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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Proper Stotties

After making the suspiciously healthy-looking wholemeal stotties last week, out of necessity rather than choice due to not having enough strong white flour, I decided I should do it properly and make some stotties that really looked like stotties.

Despite one small deviation from the recipe (you’re meant to rub margarine into the flour before adding the other ingredients; I forgot, and substituted some sunflower oil in with the liquid later instead), they seemed to have come out about right. Certainly recognisable as a stottie by anybody born within spitting distance of the Tyne!

The only thing they’re missing is being filled with some nice thick pieces of bacon and a few lumps of decent black pudding

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Posted by on Monday 29 April 2013 in Cooking

 

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Not quite fast enough

The next thing I needed to try was check whether the network was fast enough to watch HD content on the Raspberry Pi, direct from the NAS. These are linked via 85Mbps Homeplugs, which should be fast enough, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere even a decent ‘real world’ speed, never mind the theoretical maximum. At the ‘client’ end, the Homeplug is plugged in to one side of a dual socket, the other side being used for an extension that provides mains power to a router, the TV, HTPC, DVD player, PS2, Wii, Freesat tuner… that lot probably generates a fair bit of noise. I’ll rearrange the connections so the Homeplug is more isolated, when I can work up the enthusiasm.

At first attempt, the video I tried to watch was stopping to buffer several times a minute; completely unwatchable. Then I realised that the old HTPC was still powered up, with a BitTorrent server running and who knows what else going on. Turning this off seemed to be enough to make the difference, bringing the occurrence of buffering down to about once every five or ten minutes. Not good enough for the all-important ‘spousal acceptance’, but I was willing to put up with it for one show.

These problems should be solved after the weekend, as there’s a set of 500AV Homeplugs turning up, which should be more than capable of providing the necessary bandwidth. And I’ll have to rearrange a load of wiring anyway, when my broadband connection gets moved to BT Infinity, so it’ll be a good opportunity to optimise the network connection.

I was also hoping to be able to use a remote control directly via the TV without needing an IR receiver, but the TV’s too old to support the necessary standard (CEC). (Sounds like a good enough reason to buy a new TV to me…) I’ve got a USB-UIRT lying around somewhere, that should do the trick…

 
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Posted by on Thursday 18 April 2013 in Geeky stuff

 

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It lives!

Well, that was ridiculously easy. I’ve had DVD players that were more complicated to get working than that.

I followed the straightforward instructions at the Raspbmc website to put the installer on an SD card, plugged it all together, and… magic!

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The Raspberry Pi powered up and warned me to grab a coffee while it downloaded things. Raspbmc started downloading the latest versions of everything it needed, rebooted a few times to install stuff, then sat at the main configuration screen waiting for me to choose a language. It’s a good job I didn’t need a coffee, I wouldn’t have had time to get one.

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Now, I’ve just got to work out how to control the thing. Took me longer to find a USB keyboard and mouse than everything else. I’ve already got it connecting to the NAS so I can play music and watch videos; photos don’t want to display for some reason, that needs further investigation.

Next steps are to play about with the network settings to get it running fast enough to watch HD content direct from the NAS, and figure out how to use an infra-red remote control (although I’ve already got it working with the Official XMBC Remote app on my Android phone, which will do for now).

 
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Posted by on Sunday 14 April 2013 in Geeky stuff

 

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Raspberry Pi Media Centre

Note to readers: if you normally read this blog for the things about travel to foreign parts, or stuff about cooking, you probably want to give this post a miss. Most of this is mainly intended to be a reminder of what I was trying to get working, rather than an entertaining read. You Have Been Warned.

The media centre PC in the lounge has been providing fairly faithful service for something like eight years now, but it’s getting a bit long in the tooth. I think it’s on its third hard disk, and probably fourth cooling fan, but it just hasn’t got the processing power to cope with anything more than standard resolution video, and I’d really like to be able to play HD content.

Also, I’ve recently got a NAS with some big fat hard disks, and it seemed to make sense to let this do all the work of downloading and storing content, and just have something in the lounge that would play the files without any other concerns.

