A Travellerspoint blog

A Day in Brisvegas...

sunny 32 °C

The train is eerily quiet. The only noise is the high pitch squeal of the train wheels against the tracks, yet the carriage is packed with suburban types. It’s a sign that I’m in a city. It’s a bizarre concept that the more people you put in one place, the less they talk to each other. It’s a very un-Australian feeling, in fact it feels more like the UK as the clouds hang low and gray, threatening to open up at any moment. A few stops after I get on the train, a man in his mid-50s hops aboard and parks himself opposite me. I try not to stare, but it’s difficult. He’s wearing a tweed bonnet, a saggy yellowing vest with a pen clipped on, super short red shorts, high white socks and black, velcro-strap trainers. He looks very confused but, at this point, still in control of himself. I start to wonder how long it will be before he begins his unsuccessful train hijack attempt using the broken umbrella that he’s carrying.

The train pulls into Brunswick St Station and I get up to leave, hobo hijacker follows. He’s standing directly behind me and I’m convinced it’s only a matter of time before the back of my head feels the full brunt of a flying umbrella. I’m pleasantly surprised when the doors open and I step down onto the platform unhindered. I turn around and see him disappear into the crowd, which is quite an achievement considering his attire. I head up a set of stairs from the platform and come out into a large shopping mall where I proceed to spend the next 10 minutes lost, trying to figure out where the exit to the outside world is. I walk past a woman wearing a blue t-shirt with a large tourist information logo on it and “airport assistance” written across the back. I panic. Is Brisbane just one huge indoor shopping mall connected all the way out to the airport? I start following random people, hoping they know the way out. It dawns on me that I might be following people heading for the toilets and that I’ll subsequently look like a pervert as I stand looking confused and shifty outside a toilet cubicle. I decide to keep following anyhow and the decision eventually pays off as I stumble out onto Brunswick St mall.

Pleased to be in the outside world, I make my way up the mall toward Ann St and the city. As I’m nearing the opposite end of the street, hobo hijacker comes darting out of a shopping arcade, minus his umbrella and looking shiftier than ever. I’m curious to know what he might be up to but decide not to follow him incase he’s toilet-bound. I make my way along Ann St and can’t help but admire the surroundings as the road gets closer to the city. The architectural juxtaposition of old cathedrals and Victorian public buildings surrounded by shiny new skyscrapers is a novelty for those from the old world. I get to Queen St mall and am slightly taken aback by the number of people out and about on a Tuesday afternoon. Is anyone actually at work in Brisbane other than shop assistants? The electronic, merry Christmas tunes from a million Santa toys in a discount store remind me that it’s the festive shopping period and so I make a beeline for a coffee break at Southbank instead of fighting the yuletide crowds. By this stage I feel like I’m acting out a Lonely Planet mini-itinerary for Brisbane as I’ve briefly covered Fortitude Valley, the CBD and now Southbank in a mornings meandering.

Caffeine fuelled, I make my way over to the botanic gardens and then into the Queensland Parliament. I find myself in a tour group consisting of me and a very enthusiastic chap from Hong Kong who satisfies every possible cliché about Asian tourists, including the standard Hubble telescope-esque camera lens. We make our way around a few grand and ornate rooms before getting to the main chamber. The guide explains a little about the proceedings then goes on to tell us how there are 59 MPs in the Queensland parliament and that getting them all together at one time is a logistical nightmare. Granted Queensland is a larger than Britain but I’m left wondering what he’d think about trying to get 650-odd MPs down to London from every corner of the UK. I try and ask him but he’s in full-swing with his own spiel and by the time he stops the moment has passed.

Upon emerging from the Parliament, I realise that in a lot of Lonely Planet suggested itineraries there is something about going to a trendy spot for a drink. I decide that trendy isn’t necessary but refreshment of the beer kind is. I find an Irish bar on Queen St mall and head in for a healthy dose of European culture. As I settle down with my Guinness and big screen TV showing Bordeaux v Marseille I instantly regret my choice of pub. Directly behind me is a group consisting of one girl and two guys. The girl is English and set to “constant smelly chat” mode. Her voice fills the bar and her stories of travelling Australia are never-ending. The two guys she’s with have glazed looks that suggest they haven’t spoken in hours. I do my best to block her voice out but sentences like, “yeah, the outback’s really difficult but like, the tour bus was good and so everyone should go…” go straight to the “judge on first impression” section of my brain.

