This time, we headed off to Mull. We stayed in a house on Calgary Bay, in the northwest of the island—here’s the view from our front window:
The tiny village of Calgary (Calgaraidh in Gaelic) is the namesake of Calgary in Alberta, thanks to Colonel James MacLeod of the North-West Mounted Police, who seems to have spent a happy time here in the 1870s.
The roads of Mull are largely single-track and winding, and we wanted to take advantage of (another!) spell of good weather by being out in the open air, so we didn’t drive far.
We got as far north as Glengorm Castle which, despite sounding like a place from the writings of Compton Mackenzie, is a pleasant spot from which you can wander along the coastline, looking out towards Coll and Tiree and the Small Isles.
And we got no farther south than the island of Ulva, which lies only a short distance from the mainland. It boasts a rather fine tearoom, and a particularly bijou ferry, which is summoned to the mainland using a sliding shutter to reveal a red square on an otherwise white placard.
Ulva is dotted with the ruins of old cottages, a reminder of what a populous place it once was. The war memorial in the grounds of the church also gives one pause—this tiny island parish (just 10 by 5 kilometres) lost four residents to the First World War, and two to the Second.
I found myself particularly wondering what had happened to Mary Melosine MacNeill, of the Women’s Land Army.
Our nearest town was the metropolis of Dervaig:
Driving in the opposite direction took us along a rugged coast road, past the triply tautologous Eas Fors Waterfalls (eas is “waterfall” in Gaelic; fors is “waterfall” in Norse).
(While the Boon Companion was taking this long exposure image, there was a sudden burst of alarm calls from birds in the trees, and a sparrowhawk shot right around the little bowl of the waterfall.)
From the crest of the same road, driving south, you’re also treated to the sudden appearance of Mull’s highest mountain, Ben More.
(While the Boon Companion lined up that image, I was distracted by big wings soaring overhead. White-tailed eagles are nowadays so common along this stretch of coast that it’s almost unusual to have a day out without seeing one.)
We also took a trip to the colourful harbour of Tobermory:
From there, we were able to catch a boat to the Treshnish Islands, on the same excursion we took last year when we were in Ardnamurchan. The main attraction, of course, were the puffins on the uninhabited island of Lunga:
While the Boon Companion busied herself with these little characters, I wandered off to take a look at the ruined “black houses” that look out across the sea towards Mull, and wondered what life must have been like here, during a winter storm.
Then there was a hitch. The boat that was to take us onward to Staffa and Fingal’s Cave had developed an engine fault. So we stood around in the sunshine while another boat motored out to pick us up. Being British, we formed a neat queue in the middle of an empty and featureless pebble beach:
Staffa was, as ever, mobbed. We found ourselves a nice place to sit beside the path to Fingal’s Cave, and watched the surf breaking over the rocks. We each had a neat hexagonal basalt column to perch on.
And that was that. Another week in the Hebrides, another week without rain. I assured an Australian couple on the Ulva ferry that the weather in Scotland was always like this. They didn’t believe me for a moment.
Another year, another Hebridean island. This time we spent a week on Islay. (For non-Scottish readers, it’s probably worth mentioning that the second syllable of the island’s name is pronounced “la”, rather than “lay”. Nothing betrays the whisky dilettante more quickly than a profession of enthusiasm for Is-LAY malts.)
We stayed in another one of those turf-roofed, stone-walled, eco-friendly houses that seem to have become all the rage in the Highlands and Islands self-catering market.
This one was called A’ Mhoine Bheag, which is a name any Scottish hillwalker would make a detour to avoid if it appeared on a route map—it means “the little bog”. But the house was airy and comfortable and showed not the slightest sign of sinking into the ground, so that was all good.
Islay being the home of several world-famous distilleries, we set aside a distillery tour for a rainy day. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a rainy day, so this was as close as we got to the inside of a distillery:
White buildings were a bit of a theme on Islay:
From isolated lighthouses to entire villages, someone was making a killing on white masonry paint:
Another theme on Islay is its tooth-grittingly bad roads. There’s an amazingly straight stretch of tarmac between Port Ellen and Bowmore along which the locals blast at 70mph, but (by virtue of being built across a peat bog) it has quite the most alarming undulations along its length, limiting those who don’t want to become unexpectedly airborne to a more sedate 50.* Elsewhere, roads can consist of a ridge of grass flanked by potholes—and sometimes they omit the ridge of grass. Islay is the only place I’ve been where the direction signs include “C” roads.
(If you enlarge the image above, you’ll detect evidence for a little-known but nonetheless significant Rural Scottish Tradition—discharging firearms at road signs. No-one knows why this occurs. We only know that it is so.)
But these hellish roads get you to interesting places. One of them is the Big Strand, 12 kilometres of (oddly un-Gaelic, un-Norse) beach, directly exposed to the Atlantic swell that rolls endlessly in through the gap between Ireland and the Outer Hebrides.
Another possibility is Islay’s sparse (but green and pleasant) woodland:
And then there’s the dramatic coastline between the beaches:
The view above looks south from the American Monument on Mull of Oa, which commemorates the servicemen who died in the sinkings of the troop ships SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto off these rugged coasts in 1918.
The Mull of Oa (the name is pronounced “oh”, not “oh-a”, as if it were some mind-boggling Scottish Presbyterian sequel to The Story of O) is the westernmost point of The Oa, which is a nature reserve and also the location of our A’ Mhoine Bheag lodge. Our little traipse around the vicinity of the monument generated welcome encounters with choughs and golden eagles. My wildlife cam, posed outside our front door, took a lot of pictures of grass waving in the wind, mice, hoodie crows and pheasants, but also a surprising visit from a snipe:
I’ve no idea why a snipe would want to walk past our front door in the early hours, but (s)he was very welcome.
