The Final Countdown: Europe, North America travel blog

Eatin' at Joe's

Eat at Joe's

LA highways

A trainer A-12 Blackbird (spy plane) from the mid-1960’s

Command module from the Apollo Soyuz test project

Mercury Redstone 2 capsule, 1961. A chimpanzee was the passenger

Viking lander prototype, 1976

Cynthea, just winging it

Space potty



Yes! We have lift off... (the ute weighted 5400lbs)

"Levitated Mass" by Michael Heizer is a 7m high, 340-tonne rock placed...

"Levitated Mass" at LA County Museum of Art, This piece of art...

La Brea Tar Pits at Hancock park

La Brea Tar Pits

Pit excavation at La Brea Tar Pits

Micro fossils found at the tar pits

Mammoth teeth, the wee one is a juvenile milk tooth. How would...


Sabre tooth cat (NOT a tiger) and a giant sloth

Koi and terrapins at La Brea Tar Pits

With Joan and John at home

The huge gingerbread house at LAX Hilton

With Adam and Nicole Lugan, from Alberquerque

The huge gingerbread house at LAX Hilton

Movie Clips - Playback Requirements - Problems?

(MP4 - 4.92 MB)

Strongman Tony lifts a ute off the ground

(MP4 - 2.07 MB)

A sabretooth cat attacks a giant sloth

Tuesday 27th November

We are in for another treat this morning, John is taking us out for breakfast. We are going to “Eat at Joe’s”, the original diner is in Redondo Beach. There is a John Wayne Special on the menu, created after the man himself dropped in for a feed. It is a busy diner, but there is room for us to sit and enjoy a full cooked breakfast.

A lot is packed into Exposition Park, John takes us for a short tour around before we go to the science centre. The LA Memorial Coliseum has hosted two Olympic Games (1932, 1984). The African American museum is here, as well as a Natural History Museum, sports centre and a rose garden. It costs US$8 to park.

On the way in from the car park we pass through a small aircraft exhibit. A trainer A-12 Blackbird (the spy plane) from the mid-1960’s is here, and mounted on the wall of a building is an F-104 Starfighter. The Blackbird is made of titanium, is about 30m long, and could fly at Mach 2 to height of 18,000m. The plane is quite “light”, but we figure it must use a huge amount of fuel. It weights 53 tonnes on take off, and 23 tonnes when it lands.

The California Science Centre is now home to the space shuttle, Endeavour. It is a very popular attraction, having only been open less than four weeks. Although entry to the museum itself is free, the special exhibits have to be booked in advance. We get a combo ticket to see Endeavour and an Imax show (Hubble 3D), about US$9 each.

There are a number of school groups visiting here today, but it is not too bad. We start with the space exploration exhibit while we wait for our turn to enter to Endeavour. There are several original command modules and capsules from a number of missions on display.

One of these is the command module from what should have been the Apollo 18 mission (it was instead the Apollo Soyuz project). The hatch has been left open, and the entire capsule encased in plastic to preserve it, making it very difficult to photograph because of reflections. Apollo was the mission to land man on the moon before the end of the 1960’s. That was achieved with Apollo 11 on 20 July 1969, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in Eagle, and Michael Collins in Columbia. Tony remembers listening to a radio broadcast in his classroom, it may have been live?

Also on display is the Mercury-Redstone 2, launched in January, 1961 with a chimpanzee as a passenger. In the space race against the Soviet Union, the Mercury project aimed to put an American astronaut in orbit, and return him safely to Earth. The side panel has been removed so we can see inside, and the capsule has been encased in plastic for protection.

From the Gemini 11 mission is the capsule that Gordon and Conrad spent three days orbiting the Earth in September, 1966. One of the doors has been removed so we can see how very little room astronauts had inside.

A space suit from the Apollo 16 mission is also on display. The suit has 21 layers of protection, and weighs 83 kg here on Earth. The suit contains a liquid cooling and ventilation system, around 100m of tubing. The life support system can supply around eight hours of oxygen.

There is a full-scale prototype of the twin Viking landers that went to Mars in 1976, each taking nearly a year to get there. The landers sent back the first daytime pictures of a yellow/brown Martian sky. The mission was to photograph the landscape, analyse soil samples, wind and atmosphere, and search for signs of microscopic life. Each lander was sterilised before sending it to Mars.