I quickly finish my pint and make a swift exit before the two guys drop-dead and she directs her chat toward someone else. Once out on the street, I realise I need to find some yin to balance the yang of the smelly pub chat. I make my way to the supermarket, stock up on supplies and head back to the suburbs for a healthy dose of Australian barbeque culture. The perfect remedy…

Posted by scotsman 21:55 Archived in Australia Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Dabbling With The Art Of Hitch-Hiking

overcast 18 °C

Popping your hitch-hiking cherry is, in my opinion, a moment in a travellers life that should be mentally framed and hung in the part of your brain entitled “The Gallery of Momentous Moments.” The fact that such a simple act as standing at the side of a road with your thumb out can have you zipping up and down the emotion scale, from desperation to jubilation, is testament to the significance of it. As such, I’ve decided to share my experience of the day I lost my virginity (the hitching one that is).

I recently finished working on a campsite in the south of France. A beautiful spot in the mountains on the edge of Cévennes national park but quite isolated. The nearest village was 5 kilometres away and the nearest town of considerable size (Millau) was a 30 kilometre trek. Public transport was limited with only two buses passing the campsite (going in opposite directions) per day and it wasn’t unknown for the bus drivers to simply ignore the poor folks standing at the side of the road and drive straight past. Although after 2 months at the campsite I had become quite skilled at managing to get the bus to stop with my “jumping in front of it” technique. Obviously not the safest method but quite effective.

However, on my day of departure from the French mountains there was a timetable change and some confusion as to whether the bus would pass at 7am, 8am or not at all due to the brats being on school holidays. I decided that I wasn’t going to take any chances and I was at the roadside (the D991 if you’ve got a map handy) for 6.45am. The 7am bus never came. I figured that instead of just looking like a roadside feature I should dabble in the ancient art of trying to gain a free ride using the power bestowed in my thumb. I will admit that this was actually the second time I’d tried hitch-hiking. However the first attempt consisted of me sticking out my thumb in the south of Spain to a passing truck, the truck flying straight past and me retiring to the bus station immediately afterwards. Patience is not one of my strong points. This second attempt, however, was without the luxury of a bus station with ample travel options to retire to. So on an extremely breezy morning with the skies threatening to open at any moment I found myself at the whim of the French public.

It was a full 10 minutes before I heard my first passing car approach. As it rounded the corner and headed down the straight towards me a strange battle was raging inside me. One half of my brain was trying to make my body stick my thumb out whilst the other half (the reserved British half) was questioning my very being at the roadside. In a split second the British sensibilities were squished by the realisation that I didn’t really have a choice and like a mechanical toy my arm sprung upwards. The car passed. I felt rejected. I began to question why the driver hadn’t stopped, completely disregarding the fact that as the car had passed I must have looked like a very confused person with a springy arm. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have stopped either. After a few minutes I heard another car approach and I began my preparations to try and look respectable. I flattened my windswept hair, straightened my shirt and fixed a smile. The car passed. OK, so maybe it was the slightly psycho-esque fixed smile this time? Another car quickly followed, I tried the easygoing and not really fussed look. The car passed. More self questioning followed. Five or ten minutes passed with my stationary presence representing the only traffic on the road. It doesn’t sound like a long time but when faced with the possibility of hours on an empty roadside a man quickly falls into despair and, like I say, patience is not one of my strong points.

During this spell of self-doubt, a milk delivery truck approached. It was going slow enough for the driver to have a good look at me but it was also slow enough for me to see the disdainful look the Frenchman behind the wheel gave me. No free ride there either then. Then, out of nowhere, a small, white Peugeot came hurtling around the corner at a speed that suggested the drivers deep love for his accelerator pedal. My springy arm came into its own at this point by thrusting out my thumb before my brain had even fully registered the car. The Peugeot came to a halt almost as quickly as my arm sprung out. I’ll admit, I was quite shocked. However, I hauled my rucksack onto my shoulder and waddled over to the car. Now, an outsider watching the ensuing conversation taking place between myself and the driver would assume that I was fluent in French because of the look of disappointment yet understanding that crossed my face during the drivers lengthy spiel. To me, however, our conversation went as follows,

Hitcher: Millau???

