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.
It seems Thurston Clarke just needed a better dictionary, but at least he drew the word islomania to the attention of a wider audience, some of whom would no doubt recognize the symptoms in themselves. As long-standing and unashamed islomaniacs, The Boon Companion and I took a trip to some of the more out-of-the-way parts of the South Pacific at the end of last year.
We started our journey on Easter Island (known to its inhabitants as Rapa Nui), dropping on to the broad tarmac of Mataveri International Airport after a five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile. Mataveri is said to be the most isolated airport in the world. Its improbable runway, lengthened by NASA in the 1980s, was once designated as a potential abort landing site for the Space Shuttle. And it’s nice that it is so long, because any plane that falls off the east end of the runway will tend to come to rest amid the airport’s fuel storage tanks.
Rapa Nui’s not really a place for a beach holiday—it’s built from three ancient volcanoes, and the coast consists mainly of unforgiving black rock. Only at Anakena in the north is there any extent of white sand—and the “tropical island” appearance has been artificially enhanced with a plantation of imported palm trees.
When we were last on Rapa Nui, over a decade ago, the airport was served by thrice-weekly flights from mainland Chile, and an occasional flight from Tahiti. Nowadays, LATAM’s Boeing 787s put down there twice a day, every day, in the high season. The island’s only town, Hanga Roa, seems to have quadrupled in size from the sleepy place we once knew.
And the islands famous moai statues are now cordoned off with warning signs and designated paths, where people once wandered around at will. I was alarmed by one of the new warning signs, which seemed to prohibit climbing to the top of a moai and throwing yourself off. Surely that goes without saying?
But the next moai in line revealed that the sign-poster had just posted the first sign ninety degrees away from its correct orientation. That makes more sense.
So. The moai. They’re everywhere along the coast, from the waterfront at Hanga Roa to remote corners of the north. When the island was first seen by Europeans in 1722, these huge statues were still standing along the shore, staring inland, arranged on platforms in groups so that their gaze could supposedly exert a protective influence on the villages they watched over. Half a century later James Cook noted that some had been toppled, but his expedition artist, William Hodges, produced a famous painting of the island that indicates he saw many statues still standing, even though his depiction is unrealistic in its details.
But the moai continued to topple, and 1838 was the last year on which any Westerner glimpsed one in the upright position—contact with Europeans seems to have precipitated some sort of war on the island, with villagers mounting expeditions to push over their enemy’s protective moai.
The process of standing them back up again began in 1955, and is still ongoing. Many of the statues broke their necks when they fell, and the older repair work is clearly visible in the form of concrete necklaces; newer repair work is less intrusive. Many of the statues also originally bore red scoria top-knots (as Hodges’ painting shows), and a few of these have been put back in place (mainly on statues with unbroken necks, for obvious reasons). And one statue, in Hanga Roa, boasts a pair of slightly alarming, staring eyes—replicas of the original fragile coral eyes that have been found in fragments near the toppled moai.
The moai all came from a quarry at the volcanic crater of Rano Raraku, chiselled out of a tuff cliff. The vicinity of the quarry is dotted with an astonishing number of scattered moai, apparently ready for transport to the coast, but all abandoned for some reason, and now more than half buried by soil movement. If you look right in the middle of the picture below, on the green slope below the cliffs, you’ll see a cluster of tiny dots. Each dot is an abandoned moai, two or three metres tall.
Here’s the view from a little closer.
More moai line the inner wall of the flooded Rano Raraku crater, and it was here that we encountered a man with something on his head, striding around with a look of immense satisfaction, chatting into his mobile phone. I’m guessing it’s some kind of panoramic camera, and for all I know he might have been doing something good and useful to humanity. But I couldn’t help wondering aloud if this might be the origin of the well-known phrase “knob head”.
The other big attraction on Rapa Nui is the spectacular Rano Kau crater—more than a kilometre across, and two hundred metres deep. Its flooded bottom-land is the last refuge for many indigenous plants, so is off-limits for casual hikers. (From somewhere down there came the soil sample that yielded the surprisingly versatile drug rapamycin.) You can’t walk all the way around the crater rim, either, these days, because of concerns about erosion. But you can stroll along a fair section of its arc.