That’s it for now. More Hebrides soon.
* Which would be a violation of The Oikofuge’s Third Law:Never become airborne using any mode of transport that is not actually generating lift.
One party elected to explore St. Michael’s Cave with almost tragic consequences. For a peculiarly long subaltern of Rifles succeeded in becoming jambed [sic] in “Clincher Hole”. In his case, it was not owing to extra width of shoulders or depth of chest as in that of the British bluejackets who had been unable to pass through it, and I imagine his sticking was more of the nature of a fish-bone across the gullet type. Anyway he became fixed, to the consternation of those below him who thus saw their retreat cut off. The tale goes that at one time it was under consideration to sacrifice him for the good of the majority and remove him piecemeal. Happily, he was eventually dragged out.
Our by-now customary trip to the Mediterranean in search of late winter sunshine took us to Gibraltar this year, in early March. We flew into Malaga and drove down the coast. While everyone has been rather hypnotized, of late, by the slow-motion train crash Brexit has created on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, no-one seems to have been paying much attention to the UK’s other land border with the EU—between Gibraltar and Spain. Relationships there have never been particularly cordial at the best of times, and we decided that we’d like to make the journey before Brexit made things any worse.
We travelled through balmy Costa del Sol sunshine, and arrived to a warm evening in Gibraltar—and that was the last glimpse of sun we had. A levanter wind established itself for the duration of our stay, establishing a cap of cloud on the Rock, and pushing chilly easterly winds down Gibraltar’s side streets.
Here’s a nice time-lapse video of the levanter cloud in action, as seen from the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, just north of the Gibraltar border. The town of Gibraltar sits west of the rock, under the cloud, while all around is bathed in sunshine: So we had brought British weather with us. Pretty much everything else British was already there. Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, its Britishness intensified by something of a siege mentality, generated by … well, several sieges. So Gibraltar is characterized by a unique mixture of British institutions (fish and chip shops, red telephone boxes) and massive fortifications. You can’t travel far without encountering some huge curtain wall, or a row of shops and pubs built into the casemates of a bastion, or a war memorial, or just a stonking great gun.
The Spanish are not happy with the British presence on Gibraltar, and one does rather take their point. And although the Rock has been of serious strategic importance to the UK as recently as the Second World War, times change. If it were just a matter of handing over a few square kilometres of arid peninsula to Spain, Her Majesty’s Government would have done the deed decades ago. But the Gibraltarians keep voting to be British—once in a referendum in 1967, and again in 2002. The first referendum returned the sort of result you otherwise encounter only during Central Asian presidential elections—99.6% in favour of staying under British sovereignty. In 2002, support slumped to a mere 99.0%. These results are so important to the Gibraltarians they even commemorate them on their coinage.
In Gibraltar, paradoxically, it’s impossible to get lost, but very easy to go astray. Since the whole territory occupies only seven square kilometres, and has a monstrous rock in the middle that is never out of sight unless you’re actually underground (of which, more later), it’s easy to stay orientated. But because the road system winds endlessly around and through centuries-old fortifications, it’s surprisingly easy to find yourself on the opposite side of a wall from your destination.
Above the town of Gibraltar sits the upper part of the Rock. You can get there by cable-car, or by taxi, or you can walk (the Rock is only 426m high). We walked once—that’s quite exciting, because you share narrow, steeply sloping roads with Gibraltarian drivers, some of whom drive like they’re angry and park like they’re blind.
The roads haven’t changed much in the 30 years since the opening sequence of The Living Daylights was filmed, and the driving techniques are remarkably similar:
We divided our time equally between wandering the streets of the town and exploring the upper Rock. In town there are shops, pavement cafés, a very nice little museum and pleasant park, and a load of history all around you.
The Alameda Botanical Gardens even houses a small zoo (with large, pleasant enclosures), which is stocked with birds and animals that had originally been brought in by smugglers attempting to get exotic pets into Europe.
On the upper Rock there’s even more history, most notably the 50-odd kilometres of tunnel that have been dug through the limestone by the British military, from the eighteenth century to the Cold War. Some of these are now off-limits because they’re dangerous; some are off-limits because they house the computers of Gibraltar’s on-line gambling industry; and some are off-limits for “security reasons”. But you can wander freely through the extended museum exhibit of the Great Siege Tunnels, which were burrowed behind the north face of the Rock to create cannon emplacements that peer down on the Spanish border.
And you can take a guided tour of some of the Second World War tunnels, which in their heyday constituted an entire underground town, with its own hospitals, generators and water supply. Both sets of tunnels are dotted with uniformed mannequins, which in the dim lighting produce a strikingly atmospheric effect.
And then there are the natural caves. St Michael’s Cave and its offshoots were once a source of the sort of adventure described at the head of this post, but the main cavity of St Michael’s is nowadays a concert hall, spectacularly festooned with stalactites and curtains of limestone (and, it has to be said, illuminated with slowly shifting coloured lights reminiscent of a naff 1970s night-club).
And there are the monkeys—the so-called “Barbary apes” are actually Barbary macaques. They’re pretty well habituated to humans, and will certainly climb a person to have a rummage in their rucksack if they can smell food—but otherwise they just go about their own business under trying circumstances, with a sort of weary insouciance I found rather endearing.