Driver: Blah, blah, blah….various French words….blah, blah…contorted throat noises…blah, blah…. Le Rozier (nowhere near where I was headed)…blah…désolé(sorry)… Blahdeeblah…

Hitcher: Merci, Aurevoir…

With that, the driver resumed his devotion to the accelerator pedal. Lesson learnt, don’t pick your bag up before finding out if the car’s going your way, it adds to the disappointment as you have to dump it back on the roadside. Despite not actually getting a lift, a small sense of accomplishment grew inside me. Fair enough all I did was stick out my thumb, but I’d proved to myself that I could actually hitch a ride out of the mountains. This in turn led to a greater sense of expectation with each new car that approached. In the half hour following my stopping of the flying Peugeot, only 3 cars passed. With each of them came a sense of expectation, nervousness and self consciousness as it approached and then disappointment as it whizzed by. It was approaching 8am and I had started to pin my hopes on the bus arriving soon. I’d resigned my hitching ambitions, consoling myself with my flying Peugeot moment, and had accepted the need for public transport.

At 8am I heard a loud engine approaching from around the corner. I got myself ready for the bus only to be confronted by yet another small, speeding Peugeot with a distinctly grumbley engine. The springy arm went to work and as before the car came to a halt almost as quickly. It was official, people who have Peugeots are fantastic. I wisely left my rucksack on the roadside, approached the car and discovered it was a French granny behind the wheel. I took this as a sign that either I must have looked very respectable by the roadside for a pensioner to stop for me or that maybe, and possibly more likely, pensioners in France are hard as nails (Nazi occupation will do that to you) and not afraid of a little sissy backpacker. Anyhow, either way I was more than happy to hear a “oui” when I asked if her destination was Millau.

I threw my bag in the boot, with half a thought that she might drive off at that point, and prepared my best French sentence to apologise for my ignorance of her language. I then managed to safely join my luggage inside the car and blurt out in fairly comprehensible French that I was inept in the language sense. I needn’t have worried. The French granny in question turned out to speak fluent English and was somewhat of an international jetsetter. We set off and started some chit chat about the weather etc. Typical small talk. All the time I was thinking about how lucky I am to be an English speaker. The fact that I can jump into a random car in an isolated spot in southern France and still have a conversation in my own language with a stranger, even if it is about the weather, is enough to make me grateful to MTV, McDonalds & other notable English language exporters.

However, the weather talk was quickly brought to a halt. My little granny asked if I was going back to England and I told her I was going home to Scotland. She glanced across at me, ignoring the life-threatening bends in the road and said in a surprised way “You’re Scottish?” I confirmed her suspicions as to my nationality and just like that the weather was dropped from the conversation list and replaced by philosophies on life and lifestyles.

A strange but pivotal moment. Maybe she thought it was too painful for a Scottish person to discuss bad weather, maybe the Scottish enlightenment in the 17th/18th century had a profound and lasting impact in southern France or maybe it was simply the mutual disregard for the English that the French, Scots, Welsh & Irish share that caused this granny to talk frankly and openly with me. Whatever it was, I felt like a better person for our conversation when I got out of the car at Millau bus station and my nodding and agreeing with her philosophies had obviously pleased the granny too as she even acted as my personal interpreter whilst I bought a bus ticket.

We said our farewells and I was left waiting alone in an empty bus shelter. After my mornings ups and downs, waiting on a bus seemed like the most boring thing in the world. There’s just no emotional roller coaster waiting for public transport. However, just as I was beginning to seriously contemplate heading to the edge of town to hitch a ride south, my bus rolled in. I took it as a sign to quit whilst ahead. I hopped on, settled on a seat and mulled over the mornings events. I realised that if I can cover 30k’s for free in France then my thumb could probably pay for the 3000k’s from Darwin to Adelaide when I’m Down Under in December. All of a sudden, crossing a continent seemed easy. The possibilities for hitching in the antipodes played around in my mind for the rest of the day. In fact, two weeks on I’m sitting here still convinced that it’ll be my means of crossing Oz. No doubt another one for "The Gallery of Momentous Moments."