We finished our walk at the remains of the Orongo ceremonial village, which used to host the bonkers Birdman Race—an annual race in which men descended the outer crater wall, swam to the outlying island of Motu Nui, grabbed a sooty tern egg, swam back and then climbed back to Orongo. The man who brought back the first intact egg won privileges for his clan during the coming year. The Birdman cult seems to have started up around the time the moai were being toppled, and the race was run for the better part of a century before it was (predictably enough) suppressed by Christian missionaries in the 1860s.
The next day, we went down to Hanga Roa’s tiny harbour, and joined a ship heading farther out into the Pacific. I’ll tell you more about that in my next post.
It’s a rare sub-genre of travel writing, the business of following a line of latitude and seeing where it takes you. Over the years I’ve put together a trio of such books, by very disparate authors. Malachy Tallack is a British journalist and singer-songwriter who wrote about his travels at sixty degrees north latitude in 2016. Long before that, back in 1988, the American historian Thurston Clarke wrote about his efforts to follow the equator around the world. And sandwiched between the two (in time, but not location) is Simon Reeve, a British journalist and television presenter, who between 2006 and 2010 made three travel documentaries for the BBC, in which he travelled around the world along the equator and then on the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. He wrote a book about the Tropic of Capricorn journey in 2008, but his other two circumnavigations remain undocumented so far.
Malachy Tallack’s 60 Degrees North is subtitled Around the World in Search of Home, and that’s a hint about what you’re getting into with this book, as is the cover blurb that describes it as “brave”.
A bereavement in Tallack’s late teens had sent him back to the Shetland of his childhood, while leaving him with a dislocating sense that there is nowhere he actually belongs. He picks up on the Shetland Islanders’ identification with a sort of circumpolar community, characterized by their high northerly latitude and embodied by the idea of “60 degrees north”—a line of latitude that runs through the Shetland archipelago. So he sets off westward to explore this idea of a community defined by latitude, and to try to find some sort of insight into his own rootlessness. So this is as much a description of a personal journey as it is a travel narrative.
Tallack’s destinations are Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Each of these countries is sampled by visiting one or two places lying fairly close to the 60th parallel. So some pretty small places stand in for some pretty extensive territories—most notably the little town of Fort Smith on the Slave River stands in for the whole width of Canada from Labrador to the Yukon, and the whole of Siberia is represented by a remembered trip to Kamchatka which happened years before the other journeys described in the book.
Tallack is at his best when describing the history of his chosen locations, in long informative passages. And he has an evocative sympathy for those traditional ways of life that are under threat from the standardizing and “civilizing” agendas of modern society—the Greenlanders who feel that their traditional hunting methods are more sympathetic to the natural world than, say, a battery chicken farm; the Evenk herdsmen who demonstrate their reindeer herding skills for the benefit of tourist cameras. He also writes well about the natural world. Here he is on the topic of the wind in Shetland:
It can, at times, seem so utterly unremitting that the air itself becomes a physical presence, as solid as a clenched fist. And on those rare calm days its absence can be shocking and wonderful.
And he’s a keen observer of human nature, from the obsessive urge to tidy exhibited by the staff in a Russian museum (who are thwarted and disappointed when Tallack leaves their leaflets exactly as he found them), to the easy mutual affection of two shopkeepers and their customer in a remote Norwegian village.
But it’s all very melancholy. Tallack spends much of his time alone, and much of his time feeling slightly oppressed. He’s not very keen on cities, and a bit anxious about wilderness (though he does have fond memories of Kamchatka, visited at a time when he seems to have been a little less careworn). And he projects his worries on to others, most notably when he dithers about whether to take a boat trip from the Alaskan town of Seward:
It was a strange sight, this armada, with its cargo of expectant tourists, eager to glimpse something that perhaps even they could not quite specify. For what was this thing that drew them out there? What was it that took them north in the first place? What exactly did they hope to find?
Speaking as someone who’s been on one of those boats, I can report that it’s not complicated, really—we hoped to find spectacular scenery and interesting wildlife. And we did.
Interspersed with all this is the story of Tallack’s life—the loss of his father at the age of sixteen, rootless time spent in Shetland and Copenhagen and Prague, and what seems to have been a rare happy interlude on Fair Isle. So as his travels went on, I found myself hoping they would lead to a homecoming like the one T.S. Eliot described: “… the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” But it doesn’t turn out like that.