There is a 1/5-scale model of the Hubble telescope, and later today we will go to see a 3D film on the Hubble at the Imax theatre. A full scale engineering model of Cassini-Huygens is suspended from the ceiling. After a journey taking nearly seven years, in 2004 the craft arrived in orbit around Saturn, the first space craft to do so. The mission was to study the planet, rings and moons. The Huygens probe was dropped onto the surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan.

Cynthea tries out the wind tunnel, she straps large wings to her arms and cranks it up, but she doesn’t lift off.

We enter the Endeavour exhibit, but there is still a lot more on display to see before we get to the shuttle. With the timed entry it is not too crowded.

If you have ever wondered how an astronaut goes to the toilet, you will find the answer here. A vacuum system is used because without gravity to assist, poo simply curls and sticks, and drops of wee float around and stick to any surface it touches. Flushing is of no use as the water won’t stay in the toilet. Astronauts pee into a funnel attached to a hose. The hole in the seat is much smaller than normal (a camera helps the astronaut get his aim right!), poo is collected in a bag and exposed to the vacuum of space to kill bacteria. All waste is stored for return to Earth, and the air in the toilet is filtered and deodorised before being recycled into the crew cabin (so pleased to hear that!).

There is a pile of huge tyres on a stand. The amount of wear after one landing is amazing, they are used only the once, and you really wouldn’t want to use them again. There is a control room set up where we can “watch” a shuttle take off, and plenty of staff are around to ask questions of. There is even a simulator ride for Tony and Cynthea have a go on, $5 each. It is quite a rough ride, and we wonder how much rougher the real deal is.

Endeavour was the sixth shuttle (built to replace Challenger), she cost US$2.2billion to build and is named after Captain Cook’s ship, hence the English style of spelling. She flew 25 missions from 1992 to 2011. Just a couple of months ago she was transported to LAX on a shuttle carrier aircraft and then transported, very slowly, through the streets of Los Angeles to the science centre. (The first shuttle, Enterprise, never went into space. It was built to test atmospheric flight, and approach and landing tests).

Endeavour is being temporarily housed in a huge pavilion until a permanent display is constructed, it is due to open in 2017. Endeavour will be mounted upright with an external tank and a pair of solid rocket boosters, and a viewing tower will be built beside it. One payload door will be open to reveal a demonstration payload inside.

There is a lot to take in here, with details of every space shuttle mission as well as information about the shuttles themselves. We can get very close to the craft, but we cannot get inside.

Endeavour is 37m long, 17m high, and has a wingspan of 24m. Empty she weights 68 tonnes and has a top speed of 27,800 kph. The body is made of aluminium.

Special silica tiles, coatings and even high tech blankets protect the shuttle from temperature extremes. In space it was around –120 C, but on re-entry parts of the shuttle reached 1260 C. That is hot enough to melt steel. Several different types of thermal protection were used, depending on what protection an area of the shuttle needed. The small tiles attached to the craft (over 24,000 of them!) were interesting. Each tile is like a piece of a jigsaw, each piece engineered to fit the shape and expected temperature extremes of a specific spot. Each tile costs around US$2,000 each. Because the orbiter expands and contracts a little with temperature changes, the tiles had to be mounted on felt pads that were attached to the shuttle. Every tile has it’s own code stamped on it so it can be easily reproduced for replacement. The code also determines the tile’s location on the shuttle.

We have time for a quick browse in the gift shop and Tony buys a Tshirt. He is gutted to find the limited edition gold space shuttle model is $10 cheaper here than at the observatory.

It is time for the movies, and we head off to the Imax theatre to see the 3D film about the Hubble telescope on screen that is seven stories high (we guess a smaller screen wouldn’t do justice to the universe?). We journey through distant galaxies, and accompany astronauts on a space walk. The movie is narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. It was a fascinating movie, one that we could easily watch again.

