Category Archives: Travel

Walk The Line: Three Travel Books About Lines Of Latitude

Travel books about latitudeBefore a journey a map is an impersonal menu; afterwards, it is intimate as a diary.

Thurston Clarke, Equator: An Epic Journey (1988)

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.

Journeys of Malachy Tallack, Thurston Clarke and Simon Reeve
Source of base map

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.

North Coast Circuit

The North driving route
Source map by Eric Gaba, Wikimedia Commons user: Sting

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.

Dunrobin Castle
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Dunrobin Castle, © 2017, The Boon Companion

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.

Lybster
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Lybster, © 2017, The Boon Companion

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.)

Whaligoe steps
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Whaligoe steps, © 2017, The Boon Companion

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.

John O' Groats
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John O’ Groats, © 2017, The Boon Companion

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.)

Sea stacks at Duncansby Head
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Sea stacks at Duncansby Head, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Dunnet Head
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Flow country on Dunnet Head, © 2017, The Boon Companion

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.

North coast beach
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A north coast beach, mobbed by tourists, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Kyle of Tongue
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Ben Loyal at the head of Kyle of Tongue

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!

Lochinver
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Lochinver, with Canisp and Suilven in the background, © 2017, The Boon Companion

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.

Little Loch Broom
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Little Loch Broom, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Slioch
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Slioch across Loch Maree, © 2017, The Boon Companion

Torridon is not exactly a teeming metropolis on a Sunday, but then again, you don’t go there for the night-life, do you?

Torridon
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Torridon village nestles below Liathach, © 2017, The Boon Companion

From The Small Isles To The Shiants

Islands visited
From an original map by Kelisi used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

I have lain down in the long grass while the raven honked and flicked above me and the skuas cruised in a milk-blue sky. I have felt at times, and perhaps this is a kind of delirium, no gap between me and the place. I have absorbed it and been absorbed by it, as if I have no existence apart from it. I have been shaped by those island times, and find it difficult now to achieve any kind of distance from them. The place has entered me. It has coloured my life like a stain.

Adam Nicolson, Sea Room (2001)

 

Having visited all the large islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Boon Companion and I recently set off to sample some of its smaller delights. We were travelling aboard the Proud Seahorse, a fairly small boat (seven passengers and four crew), and going ashore in an even smaller boat—a Rigid Inflatable Boat, to be exact, of the kind familiar to us from previous trips, like the one to Wrangel Island I wrote about previously.

Proud Seahorse at anchor
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Proud Seahorse, © 2017, The Boon Companion
RIB ashore in The Shiants
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RIB ashore in the The Shiants, © 2017, The Boon Companion

Our trip took us to three of the Small Isles, to a couple of the eastern outliers of Skye, and to the Shiants between Skye and Lewis.

It also took us through seas rich in birdlife, dolphins and whales. One day, off Eigg, we found ourselves in the middle of a feeding frenzy of gannets and Manx shearwaters (the gannets folding themselves like paper darts and diving into the sea all around us), with a minke whale cruising calmly through the midst of it all.

Gannet
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Gannet, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Minke whale
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Minke whale and Manx shearwaters, © 2017, The Boon Companion

And east of Skye we attracted a little pod of common dolphins, who sported in the bow-wave for five minutes, on occasion flinging themselves into the air to flop down sideways into the water—it was impossible to think anything other than that they were having fun. The Boon Companion hung precariously over the bow, trying to capture some of these chaotic high jinks on camera, but it was a near-impossible task.

Common dolphins
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Common dolphins in action, © 2017, The Boon Companion

On Eigg, we landed beside the spiffy new ferry terminal at Glamisdale, in the south, but without enough time to walk over to the main settlement of Cleadale, let alone to fulfil my ambition of nipping up Eigg’s improbable highest point, The Sgurr. (This proved to be a recurring theme of the trip—enough time for a pleasant shore walk, but my hillwalking ambitions thwarted at every turn.) Some of our party set of to look for the infamous Massacre Cave (where MacLeods from Skye killed close to 400 MacDonalds, in revenge for the MacDonalds castrating some MacLeods, in revenge for the MacLeods raping some MacDonalds—so it went, in sixteenth-century Scotland.) We chose instead to wander in the opposite direction, exploring the old harbour area near Poll nam Partan.