So while wishing Tallack well, and hoping he finally finds somewhere to call home, it was with some relief I moved on to Thurston Clarke. Clarke’s book is more in the traditional mode of travel writing. He throws himself into the journey, chatting to everyone he meets, and pretty much winging it on how he’s going to get from one place to another along the equator. He has an easy, upbeat narrative style, an eye for the odd or telling incident, and an ear for an eccentric conversation. And (apart from the odd explanatory note or funny story) he rarely gives any detail of his own life. He’s essentially the antithesis of Tallack, then. You can get an idea of his style from the following line:
The arrival formalities at Brazzaville’s Maya-Maya airport resemble those of a popular New York discotheque.
Remote locations, lots of hassle, quirky lightness of narrative touch. (On this occasion Clarke had arranged to be recognized on arrival, and so was whisked out of the milling crowds into an air-conditioned VIP area.)
Clarke travels around the world, west to east, making the crossing of each continent into a project in itself. Crossing directly from one continent to the next along the equator is a logistic impossibility—ships rarely make such a crossing, and airlines tend to have their trans-ocean hubs a long way from the equator. So between continent-crossings, he allows himself a bit of R&R in the USA or Europe before heading back south to start again. Although he’s travelling independently, with a visa-stuffed passport, a wodge of currency and no fixed plan beyond an aspirational list of “equatorial things to see”, he is not entirely unsupported. He has arranged to give lectures at various universities along the way, which makes him, to some extent, a representative of the USA, allowing him to call on occasional assistance from US embassies abroad. And the lectures also give him a sort of “official guest” status that he can trade on with obstructive government functionaries. His other solution to obstructive government functionaries, it must be said, is simply to ignore them. In Libreville, the capital of Gabon, he is told that he needs to write and present multiple letters of introduction to various members of the national and local government before he can possibly travel in the country. He promises solemnly to present the letters the following day, and then gets on the next train out of town.
The narrative is, of course, a little out of date at this remove. Zaïre, miserable and disintegrating as it was even when Clarke visited, had not yet descended into civil war. Nor had Somalia. And of Rwanda an aid-worker could say, in all seriousness, “There is no longer a tribal problem here.”
Deep economic hardship is a recurring theme, as are stories of displaced and disorientated populations and individuals, and Clarke works hard both to help us appreciate their plight, and to explain how things got to be the way they are. And there are very long bus journeys, alarming taxi rides, eccentric expats, dumb tourists, pickpockets, mountain gorillas, a nuclear test site, amoebic dysentery, and a near-death experience at the hands of drunken Ugandan soldiers.
All of it is narrated in a frank and witty style, punctuated by telling anecdotes. One anecdote must stand for the many—this one’s about Mbakanda, an equatorial town in what was then Zaïre, which when Clarke visited was gradually losing its European residents:
Mbakanda’s legacy of European toilets was shrinking faster than the number of people accustomed to them. Seats and cisterns cracked, and there were no replacements. Those unused to squatting in a field or outhouse became desperate, and thieves stole from occupied houses. Victims of the toilet bandits visited neighbors and found themselves using familiar porcelain.
Reeve’s book, Tropic Of Capricorn, is subtitled A Remarkable Journey to the Forgotten Corners of the World, which perhaps over-eggs the pudding a little, given his considerable harvest of tourist destinations along the way. Although similar in conception to the two other books, it’s different in execution. Reeve is making a television documentary, so he travels with a small film crew, and is handed off from one local fixer to another as the journey progresses. Like Clarke, he takes the trip a continent at a time, with time off to rest (and get married!) between continents. His television programmes alternate a series of arranged interviews with episodes in which Reeve stands in front of something impressive, being boyishly enthusiastic. So the book necessarily has the same pattern, but without the visuals. And because he’s making a documentary, Reeve strays farther from his chosen line of latitude than do Tallack or Clarke—he speaks about visiting the “Capricorn countries”, and he travels quite widely in search of good stories.