We take time out to smell the roses, the rose garden here is beautiful. There is a new use for pushchairs (sorry, we are in the States… they are strollers). Vendors are around the garden with their strollers chock full of snacks and drinks to sell to visitors. We suspect they may not be quite legal. In the car park on the way out there is a big red ute on a platform attached to a cantilever. Tony pulls down on the rope and lifts a 2,450kg truck a few centimetres off the ground.

Wednesday 28th November

Today John wants to take us to the art gallery, but the La Brea Tar Pits in Hancock Park on Wilshire Blvd are of more interest to us, though it is not really tar. It is actually asphalt, a low grade crude oil, the residue of which is left on the surface of the ground as the lighter elements of crude oil (such as kerosene) evaporate into the atmosphere.

We are in awe at the roads around here, not that the size is anything new to us, we have seen as big, and bigger, in China. New York and Toronto had their share of wide roads too. Some of these highways are six or seven lanes in each direction. Probably the fact that these roads are elevated made the difference, (cracker view from up here), and we tried hard not to think about the risk of earthquakes. We did not feel any shocks at all in California, thank goodness for that!

Parking costs $9, and we had our ticket validated at the museum to get a $2 refund when we left. Entry into Hancock park was free, and there is a lot to see here, but the Page Museum gives you a greater understanding of the area. Museum tickets are US$12 ea ($9 for the old bugger with us).

Although large quantities of asphalt seeps up in the former excavation pits, we can also see some asphalt seeping onto the surface of the ground outside the fenced areas. We are told asphalt seepage is not restricted to the Park. For several blocks in all directions, asphalt has been found seeping onto surface streets, into sewers, and under buildings. Settlers in the late 1700s used the asphalt to waterproof homes, and as a fuel. It wasn’t until 1875 that a visiting professor described the first fossils, and the archaeological importance of the area was recognised.

We tour Hancock Park first, and the first myth is busted for the day - there are no dinosaur remains here. Dinosaurs had been extinct 65 million years before the tar pits formed, and in any case at the time Los Angeles was under the ocean. The pits were formed in the Pleistocene era some 40,000 to 11,000 years ago.

The largest pit, the Lake Pit is bubbling quite a lot, but we cannot smell the methane (natural gas) as it escapes. (Gas companies add an odour to natural gas for safety reasons). Methane is the by-product of the micro-organisms that live in crude oil.

There are many other pits in the park, and some have viewing platforms where we can see the scientists at work excavating. One such pit, number 91, is open though we don’t see anyone working here today. There are lots of photos up on the wall, it is a dirty, filthy job. The biggest surprise is the microfossils. They are so small, it is a wonder they were found at all, and to actually identify them as well is beyond us. The oldest fossil to date is from a coyote, some 46,800 years old. Since 1906, more than one million bones have been recovered representing over 231 species of vertebrates. In addition, 159 species of plants and 234 species of invertebrates have been identified. It is estimated that the collections at the Page Museum contain about three million items (one would have to estimate, you would keep losing count!). The current Project 23 excavation may, when completed, double this number.

Project 23 is another fascinating site. In 2006, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) began work on a new underground parking garage. During construction, 16 new fossil deposits were discovered, including the largely complete skeleton of an adult mammoth. To save the fossils, and get out of the way of the bulldozers, large wooden boxes were built around each deposit, twenty three in all, hence the name. The boxes were tunnelled under to create a floor for the crate, and the contents could then be lifted intact to another site for study.

Animals became trapped in the sticky asphalt, particularly when it was warm. Predators would be attracted, and they, in turn, would also become trapped. The process continues to this day, especially during warm days when the asphalt is stickiest. Insects and worms, reptiles, birds (mostly pigeons, but also hawks, egrets, ducks, doves, and sparrows) and small mammals (rodents and rabbits) fall victim.

We briefly leave Hancock Park to have a look at some “art” in the form of a massive rock placed over a sloping trench in the ground at the front of the LA County Museum of Art. We hate to think how much this cost the city, but the skateboarders are going to love it. We couldn’t find a lot of information at the site, and had to Google it later. "Levitated Mass" by artist Michael Heizer is a 7m high, 340-tonne rock placed on top of a 150m long channel of polished concrete set into what used to be a lawn. It is now surrounded by “decomposed granite”. The bullshit continues as we are told the purpose of the work is so that people can see what the underside of a rock looks like! In the centre of the channel it is 5m deep, and people can look up and think “I hope those supports don’t fail while I am under here”. The cost of this work of “art” was some US$10 million! Though in all fairness it should be pointed out that the cost of getting it here from the quarry it was blasted out of sucked up $4.5 million of that.