Posted by scotsman 14:43 Archived in France Tagged hitchhiking Comments (0)

Ullapool

A Different Perspective on the Highlands

all seasons in one day

International communist links, music bonanzas, tales of grand drug busts and enough nationalities to tempt Kofi Annan to hold a UN summit here, it’s what the Scottish highlands are all about. Or more specifically, Ullapool in Wester Ross.

As a city boy from the southern end of this country of tartan and tweed I’d always envisaged the small coastal town of Ullapool as a backwater filled with country bumpkins. When I arrived I was convinced that any female looking my way was analysing my gene pool and sizing me up for fatherhood. However I’ve come to realise that as a child of suburbia, I’m the one that’s led a sheltered life. Ullapool has, in years gone by, been the centre of international attention on more than one occasion.

As a major fishing port it became a popular spot for the fish factory ships of the old Eastern bloc during the 70’s & 80’s. Our commie cousins were lured to the fertile waters of Loch Broom and beyond by the humble little mackerel. The boats came en-masse. At one point it was common to have as many as 70 factory boats in the loch at one time and the resulting mass of fishy folk that came with these vessels became known as the klondykers. These chaps had a huge influence on the town. Not only did the numerous nationalities give Ullapool a cosmopolitan air but the local economy boomed as the materialistically deprived soviets went on retail splurges. Such was the extent of their capitalist outburst that special shopping buses were arranged to take the newly empowered consumers to Inverness.

The good times, however, couldn’t last forever. Mackerel prices plummeted and the USSR collapsed (possibly a connection…?). The klondykers stopped coming. Instead, Ullapool became the focus of one the largest ever drug-bust operations in the UK, Operation Klondyke! A local of the village known as “Crazy Chris” found himself in company appropriate to his name and he became involved in a drug smuggling ring that had connections in Spain, Gibraltar, Venezuela and even Columbian drug cartels. The result was illegal narcotics being smuggled into the UK through Ullapool & surrounds. However, the boys in blue had it all in hand and subsequently Mr Crazy Chris is now behind bars at Her Majesty’s leisure after half a tonne of Columbian cocaine was caught on its way south to London.

These days Ullapool doesn’t offer international drug busts or any solid communist connections. It does however retain a touch of the cosmopolitan. Just the other night I found myself in a local ale establishment being served by a Slovakian barmaid whilst I chatted to a couple of fishermen from Mozambique and Spain. The town is now also a year round music venue with everything from ceilidhs to rock concerts. October sees the town holding its annual guitar festival and 2007 is the 3rd year for the up and coming Loopallu festival, last years headliners being Scottish band of the moment The View.

Drugs and the communist world aside, I’ll settle for some international banter and maybe a wee sing-song. There’s a lot to learn from these “country bumpkins.”

Posted by scotsman 17:26 Archived in Scotland Comments (1)

Didsbury Dozen

A Tale of Afternoon Refreshment

Manchester, Northwest England, what do you think of? Manchester United? Oasis? Semi-permanent low grey cloud and torrential drizzle? The Didsbury dozen? The what I hear you ask? Let me enlighten you...

Didsbury, a small, leafy, inner-city suburb in Manchester. The kind of area that has a touch of sophistication but doesn't forget that it's in an industrial town in northern England. As such it's a mixture of classes. The houses are a mish-mash of Shakespearian style and the standard Lancashire red bricks, whilst the locals don't blink at the fact that one driveway contains a BMW and the neighbour settles for a Russian Lada.

The centre of this little corner of English suburbia is Didsbury village, a collection of shops, restaurants & pubs from which comes the legend of the Didsbury dozen pub crawl. A quick google search on the crawl reveals a plethora of websites with possible routes, advice, photos and expressions such as "pure carnage."

One of my favourite snippets of advice from these websites is, "if your going to try and do 12 (the full dozen) then you may want to start around 12 noon to make it even remotely possible." These people want you to succeed!

My own venture with the dozen didn't kick off until 2pm, leaving me a little concerned that I might not make all twelve. I have however since been told that I did manage the full dozen and apparently I was in good form by the end of it, although my memory would say otherwise.

