10th August 2009

First, I've remembered something I forgot to mention earlier.  You may remember I bought a carbon monoxide alarm and that it went off and I was out of the van faster than you could imagine.  Well, when I was parked one night a little later later - next to the chap I asked if he was staying the night in that spot - and whilst I was cooking it went off again.  Again, I was out of the van at the speed of light.

I couldn't stop the alarm, even after I took it out of the van, and while I was looking at it wondering why the 'silence' button was not working and before I took the batteries out I noticed there was a red light flashing next to the words 'smoke alarm'.  It's a combined CO and smoke detector.

I'm not worried about a bit of smoke and I had noticed some smoke from my anti splatter frying pan cover so that was a relief.  The I remembered.  It had gone off scream scream scream before it repeated, that was still buzzing in my head.  If it had been the CO alarm it would have gone off in groups of 4 screams.

A couple of people have mentioned that they were concerned for my health after the CO alarm had gone off earlier.  Well of course, it goes off well before dangerous levels have been reached.  Wouldn't be much use otherwise would it.

So on my last update I was parked on the top of a pass with a huge thunderstorm in action.  At 2 am a couple of vans arrived and parked next to me and the occupants wandered around.  Didn't make a lot of difference in the storm.

By morning it had abated and there were just clouds to the north over France.

It was much clearer looking south to Spain

Actually, it often is like that.  It tends to be sunnier, and drier, on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees.  On the French side it is greener, and, I think, prettier.

I was heading down into the cloud, into France.  I had about 5,000 ft to descend, in about 7 miles.  Not particularly steep but enough when I was trying to descend without using the foot brake.  In 1st and 2nd gear it took an hour to do that 7 miles.  Reminded me of the climb out of the Copper Canyon in Mexico.  I made that climb in an RV that was so prone to overheating I never ever dared use the air conditioning and I had to start out that climb in the cooler airs before dawn and go the whole way with minimum accelerator.  It was later I found out the electric radiator fan had never worked all the time I owned that van.  Thanks to Tim at Kahunas for discovering that.

I spotted a church in the distance in one town (Oloron Ste Marie) and diverted to investigate.  It was a cathedral and very old.

Here looking south to the Pyrenees.  Higher up the valley in the distance is where I took my trip on le petit train, where my GPS suggested strange routes, and where I saw the Dutch cyclists. And, just at the valley entrance, is the town of Arudy where where a Canadian correspondent, Jerry England, likes to stay when he visits France.  Jerry will no doubt be thrilled to be reminded  that although we lost touch for a long while, it is 50 years since we met..........

I was on the outskirts of Pau when I noticed a sign to the Grottes de Betharram.  I'd had them down on my list of places I wanted to see but got around to finding where they were.  I had planned to take the autoroute from near Pau towards my home, in deference to my limited braking abilities, but the lure of the caves was too great.

As usual, my cave photography was not up to much.

The caves were OK, with a huge amount of walking in a small cave.  Maybe I'm getting a bit blase about caves, I've been to over 50 now.  They advertised a boat trip and a return by train.  The boat ran on rails for about 50 yds, and the train was more like a guided car.  I don't regret going though!

checked my route after leaving the 'grottes'.  It took me past Lourdes, no problem, but then around Tarbes.  Oh-oh.  I know that route well.  There are about 8 roundabouts on the town bypass.  When you don't have, or don't want to use, brakes, then roundabouts are the worst thing.  First, they are always on busy roads, lots of traffic.  Then you sometimes need to stop quickly if there is traffic on the roundabout.  Absolutely no problem, normally, but when you have limited braking you must approach extremely slowly, and then you get a huge tailback of traffic behind.

I'll just divert a moment and discuss roundabouts.  They work brilliantly in the UK.  They didn't used to work in France, but now they do, brilliantly.  They don't work in the USA.  Why is that you may ask?  You may not be interested, but I'm about to explain anyway.

In France, and in the US, in the absence of any other signage, you give priority to the right.  This means, on a roundabout, priority is given to traffic entering the roundabout.  With more than half a dozen vehicles around, you have a traffic jam.  Everyone can get on, no one can get off.  Doesn't work.

We never had a similar priority rule in the UK so never had a problem with roundabouts.  What the French did was to erect huge signs on the entrances to roundabouts 'Give Way'.  So now traffic on the roundabout has right of way.  Like I said, it works brilliantly.  Way better than the the ridiculous 4 way stop signs to be found throughout the US and in many cases better than traffic lights.