Sgurr of Eigg
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The Sgurr of Eigg, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Ferry jetty, Eigg
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New ferry slipway, Eigg, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Old harbour, Eigg
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Old harbour, Eigg, © 2017, The Boon Companion

Canna was perhaps the biggest revelation of the trip—we had absolutely no idea what to expect there. We found an island of tilted basalt terraces, producing spectacular bird cliffs along the north coast and layered green farmland in the south. The beautiful harbour nestles between Canna and the smaller island of Sanday—the two islands are connected by a bridge, though you can walk (or drive!) across the beach between them at low tide. So we did what was in effect a “two churches” tour—walking from the Presbyterian church on Canna, with its odd bell tower, to the Catholic church on Sanday, with its odd bell tower. Halfway between the two, the Café Canna was doing a roaring trade from ferry passengers and yacht-folk, and behind it a golden eagle hovered on the rising air along the cliff line behind the village.

Canna bird cliffs
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Bird cliffs, Canna, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Church of Scotland, Canna
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Church of Scotland, Canna, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Roman Catholic Church Of St Edward The Confessor, Sanday
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Roman Catholic Church Of St Edward The Confessor, Sanday, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Golden Eagle, Canna
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Golden eagle, Canna, © 2017, The Boon Companion

Rum afforded a stroll along the south shore of Loch Scresort. The Harvey’s map indicated an “otter hide” near the jetty, so we walked through the woods to take a look at it. A minute after walking in the door, what should we see messing about on the rocks outside but an otter. Blimey. That was unexpected, otters not being entirely cooperative with the aspirations of people who build otter hides. From the hide we walked up to the madness that is Kinloch Castle, passing signs that seemed to indicated “otters in all directions”, a selection of interesting visitor accommodation  (including a faux gypsy caravan), and a small herd of the world’s calmest deer.

Kinloch Castle, Rum
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Kinloch Castle, Rum, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Red deer, Rum
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Red deer, Rum, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Otters in all directions, Rum
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Otters in all directions, Rum, © 2017, The Boon Companion

Raasay seems like a nice place, but not in the hammering rain. We landed at the ferry slipway, and made a slow circuit through woodland and then back along the shoreline. The rain got heavier, and the camera never came out of its waterproof bag. Which is a shame, because we were treated to the spectacle of a swimming mink, which forged resolutely across the bay towards us, and then crossed the path about three metres in front of our small group. I’m not a big fan of the American mink in the abstract, being an invasive species that works slaughter on native small mammals and birds, but it’s nevertheless always nice to see a fierce little predator going about its business.

Cover of The Scottish Islands, Third EditionWe made two landings on Rona, to the north of Raasay. The first was at the north end, at Loch a’ Bhraige, which promised an anchorage sheltered from the southerly wind. Here we found ourselves staging a landing at MoD Rona, which Hamish Haswell-Smith describes as a “deep-sea listening post” in his book The Scottish Islands. It’s actually part of the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre. We rather expected the worst when our little party was met at the jetty by two stern men in a Land Rover Defender—but they quickly assessed us as being no threat to national security, and let us amble up past their helicopter pad to the lighthouse that crowns the point.

Rona lighthouse
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Rona lighthouse, © 2017, The Boon Companion

In the afternoon we slipped into Acairseid Mhor (the Big Anchorage), which was also nicely sheltered. At the jetty we found a noticeboard, which announced that there was a landing fee, but which also featured a couple of dog-leads hanging from hooks, to be conveniently borrowed by anyone who had landed with a dog but without a lead. Disappointingly, Rona Lodge with its bunkhouse, shop and “Rona Island stamps” was closed, and appeared to be the focus of some major building works, with dumper trucks rumbling up and down the main track. So we explored the shoreline, and then walked far enough inland to find a view that didn’t have a piece of JCB machinery in it.