Our team of drinkers started in The Didsbury, a popular place to start the crawl and it's not difficult to see why. A cavernous establishment with enough local ales and rustic beams to keep even the keenest traditionalist happy. Our next public house was Ye Olde Cock Inn, which despite the name is a far more modern affair but still a fine venue for some more local ale and with large comfy sofas it was an excellent spot for the afternoons rugby. The rest of the afternoon/evening went much the same as this, alternating between rustic inns packed with ale swilling locals to funky new bars filled with trendy chardonnay quaffers.

However, at some point in the proceedings, when everything was at its blurriest, I became an official dozener. To celebrate, the disco fingers came out! It's true to say that British men are generally bad dancers but after a dozen drinks everyone thinks they're Patrick Swayze, I'm afraid to say I'm no exception...

Although as an official dozener your dodgy disco moves can be forgiven as you are part of an elite band of drinkers. So go on, now you know of the legend make yourself special, become a dozener in the Didsbury sense!

Posted by scotsman 03:28 Archived in England Comments (0)

A Walk In The Glens

A wander through the Scottish Highlands

all seasons in one day

The starting point, Blair Atholl. Home to one of the most photogenic historic homes in Scotland, Blair Castle, and the last remaining private army in Europe, the Atholl Highlanders. The finishing point, Aviemore. The skiing and mountain sport capital of the UK. In between, the Cairngorms National Park. Some of the most stunning scenery that Scotland has to offer, ample opportunity to lose yourself amongst the hills (literally!) and a 60km trail through Glen Tilt, Glen Dee & finally the Lairig Ghru.

The first time I attempted this walk was in September 2003. My girlfriend and I decided to trek from Aviemore back to Blair Atholl through the Lairig Ghru and the two glens. We arrived in Aviemore on an early evening train and decided to spend the night in town and head for the mountains first thing in the morning. We awoke the next day to find the first snow of the season blanketing the nearby Cairngorms. Undeterred, we set off and within 4 hours had lost sight of Aviemore after climbing up into the high mountain pass that is the Lairig Ghru. Less than an hour later we took the decision to abandon our trip and head back toward Aviemore as the temperature had plummeted, snow covered the trail and it dawned on us how unprepared we were for camping in snowy mountains.

Exactly a year later, September 2004, we decided to try again. Again starting in Aviemore and aiming for Blair Atholl. This time the sun was scorching hot, the hills were green, the sky was blue and there wasn't a cloud to be seen during the two days we spent walking through the glens. By the time we arrived in Blair Atholl at the end of the second day both my girlfriend and I had been seriously burned by the sun. Over the next month and a half my nose peeled off at least 3 times and my girlfriends chest blistered badly and stayed that way for two months. On the flip side, the lack of clouds meant the nights were freezing cold and our sleeping bags were old with poor insulation. By day we burned and by night we froze.

lairig ghru.jpg
Walking through the Lairig Ghru, 2004. The mountain furthest away is the Devil's Point.

However, we learn from our mistakes and become wiser because of them. Well that's the theory anyway. If it were true then I'd be walking through the glens in the height of summer, the time of year when the Scottish weather is trying its hardest to be semi-reasonable, prepared for every scenario imaginable. However I find myself doing the walk for the third time in September. With snow the first year and blazing sunshine the next, my expectations for this third meander were for low grey cloud and torrential drizzle. Typical British weather. The two weeks leading up to the walk I was on both the BBC weather centre website and the met. office website practically everyday. As the departure date approached the forecast did not look good. Although there was no sight of snow, the heavens were predicted to open up and let loose a torrent of rain. Joy!

However, Tuesday morning, day one, we awoke to find blue skies with a smattering of little puffy white clouds, which I was more than happy with. Our motley band, consisting of my girlfriend Naomi and I plus my best friend Ali and his good lady Gayle in tow, were on the road heading toward Glen Tilt by 9.30am. I had hoped that we would have set off earlier and as such have a good chance of doing the walk over two days, but the later start combined with a slow initial pace meant the walking would extend to a third day. It took almost two hours of tramping through the woods before we came out into the open space of Glen Tilt. Some people love to go walking in forests, but for me it’s frustrating. You’ve no sense of the distance that’s been covered, you don’t get any views to enjoy and, in my mind, freaky people live in the woods. If you don’t believe me then you've obviously never seen the Burt Reynolds film, Deliverance. So, as you may imagine, I was more than happy when the trees thinned out and before us lay tall green hills bordering the narrow strip of agricultural land on the valley floor. Through which the river Tilt meandered.

