It is that time of the year again: I am writing a post in a post-blog world. (This could totally be the start of a pop hit.) Could I be any more Millennial than this? Anyway, here is a month-by-month retrospective of memorable moments from my/our 2023, with a small (but not so small that you should be browsing this on a mobile network without an unlimited data subscription) collection of images in case Instagram dies.
I kicked off January very strong, with a lot of training – mostly indoor cycling on Zwift -, doing sports every day from the 29th of December until the 5th of February. This was my longest active streak ever with 39 days. Although this included a weekly yoga session, but I will be generous and count that as sports too. The fact that on 11 days I was actually biking outside during this period must mean that the weather was not that bad after all. We saw a book with a photograph of mine (legally) on its cover out in the wild. At the end of the month I finally managed to purchase a PS5 for a not ridiculous price, replacing our trusty PS4 after many years of happy usage, and I took Cole for a short sightseeing flight while he was back in town for a few days.
On the 1st of February (while turning 38) we commemorated my ageing by having a dinner in the Michelin-starred EED, which was excellent. At work the first production units of our Telraam S2 devices started rolling in. One weekend we went to the Ardennes for some hiking (where I was also very successfully testing my new Black Diamond Pole BD Distance FLZ hiking poles and the Garmin inReach® Mini 2), and some comfort food at Belgium Peak Beer. Unfortunately just after this I got sick with high fever and no energy which lasted for a good week, maybe at least partly from over-training combined with a completely messed up sleep-schedule… Of course that week the weather was perfect (and I had plans to go biking and flying) so I was not amused at all. A week later I flew to Sint-Truiden for the first time and also crossed a CTR on my own for the first time. In the rest of the month we visited the first flowers of the spring (and some warmth in the greenhouses) in the Botanical Garden, and had nice Italian food at Ristorante Guzzi (more or less ending our Gault Millau pilgrimage across town over the past months).
March could not have started any better than it did. Right on the 1st I made my longest trip (and my last non-local flight) with the Sonaca 200 ever by flying to Koblenz-Winningen in Germany. It was an awesome sunny (but cold) day, and it definitely gave me good vibes for the following weeks. A week later I watched in awe as Liverpool trashed Manchester United by 7 goals, which was definitely the highlight of an otherwise below-par season for the team. I met up with my brother in Brussels, and since we could not go flying as the wind associated with a named storm was causing trouble even for the big jets up there, we just had good food and walked around the city instead, talking about flying and fancy watches. Since I am never in Brussels everything was as new for me as it was for him.
In April my new road bike finally arrived (although I only started using it regularly a few months later as the delivered handlebar did not really work for me, and it took ages for what I wanted instead to arrive). It is an Orbea Orca M21eLTD PWR, and it is also my first bike without a separate post on this blog, breaking with tradition. The Canyon that it was/is meant to replace is now serving as my winter bike with more than 36000 km in it, and I will probably sell that in the spring (as now I have three road bikes and that is maybe a bit more than what I need). I also clearly felt like that I had not enough hobbies at this point, or rather I just wanted to do something new, so I bought an ukulele :D I did learn a lot of chords very quickly and enjoyed playing it during lunch every day for quite a while (although Clio found me practicing Hotel California on repeat borderline annoying I think). I even took the ukulele along to the Vosges where I spent 3 days with Willem, two of them biking (amazing legs the first day, survival on the last), and the one with rain, snow, and miserable weather in between with a cultural visit to the Alsace, and making music. We definitely have still a lot of ground to cover there, so we will go back this year (2024) in May (with hopefully less near freezing temperature and precipitation).
