route to get to the vantage point. The challenge was to find a guide who knew the way. A visit to the guide office found Achmed, who would guide us. He recommended taking horses to make the climb easier for Denise and although Fred was very unsure about this, we agreed. It proved to be a wise and most enjoyable choice. Achmed discussed horses just inside the gate and procured three excellent ones, complete with their owners, and we set off. The horses ambled at an easy walk, except for when the track was too dangerous for them to carry anyone and then we dismounted and walked beside them.

At this point we pause for a quick aside. Tourists today enter Petra through the narrow and spectacular Siq, but the site is, of course more easily accessible from the north and south as the city actually sits in a broad valley. And, of course, any invading army could easily climb over the mountains. So why is Petra where it is? Water. The mountains around Petra actually get a fair amount of rain and the Nabateans were experts at channelling that water into the city where it was stored in cisterns. And, while it is not immediately obvious from the tourist route, Petra is surrounded by large, flat plateaus which are perfect for agriculture.

It was quite fascinating to be up above the Petra Valley on the flat agricultural lands. The Crusaders destroyed the olive groves and they have never been replanted.


A project is currently attempting to recreate and reestablish the Nabatean water control methods with a view to irrigating for agricultural purposes. The Nabateans grew grapes and olives and traded wine and olive oil from the Petra valley.


We had quite a scramble to get to the viewpoint above the Treasury but it was worth it.


The first view was spectacular. (Like all of the images, this one is quite large, click and zoom.)


And then, when you climb down, you come to this: Notice the people on the left, they have come up one of the steeper climbs. If you zoom in and look directly in front of the facade, you can see the underground rooms that have been unearthed.


Denise paused to take in the view.


And what can she see? Zoom in on the next picture and see if you can guess. Hint: Look for something man made. (Answer at the bottom of this post.)



Back on the horses and off to the Place of High Sacrifice. After more riding, walking, and scrambling, we came upon the site from behind. The Nabateans weren’t adverse to digging and carving – notice that the two pylons are carved out of the mountain, not erected. Can you imagine the work it took to smooth the cliff faces on the right of the image?


Back in the day, it looked like this.

High Place

The High Place of Sacrifice.

The point of a high place is to build an altar and the Nabateans did some beautiful stone work with channels to carry liquid. We can simply imagine what liquid. From the stone work still remaining, it is likely that much of the site had walls at one time.

We wandered and took photos before beginning the descent of the steps. It was certainly an easier descent than it would have been to climb up. Fred was never able to find the section of stairs that had scared him so as a child.


Back in the valley, we admired the theatre. By this time, after Amman, Um Qais, and Jerash, we were about theatered out!


We made our way back to the Treasury to hit the refreshment stands and to indulge in a bit of people watching.

Achmed composed and took a great shot of the Treasury in Fred’s glasses.


Fred took one last stab at a slightly different take on the classic Treasury-through-the-Siq shot.


Goddess through the Siq.

We hiked, OK, trudged, our way back up through the Siq, stopping to admire what had been a fabulous carving of a camel caravan. Complete with a person leading. Sadly, the soft sandstone has washed away, but you can see that the water course actually ran behind the camels’ legs.

We were back to our hotel by about 4.00 pm. Again after a shower and a rest, we headed to the buffet for dinner. Afterwards, we stopped to chat to a gentleman putting sand in bottles in various patterns and designs. Fred remembered these from his childhood and he was happy to purchase a couple. Sadly, he had closed up by the time Fred went back for his camera.

And what could Denise see? The top of the Monastery. Amazing! Actually, if you know where to look, you can see it from several of the higher points around Petra.