On our last day, we walked around the north face of the Rock to visit a couple of Gibraltar’s tiny sandy beaches on the east coast. Paradoxically, the east coast seemed to be sheltered from the east wind—the air was being forced up and over the steep face of the Rock, leaving a little pocket of calm tucked under the windward cliffs, but with surf pounding in off the Mediterranean that would have done credit to a North Atlantic gale.
And then home. A twenty-minute delay with Spanish border checks at seven in the morning confirmed the horror stories we’d heard from Gibraltarians about hours of waiting at peak times (so much for the “free movement of goods and people” that’s supposed to happen at EU borders), and then the sun came up and we had clear skies and sunshine all the way back to Malaga.
We haven’t been to Venice for close to three years, so it seemed like time to go back. We were a month or two earlier than our usual timing, and found the area around Saint Mark’s Square still throbbing with tourists.
Sipping our morning coffee on the Riva degli Schiavoni, we were treated to a seemingly endless procession of tour groups, all dutifully tagging along behind a guide holding aloft some sort of marker. Some day I’ll write a dissertation on tour guide markers—little bespoke bats with numbers and logos on them; flags on telescopic sticks; half-collapsed umbrellas; brightly coloured scarves … and one hapless guide, presumably fallen on hard times, holding aloft an empty two-litre plastic bottle.
A full moon greeted our arrival, promising the possibility of an acqua alta to add to the fun in Saint Mark’s. And, sure enough, by noon the next day the high spring tide was pushing salt water out of the drains in the middle of the square. The crowds were forced out to the edges, threading between the café tables, where waiters in white dinner jackets were sloshing around in wellington boots, trying to keep their furniture away from the rising flood.
We did our usual thing, wandering at random through the quieter byways. There’s always something interesting to see—like this dark and partially flooded sotopòrtego, from the end of which we could peer out at gondolas passing along a sunlit canal:
After a couple of days, we took a water taxi up the Grand Canal to the Santa Lucia railway station, which must be a great way to arrive in Venice for the first time—its steps descend to a bustle of water taxis along the Grand Canal, and the green dome of San Simeone Piccolo across the water.
We were heading for Vienna aboard the Orient Express—the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, to be exact, which uses a selection of sleeping and restaurant cars dating from the 1920s. I actually don’t have much to say about that part of our journey, except to remark that the staff were efficient and cheerful, and the evening views of the Brenner Pass were lovely. Otherwise, it was a little like attending a fancy dress party inside an exquisitely panelled antique wardrobe, and then having to try to sleep inside the matching chest of drawers. Space is at a premium, and the passengers do seem to like dressing up. It was, as they say, an experience.
Vienna is a handsome, lively city, and pleases me exceedingly.
Venice and Vienna seem to be polar opposites—while the grand buildings of Venice huddle together in grubby and decaying opulence, Vienna boasts madly wide avenues, vast buildings set amid even vaster parkland, and everything seemed to have been carefully cleaned with a toothbrush just the day before we arrived. (We did find some scaffolding around St Stephen’s Cathedral, where areas of pollution-blackened stonework were still in evidence. Some sort of city-wide clean-up must be nearing completion.)
Art galleries! Museums! Parks! Pavement cafés! We circulated from one to another. We managed to spend an entire day drifting around the grounds of the Schönbrunner Palace, with its bonkers fountains, five-storey greenhouse and imperial zoo. We could have spent much longer there, if we’d been allowed to pitch a tent overnight behind the topiary.
We spent a humid half-hour in the Schmetterling Haus, next to the Burggarten park, admiring the tropical butterflies.
We gawped at the giant pink hare outside the Opera House, which seemed vaguely familiar to me. Turns out, it’s based on Albrecht Dürer lovely painting Feldhase (generally mistranslated into English as The Young Hare), which is kept at the Albertina Museum, just down the road.
The big pink version was designed by Ottmar Hörl, and used to be displayed outside the Albertina itself, but seems now to be sitting on top of an underground dinner club. I don’t know why.
And on our final day we walked to the two huge museums facing each other across the ornamental gardens of Marie-Theresien-Platz. Where to go? On the left, Art History; on the right, Natural History. To the left, we could have taken a tour of the work of Pieter Bruegel. But on the right, they had an animatronic allosaurus.
The whole group rises from the ocean, high and precipitous, surrounded by wall of lofty rocks, imposing on account of their wild aspect and the deep bays and gulfs which separate them from each other. The cliffs, in many cases, are so perpendicular, that the boats are let down by ropes, whilst the sailors clamber up the sides by holes cut in the rocks. From the top of these walls, which are as smooth as if artificially built, a stone may be dropped into the sea 800 or 1000 feet below.
The Faeroes are a mountainous archipelago that rises from the Atlantic about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. They’re small, as a comparison with a map of Scotland shows, and home to only about 50,000 people.
They’re a Danish dependency, and the inhabitants tend to be trilingual in Faeroese, Danish and English. Faeroese (like Icelandic) is a descendant of Old Norse. It didn’t come to be written down until the 19th century, and it had the misfortune to have its alphabet created by an etymologist—its spelling honours the original sounds of Old Norse, rather than the spoken sounds of the language. The capital Tórshavn is pronounced something like TOE-ish-hown; the village of Gjógv is somewhere between dshegv and tshekf; and Viðareiði comes out as VEE-a-rai-yuh. (All those links take you to the Forvo site, where you can listen to Faeroese people pronouncing the names. From here on, I’ll just link each placename to its pronunciation at Forvo, for your education, amusement and/or bafflement.)