On the shore at Rona
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Rona shoreline, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Acairseid Mhor, Rona
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Big Anchorage, Rona, © 2017, The Boon Companion

At the Shiants (pronounced shants), we anchored overnight in the Bay of Shiant, off Mol Mor, the “big shingle beach”, which is a narrow neck of shingle that connects two of the three main islands. In the afternoon, we made a landing on the beach next to the natural archway of Toll a’ Roimh, and climbed steeply over boulders and grass to sit next to the huge puffin colony among the rocks here. Higher up the slope, the ground is divided into curiously regular ridges, each a couple of metres wide—the remains of old lazy-bed cultivation, and a sign that these islands were once inhabited by people who had to use every square metre of flat land they could find, in a generally precipitous landscape. I walked farther, to sit at the highest point of the natural archway, which put my head just about right in the middle of a puffin flyway. They whirred past madly on either side of me, and every now and then one would drop panicky little orange feet like dive brakes, to decelerate and make a swerve around my head.

Natural arch, The Shiants
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Natural arch, The Shiants, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Puffins, The Shiants
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Puffins, The Shiants, © 2017, The Boon Companion

The topography of our landing site then presented an interesting problem, as well as an opportunity. Shiants landing map

As a glance at the map shows, it’s protected by a drying reef at low tide—so our little RIB had become trapped by the receding tide in what was effectively a large tidal pool. Except that this pool is connected to the sea through the natural arch. So we motored out through arch into the bouncy swell of the Minch, around the point, and back into the bay to our anchored ship.

Cover of Sea Room by Adam NicolsonThe following morning we went ashore on the shingle neck, and walked round to the islands’ only habitation—a bothy to which Compton Mackenzie would sometimes resort, when he owned these islands, to get a bit of peace and quiet for his writings. There, we found Adam Nicolson and his wife Sarah Raven in residence (they stay on the islands for a few days each year). Nicolson is the author of (among many other things), a memoir entitled Sea Room, in which he describes what it was like to find himself the owner of these islands, at the age of 21, when he inherited them from his father. (I quote an evocative passage from Sea Room at the head of this post.) He was kind enough, on a drizzly day, to give us a small archaeological tour of the old settlement remains above his house.

Bay of Shiant
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At anchor in the Bay of Shiant, © 2017, The Boon Companion
Shiants bothy
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Shiants bothy, © 2017, The Boon Companion

And that was our whirlwind tour of minor Hebrides. Not nearly enough time ashore on any of them, I’d say, but compensated by time spent at sea, spotting birds and mammals and watching the scenery go by.

Sunset
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

Harris … and Lewis

Borve beach at sunset, South Harris
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

Back to South Harris again this year, still enchanted by its rugged landscape and hallucinatory beaches.

We caught the ferry from Uig in Skye again—always nice to travel through Skye’s mad scenery, even on a hazy day.

The Storr above Portree, Skye
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

This time we were staying in a rather swish self-catering place, perched on a hillside above the beach at Borve.

Rock House, Borve, South Harris
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

The weather was mixed—rain every day, but sunshine every day too, though one day we did need to wait for the hour before sunset before the sky cleared. And the wind blew hard enough to keep the midges away, though it did also seem to discourage the shorebirds—apart from ubiquitous oystercatchers, a solitary ringed plover and a pair of spectacular fishing gannets, I didn’t have much to use the binoculars on.

We spent a lot of time wandering along South Harris’s beaches, which seemed to change colour on a minute-by-minute basis.

Scarista beach, South Harris
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

But we also ventured farther north this time, into a very different landscape of sea-lochs and mountains in North Harris.

Loch Mharaig and Todun, North Harris
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

And then beyond that, into the ancient flatlands of Lewis.

Lewis flatlands and the hills of Harris
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

We were heading for the stone circles at Callanish, on the Atlantic coast of Lewis, erected almost 5000 years ago. On a chill, grey day with shafts of sunlight breaking through the clouds and sweeping across the landscape, it’s an atmospheric place.

Callanish stones
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

And then home again. It was a nice day in Skye, and we were in no hurry, so instead of following the main stream of traffic across the bridge to the mainland, we peeled southwards just after Breakish, to catch the tiny ferry that plies between Kylerhea and Glenelg. The strait here is narrow and fiercely tidal, so the ferry spends some of its time travelling sideways. After we had boarded at Kylerhea, it set off unexpectedly northwards up the coast instead of outwards into the channel. Only after it had established a couple of hundred metres of a head start did it venture out into the tide-race, to be swept dramatically southwards again on its way to Glenelg. Sea eagles fish in the channel, but none were evident during our ten-minute crossing.