When I’m reading a book with the intention of writing something about it, I tend to mark evocative or dramatic passages as I go along, for later reference. The problem I had with Reeve’s book is that I was three-quarters of the way through and still hadn’t marked a single passage. Part of that, I think, is because of Reeve’s journalistic background. Things are described in a series of short sentences—one thing happens, then another thing happens, then another thing happens. Here’s an example:
Then, with an almighty tearing noise and a deafening crash, the tree collapses to the ground. It is a bit of a shock. “Bloody hell!” I exclaim.
And the book was written on the fly, by candlelight or failing laptop battery, as the journey progressed, and then edited on a tight deadline to be released alongside the TV series. So there are some odd turns of phrase—I’m not sure filter-feeding flamingoes can reasonably be described as “munching” their food; nor do I fancy the idea of being “injected” with morning coffee.
Reeve is not so big on history, but very good on current problems. Of all the books, his does the best job of exploring the plight of indigenous peoples, since he deliberately seeks them out for interview. In Africa and South America, he talks to people displaced from their traditional ways of life to make way for logging, soy plantations and even national parks, and he’s at his best when he talks about the distress he feels on their behalf. He reserves his particular ire for the plight of the Australian Aborigine, however, to which he devotes almost an entire chapter, detailing the ways in which Australia has marginalized its first people.
He’s also good on deploying killer statistics, telling us for instance that, throughout history, perhaps half of all humans have died of malaria, or that the South American War of the Triple Alliance killed an astonishing 90% of Paraguayan adult males in the 1860s. (I’m not sure I needed to know where the world’s “third steepest railway incline” is, though.)
He samples tourist attractions at Iguazu, in the Okavango Delta, the Namib Desert, and the Atacama; gets involved in dangerous activities with South African and Brazilian border patrols; goes to visit a diamond mine in Botswana and a sapphire mine in Madagascar; has uncomfortably close encounters with hyenas, hippos, cheetahs and bees; and meets a rat that’s being trained to help clear minefields.
Through it all he’s constantly engaged with the situations he finds people in, and is always trying to tie those local problems in with the bigger global picture of climate change, shifting markets, and even the fashions in charitable giving:
Charitable Westerners donating their cheap clothes to Africa have undercut the local clothing industry. No Mozambican firm could ever make a T-shirt cheaper than a Western T-shirt donated for free.
Well, that’s obvious when you think about it, but I confess it had never occurred to me.
So these turn out to be three very different books—Tallack’s journey is intermittent and patchy, but layered with emotion; Clarke is the most devoted to seeking out his chosen line of latitude, but also the most laid-back; and Reeve is the most engaged, and has the widest variety of experiences. Of them all, I had the most fun with Clarke, and I suspect his is the only book I’ll go back to and read again.
We took a trip around the north coast recently. Although we know the mountainous north-west corner of Scotland well, the Flow Country of the north-east was unknown to us.
Our trip effectively began in Dornoch, where I had the single worst meal I’ve had in Europe this century—and I include meals that have actually poisoned me in that league table.
So we’ll move right along and head up the coast to Wick, our next port of call. Along the way we turned in for a look at the madness which is Dunrobin Castle, a bonkers chateau-styled stately home with its own railway station. We wandered round the gardens and took in a truly excellent falconry demonstration. Andy Hughes knows a great deal about birds of prey, and he communicates it clearly and entertainingly. And if you’re lucky, a gyrfalcon will fly so low over your head that you can feel the downdraught from its wings. That can’t be bad. Unless you’re a lemming, I suppose.
Not far north of Dunrobin, we entered the old county of Caithness, and suddenly there was an outbreak of road-signs pointing the way to places with names ending in -ster. We were in Viking country—the suffix -ster is a remnant of Old Norse bolstadr, meaning “farm”, and -ster place names stretch all the way to Orkney and Shetland. At Lybster (first syllable sounded as in libel, not liberty), we dropped down to the pretty harbour, had a lunch that wiped away the trauma of the previous evening’s dinner, and encountered a surprisingly tame Common Shrew darting around in the rocks next to the car park.
More interesting names cropped up north of Lybster—a geo (ɡjoː) or goe (ɡəʊ) is a steep sided coastal inlet—Norse again, from gja, meaning “cleft”. Back in the day, along this cliff-bound coast each little slot of a geo contained its own tiny fishing harbour—perhaps most famously the one at Whaligoe (“whale geo”), reached by a switchback stone staircase built into the cliff side.