For the last quarter of the month we flew to Réunion Island for our first real holidays of the year. We were there from the 22nd of April until the 2nd of May, and it was a big success. (Living up to the beautiful Lofoten Islands from the year before was not an easy task!) We did way too many things to list all, I will just drop a few Instagram pictures below as an illustration, but if I had to highlight a few memories then I would choose these (in chronological order): the short hike to the lookout point above Dos d’Âne (looking at the ridges that I first encountered in a virtual gliding simulator during the Christmas period, which led me to discovering the beauty of Réunion and then wanting to go there) just after landing and picking up the rental Twingo (dead tired, having to ride a manual for the first time in ages, starting uphill…), the idillic place where we first stayed (with geckos and an amazing host), the great food (various version of Tartare de thon and some local dishes), the perfect climate, the waterfalls, spotting colourful fish in the harbour during our (rainy) beach day (just after seeing them in the Aquarium :D), the Southernmost point of the EU, the two hikes (one with Clio, and one alone to the 3rd highest peak of the island and the Indian Ocean) starting from Maïdo (and its amazing views), the visit to the Piton de la Fournaise volcano, the day out in and around Cilaos (including the crazy drive that discouraged me from attempting to hike the highest point of the island the next day) and Hell-Bourg (with its crazy spiders and similarly oversized bamboo), the Parfums et Épices Garden displaying an amazing variety of plants from the island (and an unexpected number of mosquitoes), the cliffs and trees of Cap Méchant, the park around the Anse waterfalls, the church in the lava flow, and so on. The only things that I really did not enjoy were the two long overnight flights.
In May I got a bass ukulele, mainly because it looked cool, but that purchase started me on the still ongoing journey of learning to play the bass. We added Zappaz to our list of highly rated (and similarly priced) restaurants, which definitely stays memorable (besides the great food) for the completely over-the-top extra set of desserts (nine pieces!) served with the coffee (after and on top the actual main dessert before). We got to visit the old town hall of Leuven from inside (including the mayor’s – ceremonial – office), which was a first after living here for nearly one and a half decades, and I am very glad we did it as it was a special experience. I got qualified to fly the Diamond DA40 over two short flights with an instructor, and since then I have not flown with the Sonaca 200 anymore. I did my first solo flight with the plane a few days later, just to Kortrijk. My landings only became better since then. At the end of the month I did an epic ride with Willem, biking over the highest points of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, putting 232 km and 3900 meters of elevation gain into the legs that day. It was nice to know that we still got “it”. Around this time the weather started to finally behave and I had no trouble spending some quality relaxation time on Saturdays having brunch, or eating cake and sipping coffee on a terrace somewhere in Leuven with Clio. It’s amazing what some nice weather does to this place :)
In June I bought an electric bass (a short scale Fender Mustang PJ bass, and I put La Bella 760FS-S flatwound strings on it), and I continued practicing and learning very regularly from the Hal Leonard Bass Method books ever since (I am currently somewhere past page 100 from the ~140). I really enjoy playing with the backing tracks, and it is just nice to play music again after a very very long time. And for the first time in my life, I feel like I am playing a cool instrument (although playing the clarinet in a big orchestra was nice too – but I would not refer to the clarinet as cool). We spent some time back in Hungary, visiting my grandmother in Pécs, and trying out some new (and excellent) coffee and brunch places in Budapest. I also met up with some of my high school classmates during our 20 year reunion. Back in Leuven we added the new local Italian-inspired place (Furbetto) to the list of restaurants which we wish could cater to us every day. At the end of the month I did my first long navigation with the DA40, first flying to Spa, then crossing the controlled airspaces of Liège and Brussels on Flight Level 60 on the way to Ursel, before flying back to Charleroi. It was a very hot day and afterwards I concluded that flying to two new airports plus doing a procedure that I had not done before (flying at a flight level in controlled airspace) is maybe just a bit too much for a single day of solo flying. But it was a very nice day, and I was extra happy as I got to fly over Leuven too.
