Thursday, 16 March 2017

THE CLIFF WHISPERER

Sebastián Álvarez inhabits his own world which is anything but quiet: he can hear his heart beating and feel his deep breaths, and he listens carefully to the scrapes of his climbing shoes in the reddish-white chalk. He twists his hips and pushes off powerfully with his right leg. His upper arm muscles clearly stand out under his grey shirt when he grabs hold of the small ledge. He locates his next foothold, skilfully finds his balance and quickly clicks the next carabiner into the metal hook in the cliff face.


“When I’m climbing, I concentrate completely on the rock – and on silencing the voice inside my head,” says Sebastián when he is once again on solid ground. Blocking out fear, getting into a rhythm – that’s what matters. “And it’s important to listen to what nature – what the rock – is trying to tell you.” The 39-year-old Spaniard seems settled in Mallorca. Just two years ago, he fulfilled his dream here by setting up the small company ‘Rock & Water Mallorca’, together with his business partner Adhara. Since then, they have been offering a variety of adventure trips in Mallorca – from mountain biking, sailing and canyoning to bouldering and climbing tours. “For me, Mallorca is the perfect location: we have a pleasant climate with 300 days of sunshine per year and many great spots,” raves Sebastián. “Here there are spectacular cliffs right by the sea, long mountain passes, sintered overhangs and even caves.” The island’s chalk also has a pleasant feel.

Tracks, pine trees, views

Depending on the weather, wind and mood, Sebastián takes his guests to different corners of the island. His favourite spots (see box) are not only athletically challenging in different ways, but also have impressive landscapes. Even just the journey through the Serra de Tramuntana takes your breath away: it passes by bright green fields where sheep and lambs gently graze. Gnarled olive trees alternate with large orange groves and majestic almond trees. The road offers a clear view of the picturesque Valldemossa, one of the most beautiful places on the island. In the distance, you can see the ‘Sant Bartomeu’ parish church and the walls of the ancient Carthusian monastery ‘Catuja de Jesús Nazareno’. But Sebastián drives on, bypasses the tourist destination, and steers his ŠKODA KODIAQ elegantly around the sometimes deep furrows in the road, on towards the coast.

To his left is a steep downward slope, the rugged grey of the rock alternates with the green of pine trees and cacti. He stops suddenly at the edge of the small track and parks the SUV on the unpaved verge. His destination: a mighty overhang made from red, white and grey chalk, directly above the road. He quickly goes through the planned route with his assistant who will belay him. Less than two minutes later, Sebastián is hanging in the centre of the rock. In his blue jeans, white long-sleeved top and grey cap, he wouldn’t look out of place in a small beach bar.

A group of Spanish hikers stops. They are no longer looking at the blue sky and little bays with turquoise water. They watch the man on the rock face above them, mesmerised. Sebastián hangs on one hand – seemingly relaxed – while he takes some chalk out of the bag on his back with the other. An audible breath in, one swift movement and he already has the most difficult passage behind and below him – as if he had never done anything else.

Rope and harness instead of shirt and tie

But that’s not the case: Sebastián did not start climbing until he was 23. At that time, he moved to Madrid. Prior to that, he had lived with his family in Argentina, where he grew up in the tranquil town of Olavarría and almost became a professional softball player. “After school, I studied law in Buenos Aires,” he says, smiling whilst looking at his chalk-covered hands. Having completed a second degree in Spain, he was now able to work as a lawyer in both countries. However, all he completed were the mandatory internships. “I preferred to earn money through other people’s happiness instead of through their problems and misery.” Sebastián lived in Madrid and England, worked in Mallorca for five years as the sales manager for a carpentry workshop and sold windows. The biggest constant during these years was his growing enthusiasm for outdoor sports – be it canyoning, cliff diving or deep-water soloing. “It’s quite obvious that I love danger,” he says with a wide grin. His brown eyes sparkle. Bouldering and climbing have held him in their grasp ever since. The result: he and his good friend Adhara quit their jobs and went for broke.

As he drives along the winding roads from Sóller down towards Palma, Daft Punk blasts from the ŠKODA KODIAQ’s six speakers. Sebastián sings along loudly and drums on his knee with his hand. Next destination: Torre d’en Beu, a listed 16th-century watchtower on the south-east coast of Mallorca. The journey takes a good hour, past the capital city, through several villages and at the end along a dusty sand track towards the sea. Sebastián switches to all-wheel-drive mode and follows a medium-height natural stone wall towards the tower. A popular climbing and bouldering area can be found directly below it. The air tastes salty, the waves ring in your ears. Sebastián unpacks all of his equipment: ropes, harnesses and helmets for him and Adhara, as well as a crash pad – which alone would fill the boot of a small car. A crash pad is a mat required for bouldering – together with your partner, it is your only protection for this sport. Here it is more about technique; the rocks are a maximum of three metres high and there are plenty of them here. Over centuries, the sea and wind have moulded them into all shapes and sizes. Sebastian and Adhara unfold the crash pad together. Sebastián slips into his climbing shoes and begins climbing straight from the ground. Slowly, smoothly, one twist – and he is yet again hanging in the air two metres above the mat. They then switch roles. Sebastián shows his business partner, who has specialised more in mountain biking and water sports in their small company, a few tricks, whilst not letting her out of his sight.


