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Posts tagged ‘Hiking’

Savouring the last leg to Santiago

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I ate Pimientos de Padrón in Padrón.

Of course.

And I enjoyed the little peppers as much as I loved the town of Padrón which is saturated in the legends of St James. It’s here he supposedly preached in Spain for the first time, in a quiet spot high up on the hill overlooking the town. I walked up to the simple statue and cross that marks the spot on the rock far away from the bustle of the town below. And I felt a peace there that’s been missing on most of this camino.

I felt it less in the Igrexa de Santiago church which houses another of the great legends, the original stone mooring post to which the boat carrying St James was tied at the quayside on the river. And, at the other end of the Saint’s story there’s a roadside monument showing the arrival of the his sarcophagus as it passed through.

In the morning, after breakfast in a pilgrim cafe by the ancient stone bridge, four of us set off to walk together on the last leg of our journey. There were roads and traffic and noise, but there were trees and bridges and peaceful places too. We weren’t in a rush for the walking to end and met friends who also stopped countless times before they took the last steps into Santiago.

And when I turned a corner on the medieval streets and the familiar sharp spires of the cathedral rose into view I felt the smile spreading over me. It felt like coming home.

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Among Raasay’s ruins

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A few lines of verse lured me to Raasay; haunting Highland words by a renowned Gael about the passing of time and the mass clearance of island people from their land and heritage. “Time, the deer, is in Hallaig wood…” it begins.

I walked along the ancient bracken path, through Hallaig’s thicket of birch trees to the soft greenness of the township’s terraced landscape, a raised beach with a still sea below and the crags of volcanic Dun Caan high above. It was a September day in any year in the last century and in the sunlight I ached for the Highland diaspora transported by ships from this homeland to a new, unknown world. Reports of the time say some were forced aboard vessels clutching grass from their ancestors graves, a fraying thread to their history and a land they knew they’d never see again.

I found stones. Moss on stones. Stone built high, still forming the outline of a home. Fallen gables and gaping holes. And lines of stones harvested from village houses to make a holding for sheep, the new inhabitants of Hallaig and Screapadal and all the other cleared villages across the Highlands.

The sun shone, casting shadows on the rough edges of grey and pink. Clouds scudded over and fattening lambs snoozed in the lee of tumbledown lintels. And I sat too and read Sorley MacLean’s words among gentle ghosts, the faint imaginings of children playing in the burn and phrases of gaelic whispered on the breeze.

There will always be an emptiness here but moss, the marker of time, now smothers the sharpest of grief. And after only a few hours in Hallaig it’s not easy to turn and walk away.

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Making morning memories

P1070232When dawn is breaking at 04.15 and the sun’s rays are just starting to inch their way down the rocky mountain tops, it isn’t easy to walk away from the wilderness.

I’d been camping out in the remote wilds of Fisherfield in Scotland’s far north west for two nights, climbing some of the most inaccessible hills in the country, and it was time to leave.

My friends tents were motionless in the half light; the inhabitants still asleep. Quietly I packed up my dew-sodden shelter, stuffed the gear into my rucksack and set off on the track between the sprawling lochs and hills. What a morning to be alive and alone.

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At the first loch I unhooked my pack, washed my face in the soft peaty water, stowed my jacket and sized up the last of my food store: just an orange and a tiny breakfast bar. The walk would take at least five hours so I delayed my feast and crossed the stone causeway between two lonely stretches of water.

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I heard the cuckoo calling and startled a few red deer as my boots grazed the stones of the rough path. And as I walked I tried to think of other mornings in my life that had felt as magical and momentous as this one. The early hours when my children were born are unforgettable, of course; there’s a string of dawns spent walking out from a corrie camp one romantic summer many decades ago that merge into one; and most nostalgic of all are the occasional early mornings of an idyllic childhood when my father woke me early to walk with him up to our high fields to collect the cows for the early milking. I recall anxious swallows swooping with food for their young in the eaves of the barns and the otherwise stillness of summer dawn as I held Dad’s hand and we walked up the road. I remember my sandshoes getting damp on dewy grass, the herd rustling and impatient at the gate and the precious feeling that no-one else in the world was up this early.

