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Posts tagged ‘hills’

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

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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Gathering no moss

P1050673I left my home in the hands of strangers today and walked away, feeling twitchy, unsettled,  a bit like leaving a child behind at playgroup for the first time.

The camper was just getting a service, but it has been my home for six months and I’ve clearly bonded. And yes, it does feel like home. I know it’s just a lump of depreciating metal but it contains everything I need and I really like living small, with only the minimum of everything around me;  clothes, books, food, recording gear, a slim laptop, camera and phone. And an excess of paper and pens.

And while I don’t carry much, I’m prepared for every eventuality. My tents, boots and walking gear are there, working clothes and high heels in the secret (no more) compartment under the floor . They don’t get many outings, but you Just Never Know. The van works well as transport, office and social space. Friends have stayed over, they’ve drunk wine and whisky and endless cups of tea, I’ve cooked meals in beautiful places as they’ve sat back and enjoyed the scenery. And it’s a pared down personal sanctuary too, a place where I can close the blinds and curl up in bed on a miserable night with hot chocolate and a book.

P1030845This has been a long, hot, wonderful summer. I’ve wakened early most mornings to the dawn breaking over beaches or hills and fallen asleep to the sound of water tumbling over rocks. There have been remote nights when deer and sheep  have been my nearest neighbours and the midges have battered to get in. I’ve spent nights in quiet city streets and car parks too, careful to pull the blinds tight, to shut out the light and keep my presence understated.

i’ve been caught in summer storms. And when the tail end of Hurricane Bertha blew in during the wee small hours, it felt a bit like being inside a black out washing machine, battered, shaken and blasted by squall after rocky squall. It was wild and exciting but the van stayed upright and I lay in the tumbling darkness feeling I was part of the weather. But warm and dry.

It would be wrong, though, to claim that there are no drawbacks to this nomadic life. I’ve  wanted to soak in a bath of hot bubbles after a hard day on the hill, or stare into a log fire on a chilly evening.There have been times when I’ve longed to choose a book from my collection that’s been boxed up in a garage for the last two years.

Occasionally I haven’t known which way to turn. Literally. North? Or south? Right or left? On the days when there’s no pressing schedule and no work, the options and horizons are almost too wide.

P1050064Then there have been weeks like this one, when I’ve been alone in a house, cat sitting for a friend. I’ve had the luxury of space to take stock, to do a thorough spring clean, to get some respite from being in perpetual motion. I’ve barely ventured from the house for the past few days, I’ve driven nowhere and hardly seen anyone or made calls, except for work. I’ve relished being still.

Maybe that’s the flaw. Maybe because there are wheels below my bed I feel I need to keep them rolling.

It’s coming to an end though. There are just a few weeks left till I need to settle down and hibernate till the long days start to loom again. But I’m not finished with this lifestyle yet.

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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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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

 

Paradise … until the wind dropped

The sun was beating down, we’d been walking for hours, I was hot and sweaty – and the sign on the tree said “Rock Pool”. Irresistible.

We dumped out packs and climbed down the steep bank to a gentle waterfall which fed in to deep pools of brown peaty water. The somersaulting clegs were an incentive to get submerged fast and it was glorious; cool and soothing for my ravaged shoulders, slippery rocks to slither over and space to stretch down to feel for footholds on the stony bottom. I was a water nymph, in my head at least!

The trail passed by the manicured grass and gravel of Gobernuisgach Lodge, a remnant of the privileged Victorian approach to the Highlands; incongruous precision in the midst of wilderness.

The track from Gober  climbed up to the remains of Dun Dornaigil broch, a fabulous example of the type of dwelling used by Scotland’s earliest settlers.We looked around then plodded on in the heat and sheltered for a while in the rare shade of a cattle shed, oblivious to the dried cow dung around us. How quickly standards drop

I'm now an authority on the bloodsucking cleg, or horse fly. Their official name is Tabanidae and they're also known as breeze flies, deer flies, gadflies, or zimbs. In some areas of Canada, they're called bull dog flies or stouts. And in Australia some species are known as "March flies". And they're all more vicious than they look..

I’m now an authority on the bloodsucking cleg, or horse fly. Their official name is Tabanidae and they’re also known as breeze flies, deer flies, gadflies, or zimbs. In some areas of Canada, they’re called bull dog flies or stouts. And in Australia some species are known as “March flies”. And they’re all more vicious than they look..

And later, just as we were getting tired and hungry, the idyllic camping spot came in to focus; it was beside a river, the ground was flat, the grass short, and as open to a breeze as anywhere around.

But the tents were barely up and supper cooking than the wind died and – without warning – hoards of midges descended in impenetrable clouds. We clutched our pans of half-cooked food and ran for cover.

Calling it a horror movie doesn’t do it justice.  I lay in the stifling heat, listening to them lunging themselves at the mesh fabric and the outer tent walls, and staring at the thick mass of miniature wings that filled every inch of the “porch”.

I had no water. I needed the loo. And I wanted to brush my teeth. But if I unzipped the flap millions of tormentors would invade.  So I fell asleep instead and woke at midnight. This time I knew I had no choice.

I prepared as well as I could, but they were thick and heavy on my face, I breathed them in and choked on them, spluttering and coughing. I had the most uncomfortable pee of my life then ran back to the tent, threw myself in and zipped it up again then almost cried when the beam of my torch showed I had thousands of them for company.

My swollen cleg bites were painful. I was thirsty. Midge bites itched in new, unbearable places. A few metres away I could hear Noreen snoring gently in her tent. But for me it was going to be a long night.