He calls it a day in the late afternoon. Sebastián drives the KODIAQ towards Palma again. Time and again, he looks at the sky. But less to marvel at the sunset and more to get a close look at the cloud formation over the sea. And he nods happily: tomorrow it will probably be sunny again – perfect for the next area on his list.

1899 – BETTER THAN BOSCH


The first engine made by Laurin & Klement (established in 1895) was a one-cylinder 1.25 HP unit designed for Slavia motorcycles. The brand founders introduced this engine in Prague-Bubeneč in November 1899. The beginnings were not easy, though, as the designers and engineers lacked one important thing – a magneto-electric ignition that only Robert Bosch in Stuttgart was able to produce at that time. Laurin and Klement approached him and he replied in person. By the way, this letter is still part of the National Museum of Technology’s collection, and careful readers will find twelve mistakes and typing errors

in its six lines. 

Bosch offered its device at 80 marks per unit, was not prepared to provide any discount and refused Laurin and Klement’s idea of testing the device in the Mladá Boleslav-made machine. Further letters apparently bothered him so he started replying without paying the postage, i.e. at Laurin and Klement’s cost. In the end the Boleslav engineers came to understand the whole principle and designed their own ignition system that was lighter, cheaper and more practical. “The result of presenting this vehicle of the future was indeed great”, Národní politika (newspaper) wrote on 21 November, 1899. The history of Mladá Boleslav-made engine was born.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

KODIAQ SKINNED TO THE BONE



The KODIAQ anatomy can now be explored on a special vehicle that has been dismantled for ŠKODA.  “All of the key elements of the bodywork structure are visible – the deformation zones, the door reinforcements, the passenger compartment skeleton whose borders are formed by the A-pillar, B-pillar, doorsill and roof. Also uncovered are the locations of the respective airbags (including the pyro cartridges), the impact sensors along the vehicle’s perimeter, as well as the active safety elements – assistance systems, for example the front radar and camera, blind spot sensors and parking sensors,” explains Petr Kraus, Head of Vehicle Safety Development. “Further, the model offers spectacular views of the structure for all three rows of seats, including the seat AC system as well as the electrically controlled seat-positioning system that is fully functional. This makes it possible to check out the whole mechanism. Also completely functional is the window control system, which can be viewed – like in an aquarium –through big cut-outs as the windows slide down. The pop-out tow bar mechanism is exposed, too.”

Tony Slack, Managing Director added, “The “anatomical” model is meant to be used primarily for safety promotion campaigns, presentations to automotive development experts, importer and dealer training, as well as public presentations.” 

Where can you see it? The KODIAQ cross-section model will appear in various TV programmes, at firefighter training sessions the purpose of which is to show the simplest ways of getting into the car if necessary, at safety education events for both adults and children.


Before doing so to the KODIAQ, “automotive surgeons” had also made cross sections from some of the other ŠKODA models currently available, including the RAPID, FABIA, OCTAVIA and SUPERB.

COMPLETING DA VINCI: WHERE ENGINEERING MEETS INGENUITY

What does a pint of Pilsner lager have in common with contact lenses? Other than pleasantly altering your view of the world, both are Czech inventions, just as sugar cubes, snap fasteners, the plastic explosive Semtex, and others are. However small the Czech Republic might be in size and population, this is a country rich in ideas and innovation. ŠKODA is proud of sharing and continuing that tradition in the world of motoring.

When Leonardo Da Vinci first thought of contact lenses as an aid for the weak-sighted, he couldn't foresee that it would take another 400 odd years and the ingenuity of a Czech chemist to turn his idea into reality. And yet, it was Otto Wichterle (1913-1998), who had the insight that created a path to the soft contact lens as we know today. His paper "Hydrophilic gels for biological use", published in 1959 in the journal Nature, delivered the breakthrough in the quest extending through half a millennium.

However, it was a US company which turned the idea into an economic success after buying the rights to produce the lenses in the mid-1960s.

Although Professor Wichterle's merits are undoubted, there has been some dispute on another invention attributed to a Czech scholar by his fellow countrymen: the lightning conductor. While internationally regarded as the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin, Czech science historians often cite the 18th century Catholic priest, theologian and natural scientist Prokop Diviš (1698-1765) as the original inventor.