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There was no-one else up early in Fisherfield either. I didn’t meet a soul for hours.

And I resolved to make more morning memories.

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Mountains on my mind

IMG_3159The hills lure you from every window in the wild rocky paradise of Assynt, and even in the rain the view from our hostel dorm to the massive hulk of Quinag was mesmerising. We dodged the stormy weather for a gentle evening stroll through rainbows to a chambered cairn just up the glen then decided to climb Stac Pollaidh next morning. It’s only  612m high but ranks 10/10 for drama.

P1060829It was a steep but short ascent and  once we reached our high vantage we gazed over to the distant, outlandish rocks of Suilven, Ben Mor Coigach, Cul Beag and Canisp until their ancient outlines were imprinted in our minds, certain to call us back. Read more

First frost

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Reminiscing about the Ridge on a dreich Scottish day

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I never tire of looking up to sharp mountain ridges but I’m nervous of exposure so New Zealand’s Kepler Track is well outwith my comfort zone. But with a bit of brutal encouragement from my son, I did it. The memories – which we shared last night via Skype – will last a lifetime. And they brighten the bleakest of Scotland’s November days.

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Resting at the Riego do Nievas, the River of Snows

IMG_2423This has been a day of days.

Clear blue skies, remote paths and a landscape of rivers, woods and wild moorland lay ahead this morning, and the reward at day’s end was the promise of eventually reaching the sea.

I had some stunning Spanish horses and their riders for company  for a while in the morning and picked up pace to match their speed until they cantered away onto the high moors. I enjoyed their scent, the sense of tradition, the dogs at their heels and the sound of their hooves on the track (not to mention the conversation with the swarthy Spaniard on his steed!) but loved the silence even more when they moved on and I became lost in the landscape.

The heat was tiring and I eventually stopped to rest at an isolated spot named on the map as P1040928Ermita das Nieves (Hermitage of Our Lady of the Snows), a remote chapel and holy spring which is now officially my most favourite place on the entire Camino. I pulled off my socks and boots and lay down on the ancient shady stone steps of the chapel, and I thought how wonderfully simple life can be when you pare it all down. If I’m anxious or tired in future I’ll think of the hour I lay there in the warmth, feeling the peace of the hallowed stone seep into my bones.

Eventually I wandered into the field to dip my feet in the spring by the carved stone cross, which I hope wasn’t too sacrilegious? The waters supposedly have special powers which are most powerful on one day of the year, but fortunately not the day I was there, or it would have been much too busy. I felt revived but walked even more slowly after that, stretching the day and savouring this lonely part of the Camino.

P1040880A couple of German men I’d met the night before caught up and we stopped to fill our water bottles at another remote stone font, this one dedicated to St Peter the Martyr. The water here is reputed to cure aches and pains but more importantly it tasted cool and delicious on a hot, thirsty day.

There was still a long way to go but I was so reluctant to let the day end, I dawdled slowly through the high pine woods. And then, finally, when the views opened up, I caught my first glimpse of the sea almost 1000ft below.

A hot P1040940shower, reconnecting with friends, essential cervezas and that particular Camino pleasure of  washing clothes by hand all lay ahead in the seaside town of Cee, but my feet dragged for the final few kilometres and I constantly looked back up to the stone cross on the hill.

It might be a while before I’m physically back in Spain but it’s a comfort to know that the Ermita is firmly imprinted in my head and  I can return to that peaceful place anytime I choose.

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Approaching the Peak of the Hound Keepers

 

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Its gaelic name is Sgurr nan Conbhairean and it’s a high, elegant hill that’s hidden amidst the ravaged peaks of Kintail, a wild land that I thought would be far beyond  my caution (i.e. terror) of exposure to huge drops.

The summit, behind the rounded top in the foreground, peaks at 1011m at the top of a steep slope and this picture’s taken from another high top, Carn Ghluasaid, the Hill of Movement. And yes, fortified by my patient pal, I endured a (scary by my standards) ridge walk and climbed them both. It was exhilarating to be so high, absorbing wave after dusky wave of the mountain ranges that stretch across Scotland, from the jagged Cuillin of Skye and Rum, south to the imposing lump of Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart and far beyond.