And, while we’re on spelling, I have to confess that I’m in something of a minority when I write Faeroes. A search of the Google Ngram corpus suggests that the spelling I was taught as a kid in the 1960s has never been particularly popular, and that nowadays Faroes dominates by a factor of about two:
But I just can’t bring myself to write Faroes, because it always looks like the first syllable should be pronounced far, which in my Scottish accent is a very long way from the first syllable of the archipelago’s name.
Anyway, we spent a week there with a hired car recently. The flight from Edinburgh takes about an hour, and the car-hire process at Vágar is almost alarming rapid. (The Faeroese have a pretty relaxed attitude to rules and regulations. The fence around the port area in Tórshavn carries a sign bearing the non-committal warning “Trespassers Can Be Prosecuted”.)
Our winding route around the northern islands is marked in red on the map above, with tunnels dotted and a ferry route dashed. The islands are essentially long narrow mountain ridges, separated by flooded valleys. Most of the landscape seems to slope at forty-five degrees, or more:
The roads either follow the coast, zig-zag furiously up and down the mountainsides, or dive into tunnels. Some tunnels pass under the sea to connect neighbouring islands; some penetrate through the mountains to take you from once coast to the other. Some of the older tunnels are exactly the width of one vehicle, and unlit—you avoid oncoming traffic by slipping into passing places scooped out of the rock wall at infrequent intervals, each of them marked by a small sign that’s extremely difficult to discern against the glare of oncoming headlights. You’ll appreciate that we were a little too distracted by the horror of our predicament to take photographs at the time, but I’ve embedded an example from Google Street View to give you the idea. Below is the entrance to a tunnel above Arnafjørður that’s two kilometres long, along which traffic flows continuously in both directions. And it doesn’t get any wider beyond the entrance.
There’s so little flat ground available that there’s very little farming beyond the raising of sheep, and the grass to feed the sheep.
Beyond the closely space islands connected by bridges or undersea tunnels, the Faeroes are linked by a network of ferries. Plying between small islands in a big ocean, the ferries brave North Atlantic swell, and then push through the breakers to enter tiny harbours. The Faeroese lounge around looking bored during all this, while the tourists clutch the furniture with white knuckles.
Here’s a little video of what it’s like aboard the Mykines ferry, on what was reported to be a pretty average day:
All that steep ground makes for dramatic waterfalls. For our first few days in the Faeroes, we’d keep pulling over to the side of the road and gawping. Pretty soon we wouldn’t even get out of the car for a drop less than a hundred metres.
And everywhere, tiny communities seem to be wedged between the mountains and the sea:
The traditional Faeroese architecture involved turf roofs and tarred wooden walls, and they still appear in many places:
They even turn up in the cosmopolitan capital Tórshavn. You can see a couple below at extreme left of frame, on the brightly painted waterfront:
Many of these old buildings nowadays host government offices:
And, like every Scandinavian country we’ve ever visited, the Faeroes have a dramatic line in public statuary:
What else can I tell you? The Faeroese like their meat well-aged, which produces a number of aromatic and strong-tasting dishes. They eat whale—from past experience in Greenland, the meat has an unimpressive generic mammalian taste, and the blubber is unchewable, let alone swallowable. But in contrast to many small and steadfastly carnivorous nations, their restaurants produce tasty vegetarian dishes that go well beyond the customary limp lettuce and two tomatoes. if you’re Scottish, you will appreciate the presence, in the smallest of grocer’s shops, on the remotest of islands, of Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, Caramel Wafers, and Barr’s Irn Bru. (If you’re not Scottish, you may prefer whale blubber, or to go hungry, or to die. It’s up to you.)
The weather? Well, we’re in the North Atlantic, just south of the Arctic Circle. Sometimes it’s cold. Sometimes it rains. Dress warmly. Take waterproofs.
Random linguistic anecdote: We ordered a couple of packed lunches one day, asking for one to be vegetarian. They were handed over marked vegetar and kylling. I assumed kylling was an admirably frank Faeroese word for the opposite of vegetarianism, something like the forthright manner in which Germans call veal Kalbfleisch (“calf meat”). But it turns out they’d been labelled in Danish: “vegetarian” and “chicken”.
I do this a lot—it’s a sort of hyper-alertness for tit-bits of linguistic interest. I once deduced that the Swahili word for “bank” was tuo, after I saw this printed in large capital letters on the glass door of a bank in Nairobi. It wasn’t until I passed the other glass door, labelled IN, that I realized I’d been looking at OUT printed on the opposite side of the glass. And then there was my transient conviction that kioo was a word meaning “toilet” in one of Zambia’s several languages—I’d seen it on a notice pinned to the door of a public toilet in Kitwe. I hypothesized some link to Swahili choo, which really is a word for “toilet”. But the Zambians I spoke to were unable to identify the language for me. So I walked past the sign again, to check that I’d read it properly … and realized that it actually read “K100”. Which meant the charge for admission was 100 Kwacha (at that time the equivalent of a few pence in British money).
May’s always a good time to visit the west coast of Scotland. This time, we had a pleasantly sunny stay on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, north of Mull. The main road in Ardnamurchan is the B8007, a classification that pretty much says it all—it’s a winding single-track with passing places, which sticks largely to the shore of Loch Sunart to the south. Occasional unclassified ribbons of pot-holed tarmac branch off to serve communities on the north side of the peninsula. (The TripAdvisor posters who describe the North Coast 500 route as “demanding driving” would have a nervous breakdown if confronted by a few miles of “Ardnamurchan unclassified”.)