The fact is both inventors built apparatuses conducting the electricity from lightning strikes to the ground around 1750.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Episode 3. Does the Yeti really exist?

The only Yeti we managed to spot were the expedition's three Outdoor models – all built at ŠKODA’s assembly plant in Aurangabad in central western India. 

All were standard production models but had the optional Rough-Road package fitted. The package – which is available to all YETI Outdoor buyers, not just mountain adventurers – consists of a thermoplastic cover for the engine and transmission, a plastic cover for the fuel and brake lines, the reinforced brake fluid distribution system and the hand-brake cable. All models were also equipped with a space-saver spare wheel, although no punctures were suffered during the 680-km journey.


Known to locals around Merak as Migoi, the yeti has been a part of Bhutanese, Nepalese and Tibetan folklore for more than three centuries. Although the early Himalayan people are believed to have worshipped a ‘glacier being’, the first documented reports of a mountain-dwelling bipedal creature in Western culture didn’t appear until the early 19th century.
As Western mountaineers embarked on Himalayan climbs in the 1920s, reported sightings became more frequent, with a number of respected explorers claiming to have seen a mysterious mountain beast. 

By the 1950s, debate surrounding the yeti’s existence reached new heights with Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reporting large, unexplained footprints in the snow. National newspapers across Europe funded large-scale yeti-finding expeditions as the story became headline news. In the 21st century, the emphasis moved towards scientific exploration, with various examples of older evidence tested for authenticity and a host of new explanations coming forward. The most recent research has been carried out by the universities of Oxford and Lausanne and concluded that although the existence of the yeti couldn’t be completely ruled out, the evidence suggested that the creature is likely to be a species of bear.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Episode 2. Does the Yeti really exist?


The adventure begins in Delhi, India where the adventure team pack their kit into the
spacious boot of their YETIs and travel the short distance to the border with Bhutan.
As befits a country with the official title of ‘The Kingdom of Bhutan’, the border takes the
form of a large golden gate that separates the border town of Samdrup Jongkhar from
India.

Once the team are in Bhutan, the true scale of the adventure starts to emerge. As the
convoy leaves Samdrup Jongkhar, the roads quickly become more challenging as they
snake up the mountain. Asphalt gives way to gravel while the safety barriers disappear
completely to leave sheer drops at the side of the road.

After a brief stop in Wamrong, the cars are checked over and the drive to the overnight
camp at Lingkhar in Tashigang commences. The road from Wamrong to Trashigang is one of the most challenging routes in the country and is locally known as the ‘road of death’ on account of the number of motorists who have lost their lives trying to negotiate its
40,000 bends and corners.

Predictably, the YETI takes it all in its stride. Although the Rough-Road package (see box
for more details) is put to the test on numerous occasions, the sure-footed four-wheeldrive
system ensures that traction is maintained at all times. Progress is, however, slow,
thanks to the rough surface and the need to negotiate pedestrians and cattle. Third gear
is the norm as the convoy edges its way closer to Trashigang.

Day two ends at Lingkhar Lodge – a stopover point in the busy town of Trashigang –
some 1,110 m above sea level. It’s a chance to refuel the YETIs, refuel the team and get
some sleep before the drive to Merak – the fabled home of the yeti.

Driving in Bhutan
For the European driver, taking to the roads in Bhutan is a bit of an eye-opener. Like
many Asian countries, Bhutan drives on the left and most cars are right-hand drive. Just 62 per cent of Bhutan’s roads are tarmacked, while the remaining 38 per cent vary from rough gravel tracks to extremely rough tracks only passable in four-wheel-drive vehicleswith good ground clearance.


Although Bhutan itself is a small country, measuring around 300 km east to west and
150 km north to south, it is highly mountainous. This means that it can take hours
to travel between two relatively close villages due to serpentine mountain roads and roads along river banks. Amazingly, 80 per cent of the Bhutanese population lives more

than a two-hour walk from the nearest road.
Watch Tuesday's third and final episode.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Episode 1 Does the yeti really exist?


Does the yeti really exist? It’s a question that has engaged explorers for centuries – prompting countless expeditions into the wilds of Bhutan and spawning hundreds of unexplained sightings and stories. Enshrined in local folklore, the yeti continues to attract adventurers to the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan – all hoping for a glimpse of the mythical beast.

Such is the attraction of the area – which features some of the most challenging roads in the world – that ŠKODA launched an expedition of its own. Taking three specially prepared YETIs on an adventure into an area of Bhutan where many locals believe the yeti lives. Would the wild yeti be tempted out into the open by the appearance of three attract adventurers to the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan – all hoping for a glimpse of the mythical beast. Watch Thursday's episode for second part of the Yeti story.