IMG_2265.JPG
Heading up Glen Tilt

Halfway up the glen sits Forest Lodge, a Victorian era hunting lodge that is used by Atholl Estates today to accommodate outdoorsy chaps who are willing to pay a small fortune, wear silly tweed clothing and shoot wild animals, all in the name of sport. As such the track through the glen is well maintained and fairly easy walking. We stopped for lunch about 1pm, just beyond Forest Lodge. It was, however, a fairly swift meal break as only once we had started devouring the sandwiches did we realise that we had in fact chosen a popular doggy toilet area for lunch. We were soon marching north again. The second half of the glen, i.e. the section after Forest Lodge, is much the same as the first with the exception that the hills slowly become more rugged and rockier. Then about a mile before the top of the glen and the Falls of Tarf, our camp for the night, the wide path splits and the northward trail becomes narrower and strewn with bigger rocks. It was just before this fork in the road that we walked past the only other person in the upper reaches of the glen, a young man clad entirely in tweed, complete with a tweed bonnet and high woolly socks worn on the outside of his trousers. It was amazing. He looked as though he’d just stepped out of one of the sepia photographs in Blair Castle showing stag hunts in the 1800’s. Needless to say he occupied my thoughts for the rest of the day. Maybe he had lost his fancy dress party? Maybe he was a ghost, although he looked quite tanned!? Did he realise he looked like a museum piece? Where could I get socks like those?

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Looking southwards down Glen Tilt

The questions went on until I realised that Ali and Gayle had dropped behind and seemed to be struggling. At some point in the mid afternoon, Ali’s boots had decided that he no longer needed any skin on his heels and as such thought it right to rub it off. The last mile to the falls took him an hour to cover as he hobbled along in agony and by the time he collapsed onto the grass at our campsite, both his heels were missing around 2 square inches of skin. We pitched the tents and everyone was asleep by 5pm! Just before I gave in to my sleeping bag, I watched in amazement as the skies to the south disappeared and the glen became engulfed in rain clouds, yet the north stayed clear and blue. Typical British weather.

Day two started as it meant to go on, pissing rain! The tents were packed away soaking wet and it was decided that we’d aim to spend the night in corrour bothy (a small detached residence for walkers in the wilderness) in the southern end of the Lairig Ghru. However, we would be doing the rest of the walk without Ali & Gayle. Ali’s feet were in such a state that he felt he couldn’t go on and was instead faced with a 20km hobble back to Blair Atholl. We said our goodbyes, arranged to meet up at Loch Morlich (7 miles east of Aviemore) and for Ali to play taxi driver in getting us back to Blair Atholl. Naomi and I were heading north again by 9am. The change in destination from Aviemore to Loch Morlich didn’t alter the distance that we’d have to cover, in fact it might possibly be a mile or so more to walk. However, I decided that after 3 days in the hills living on instant noodles and cereal bars, some serious sustenance would be required and nothing beats the legendary all day breakfasts at the Glenmore café next to Loch Morlich. So, with a new destination in mind and the rain battering down, we were off. Our intended route to corrour bothy covered two sections of similar length. The 3 to 4 hours through a stretch of hills, which I have yet to find a name for, to White Bridge (the junction for the paths to Aviemore & Braemar). And then another 3 or 4 hours up Glen Dee to the bothy.

