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Posts tagged ‘Travelling’

Sounding out autumn on the Solway

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It’s quiet for now but the waves of Barnacles are close. Thousands of geese are migrating from the Arctic every day, settling on the Solway to escape the harsh Svalbard winter. The skeins speed overhead in a cacophonous cloud, swirling, unsettled, mad.  And when the deafening sky fades and the last outliers pass, an expectant stillness settles on the sands, fields and rivers. The next invasion is imminent and compulsively you scan the empty skies and listen for the elemental sounds of autumn. The long, languorous summer is over.

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Pilgrim breakfast in the Parador

P1050151The croissants were scrummy but Breakfast In The Parador wasn’t as grand an experience as you might imagine.

The splendid state hotel which now stands on one side of Santiago’s beautiful Cathedral Square was originally built in 1499 as a Hospital for pilgrims who travelled from all corners of Europe to pay homage to St James at the neighbouring Cathedral.

When they reached the end of their long journeys dirty, hungry and exhausted they were given food, drink, a bed for three days and – if they needed it – medical help. That tradition endured over the centuries but in the 1950s the hospital was converted to the swanky hotel that now attracts a prestigious clientele and fosters an air of indulgence and superiority.

Yet the custom of helping pilgrims who arrive in the city has been honoured in a token way by giving the frst 10 peregrinos who turn up each day P1050143a free breakfast, lunch or dinner. The rule is that you line up with your compostella as proof of your pilgrimage  (but minus your backpack) at the stable door  and wait to be led inside and manoeuvred swiftly through the smart quarters to a staff door which leads up a flight of stairs to the kitchens.

We stood in a humble line beside stacks of plates and trays of semi-prepared food as waiters whisked past balancing trays and  contemptuous sneers. I can’t imagine a British hotel kitchen allowing half a dozen random people to hang around near uncovered food, but it was a fascinating insight into continental hygiene standards.

It was also an insight into how it must feel to be on the receiving end of charity. We could all have afforded to go into the old town to buy our breakfasts at a cafe but chose to experience the medieval tradition as part of our camino. Maybe the staff are overworked or just tired of people turning up in their kitchens three times a day, but sadly the token “charity” wasn’t P1050152dispensed with speed, grace or even a smile.

Yet nothing was lost. The pastries and coffee were good and, as always on the camino, it was the multilingual conversation between strangers that was the memorable part of the half hour we spent in the Pilgrim’s Dining Room at the top of the back stairs of Santiago’s posh Parador.

 

Rivers, ruins and bridges: the road from Santiago to Negreira

IMG_2368 There weren’t many pilgrims on the road this morning. Or maybe they’d all left early, leaving us trailing in their wake. My friends Doug, Pam and John certainly did. They intended to leave at 6am, they told us over paella in a restaurant in the old city last night, in order to get to Negreira before the heat of the afternoon. I felt only a momentary flicker of guilt at my decision to loiter until daylight then daunder alone through the outskirts of the city, past the park and along empty paths.

It was a stark contrast to the Camino Frances where there were always people alongside, ahead or behind, the crunch of a boot on gravel or soil, the sound of voices or a swish of a cyclist screaming Buen Camino. But I enjoyed the peace and the ruins of old buildings so close to the city,  the living decay of stones covered in ivy and roofs burst open by growing trees. The medieval Ponte Maceira over the river Tambre was an oasis. There were palm trees, a still heron on a stone, clear water still running through the ruins of a mill.

It was only  22k to Negreira but for a first day it was enough. My feet were hot and my legs ached for the final kilometre we trudged through the hard pavements of the town. Our Australian friends had P1040831secured beds in the Mesquita albergue and I chose an upper bunk as far as possible from the known snorers in our midst.Friendship can be a fickle thing when decibel levels transcend even the finest earplugs.

But before sleep we needed  food, drink and … exercise! So we meandered beyond the supermercados and modern buildings to find a shaded park and a disturbing sculpture of an emigre leaving his family, a symbol of the waves of emigration from Galicia all through the centuries. It was reminiscent of so many paintings of the Highland clearances, the woman clutching a baby, an older child tugging at his father’s clothes, imploring him to stay. But in this one the father’s legs appeared to be rotting and his skin hanging off. Maybe he’d have been advised to stay behind and let his much healthier looking wife set off to seek her fortune?

 

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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Insect Endurance on the Sutherland Trail

We pitched our tents in the lonely Pass of the Thieves, the Bealach nam Meirleach.

It’s a bit off piste of the “official” trail because erudite Donald-who-drives-the-Durness-minibus told us when we jumped aboard it was the better route in to Gobernuisgach, the remote shooting lodge we were headed for, five miles away in the hills. And the old lady sitting beside him in the front nodded knowledgeably in agreement as the bus sped up the single track road. We took their advice and somewhere in the wilderness of Sutherland’s lochs and hills he pulled up in a layby, unloaded our packs and pointed out the track through the heather.

“Good luck with the clegs,” were his last words as he revved the engine and quickly rolled up his window.

The first of the legions of insects had silently settled on my forearm even before his van had turned the bend, but I didn’t notice until I felt the needle prick my skin. It was a foretaste of the carnage that was to follow.

I’d forgotten about clegs (or horse flies). I certainly didn’t know they’d be able to penetrate my thin clothing, or that they’d be impervious to the thick later of insecticide I’d plastered over every exposed inch of skin. They’re lazy, sneaky insects with a heavy-duty impact – as my red and swelling wrist was demonstrating.