July started by riding over the cobbled climbs of the Flemish Ardennes with my new bike, and my old colleagues from TML (and not the best but relatively OK legs). I never liked cobbles, but I thought if I don’t ride these climbs with other people, then I will never ride them, and if you are a cyclist in Belgium then even I think that you should really tackle them at one point – so I went. It helps appreciating the achievements of the pro cyclists who ride them every year in the spring (although they spend a much shorter time suffering on the climbs). I did another long triangle flight in the heat, first going back to Spa – as I was very much not happy with my landings the first time -, then crossing the TMAs again but this time to Breda in the Netherlands. It was so hot that all my GoPro cameras overheated after the first leg. It was not my first flight to Breda, so I did not mind the lack of footage, but now I scheduled in a visit to the local aviation museum, which went way beyond my expectations, as I got to listen to a local guide for 1.5 hours who told me everything about the aircraft on display. On the home improvement front “I” installed three guitar wall-mounts on the empty wall of the home office, so now not only my bikes, but also my three new instruments are hanging from the wall (and it all looks very nice and clean). I started drinking quite a lot of bubble tea around this time, my brother infected me with this when we last met in Hungary. Then I flew with Olivier – another pilot – (and our folding bikes) to some cliffs on the French coast, we biked to the top of them and then down to the nearby village for lunch. Afterwards we switched seats in the cockpit and he flew us back home via a small private airfield in a fly-in community (a.k.a. an airpark). That day I passed 100 hours as a pilot. At the very end of the month we jumped on the Eurostar to London (which was not as easy as last time, as the UK decided to leave the EU since then). We spent four days exploring some new (and some less new) parts of the city (and got as much nice food as possible on the way). Most importantly we went to Richmond (where Ted Lasso coached the “soccer” team in the series that kept us sane and able to smile during COVID), walked along the Thames and in Richmond Park, we had brunch in the Tower Hamlets, we visited Paddington, Little Venice, Camden, the Canary Wharf, the Battersea Power Station and Park, then we took cover from the rain in The British Museum (we were not the only ones). Before coming home we crossed the real (WGS 84) zero meridian in Greenwich Park, Northeast of the Old Royal Observatory.
In August we went back (7 years after our last visit) to Hinterzarten (Black Forest, Germany) for a week of easy-going, no-stress holidays. I took both my bike and my bass along (there was space in the car), and I was very happy that I did so, because I used both of them multiple times. We had a great apartment overlooking the central grass field of the town, which accidentally meant that we got to enjoy the local festivities from the front row during the first three evenings. (Thank God for Clio’s extra noise cancelling in-ear headphones that saved my nights). I made it to the highest point of the Black Forest this time with the bike too (although making it home was a lot more suffering than expected), we did some nice walks (natural spring-cooled wooden fridge with drinks inside in the fields, hello!), ate some German sausage with potato salad (the best one at the Southwestern corner of the Titisee), visited Basel, played board games, and just had a nice and relaxing time overall. When we came home Clio finally agreed to come fly with me (and she survived), then a few days later I flew to Saint-Hubert for the first time. This was my first full stop landing on a grass field with the DA40, and it was a rather short one too, plus it had a downslope, so it was a nice, challenging exercise. At the very end of the month I finally managed to take my brother too for a flight (on our 3rd attempt – thanks Belgian weather…); we did a sightseeing tour above Ghent and Brugge (and their very different roof colours), then landed in Kortrijk for a very short stop (just to have more landings), before flying back home. I think around this time I started really enjoying taking others for a flight, as I like sharing the experience of general aviation with others, and on those flights I typically don’t do anything new for me, which means that I can also relax a lot more, plus I don’t have to edit a video after the flight either. (I like making videos, but it is nice to go for a flight once in a while where there is nothing to do afterwards – besides the usual paperwork :D)
September brought the by now usual calm and warm late summer weather with it, so we could simply enjoy life in shorts a bit longer. I went to Mechelen both with Clio and with Willem (somehow ending up at the coffee place no matter if the trip was by train or by race bike), I still had ice cream at the end of an evening training ride (oh, where is that weather now), etc. Then in the middle of the month I had my longest day of flying so far. I flew to Norderney, one of the East Frisian Islands in Northern Germany. I took my folding bike to ride around a bit, had lunch there among the sand dunes, then I flew across the narrow and shallow Wadden Sea to Emden to refuel, before flying back – crossing the whole Netherlands again – to Charleroi. The first leg was (and is still) my longest flight to date (2:21 block time), while the second is one of the shortest ones (in duration it is the shortest, but in straight line distance Charleroi to Namur is less – although you can really never fly that straight). Overall I put 5 hours and 10 minutes into the logbook, with a solo navigation over exactly 500 nautical miles between these three airports (443 nm straight line distance), which would actually more than fulfil the requirements (for a long solo navigation flight) of the commercial pilot licence too ;) It was a fun, fulfilling, but tiring and very (very) expensive day, and I hope to have more like these in the future – but maybe not alone the next time. Just two days later I participated in the 34 ème Rallye Air Spa 2023 Challenge Guy Rothheuth with Olivier (I flew us to Spa and back, and I was the navigator during the task), which was basically a race for pilots. Planes took off 20 minutes apart to make things safe, but everybody had to find a couple of ground reference points (marked on topographic maps), take pictures of them (which was often challenging, like a small chapel under a group of trees is not super easy to photograph from above), then get back at a set time (calculated from our standard cruising speed), land as precisely as possible, park as precisely as possible, and finally fill in a small quiz. The results from these tasks were then converted into points, and at the end we came out on top of the 14 participating teams (with 5215 points, comfortably in front of the second and third with 4910 and 4550 points, respectively). Nice! We even got a cup (well, two) and everything. Telraam (my work) was in Forbes, Liverpool signed a full new midfield (including Dominik Szoboszlai, the captain of the Hungarian national team) and started the season very well, etc.