Also also… I wanted an excuse to play with a Raspberry Pi, and this seemed like a good reason, and potentially a cheap solution. If it works, I can buy another one to stick in the bedroom for those times when we each want to watch something different.

The first step was to get the required hardware:

  • Raspberry Pi (obviously);
  • Suitable power supply (I’m sure I’ve got a spare USB charger lying around, but you can never have too many);
  • HDMI cable (I don’t have a spare. I’ve got lots of SCART cables now, but hardly anything uses that any more);
  • Box for the Pi (just a plain one; I’m hoping that it can just be tucked up behind the TV, out of the way);
  • SD cards (two: one for raspbmc, the other for “playing”).

This little lot arrived from RS last week (the SD cards were actually some bizarrely cheap special deal from PC World):
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Doesn’t look like much, does it? You can get an idea of the scale from the charger and SD cards. I reckon you could just about fit one inside a packet of Cook’s Matches, which might make a nice ‘disguise’ for hiding one in a kitchen.

In theory, the next step is to copy the desired operating system on to the SD cards, plug it all together, and it should mostly Just Work. In practice… well, I’m not holding my breath.

 
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Posted by on Sunday 14 April 2013 in Geeky stuff

 

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Stotties!

I thought it was about time I tried making some stotties, something I’ve never tried baking before despite eating them on a semi-regular basis.

As an added complication, it turned out that I hardly had any strong white flour, so I had to make wholemeal stotties… sounds suspiciously healthy.

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They certainly look like stotties; the real test will be what they’re like inside, but we’ll have to wait and see…

[Later in the week]

I’ve been eating stotties for my lunch every day, and they seem good to me; at least, they seem like wholemeal stotties should do, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one to compare it with.

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Quite a dense texture, as you’d expect, but not too heavy that it’s hard work to eat. Must remember to get strong white flour before I try it again, and maybe some with a mixture of wholemeal and white.

 
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Posted by on Sunday 14 April 2013 in Cooking

 

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The Long and Winding (Bumpy) Road

I realise I’m doing this back to front, writing about my last few days before I even managed to post about the start of the trip, but I seem to have some time on my hands due to an unexpected turn of events on our return home (more of that to come). Our journey since leaving Ndhiwa has turned into an adventure all of its own…..

It all started Tuesday morning at 7am when we (Kat, Dani and I) were collected from the peaceful surroundings of Karibuni Eco Cottages for our journey to the Masai Mara. We had treated ourselves to a two night safari before leaving Kenya; well, it would be rude not to wouldn’t it? As we headed off, our driver, Charles, informed us that it would take about 7hrs ‘the long way round’ or we could take ‘the short cut’ and travel in convoy with two other groups. He informed us he wouldn’t normally go that way during the rains unless there were other vehicles in the group as the roads can be bad. At this point we should have read the warning signs. Instead we looked at each other, grinned, and cheerfully informed Charles that we were always up for an adventure and ‘the short cut’ sounded just fine.

Ten minutes later I was wishing I’d worn the sports bra I’d been recommended to bring for safari; we had already hit the roads which would be our driving surface for the next 3 days and to say it was a little bit bumpy would be something of an understatement.

We travelled for a couple of hours and had a short stop, during which we were advised by Charles to stock up on snacks in the supermarket (we were to be glad of this as the day wore on). By this time the rest of the convoy had joined us, so off we set again. About 30 minutes after that we hit Challenge #1. Due to heavy rains, the river ahead was a torrent of water which had flooded over the bridge we needed to cross. The water coming off the down-river edge of the bridge was essentially a very full waterfall. The three drivers got our for a closer look to assess the situation, deciding eventually it was a no-go and that we would have to turn back to cross in another place, which would result in us being 30 mins from our starting point over 5 hours after leaving! (We were tempted to suggest building a raft to ferry the vans across á la Clarkson & Co, but it was really too hot to be bothered.) Some friendly locals suggested an alternate route which Charles and his colleagues had never used before. It was decided that this would save such a massive detour so off we went into the unknown.