Ardnamurchan is supposedly good pine marten country, and the Boon Companion came equipped with pine marten bait—strawberry jam and raisins. She smeared this confection on one of the stones outside our cottage, and I set up a motion-detector camera trap to photograph whatever came by. No pine martens eventuated, but something came and ate the bait during the night, after I’d taken in the camera. There then ensued a three-way tussle between me, the camera software, and the phantom jam-eater. I’ll show you the final result (obtained on our last night) at the end of this piece.
Ardnamurchan is also good Sea Eagle territory, and we had a little more success with those than with the pine martens. The first sighting was at Castle Tioram, on Loch Moidart.
While others admired the castle, I noticed something that looked like an improbably airborne barn door circling overhead. The silhouette alone was convincing, but a quick look with the binoculars confirmed the white tail. Later, we spotted another during a boat trip near Mull, and the Boon Companion managed to capture a telephoto view after it had landed.
We also finally managed to make it to the Ardnamurchan lighthouse, which we’ve sailed past on several occasions, but never visited. It’s quite a striking granite object, supposedly built “in the Egyptian style”—certainly a change from the usual bland, white-painted column.
One day, we joined a small tour boat at Kilchoan, which took us around the west coast of Mull, to Staffa and the Treshnish Isles.
Staffa is famous for its basalt columns and Fingal’s Cave, the strange acoustics of which supposedly inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture.
The Boon Companion and I have distinct memories of landing on Staffa by clambering over the side of a small boat, stepping directly on to the basalt—so we were publicly disappointed (and secretly pleased) to discover that Staffa now boasts its own jetty.
The grassy plateau of Staffa was positively teeming with visitors who’d made the journey over from Fionnphort on Mull, so we were glad to find a bit of peace and quiet at our next landing place—the island of Lunga in the Treshnish Isles. No jetty there—our boat attached itself to a floating pontoon, which it then rammed firmly up the sloping rocky beach so that everyone could disembark.
The Boon Companion immediately settled down to photograph Lunga’s 3000 puffins, which were strolling around on the cliff edge, bill-tapping and excavating their burrows, apparently completely oblivious to their human visitors:
Puffins make a marvellous little self-satisfied musical croak once they’re safely settled into their burrows, and we found ourselves surrounded by these pleasant murmurings. Here’s a sample from xeno-canto. (The call is heard a few seconds from the start of the recording below. There’s no point in listening after that, because it isn’t repeated.)
After a while, I trotted off to stretch my legs by climbing to Lunga’s 103m highest point, Cruachan, which (despite its humble height) gives spectacular views along the length of the Treshnish archipelago. This view looks southwest towards Bac Mor, which is more commonly known as the Dutchman’s Cap, for reasons that will be evident if you enlarge the image:
Finally, the pesky jam-eater. On my first nocturnal attempt to photograph it, using an infra-red flash, I got nothing. On the second attempt, the flash also lit up a wall immediately behind the bait, and all I got was a completely overexposed white image. On the third (and final) night, I managed to get a bright silhouette against a darker background. One more night and I could have got the flash geometry a little better, and offered you a properly exposed image. But it’s still easy enough to see what’s going on:
And a couple of hours later (after the badger had moved the camera), the clean-up squad arrived:
Back to France again. While we generally prefer to explore new places rather than to return to previous destinations, the Boon Companion and I make an exception for the Côte d’Azur, which we visit regularly for a blink of off-season sunshine. This time we avoided some late snow in Scotland, to bask under clear blue skies in temperatures of 15ºC, which had been unheard-of at home for about six months. And we also managed to avoid being affected by that ancient French Easter tradition, the Strike Of The Air Traffic Controllers.
This time we visited Cagnes-sur-Mer, which lies on the long curve of the Baie des Anges between Nice and Antibes. More specifically, we tucked ourselves away in the mediaeval hill town of Haut-de-Cagnes, which protrudes improbably out of the modern bustle of Cagnes-sur-Mer.
Haut-de-Cagnes is a maze of narrow streets, mostly impassable by car, dotted with friendly restaurants in which (if you arrive early in the evening) the chef may bring the fish of the day to your table so you can cast an eye over it and have a sniff. (The Boon Companion, who is resolutely non-piscivorous, bore this uninvited encounter with a defunct dorade and saint-pierre stoically, and then ordered the pasta.)
A free bus service runs between the Château Grimaldi, at the summit of the village, and the low ground of surrounding Cagnes-sur-Mer. Even with its short wheel-base, the little bus passes round some of the tighter corners in the mediaeval streets with centimetres to spare. From the bus station, a stroll through slightly dilapidated parkland alongside the canalized Cagne River takes you to the coast and one of the French Riviera’s trademark beach promenades.
After a few days in Cagnes, we translocated to one of our favourite hotels in the world, the Royal Riviera, which sits at the neck of Cap Ferrat. It’s quiet and friendly and efficient, and within easy walking distance of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Villefranche-sur-Mer and Beaulieu-sur-Mer, all of which offer a great choice of places to dine, as well as places to sit and watch the world go by.
We wandered up the quiet coastal path to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat most days. It has now been fully restored after the flood damage of a few years ago, and it also afforded a glimpse of a pair of improbable shore birds, scuttering around on the Plage des Fourmis. Black-winged stilts have to be among the most improbable-looking of European birds.
Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat featured prominently in ITV’s quintessentially early-70s TV series The Persuaders! Several episodes were set on the French Riviera, which seemed an impossibly exotic location at the time, and during filming Roger Moore and Tony Curtis stayed at La Voile d’Or, a hotel which still overlooks the little harbour of Saint-Jean.