Glenelg ferry
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

Glenelg, a palindromic village, lies at the mouth of Glen More, and the road runs up this fertile and pretty glen before zig-zagging out of its top end over the Bealach Ratagain to join the main road at Shiel Bridge. We stopped at the top of the pass to admire the spectacular view, and then descended (reluctantly) to join the queues of traffic wending along Glen Shiel.

Loch Duich and Five Sisters of Kintail, from Bealach Ratagain
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© 2017, The Boon Companion

Liguria

Church of St Peter, Porto Venere
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty’s confidence.

E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear To Tread (1905)

 

We went to Liguria in April—that bit of the Italian coast just east of the French border, sometimes called the Italian Riviera, which traps the Ligurian Sea in its curve. When I was at school, the first syllable was pronounced to rhyme with fly, and the second vowel was like the “u” in furiouslaɪˈɡjʊərɪə. Nowadays these eccentric British pronunciations are disappearing, and it seems to have crept closer to the Italian, with the first syllable rhyming with fig, and the second vowel like the “oo” in Moorishlɪˈɡʊərɪə.

In climate, it’s a lot like the Côte d’Azur. But the landscape is very different, with steep hills and cliffs falling straight into the sea, stranding small villages in rocky clefts here and there along the exposed coastline.

Riomaggiore
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Riomaggiore, © 2017 The Boon Companion

There are interesting walking trails here—well waymarked and … well … reasonably well mapped, by Italian standards. The trails generally have three sections—the steep ascent from the village, the stroll through olive groves, and the steep descent to the next village. Many of them are nicely surfaced, and the reason for that becomes obvious, after a while—the locals drive up and down them on scooters, in tiny cars, and even in Tuk Tuk trucks. On one occasion, the Boon Companion and I were negotiating a blind corner and had to step quickly into a church doorway, to avoid a Fiat 500 which was being driven one-handed by a young woman who was talking animatedly into her smart-phone, held horizontally in front of her face. A short distance up the path she failed to make the turn at a Y-junction, and crunched head-on into a gate-post. As we watched, awe-stricken, she wrestled the Fiat into reverse gear, pulled back by a car length, and then accelerated off up the hill, her wing-mirrors clipping the hedges on either side. I could see her male front-seat passenger conducting a slow hand-clap throughout this process, and had to wonder how long that relationship was going to last (if not cut short in the meantime by a tragic motoring accident, of course).

And one day, just outside Riomaggiore, we ran into this odd object, adhering to a lamppost:

QR
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Out of curiosity I scanned the QR code, which took me to the website mentioned on the sticker, which then demanded that I allow my phone to share its location data. Since my phone has no more idea of its location than my shoes do, we reached an impasse at that point. But as we carried on up the hill, I pondered the state of outdoor navigation these days. A “You Are Here” sign that asks your phone where you are and then tells you where you are? What on earth is that about?

We started in Porto Venere, near the five coastal villages called the Cinque Terre, and then moved to Portofino.

Porto Venere from Castello Doria
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Port Venere, © 2017 The Boon Companion
Portofino harbour
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Portofino, © 2017 The Boon Companion

Both areas are well served by water buses that stop off at the various coastal towns and villages nearby, making a boat out and a walk back an appealing possibility. Some of the landing stages are surprisingly precarious in a high sea—but Italian sailors cheerfully chuck elderly Japanese ladies in inappropriate footgear on and off the boat, so all is well.

Landing at San Fruttuoso
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Landing at San Fruttuoso, © 2017 The Boon Companion
San Fruttuoso monastery
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San Fruttuoso monastery, © 2017 The Boon Companion

In Portofino, something happened that hasn’t happened to us before—we got a room upgrade. So we found ourselves installed in something like a marble aircraft hangar with soft furnishings and a view of the harbour, in which we wandered endlessly, trying to remember where we’d put our reading glasses.

Castello Brown, Portofino
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Portofino, the guidebooks say, is a place to “see and be seen”. It was certainly full of the sort of shops that sell only a single colour of linen scarf, staffed by exquisite creatures who sat tapping languidly on their mobile phones all day, and who responded with ill humour (a single, tiny vertical crease appearing between their rectangular eyebrows) if anyone actually came into the shop. The Boon Companion, of course, took to this like a duck to water, happily cutting la bella figura along the waterfront. Your correspondent meanwhile shambled in her wake, more brutta than bella.