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Challenge #1

Challenge #2 turned out to be similar to the first, though slightly less extreme. Charles bravely decided it was crossable, we held or breath, braced ourselves and off we went. We made it! Surely nothing could stop us now, could it?

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Challenge #2

Our route took us through miles of sugar cane plantation and our route was shared with many tractors towing the harvested canes to a sugar refinery. No doubt they were responsible for much of the damage to the dirt roads, but without them we would not have got out of Challenge #3. The road ahead became blocked, tractors stuck as the mud was too deep even for their huge wheels. Motorbikes and other tractors were starting to bypass the road, going through the field on the other side of the hedge, but our vehicles would not be able to get through alone. Whilst the drivers sussed their options, Kat, Dani and I took the opportunity to people watch. We were especially impressed with the family of four, plus suitcase, which rode calmly passed us into the mire. Given the state of the roads thus far, we were amazed that there was barely a muddy mark on any of them (we, on the other hand, have had filthy feet feet for a week, unable to get rid of the ingrained mud from the paths we have been walking!). We were not so impressed however by the fallen over electricity pylon, resulting in live power lines barely a couple of metres from the road side!

After much discussion, it was decided that we would be towed by a tractor. More bracing and holding off breath and we were through, though there was a good deal of cursing going on in the back when it seemed certain we would topple over! The remaining two vehicles got through and off we went again. For less than a minute.

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The cause of Challenge #3

Challenge #4 came approximately 15 metres later, courtesy of the tracks in the road being too deep so we just became grounded. I think Charles was a little embarrassed by his faux pas but once again a tractor came to our rescue and dragged us out. The other two vans got straight through.

It was to be some time before the next challenge came along. In the meantime Charles very capably navigated us through, over and round some awful potholes (though the term barely fits justice to the size of them), damaged bridges, rivers and ravines in the road. There was a short stop in a village whilst one of the vans had the front grill re-welded into place. We were happy when we weren’t the lead car; at least then we could see what was ahead and prepare ourselves.

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Roadside repairs

Along the way we obviously needed ‘comfort breaks’. Charles always found us the best spot to ‘go for bush’ with good privacy. We realised the three of us had really got to know each other well when we decided we couldn’t be bothered to wait and go in turn, but decided to line up behind a bush together to do what was necessary! (Was that too much information? If so I’m sorry – my gauge of what is appropriate has slipped somewhat over the past two weeks!)

Eventually we came to a junction in the road which Charles announced was where we would have come out had we been able to cross the original river. That stretch would normally take half an hour.  It had taken us four and a half hours to get to that point from where we had turned round, a four hour detour.

By this time we were starting to get weary and desperate to get to our destination. We were picturing a refreshing dip in the pool (a chance to soak the feet!) and cocktails. However we had not yet reached the gate into the Masai and knew there was a three hour journey still from that point, so we resigned ourselves to the fact that it would be dark when arrived and the pool would have to wait.

As we got closer to the park we entered some woodland. Charles announced that from this point on we wound start to see wild animals. Spirits were lifted when, true to his word, not two minutes later we saw a small herd of zebra in a clearing. From then on we saw lots of them and started getting more excited about what was ahead.

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Horses with stripes!

The road was climbing higher and higher and we started to see Masai people, clearly visible in their red checked cloaks, tending to their sheep. We passed through a small settlement at which point Kat, the geography teacher who teaches about the Masai people, got very excited! As we came out of the village Charles pointed right and all of a sudden it was there: below us, as far into the distance as we could see lay the plains of the Masai Mara. The journey back down hill was painfully slow. The road was little more than a rocky path, most suited to donkeys. We had much admiration for suspension of our 4×4 van, which had been and truly tested.

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The downhill track with the plains in the distance

And then we were there, at the East Gate to the Masai Mara Conservancy. After a quick comfort break (actual toilets!) We got back into the van which now had a raised roof  – we were officially on safari! We were all feeling a little emotional and the odd tear was shed behind the security of our sunglasses. We knew just how privileged we were to be there. Myself in particular. I consider myself to be a very lucky lady to have fulfilled two lifetime ambitions in this past year: seeing the Terracotta Army in China and now a game drive in the Masai Mara. I had shared the first with my husband and there was more than a twinge of regret that he wasn’t there with me to see this. Oh well, all the more excuse to come back.