Whaligoe is a sort of stealth visitors’ attraction, unsignposted from the road, presumably because those responsible for herding tourists around Caithness worry that someone will take a header into the sea off Whaligoe’s marvellous staircase. I wouldn’t fancy running down it in wet weather, but it’s actually a fairly easy descent down 330 steps to an artificial platform on which the boats were hauled out and the fish salted, before the womenfolk carried the baskets of fish back up the stairs. (They were generously provided with one shelf, halfway up the stairs, on which they could set their baskets and take a rest.)
From a base near Wick, we made the obligatory trip to John O’ Groats. I don’t really get John O’ Groats. Historically, it’s a little ferry port for Orkney (the ferry once operated by the eponymous Dutchman, Jan de Groot), with a fairly pretty hotel. Now it also has a big bus park, a skimpy distance indicator, and a collection of assorted souvenir shops that sell exactly the sort of stuff you might expect.
But despite its pretensions, it has no geographical significance—it’s neither the most northerly point on the British mainland (that’s at Dunnet Head), nor is it the farthest point on the mainland from Land’s End in Cornwall (that’s at Duncansby Head). I wonder how many of the good folk who pitch up next to the now-iconic signpost at John O’ Groats, having cycled from Land’s End, make the extra detour to Duncansby Head, which would take them a good half-kilometre farther from their starting point, as the crow flies. But then again, if they’d cycled from Lizard Point in Cornwall to Duncansby Head, their start and finish points would be six kilometres farther apart than the conventional Land’s End – John O’ Groats run. And then again, if they started from the Lizard, a trip to Dunnet Head would take them a half-kilometre farther still from their starting point.
So, like a said, I don’t really get John O’ Groats. I do like Duncansby Head and Dunnet Head, though—both set in wild country, and each of them featuring the windswept remains of wartime Royal Observer Corps posts. (The station at Duncansby head has decayed away until it’s just a couple of ventilation shafts and a welded hatch, surrounded by a fence-off patch of overgrown vegetation, but its decline has been well documented by the people at Subterranea Britannica.)
From Wick, we then motored round by Thurso and along the north coast to Durness. This is all part of the much-hyped North Coast 500 tourist route (which now seems to have the wince-generating alternative name “Route 500”). We’d worried that the roads might by busy, but we drove for long stretches without ever seeing another car. Once or twice a posse of motorcyclists would roar past, and occasionally we’d run into a little convoy of classic sports cars.
That’s another thing I don’t get. What makes someone sit down and say to themselves: “Right, I own a powerful convertible car with poor fuel economy. What shall I do? I know, I’ll drive it slowly through a rainy place in a queue behind some other vehicles! Perfect!” But there they were, and they never looked particularly cheerful, I have to say. I couldn’t help but wonder what happens when two of these convoys meet up on a winding single-track road with widely-spaced passing places. Carnage, I imagine.
From the cliffs and geos of the east coast, we were suddenly among long sandy beaches. And from the flat boggy land of the east, we drove steadily into the mountain scenery of the west.
From Durness, the road weaves south around the impressive summits of Foinaven and Quinag, and we found our way to our next stop, Lochinver. Lochinver’s an odd place—tucked away on a remote part of the west coast, not on the way to anywhere else, and yet mysteriously equipped with both a Michelin-starred restaurant and an outpost of Chez Roux. The Boon Companion and I have dined in both, and would recommend neither—instead, we respectfully direct your attention to the bohemian joys of the Lochinver Larder (and Pie Shop). On our first walk into town, we encountered a surprisingly tame otter, fishing close to shore near the harbour and apparently unconcerned about our gawping presence on the shore. An otter and a pie shop in one day!
From Lochinver we wound or way down the narrow coast road south of Inverkirkaig, in the hope of nipping up Stac Pollaidh for a bit of a view. But we arrived in the small car-park at the foot of the hill to discover the Scottish Perfect Storm—it was raining fairly heavily, but the midgies were still out—so Stac Pollaidh was abandoned in favour of an early lunch in Ullapool.
From Ullapool there was more coastal driving along the scenic route via Poolewe, Gairloch and Loch Maree before our final stop in Torridon.
Torridon is not exactly a teeming metropolis on a Sunday, but then again, you don’t go there for the night-life, do you?