Having fixated on The Persuaders! during my formative years, I confess I still can’t look at the Saint-Jean marina without John Barry’s classic theme music thundering into my head:
Saint-Jean has also sprouted some more public statuary since we were there last, though I’m not sure why Prince Charles seems to be peering out of a block of concrete overlooking the waterfront.
On our last morning we were up at dawn to catch the early flight home. I’m not much given to mornings, generally, but even I had to confess that it was a beautiful sunrise.
From the Pitcairns, which I’ve described in my last couple of posts, we sailed on into the unfashionable end of French Polynesia. The famous resort islands (Tahiti, Mo’orea, Bora Bora) are all in the Society Islands in the west—but we sneaked in from the east, into the outlying archipelagos of the Gambiers, the Tuamotus and the Marquesas. On the way, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, finally getting into the tropics proper; and we changed time zone again, arriving in the Gambiers at GMT-9.
Our first stop was in Mangareva, which is the origin of Pitcairn’s quarterly supply boats, and the Pitcairners’ closest access to an airport ( a mere 500 kilometres away).
Mangareva is a large island surrounded by a broad lagoon, which is dotted with smaller peaked islands, and fringed by a reef and several long, narrow coral motu. The airport runway occupies pretty much the whole of one of these flat motu, Totegegie. We came ashore in our Zodiacs at a proper harbour (which was a first!) and strolled into what felt like the teeming metropolis of Rikitea, home to about a thousand people. Rikitea sits tucked under the old volcanic summit of Mount Duff, and hosts (unexpectedly, it must be said) the largest church in the South Pacific, St Michael’s Cathedral.
Next stop was in the Tuamotus, involving another clock change to GMT-10, on which most of French Polynesia operates. Our landing was on the isolated atoll of Puka-Puka, with just 150 inhabitants. The local kids had been given the morning off school to come and welcome us ashore with a song and dance performance, so we were greeted with great enthusiasm. And with refrigerated coconuts, which was the single best drinking experience of the whole trip. Chilled coconut milk, directly from the coconut—if I could find the person who invented that, I’d shake them by the hand.
Having lightly clipped the eastern fringes of the flat coral Tuamotus, we were suddenly into the mad volcanic landscapes of the Marquesas. The Marquesas keep half an hour out of step with the generality of French Polynesian clocks, but that just seemed a time change too far, and we stuck with a shipboard time of GMT-10, which would keep us in synchrony with Tahiti, our ultimate destination.
First stop was at Fatu Hiva, where we dropped into the Bay of the Virgins, and found (gasp) some other visitors there already. We were really getting back into mainstream travel destinations, albeit in the form of a few yacht-folk waiting in the Marquesas for a good weather forecast, before committing to the long journey eastwards across the open Pacific. Bay of the Virgins is Baie des Vierges, which is a one-letter name change from the original colonial name of Baie des Verges. My French dictionary would have that as “Bay of Rods”, but in French slang it comes out “Bay of Penises”, supposedly a reference to the improbable basalt spires that flank the bay. Guess who made the name change? Yup, missionaries. In Marquesan the place is called Hana Vave, which seems like it should have been the solution to the problem in the first place.
As a young man, Thor Heyerdahl spent some time on Fatu Hiva with his new wife, attempting to get “back to nature” by living in a poorly constructed hut in the forest. His book describes their inevitable decline into hunger, tropical ulcers, insect infestations and paranoia. The whole idea pretty much put the “Fatu” in fatuous, but it did expose Heyerdahl to the large Marquesan stone carvings that would eventually lead to his interest in Easter Island, and ultimately his (rather misguided) Kon-Tiki expedition.
Hiva Oa next. This island was, at different times, home to the odious Paul Gauguin, and the probably quite nice Jacques Brel, both of whom are buried in the picturesque Calvary Cemetery above the town of Atuona. The town also houses a Gauguin gallery, which I was sure would provide a welcome blast of air-conditioning on a hot and humid day—but the paintings are all reproductions, so no such luck.
In the afternoon we slipped around to the north coast, to visit the archaeological site of Me’ae I’ipona, home of the Marquesan tiki statues that inspired Heyerdahl. They’re all housed under thick thatch roofs, to protect them from the elements, which makes for limited photo opportunities. But the light on Puamau Bay was gorgeous.
Our last Marquesan island was Nuku Hiva. (You’ll have pieced together by now that hiva is Marquesan for “island”.) Last, but definitely my favourite, for the spectacular scenery and the lovely bay of Hatiheu. We wandered around another archaeological site, this one densely overgrown, where we found yet another endangered endemic bird, the Marquesan imperial pigeon, clattering around in the canopy without an apparent care in the world. Then the best display of dancing and drumming we’d seen, and a stroll back down to the bay.
Our penultimate landing was in the huge coral lagoon of Rangiroa, back in the Tuamotus, and back on a flat coral motu, where we pottered along the beaches of Avatoru Island, admired the palm trees, and studiously ignored the fact that there was a resort hotel visible in the distance. (First one of those we’d seen—we were definitely moving back towards what passes for civilization.)
At the end of our visit, as we sailed out through a channel in the reef, a pod of spinner dolphins fell in step alongside, as if escorting us safely off the premises.
And so to the dock at Pape’ete, Tahiti. I’m afraid my ideas of Pape’ete had become frozen after reading James Michener’s Rascals in Paradise (1957), so I was ready for pleasure yachts pulled right up to the dock so that their sterns overhung a narrow, unpaved waterfront street, and braced for roistering poets and artists having fist-fights outside Quinn’s Bar. But you know it’s not going to be like that, don’t you? It was just a slightly damp tropical town on a quiet Sunday morning. Sigh.