And so we head back to the park, and visit Page Museum itself. Earth has been built up the sides of the museum, so essentially it is underground. We see the skeletal remains of many animals that once roamed the area. Among those coming to a sticky end are mammoths, giant ground sloths, horses, wolves, coyotes, camels and condors. There is also the Smilodon, the sabre tooth cat (myth number two busted – it is NOT a tiger).

There is a tooth of a mammoth on display, Tony took a photo, but it doesn’t show the true scale of the thing, this tooth is BIG. Those sabre tooths are not small either…

There are literally thousands of fossils on display. On one wall there is a huge collection of wolf skulls. The “fishbowl” is a lab where a team of palaeontologists are currently working on specimens from Project 23. It is lunch time, and they have all buggered off for a feed, so we don’t actually see them at work. We can see what they have been working on though, thanks to the glass walls of the lab (hence “fishbowl”). At one work station the scientists are working on micro fossils, they have found a fossil of a tooth from a baby mouse. Now THAT is micro, especially when compared with the mammoth tooth!

The Atrium is in the centre of the museum, it allows natural light into the museum and provides a restful spot for us. The stream has some huge koi in it, and turtles, (or are they terrapins?), are busy doing nothing as they sun themselves.

We leave the Tar pits and head for Malibu where Joan’s mother lives right on the beach. We call in to get some shopping for her on the way, and also pick up some things for tea tonight. We are going to have beer can chicken tonight, and we pick up a jar of seasoning rub. (The useless buggers didn’t pack it, and it was too far to go back for it, so that was six bucks down the drain). Joan’s Mum is in her 90’s, but we did not get to meet her as she was in bed when we called.

John took us for a drive around Malibu on the way home, it was a little different to what we expected. We had imagined that every house here was big and flashy, but that was not the case, even so there are a few film stars out this way. A lot of homes are “normal”, run of the mill type family homes, but are worth millions because of their location. We travelled to some of the canyons in the area and witnessed the scars from wildfires. The most devastating were in 2007.

It has been a great staying here with Joan and John, we have seen so much and appreciated their hospitality. Tomorrow we leave for Fiji, we are nearly home.

Thursday 29th November

We have a relaxing day today, and have a proper look around John’s garden. He has lots growing here, and is currently trialing different varieties of garlic, with over 40 types in the ground just now. He will be able to supply a small country by the time the garlic season finishes! John listens to Radio Dunedin’s gardening show, via the internet every Saturday morning (well, it actually Friday morning here). John calls the show from time to time, Graeme and Davey were amazed that a fella from the States would call them, never that he was listening in the first place. (John is a Kiwi from Waitara in Taranaki, his sister is married to Tony’s uncle). John gives us a heritage seed catalogue to bring back to Dunedin to take to Davey at the Red Barn garden shop.

We get our car in Dunedin sorted out, arranging for the storage company to release it to Hayden so he can get a warrant for our return. We take our time repacking bags and getting rid of the last unnecessary gear. We wonder about our winter gear. Had we taken the risk and sent everything home, would we have regretted it? Yes, we probably would have. It is not quite summer at home, so we will probably need it before we get back to Dunedin.

Our flight is at 9pm tonight, so we are planning to be at check in around 6pm. We have an early tea, and just before dinner is called Tony is on line checking the flight details. He sees that the flight is delayed until 9.15, but then realises that is tomorrow morning! He calls Air Pacific and asks what they can do for him, and told there is nothing, just be at the airport at 6am. He wants to complain further and is given a phone number to call, but it is in Fiji. Tony is not impressed and ends the call abruptly before he says something he shouldn’t (he saved that for after the call).

