… but only the chickadees came out to play on the cross country trails.
Posts tagged ‘Travelling’
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.
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 gamble 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.
By 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.
The river paths are a bit neglected these days; wooden bridges hang by a thread, fallen trees need to be scaled and the bracken and heather have started to encroach. But I’m drawn to that sense of decay, the knowledge that they’re slowly being reclaimed by nature.
There are no barriers, no signs, no people; just generations of history and memories.
Denmark was smørrebrød, bikes, bacon-wrapped dates, Carlsberg, chocolate-covered liquorice, green fields, grand architecture. And great people.
Our camino memories came flooding back; the laughter, pain, churches, pilgrims, bedbugs and blisters – enhanced, perhaps, by the Spanish vino tinto on the table and a dram of Benromach, the malt from my “home” distillery in Moray.
No matter where in the world you are, everyone is prepared to try whisky at least once and this one evokes memories.
I grew up near Speyside and when I was little I’d sit on my father’s knee as he drove a tractor and trailer the five miles from our farm to Benromach distillery to collect draff, the distillery by-product that’s used for cattle feed. And as we waited for the trailer to be loaded a half glass of clear liquid would be poured out by the distillery manager for Dad.
Back in those days a bottle would last a year in our house but Dad drank this full-strength alcohol neat every time. And then back on the tractor and on his knee, driving at 20 mph up the road to home, he would be so happy! It took another ten years before I equated that merriment with the liquid that looked like water.
Benromach closed down for a few decades but has re-entered the market with whisky that’s distinctive amongst the other Speyside malts. That’s why I always take it as a present on international adventures.
Well no, if I’m honest, it’s all about the memories; it’s link to the best of times in a blissful childhood.
When it takes not one but two ferries to reach an island the feeling of remote otherworldliness is intensified. When the culture there speaks more of Norse history, of viking longhouses and longboats, and when rocks are all that break up a sub-Arctic desert landscape, you know you’ve travelled a long way from the familiar in your own country.
So it is with Unst.
I drove as far north as the road would take me, past wild Shetland ponies, freshwater lochs and the bemused-looking native sheep and lambs that freely roam, then walked a long way out across open peaty moors to a wildlife haven to sit, buffeted by the relentless Shetland wind, above the high Hermaness cliffs on the northernmost edge of these isolated islands.
In the near distance, just past the frantic nesting colonies of gannets, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmers was the reassuring solid white form of Muckle Flugga lighthouse, built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s father in 1854. And then, north by north to the Arctic Circle, nothing but white-topped grey waves breaking turquoise over the rocks. The birds whirled in the gusting wind then the rain changed its mood from gentle to battering, driving me to find shelter in a hollow near the cliffs.
I met a German photographer there who shared his hot tea as we huddled against the banks and watched the weather develop . We had both been up here before, had developed impressions, images and ideas in our imaginations, and were returning after many years in search of the atmosphere and conditions in which to create new work. As the weather worsened I figured my job was easier than his and retreated back over the moors in search of a bed and a dry place where a pen would work.
The bonxies, the notorious Pirates of the Sea, were brutal beasts; bigger, beefier and much more prolific than I had imagined. They didn’t attack as I walked through their nesting grounds along the path to the cliffs, but wanted me to know they could if they felt like it and had a sinister glint in their eyes as they carried out arrogant reconnaissance missions just above my head. They looked as though they could do serious damage if provoked, or maybe even just for random fun on a day when too many twitchers dared to disturb their far-flung garrison.
I’ve run out of roads, ferries and even moorland as Muckle Flugga is the very last, most northerly rock in the UK . I can now only turn round and travel south.
My head is full of clouds. And that’s not a metaphor.
After two days in Shetland my eyes are reeling from the clarity of the light and the intensity of a vast, rapidly changing sky. There’s a never-ending cloudscape drama playing out here between the wind, the sun and the weather and it’s set against a backdrop of turbines, gravestones, rocks and ruins. As I travel I’m constantly stopping to take photographs then to stand still and just watch the movement cross the sky.
Up here on the far northern edge of Europe there are no trees or shrubs to soften the bare starkness of the islands so every feature stands out, defined sharply against sea and sky. I’m no fan of wind farms and oppose their unchecked development throughout mainland Scotland yet here their cold linearity somehow seems to fit the landscape and add to its drama. And they’re efficient here too, the most productive in the world.
I’ve done a lot of wandering round ancient brochs and buildings and spent hours reading gravestones. On the outskirts of Lerwick there’s a graveyard on the hill tiered down to the edge of the sea so that every grave has a view of the islands and cliffs. A beautiful place.
When it rained I visited the new museum in Scalloway with its captivating exhibition on the “Shetland Bus”, the small scale wartime missions masterminded here and conducted by sailors who took small fishing vessels between these islands and Norway, fuelling the Resistance there and rescuing people from the tyranny of German occupation. The stories of bravery, of boats lost with no survivors and voyages made in horrendous weather make for powerful reading.
Tomorrow I’m tempted to head further north to the island of Unst, and its most northerly point at Hermaness to see the puffins and Bonxies. And I’ve been advised to take a stick to protect myself from attacks by these Great Skuas which dive-bomb and attack as you walk across the moors.
Ah Shetland, whether it’s birds, landscapes or men, you’re not for the faint-hearted.