So we transferred to one of those plastic resort hotels, where we sat around for a pleasant enough (but slightly surreal) day, drinking local beer in the humid 30ºC heat, staring bemusedly at plastic Christmas trees covered in plastic snow, and listening to Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas”.
And then a midnight taxi ride to Faaa airport. (Three a’s! How cool is that? *) Two overnight flights later, we were in Edinburgh airport again. It was dark. It was 1ºC. Sleet was falling. Bing Crosby was singing “White Christmas”.
* Also spelled Faa’a or Fa’a’ā. I’m cool with all of these.
In [Bounty Bay], which is bounded by lofty cliffs almost inaccessible, it was proposed to land. Thickly branched evergreens skirt the base of these hills, and in summer afford a welcome retreat from the rays of an almost vertical sun. In the distance are seen several high pointed rocks which the pious highlanders have named after the most zealous of the Apostles, and outside of them is a square basaltic islet. Formidable breakers fringe the coast, and seem to present an insurmountable barrier to all access.
Pitcairn Island, a remote, rocky outcrop just three kilometres long and two wide, was famously settled in 1790 by mutineers from Captain Bligh’s Bounty, along with a number of Tahitian men and women who had joined them (to a large extent involuntarily). Twenty years later, when the settlers were discovered by the American sailing ship Topaz, only one Briton and no Tahitian men remained alive.
The island is still inhabited by descendants of the mutineers, along with a few in-comers. Mutineer Fletcher Christian’s surname is still prevalent among its forty-odd inhabitants. It’s Britain’s last overseas territory in the Pacific, and one of the most remote inhabited places in the world.
I’ve already written about our visit to the other, uninhabited islands of the Pitcairn group. This time I’m going to tell you about Pitcairn itself.
We were still dogged by the northerly swell that had prevented a landing on Henderson Island. The landing point at Bounty Bay opens northeast, and is little more than a shingle beach and a boat ramp protected by a short jetty. Metre-high waves were rolling in past the end of the jetty and breaking on the shingle. Getting ashore involved surfing the Zodiac in on the crest of a wave, and then turning hard left to get into the choppy partial shelter of the jetty. (I’m told there’s a new landing area at Tedside, facing northwest, but we never got over to take a look at it).
From the landing point, there’s a steep pull up into Adamstown, Pitcairn’s only settlement—a scatter of houses amid the island’s lush vegetation. The road up is called the Hill of Difficulty. It used to be a red earth track, which became notoriously chewed up by the islanders quad bikes when it was wet, but it has now been paved.
The village square is flanked on three sides by the Seventh-Day Adventist church, the Post Office and the meeting hall. There, the islanders had set up their souvenir stalls—and it must be a very rare visitor who, conscious of the unusual and once-in-a-lifetime nature of their visit, nevertheless comes away without a single memento of their time here.
The Post Office did a brisk trade (Pitcairn’s stamps have a certain philatelic cachet), but postcards can take several months to arrive with their intended recipients.
According to a spreadsheet pinned up on the noticeboard outside the meeting hall, Pitcairn sees visits from only ten or twelve passenger ships a year. Maybe only two or three of the smaller vessels will try to put passengers ashore. But if you’re on a large cruise liner, the Pitcairners will come to you—bringing their goods out to the ship in the island’s longboats (of which, more later) and setting up their market on board.
Various energetic folk set off to climb Pitcairn’s 347m highest point (which is poetically named Highest Point). We wished them luck. Captain Frederick Beechey , a quote from whom is at the head of this post, also described his visit to the summit of the island:
By a circuitous and, to us, difficult path, we reached the ridge of the mountain, the height of which is 1109 feet above the sea; this is the highest part of the island. The ridge extends in a north and south direction, and unites two small peaks: it is so narrow as to be in parts scarcely three feet wide, and forms a dangerous pass between two fearful precipices.
The day was hot and humid, so the Boon Companion and I decided to lounge around the village and its nearby viewpoints instead. I remarked to a Pitcairn lady that the day was too hot for a Scottish boy; she answered that it was too hot for her, too, which I found simultaneously disappointing and heartening. After most of our fellow travellers had dispersed, we perched ourselves on one of the benches outside the Post Office (a sitting area I’m told is ironically referred to as the “bus shelter” by the locals). I listened to the Pitcairners chatting to each other, enjoying the rhythm and intonation of the local dialect, Pitkern, which is said to retain some eighteenth century features, as well as borrowings from maritime slang and Tahitian.
An elderly pair of Pitcairners sat next to us, gloomily surveying the souvenir stalls. “Oh well,” said one to the other, after a while. “Soon be back to normal.”
When we began to feel poached by the airless heat, we strolled down to Pitcairn’s lovely cemetery, with its fine view and riot of wild flowers. An undistinguished grey bird hopped unassumingly around the gravestones, blithely unaware of the effect it would have on any passing bird-watcher—it was an endemic and endangered Pitcairn reed-warbler.
From the graveyard, we ambled along to The Edge, a fine viewpoint overlooking Bounty Bay, with a bit of a breeze, a park bench, and a good position to watch frigate birds and tropic birds drifting and squabbling in the updrafts.
There are memorial plaques here, commemorating the Bounty landing (with a second plate commemorating the Tahitian contribution to the community, added later).
One of them is (bottom left) is written in Pitkern:
Bout ya 200 years ago, January 1790, dem Bounty mutineer en dems Tahitian gerl cum orf ar Bounty. Uwas descendency start ya!