P1040220We ducked, swatted and swiped our way along the old drove route that had been used by generations of farmers to walk their cattle to market hundreds of miles away in the south. Their long journey to Falkirk or Perth from Sutherland took weeks, and on one occasion when the men returned with their annual earnings, they were ambushed and robbed in this isolated place. The gaelic name, Bealach nam Meirleach guarantees the crime will never be forgotten.

The walking was flat, easy and (once the clegs retreated) lazily slow in the burning sunshine. We dawdled, stopped to rest, fill bottles and drink from sparkling waterfalls then by early evening, when the lochs spread out along the strath before us, we set up camp, ate and settled down in our sleeping bags.

A stiff breeze flapped my tent and I lay gazing out at faraway Ben Loyal, listening to the persistent gurgle of water through the rocks below. There were no ruins here, no signs of previous habitation, no stone walls or broken down fences.

As my eyes closed I relished the thought that I was likely to be the first person ever to lay my head down and sleep on this few square feet of remote earth.

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On the edge of the Atlantic

 

Hill lochans, peat bogs and wild flower machair stretch out behind me; I’m on the white shell sand at the edge of the Atlantic, gazing out at hazy St Kilda, forty miles away. Beyond that it’s Canada.

I’m just the latest to stare out from the western shore of North Uist across thousands of miles of sea to wonder about friends or family on the “other side”. Hundreds left from here in the early 1800s, bound in the main for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Desperation drove them on perilous one way journeys because they couldn’t afford to pay high rents on their small crofts and there was no mercy from the landowners who effectively “cleared” them from their land.

Maybe that’s why this feels such a fragile, poignant place; it’s haunted by the memories and the longing of families who’ve gazed for two centuries from either side of the ocean. You hear ancient whispers in the western wind and sense a long sorrow for the loss of homeland.

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Van with a View (1)

P1020783It took two years of deliberation, but finally the van is On The Road.

And the first camper adventure may have been brief but it was shared with my sons.

So on this momentous occasion my view from the back seat of the two co-drivers is the one I’ll treasure.

Happy days.

No one home

I travelled such a long way to visit….P1020602

… but only the chickadees came out to play on the cross country trails.

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Love at first sight

I’ve found The One.

It’s taken years of searching and longing, numerous near misses and countless emotional highs and lows but yesterday I finally took a deep breath and committed.

The One is strong, lean, adventurous and has a name that promises off piste excitement and adventure.  How could anyone resist a  “Jazz Champagne” model in the colour of pale biscuity bubbles? Clearly not me.

It has impractical creamy leather seats, an awning for the Scottish rain, fly screens for midges, charcoal grey carpets to disguise muddy footprints and a multipurpose desk/dining table/bed which will surely become faster to manipulate as time goes by.

The fog lights, cruise control and reversing sensors are bound to be useful too. There’s a proper kitchen and a tiny washroom with minimal storage for moisturisers and shampoo. Engine? Er… Peugeot. Four wheels and probably a spare somewhere.

As with any partner the practical considerations and reliability will ultimately prove more important than initial impressions and outward appearances. But you have to fall in love first.

I’m picking in up in 10 days time.

Surviving the season with a blast from the past

Thermals… tick. Down jacket… tick. Gloves, scarf, hat… tick.  Boots, double socks…

The damp and darkness of a Scottish winter have driven me indoors to pore over my 2013 diary for a fiery blast of southern sunshine. This time last year I was in the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia where the temperature was 46 degrees; unbreathable and unsleepable and the most extreme heat I’ve ever encountered.

On Hogmanay 2012 I’d caught the Prospector train from Perth for a seven hour journey east across barren land, the train track accompanied all the way by the essential water pipe from the coast that the sceptics said could never be built. And on New Year’s Day 2013 I joined my brother in the truck he drives for hundreds of miles every week, over ungraded red roads, all the way out to the remote gold mines.

We explored deserted settlements and abandoned mines where there’s nothing but a few sun-faded signs to hint at the P1030053gamble that went into the building of pioneering prospector towns like Kanowna, just an hour’s drive from Kalgoorlie.  I ventured out of the cab for a few minutes at a time to poke around the weather-beaten posts that marked ancient claims and to see how the props of solitary digs and the dreams of desperate men had crumbled to dust.

The unrealised expectations that had been invested in these harsh places just 100 years ago made me wistful. The prospect of riches had attracted an optimistic community of people who build homes and hotels, formed social clubs and a football team, a fire service and a Salvation Army. Children went to school here. Yet despite enduring the discomfort and sacrifices the dream ultimately failed to deliver. And now the inhospitable land that was once home to a town full of miners and their families has been returned to nature with only a few dents in the ground to show for all the expectation and effort.

P1020910By contrast, just a few miles away, the Kalgoorlie Super Pit still continues to yield gold, ever since  three Irishman stumbled across a huge nugget in 1893. Around 50 million ounces of gold have been mined here and the dumper trucks which look like worker ants in the huge scale of the pit still appear to work 24 hours a day.

Kalgoorlie-Boulder was once one of the biggest cities in Australia and home to the “richest mile on earth”. And some of the characters you meet on its streets even now look every bit as desperate and determined as the 19th century photographs of prospectors on display in the town’s museum.

There were a few of these men in the Broad Arrow Tavern too, an outback pub where we retreated indoors in the relative cool and drank pint after pint of iced water and I, the unacclimatised Scot, tried to stabilise my soaring body temperature.

P1030022 Maybe that cool dark Scottish rain pelting the window tonight isn’t such a problem after all.  I’ll just throw another log on the fire.