However, roundabouts are not designed for people with stopping problems. So I got out my trusty (haha) GPS and entered in a way point.  Now I was given a route that skirted round Lourdes, on a sequence of tiny roads that I would never ever have thought to plan by myself.  As I drove the route I was continually expecting to find a road closed or similar, but no, there was no other traffic, I didn't hold anyone up bar myself, and it all worked and I got home safely.  They were pretty roads too.

Now in case you think I might have taken to implicitly believing my mapping program, I give you the reasons why I was doubtful about it in the first place.  If you enter the name of my village, I have marked here where you are taken as the centre of the village.  If you drive down by
the church, the Marie, the post office, the village hall, the school, and most of the houses, all of which are on the other street, it tells you "Off route".   Instead it takes you exactly here, to it's version of the village centre.

As far as a garbage bin storage area it's not bad (nice flowering trees alongside) but it would not be my choice as the village centre......I would hope people come to the village not just to dump their garbage.

But you can't blame everything on the GPS.  Just a mile or so north of where I live, it shows a road junction.  This is it.  The hedge is wide enough for there to be a road down the centre but you could not get though on foot never mind by car.

But that 'road' is shown as a road on the new large scale area map that I have.  So is this one, which is even nearer home.  I've shown a close up of the sign. Interdit means forbidden.

For those who liked the photo from the Metz balloon meeting, here it is at a large size. http://www.flickr.com/photos/gbatistini/3778521713/sizes/o/

You remember I left my garage door open for the swallow who had made her nest inside?  She has already had 3 babies this year, now she has another 3 eggs in the nest.  Here she is.

I don't remember if I've previously mentioned the cattle egrets.  They arrived last year.  There were lots of them. They eat insects and such like, and hang around cattle in small groups because the cattle disturb insects so the egrets can catch more.They are beautiful birds, quite large, with 36 inch wingspan and about 18" length.  They originate from Spain and Portugal but they have spread around everywhere - I saw a flock of them in Mexico a few years ago.  At night they congregate together, in trees, by a lake.

I didn't take the above photo by the way.  Anyway, they all disappeared a few months ago.  I don't know where they went, but I think they went to some breeding grounds.  But they are back, I just saw them on the lake earlier this evening.

I guess there are at least 200 egrets on that photo, there must be another 100 or so on the other side of the trees, which is a perfect spot for them, on a small island.

Now we've got through everything else, I'll tell you about the van brakes.  When I got home I took the wheels off and had a look.  The disks (rotors) seemed in a good state.  A neighbour agreed with me.  At first look the pads might have been worn so I checked on the Internet.  Parts are difficult for my van in France.  They do sell them, but in 15 years I have only seen 3 similar vans with French registration.  So parts are slow to get, and expensive.  The only Internet companies willing to ship disk pads from the UK to France showed out of stock.  So I phoned my brother in law in the UK.  No problem he said, I'll get some and put them in the post.

He and my sister have just (last week) celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.  So he's a pretty tolerant sort of person.

He emailed to say he'd ordered them, so I started to strip out the old pads.  When I looked closely, the pads looked like new.  I checked my old invoices for work done on the van.  The pads had been replaced less than 2 years ago.  I don't use the van much, the odd balloon retrieve, this recent trip was only 560 miles, last year not much more.  Must be less than 2,000 miles total since the disks were fitted.

I phoned Tony, brother in law, again.  He's an engineer. If the pads are OK he said, there could be a few reasons for the noise.  You could have dirt or small stone trapped on the pads.  Actually I knew that, which is why I had been continuing on, hoping it would clear itself.  I was also looking for a garage who could check the disks.  Didn't see a single one until the last day when I drove past about 6 on the way home.  

Tony suggested that I try brake cleaning fluid to clean off the disks.  Or, he said, he'd heard of people stopping noise by putting lubricant between the brake piston and the disk but he didn't know why that should work.

Easiest, because it didn't need removal of the disks, and I didn't have brake cleaning fluid to hand, was to try the lubricant.  I sprayed WD40 behind the disks - not on the front - where the piston was located, put the wheels back, and made a test drive.  Perfect.  No noise.

So I didn't need to have crawled down that last mountain, or bothered about slowing down at roundabouts, or worried about my brakes giving up, or done all that other stuff, for the 3 or 4 days they were making noise. Or bought some disk pads I don't need.   I guess that's life.

I hope you enjoyed this account of my ramble, as Don Piccard called it, if I make another trip I'll write again.  Thanks for your company and your kind comments.

Just a brief reminder, if you've missed any reports from this trip, or (heaven forbid!) wish look back on an earlier one, they are all on my web site address below.  There you can find a total of about 350 pages containing some 300,000 words and 2,500 photographs........

Au revoir

David Barker, Mirande, France

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