Tony has his meal and tries to figure out what to do. John and Joan say we are welcome to stay the night, and getting up at that hour is not a problem, because John is up before then anyway, so he can still take us to the airport. We are grateful for the offer, but we had long ago stripped the bed, cleaned our room, and our bags are packed ready to go. Besides that Air Pacific should have offered accommodation for the night, and to tell Tony to call a number in Fiji to sort something was not acceptable. To say Tony is really pissed off is an understatement, and when he has composed something suitable to say that doesn’t involve using every swear word he knows, he calls back.

The woman at the call centre apologies, and says Tony should have been told to go to the airport anyway, as anyone checking in tonight will be given accommodation. Joan and John offer us to stay on, but we decided that the airline has wrecked our Fiji stay and can start making up for it. We had a little over 48 hours in Fiji, but this delay means we do not arrive until 5pm on Saturday night, so we will not be able to see as much. With the next day being a Sunday it is unlikely there will be much available for our one full day.

We check what is in our hand luggage and decide we will manage without having to get into our backpacks tonight, and John takes us to LAX, about 12km from here.

As we approach check in a staff member approaches and asks if we are aware of the delay. She has an information page for us, and we have the option of checking our luggage now. We will be staying at the LAX Hilton, if we wish the airline to provide accommodation. Yes please! We check our bags and are given boarding passes. We have to be back here at 7am to find out gate information and go through the security checks, boarding is at 8.15am. Everyone is very polite, but no one actually says sorry for the delay. Perhaps they are sick of it by then and just don’t want to rub it in. We expect one or two passengers to fly off the handle, but if they do we don’t see it happen. The staff will be used to handling these situations, but must still dread them.

We go out to find the shuttle to the hotel and there is a short wait before one arrives. We board the bus and only get a few metres before it stops. The driver opens the door and people try to board, despite it being full. He tells people outside that the bus is out of service, and then says something that Tony didn’t quite catch. The girl standing next to Tony starts laughing and he asks what the joke is. The bloody thing has broken down, and we have to get off and wait until they send another. We are talking to the other passengers, Adam and Nicole (the girl standing next to Tony on the bus) tell us this is their third delay today. The Lugans are a young couple from Alberquerque, their flight to get to LA today had been delayed, and now the bus has broken down. We declare them a pair of jinxes and blame everything on them.

Two buses arrive, and we are waiting near the back of the queue when we are asked to get into the front bus. There are only a few of us on board when it leaves, and we get to the Hilton well before the rest, so we get to check in very quickly. We are given vouchers for a meal tonight, and breakfast in the morning. We arrange to meet Adam and Nicole for tea. We have a room on the 10th floor, very nice, but the beds are not what we asked for. We had asked reception for a queen size bed, and were told that was available, but we got two king singles. We didn’t bother trying to get it changed, it was almost 8pm and we were ready for another meal. Besides, we figured the restaurant would be extra busy with a plane load of last minute diners.

We feel a tad underdressed here, there are quite a few guests dressed up to the nines for a flash night out. However our meal voucher is not for use at the main restaurant, we have to take it to the café by the bar. There is a special menu just for us too, and we feel a lot like the economy class airline passengers that we are. There are two choices of meal (spicy chicken or pasta), a bottle of drink and some cookies. They don’t even serve our meal on a plate, it is in a disposable plastic tub. Really cheap and not what we expected. The food was nice though the serving was on the small size.

We enjoy our time with Adam and Nicole, they are nice young couple. They are also staying near Nadi for a few days, and then go to New Zealand. We talk about what time we have to be at the airport in the morning, and find we have been given different times, Adam was told to be there at 7.30, we were told 7am. We wonder why the difference, we have already checked in and have boarding passes, we only have to turn up to find what the gate number is and go through security. Perhaps it is to spread the flow of passengers through security. We decide to have breakfast at 6am and catch a shuttle at 7am.

There is a huge gingerbread house in the café, and an even bigger one in the foyer. We get our photos taken there, and have a closer look at the gingerbread house. Yes, it is al real. Yes, some people have not been able to resist how real it is, and some little pieces have been broken off. There is a bowl of chocolates at the front, perhaps they have been put there to stop people grazing on the house?

We send a couple of emails and head up to the room, we have an early start in the morning. The window in our room faces out to the airport runway, so there is a bit of noise from that. The weather has closed in, it is foggy and wet. We hope it has cleared by the morning.

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