Portofino coast
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Out in the bay beyond the harbour sat billionaire Andrey Melnichenko’s Motor Yacht A, clearly modelled on the children’s television submarine Stingray.

Motor Yacht A, Portofino
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

StingrayIt was up for sale for $300 million last year, but presumably Melnichenko is still struggling on with its limited accommodation while waiting for his even grander Sailing Yacht A to complete sea trials.

Selfie sticks were blessedly less evident than they were when I reported from Venice, but their users made up in persistence what they lacked in numbers—we sat over coffee at the harbour one day and watched a young woman spend twenty minutes finding the perfect combination of head tilt, pout, V-sign and backdrop. Twenty minutes. And they say that the internet has reduced people’s attention span.

Porto Venere by night
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

So we sipped prosecco in the spring sunshine, ate pasta, seafood and gelati, and watched the passing show. What could be better?

Green Lizard
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Madeira

Funchal downtown mosaic
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

 

We’re from Madeira, but perfectly respectable so far.

George Bernard Shaw You Never Can Tell (1899)

A couple of days in Madeira, just to remind ourselves what sunshine looks like.

Madeira seems like it should be a marvellously easy and unstressful foreign place to visit—written Portuguese is often pretty easy to puzzle out, if you’ve already encountered a few Romance languages;  much of the signage is helpfully multilingual; almost everyone seems to speak English anyway; and the place is thoroughly geared up as a tourist destination. Added to that, the Madeiran people seem to be extraordinarily laid-back, helpful and generous with their time.

Maybe that’s what makes it so popular with English people. All along the pretty promenade in Funchal, the main language to be heard was English. In the busy restaurants and cafés, English voices were all around, punctuated by the occasional low mutter of German.

Our hotel seemed to be entirely populated by elderly couples from the Home Counties, who operated on a toxic overdrive of disorganization, anxiety and demanding behaviour—so the public areas rang to the sound of loud peremptory instructions being issued in plummy Received Pronunciation to the heroically indulgent staff.

Funchal waterfront, with its spiffy new gardens, public statuary and promenade, is a nice place to stroll or sit, but the huge new liner pier means that one or two cruise ships disgorge into the area every day, and you can find yourself suddenly mixed up in a crowd of name-badged people, being shepherded on to a tour bus.

Funchal waterfront
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© 2017 The Boon Companion
Funchal from waterfront
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

A lot of people enjoy the plants and flowers along the shore, but I was drawn to the new erosion defences—giant interlocking concrete blocks called tetrapods, each one weighing multiple tons. I’d have paid good money to see how they put them in place.

Dolosse, Funchal
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

The main thing about Madeira is that it is mountainous. Really mountainous, everywhere. Big green mountains, often cloud-capped, push up to well over 1500m, right behind Funchal. Every road seems to be strung together from steep ascents, sudden curves, abrupt drop-offs and unexpected tunnels. The international airport is sandwiched into a thin strip of coast, with its runway poking out into the sea on stilts, as you can see in this video from an Airbus on finals:

We’d decided to avoid the coastal strip of mega-hotels and had booked into a smaller place in the Funchal hinterland, about fifteen minutes’ walk from the waterfront. The fifteen minutes proved to be on roads that could be described as “intermittently precipitous”, and which were often too narrow to provide dedicated space for pedestrians. So each trip into town turned into a game of “dodge the traffic”—leaping into doorways or between parked cars as the local drivers hurtled past. (Though it has to be said that the Madeiran pedestrians simply ignored the traffic, occasionally deigning to move their shopping bags out of the way as a car whisked past an inch from their elbow.)

Funchal street
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

Madeira is the only place in the world I’ve ever become travel sick during a five-minute trip in the back of a taxi—there’s something about the extra plane of movement afforded by Madeiran roads (pitch-up and pitch-down as well as turn-left and turn-right) that plays merry hell with my vestibular system.