After a while, it was time to drift down to the landing site for our return to the ship. Which was starting to look a little problematic, as the surf was getting more active, and the waves were higher. Here’s what it looked like inside the protection of the jetty:
One Pitcairner cheerfully suggested we might have to stay and help repopulate the island.
But it turned out there was nothing to worry about—they launched a longboat for us, sliding it out of the boat-house and down the ramp into the sea. We clambered aboard at the jetty, and then the heavy longboat punched out through the surf as if it wasn’t there. After that there was just the small matter of dropping a metre or so over the side of the rolling longboat into a bouncing Zodiac (hint: timing is all), so that we could in turn embark from the Zodiac on to the low marina deck of our ship.
Knuckles were intermittently white, but a good time was had by all.
Well, I think.
My next post (and the final post in this series), tells you about our journey through French Polynesia.
From our starting point on Easter Island, which I described in my previous post, our ship headed west towards the Pitcairn group of islands. There are four of these, of which only one, Pitcairn Island itself, is inhabited. I’ll leave that one for another post—here I’m going to write about Pitcairn’s less famous neighbours, Ducie, Henderson and Oeno.
“Neighbours” is perhaps too strong a word—they’re dotted over 600 kilometres of ocean, and none of them is more than a few kilometres across. I’ve plotted their positions on a map of Scotland, so you can get a feel for how spread out they are.
We sailed for two and a half days from Easter Island before we reached Ducie, and each night we turned our clocks back by an hour, so that we could shift from Rapa Nui time (GMT-5) to Pitcairn time (GMT-8). We saw no other ships, no planes, and no wildlife apart from sporadic flying fish. We were, actually, travelling across an oceanic desert. On a map of the chlorophyll distribution in the world’s oceans, the space between Easter Island and the Pitcairns has the lowest concentration on the planet. Very little phytoplankton means very little of everything else farther up the food chain, too.
So we were pretty well-rested by the time we got to Ducie, what with all the extra sleep and the fact that the rocking motion of the ship tended to render everyone unconscious between meal times. Ducie is a classic coral atoll—a ring-shaped reef a couple of kilometres across with a central lagoon surrounded by a few low-lying islands. (The technical term for these atoll islands is motu, from a Polynesian word meaning … well … “island”.)
We landed on the largest motu, Acadia Island. Ducie is so far from anywhere else, it hosts only one plant species—the octopus bush, Heliotropium foertherianum, which forms a dense forest running the whole length of the island, just beyond the high water mark of the broken coral beach.
In this forest, birds nest, including most of the world’s Murphy’s petrels, and the gorgeous little White terns, which lay their eggs precariously balanced on tree branches. And since they have hardly ever seen a human, they are ludicrously trusting, just sitting tight and gazing bemusedly at any passing visitor.
We moved gently through the bushes, watching our feet to avoid treading on petrel chicks, which tuck themselves under the shade of low branches, and went to dip a toe in the bathwater-warm lagoon.
On the way back to our Zodiac boats, we picked up plastic waste from the beach and took it away with us—the Pitcairns sit on the edge of the South Pacific Gyre, and intercept far more than their fair share of the world’s floating garbage.
Next came Henderson, very different in character from Ducie—it’s a raised coral platform, ten kilometres by five, surrounded by undercut, overhanging 10-metre cliffs. Just three narrow strips of coral sand offer potential landing places. The beaches are imaginatively named North Beach, East Beach, and Northwest Beach—so if you’re passing you’ll know where to look for them.
Unfortunately for movie makers, the real Henderson looks like a tropical paradise, with its white beaches and dense forests—a cinema audience would be hard pressed to guess how inhospitable it actually is. The lush interior is a leg-breaking coral maze, so porous that rainwater seeps away immediately. The trees grow well, but the only source of fresh water is a single spring which is accessible only at low tide.
Our problem with Henderson was that we couldn’t land—a northerly swell was washing on to the potential landing places, shooting plumes of spray up the cliffs and generating dangerous surf on the beaches. We hung around forlornly off-shore to see if conditions changed, and then had to move on. So we had no chance to see Henderson’s fine crop of four endemic land birds, but we did glimpse a rare Henderson petrel shooting across the bow of the ship, with which the birders had to grumpily content themselves.
Our last uninhabited Pitcairn island was Oeno (pronounce it in three syllables: oh-EE-no). It’s another different kind of island—while Ducie is a ring of islands around an empty lagoon, Henderson is a raised coral platform, and Pitcairn itself is a peak of volcanic rock, Oeno is a small central island surrounded by a reef about three kilometres in diameter.
Big waves were breaking along the reef edges, but we surfed in on a Zodiac and waded to the shore. Oeno is a place of astonishing colours—the pale green of the reef, the blue of the sky, the white of the sand, and the intense tropical green of the foliage; all feel like someone has taken the real world and adjusted its “colour saturation” slider to an almost unbelievable intensity.
The Pitcairners call this place “Holiday Island”, because they come here for a break when the pace of life on Pitcairn gets too hectic. But they obviously don’t disturb the birds, which showed the same tendency to sit tight and ignore visitors as we’d encountered on Oeno.
Everywhere on Oeno, if you stand quietly, you can hear a sound like a distant boiling kettle—the surf breaking on the reef. And while getting across the reef on the inward journey was a matter of placing the Zodiac just behind the crest of a wave and surfing it in (he says, as if he could do it himself), getting out again involved butting through the breaking waves. It was a spectacular journey, but no-one avoided a soaking, and a few folk ended up (briefly) in the water.
My next post tells the story of our visit to Pitcairn, the only inhabited island of the group.