In October I took another of my ex cycling-padawans flying, and I did a short flight myself too from dusk into the night to get some night time experience on the DA40 too (which produced a special time-lapse video). We had an introduction to curling as a team-building activity at work, which was pretty cool (and not only in terms of the temperature). I got a new amplifier for my bass (Boss Katana-110), which opened up a totally different tone quality for the instrument (compared to my mini practice amp from before). I love how it sounds.
We kicked off November with a short visit to the Ardennes, where we did one of the most famous hikes of Belgium, the loop around Ninglinspo in peak autumn colours. I almost felt bad for not having a real camera with me. We went on a Friday evening and just managed to get a parking spot, so good luck on a weekend… I think not much special was happening these days, I just have a ton of cat pictures on my phone, some pancakes, just the usual. At the end of the month I took another astronomer / cat baby-sitter friend flying, and this time it was in pretty challenging conditions, producing probably my most cross-windy landing to date (gusting with 18 knots crosswind component). When I told my passenger after the landing how challenging it was, she said that she did not really notice, so I guess it was all right :D We also flipped a door around and used an IR-camera to look for heat-leaks around the apartment (it’s mostly all good, except for under some window-frames).
I think you can start to see a pattern here, I like starting a month with flying, so two days into December I flew to Saint-Ghislain on a very cold late afternoon (luckily the cabin heat in the DA40 is significantly better than in the Sonaca 200). With its 640 meter long runway it is the shortest field I have ever visited (*in theory Grimbergen is shorter, but due to technical details – that I am not going to explain here – in practice both the available landing and take off distance is significantly longer there). I got surprised by some unexpected ice deposition there to make the flight more interesting (because visiting a new airport is not enough I guess). I had actually already touched down at Saint-Ghislain during the skill test (practical exam) of my PPL, but I have never made a full stop landing before this flight, so the airport was not yet in my logbook. Just the day after we got the first snowy afternoon/evening of the winter, and the snow stayed just long enough so that we could enjoy it during an evening walk around the block. We went to the Christmas market, visited a cool glowing-in-the-dark art installation in one of the (not used anymore) churches, and we finally got a drying machine (I actually typed frying machine first, how Belgian of me). While I already set up the steel bike on the indoor trainer, that got little use during the holidays, as every second day was dry enough for some real road cycling (and even some 100 km+ rides again with Willem and co.). Of course it was constantly so windy that the next day was always spent recovering. Overall this was the most relaxing holiday season I had in years, as I had not made any pressure with plans for myself, I always just did what I was in the mood for. Chilling in the couch, good food, cycling, playing the bass, etc. At the very end of the year my YouTube channel was mentioned by one of the most famous aviation YouTubers (and luckily by somebody who is really just a nice person, and not one of the clickbait content creators), which was a very heart-warming acknowledgement of my work, especially when you look at how great the five other channels are which were mentioned besides mine :)
Overall 2023 was a pretty nice year, no real health issues, great holidays, I picked up playing music again (I estimate that I played the bass for around 150 hours), I biked 7915 km (not exceptional at all for me, but 13% more than the year before) in 280 hours, I did 28 hours of hiking, and I flew 40 hours (32 of those already on the Diamond DA40, made 55 landings across 13 airports, of which 9 were first time visits, and 1/4 of the time I also took a passenger with me). I am looking forward to 2024, hoping it will be at least as good as the past year was.