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We saw red deer and ptarmigan, or snow grouse,  at around 1000m. These chubby little birds don’t venture much below this height and a funny family of seven allowed us to watch them potter around on their rocks before they flew away in a covey of crisp white underbellies.

And now I’m back down at sea level and hungry again for the crunch of my beloved new boots on stony tracks, the scent of rocky streams in spate and the wind whirling my hair on the high tops.

I could do without this morning’s unbendable legs, but even that discomfort brings a certain gratification; I’ve earned it.

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A taste of the Kyle of Tongue

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Like escapees from an unruly chess board, the march of death climbs up and over the hill. They’re grandiose tombstones in an elemental place ; oversized queens, bishops and knights heading for the shallow, sandy waters of Tongue Bay.  Next stop the Atlantic Ocean.

Our day was long and unhurried. We’d no heavy packs on our backs and no transport south until tomorrow. Misty views to the hills beyond the Kyle meant walking across the long causeway was slow, and I pitied the cars and vans their flashes of scenery while we paused every few steps to breathe in ever changing Ben Loyal. Ahead of us all the time was the stark cemetery on the hill.

No insects pestered us today but still I itched. New red blotches had burst into life. And just above my knee this morning I discovered a tick already swelling, its jaws firmly clamped in my flesh. I wielded  my new tick-tweezers and twisted then squashed the parasite, watching my blood seep out and wondering if this one carried Lyme’s Disease.

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The graveyard was a haven of heather and mosses, wild flowers and a strong rusty lichen that was stark against the cool grey stone; Caloplaca marina, I think. Calos in Greek means nice, placa  is shield, so Caloplaca ‘beautiful patches’. And so they are.

Slowly the tide emptied, leaving vast sandy flats, exposing acres of seaweed and racks of farmed mussel beds. Tractors and trailers crept over the soft sand, seagulls called on them for scraps  and the clear northern light bounced against the beach.

I had just a few hours of wandering, watching and listening while, up on the hill, the tombstones maintained a much longer vigil. A hundred years, and counting…

The thin line between adventure … and a forced march

 

The lonely Moine Path from Loch Hope to the Kyle of Tongue

The lonely Moine Path from Loch Hope to the Kyle of Tongue. We didn’t see another soul all day.

The next eight hours looked grim.

I  had a splitting headache, nausea and 15 miles to walk across boggy, inhospitable ground and empty roads before there was any prospect of a hostel bed. Could it have been an overdose of cleg poison?

Ill as I felt, there was no alternative to walking. No cars. No houses. No people. But hey, this was an adventure, wasn’t it? I popped some pills, heaved on my pack and we set off.

I figured we could do the most isolated bit in four hours if I just kept my head down and followed Noreen’s relentless red socks all the way across the bog. And we almost did.

The first 10 miles were the worst, up and over the 1000 year old Moine Path (henceforth remembered as the Vomit Path – too much information?) a raised track across tussocky moorland between the great rocky strongholds of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. After nine miles I lay down on a stone and slept, spontaneously, and woke after 20 minutes, feeling decidedly better.

One of the beautifully built bridges that keeps the ancient path drier than the surrounding bog

One of the beautifully built bridges that keeps the ancient path drier than the surrounding bog

By the time we reached the village of Tongue on the far north coast I’d made a full recovery and we celebrated the end of the trail with an ice cream at the shop.

And life got even better when Julia, the fantastic warden of the Youth Hostel spotted our rucksacks outside the Post Office and popped in to see if we wanted a lift to our beds. We knocked her down in the rush.

I bought shampoo and had a long, blissful shower which was only marred by the revelation of considerable insect damage. We doctored our bites with antihistamine and hydrocortisone  then drank cup after cup of tea while we laughed and relived our adventure from the comfort of a soft armchair.

Finally I picked up a thriller from the hostel shelves and lost myself in someone else’s drama; so much less stressful than one’s own.

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We walked towards Ben Loyal, a beacon across the moor, and were finally rewarded with a view from a different perspective