The nameless stretch was, in my mind, to be the most difficult section. Initially the walking was fairly easy going. The narrow path went up and down along a steep hillside but was in good condition and easy to walk on. To our right at some points the hillside fell away into a steep gorge whilst on our left the gradient was similar but stretching upwards. After about an hour the hills started to become a little gentler and more rolling. Eventually it opened out into a wide, swampy valley floor. The downside to this was the deterioration of the path to the point where it was more like walking along a river tributary. In fact, the sedate little streams that are normally tributaries of the main river had turned into raging torrents in their own right and negotiating a dry crossing was a struggle. However, after a couple of tricky crossings we soon found ourselves on a level four-wheel-drive track and making good time. The only thing standing between us and completing the section to White Bridge was the Geldie burn which would have to be waded through. On the map it’s the only river that the path crosses but in reality, after a torrential downpour, it’s one of three that must be crossed without the convenience of a bridge. Of course at the time we didn’t know this and so after successfully crossing the first body of water with relatively dry toes, thanks to many a well-placed boulder, I was extremely miffed to find a second, much wider aquatic obstacle. This was a trickier proposition but eventually crossed without too many problems. As you might imagine, the third river (and the Geldie burn proper) came as quite a shock when stumbled upon. It was only about 20 metres wide but it was the deepest, fastest flowing and most menacing of all three and the verbal outrage it produced in the wanderers stemmed from a mixture of anger and genuine fear.

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Drying off after the second river crossing on day two

The walking boots came off, the trouser legs were rolled up and we waded into the icy cold, fast flowing river. The rocks underfoot were covered in algae and it was like walking on smooth balls of slippery ice. After about 5 minutes we were only a third of the way across the river and both starting to have doubts about our ability to reach the other side. At its deepest point it only reached my lower thigh but the speed of the current, the chilly temperature and the lack of stability underfoot meant that it felt almost impossible to move forward or in fact anywhere at many points. After another 5 minutes I somehow managed to reach the other side of the river but Naomi was still only halfway across and struggling badly. I took off my backpack and waded back in to try and help her across. However, just before I got to her, she lost her footing on a rock and fell face first into the river with a scream, dropping one of her shoes in the process. I helped her up and luckily she was ok, but we were left standing in the middle of the river watching her shoe being swept downstream. A feeling of dread came across me. We were at least a days walk from anywhere, in pretty rough country and all alone. For a second I was paralysed and could do nothing but watch the shoe drift away. The dread quickly turned into desperation and I somehow managed to run out of the river without breaking my ankle or falling on my face. I threw my boots on and started sprinting down the riverside. I didn’t hold much hope of spotting the shoe as firstly I’m short-sighted and secondly the grey shoe would hardly stand out from the slate-coloured river, however I kept running. I stopped, scanned the water, spotted a grey lump bobbing along in the middle of the river and ran straight into the water in the manner of a demented hurdler. As the grey lump approached it took shape and revealed itself to be the float-away shoe. A small moment of triumph.

As might be imagined, this event put a bit of a dampener, physically and mentally, on the rest of the day. We traipsed on and made it to White Bridge by 12.30. The last time we did the walk, I saw the bridge as a little beacon of civilization in the midst of a lot of wilderness. This time it merely served as a reminder of how far we still had to go. We were both at a mental low point and I have to admit I felt like crying. We made our way into the southern end of Glen Dee along a rocky path which was badly flooded at several points. The path ran along the floor of the glen, quite close to the swollen river, and was surrounded on both sides by long ferns which obstructed any views. As a result there was a constant sense of making no real progress and the afternoon turned into a long, depressing trudge through a monotonous dreary landscape. After a couple of hours of this I was beginning to feel like an emotional wreck, depressed and tramping through never-ending dullness. Being soaked to the bone and facing another full day of walking tomorrow didn’t help either. However, the familiar sight of the Devils Point came into view and lifted my spirits slightly. The Gaelic name for this mountain is Bod an Deamhain, which translates as the Devil’s penis. However the story goes that on one of Queen Victoria’s outings into the mountains she saw this hill and asked her ghillie, John Brown, to translate the name for her. Of course Mr Brown obliged but gave an anglicised translation fit for a queens ears. Thus, to this day it’s marked on maps as the Devils Point. And it is at the foot of the afore-mentioned mountain that Corrour bothy is located, our home for that evening.