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I’m on safari!!

It was amazing to stand up and stretch our legs after the journey we had endured, but even better to look out over the staggering scenery. It was late afternoon by now and the light from the setting sun was stunning. It wasn’t long before we spotted a couple of giraffe nibbling at a tree. We were desperate to take photos but Charles assured us that we would see them much closer. Our next spot was a small group of elephant,  close to a small track if the main route, so we got in really close to watch them.

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Elephant!

As our journey progressed we saw a hyena cruising in front of us, then another asleep on the side of the track; we saw more elephant – in much larger herds – giraffe, guinea fowl, some amazing birds, more zebra and loads of Impala. But no big cats. Still, a pretty good haul so far. Charles had mentioned that rhino spottings would be highly unlikely and even hippo, due to the river levels being so high. However at the first watering hole we passed what should we spot other than the hippo we thought would be so elusive. OK, so only the top of the head was visible but it was a hippo nonetheless! By now light was stating to fade and in the distance we could see the rains starting, so we pulled the roof down and got settled for the last hour or so in the dark.

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Hippo (just…)

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More elephants in the evening sun

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Buffalo!

The rain however came very hard and son the track became very hard going. We were sliding around a lot and even slight inclines were starting to pose a problem. Eventually we and van in front stopped: the third vehicle had become stuck a while behind and are waiting for the ranger to pull them out. We were tied and more than a little tetchy b it it was clear that Charles wasn’t going anywhere till all three vans were together. By now it was 8.30pm and we had been on the road for over 11 hours. Charles called the hotel to arrange that e could east a late dinner when we arrived, estimated at 9.30pm.

Soon we were all on the way again. And then we weren’t. We were lead vehicle when Challenge #5 struck. The van just wasn’t getting up the next hill, but neither could we get back down for another run; we were well and truly stuck. Out came the trusty tow rope once again, this time to pull us down the hill as the other vehicles were behind and couldn’t get past. As Charles and friends were attaching the rope, along came a ranger’s Jeep. Out came a ranger who watched over proceedings, rifle in hand. The perils of getting stuck in a game reserve I guess.The rain however came very heavily and soon the track became very hard going. We were sliding around a lot and even slight inclines were starting to pose a problem. Eventually we and van in front stopped: the third vehicle had become stuck a while behind and were waiting for the ranger to pull them out. We were tired and more than a little tetchy, and just wanted to get going, but it it was clear that Charles wasn’t going anywhere till all three vans were together. By now it was 8.30pm and we had been on the road for over 11 hours. Charles called the hotel to arrange that we could eat a late dinner when we arrived, estimated at 9.30pm.

There was to be no Challenge #6 that night (though we wouldn’t have to wait long the next morning!) and we eventually arrived at the hotel shortly after 10pm.

Our ‘short cut’ had taken over 14 hours, twice what the ‘long way round’ was expected to take. The next time someone offers you the chance for an extra adventure, especially during rainy season in Africa, think carefully before you accept.

(Incidentally our fellow guests from Karibuni were due to make the same journey the following day. Charles had given their driver the heads up so they went the ‘long way round’. It took them less than 7 hours. Oh well.)

 
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Posted by on Saturday 13 April 2013 in Kenya

 

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Day 7

Kenya

 The cockerel woke us up early. Like every morning we washed and went for breakfast – this time toast or a fried egg sandwich. We have now also got into the habit of taking our malaria tablets in the morning,  which is especially good for Clare as she is particularly forgetful (she blames her age). Kennedy, our friendly local driver, met us to take us to Arina and as soon as we sat down in the office we were told what class we were expected to teach  – Dani class 6, Kat class 7 and Clare class 8. We were all very nervous as we are used to having resources and technology as a safety blanket. As we entered the classroom all pupils stood up to show respect. Dani enjoyed teaching class 6 as they were all very well behaved and got involved, even if at first they were reluctant…

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Posted by on Monday 8 April 2013 in Kenya