We continued on. I guessed that it would take about an hour and a half to reach the bothy from when we first saw the mountain. However, after 45 minutes the path had completely disappeared under what was essentially a massive, ankle-deep pond. We splashed northwards for a while until coming across another path free of aquatic hindrance. This led straight to the bothy, with the only catch being the extremely boggy moor which had to be tackled first. On the crossing of which, it wasn’t uncommon to step forward only to see the majority of the lower half of your leg disappear into a large, boot-shaped hole in the mud. By the time we reached the bothy I was of the opinion that even if the little shack was packed to the rafters with German school kids I wasn’t sleeping outside. This scenario may seem a little unlikely due to the remoteness but as it turned out the bothy was in fact being occupied, but by a young Czech couple as apposed to the kindergarten mentioned previously. Hellos and ahojs were exchanged and I thanked the European Union as our cousins from the east plied us with hot tea. Our spirits lifted as we dried out over the next few hours and our group of four consumed the little bottles of wine that I’d packed (emergency rations!). Then, a little later on we were joined in the bothy by two German walkers who came prepared with tomatoes and beer, but no sleeping bag or mat. Instead, one of them had a shiny, metallic survival blanket that he rustled in all night long and the other just slept in his jacket on the floor. I couldn’t quite decide whether they were tough campers or just stupid.

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Corrour Bothy at the foot of The Devil's Point

Day three, the final day, started well. We managed to cross the boggy moor relatively unscathed and quickly found the path heading north through the Lairig Ghru. Although still quite flooded, the track provided fairly easy walking for the first couple of hours. The contrast between the bright, green and inviting hills of Glen Tilt compared with the rocky, moody and ominous looking peaks either side of the Lairig Ghru was stark. Gradually the path climbed higher into the pass and the weather deteriorated. We were close to the highest point in the Lairig Ghru, 838 metres above sea level, when the clouds came rolling along and reduced visibility to about 15 metres. There were icy, whipping winds that chilled you to the bone and the sedate little streams that flow south had turned into angry torrents that spilled over onto sections of the track, forcing the frozen wanderers uphill to traipse across the heather covered hillside. About 3 hours after leaving the bothy we reached the start of the boulder field which covers the summit of the pass. The Lairig Ghru was used up until the 1870’s by cattle drovers taking their herds from Aviemore and Speyside, through the mountains to Braemar and Aberdeenshire. Upon getting to the boulder field, it was difficult to try and imagine dozens of cows crossing this section of the trail as some of the boulders were huge and perched very precariously. On a number of occasions whilst navigating a route across the rocks I almost broke my ankle and/or fell onto a very jagged and unwelcoming boulder. I’d imagine there would have been a few casualties amongst the cows.

Despite the difficulties and dangers we made good progress and a mere 4 hours after leaving the bothy we had Aviemore in sight, albeit a long way off in the distance. We picked our way along the rocky path toward the northern side of the Cairngorm mountain range and the Rothiemurchus & Glenmore forests below. The boulder-strewn mountains either side of the path reminded me of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings and I had visions of little master Frodo scrambling up the hillside with a nasty, evil ring. I think at that point I realized that I’d been in the wilderness too long. However, soon after we were descending out of the mountains and into the ever so green pine forests below. I didn’t realize at the time how desolate the Scottish highlands can be as although we’d only left the forests of Blair Atholl a couple of days ago, I marveled at the sights, sounds and smells of the woods and all the life that goes with it. I was having a “happy attack” and could do nothing but smile. The temperature rose as we descended and slowly the layers of clothing had to be peeled off, revealing 3 days worth of hard earned stinkyness. We plodded happily through the warm woods, contemplating what we had just achieved. In this thoughtful mood we arrived at Loch Morlich and made our way back into civilization with the first stop being the Glenmore café and its legendary all day breakfast. Happiness had a new level. So overwhelming was my joy at bacon and eggs that I suppressed the niggling thought that I might actually have trench-foot after two days of being soaked and three days of pounding. It may have been the finest hot meal of my life.

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Looking back toward the cloud engulfed Lairig Ghru

After 3 days of hard walking to reach Loch Morlich, it came as a bit of a shock to the system when Ali picked us up in his car and took us back to Blair Atholl in less than an hour. It felt like the fastest car journey of my life and all the way down the road all I could do was sit and stare at the mountains longingly. After a lot of hard walking and possibly one of the worst days of my life I still wanted to go back. The Highlands are like that though. Maybe next September…

Posted by scotsman 16:49 Archived in Scotland Comments (1)

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