Another product of Madeira’s hilly terrain are the carros de cestos, the wicker toboggans that run down the hillside from the village of Monte to the outskirts of Funchal, piloted (if that’s the word) by two carrieros wearing straw boaters. Our guide assured us that these had been invented by an Englishman, but I’ve been unable to find any confirmation of that. They used to run for six kilometres over steep cobbled streets, but now the descent is a more modest two kilometres on tarmac. Here’s some action video shot by an intrepid traveller:

You’ll notice, from the road markings, parked cars and cross-streets that the carros share the tarmac with more conventional vehicles. However, there’s no truth in the rumour that carro de cesto is Portuguese for “really embarrassing way to die”.

Madeirans gave the impression of being cheerfully but constantly at war with their own island. The landslides, the flash floods in narrow ravines, the forest fires—everywhere, there are scars on the landscape and massive engineering projects designed to protect Madeira’s cluttered infrastructure.

Nun's Valley, Madeira
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

In fact, the landscape made me slightly headachy with its complicated interplay of the human and the natural—in the midst of exuberant vegetation, it seems that every horizontal surface contains a building, a garden, a plantation or a graveyard, and every slope that’s not entirely vertical is crossed by a system of poio farm terracing or one of the old levada irrigation systems. I was left anxiously wondering if there was any place on the island from which it would be possible to have a view that didn’t feature a clutter of pantile roofs and and steeply terraced fields.

Nun's Valley, Madeira
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© 2017 The Boon Companion

So that was our (very limited) encounter with Madeira. We liked the relaxed, friendly café culture, but were a little oppressed by the cluttered environment and the bus parties. And at times I got the very strong sense that I might have fallen into Dave Hutchinson’s fictional “Community”—a parallel Europe that had been entirely colonized by English people.

 

Levison Wood: Walking The Americas

Cover of Walking the AmericasI’ve found on these long expeditions that there sometimes comes a point when you grow tired of walking.

Walking the Americas recounts the story of Levison Wood’s third epic walking journey—a successor to Walking the Nile and Walking the Himalayas, and a companion volume to the Channel 4 TV series of the same name. You can find my review of Walking The Himalayas here.

The Nile was a highly specific route—following the river from source to sea; the Himalayas were more diffuse, offering Wood a range of route options, so that he could string together a series of particularly interesting locations; the “Americas” starts with broad choice in the north, and narrows down to some severely limited options in the south.

Wood walks through the historical core of the Americas—Central America. For start and finish points that allow a complete traverse of this isthmus, he chooses two events from the Spanish conquest of the region—the landing of Hernán Cortés on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 1519, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa‘s  journey across the Isthmus of Panama at Darién in 1513, during which his party became the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. As Wood points out, these two men are forever united by a historical inaccuracy in John Keats’s poem On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, which ends:

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Cortés never visited the Darién colony, and Keats clearly conflated his adventures with those of Balboa. (The story goes that, when informed of the error, he left it in so as to preserve the scansion of the poem. That’s poets for you, that is.) Despite the neatness of this poetic link to the geography of the region, it seems logistically more likely that Wood chose his starting point in Yucatán simply because that’s where his walking companion, the photographer Alberto Cáceres, lives. And his destination is clearly dictated by the shape of the isthmus, which has a definite southern endpoint where it joins the continent of South America just beyond the jungles of Darién. Between these two points, he walked 1,800 miles over the course of four months.

Walking the Americas route
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Levison Wood’s route through Central America (Public Domain base map)

In contrast to companions on Wood’s two previous journeys, Cáceres is able to stay with him throughout the trip, and it’s evident that he’s an invaluable asset—aimiable, upbeat and possessed of an apparently infallible ability to charm Spanish-speaking officialdom.

Wood also seems to be blessed with an easy sociability that stands him in good stead—chatting cheerfully to border guards, drug dealers, gang members, child refugees and pretty much anyone else he meets along the way. I think he describes his approach well when discussing photography, early in the book:

You need to speak to people and get them to relax. You need to spend an hour or so chatting about their life, their passions, their wants and needs, before you even get your camera out. They must trust you, and that cannot be forced. They must like you, and you can’t force that either.

Wood’s impulse to chat only betrays him once, when he and his companion are treated to lunch (in a manner that can’t be refused) by a group of men they believe to be drug dealers. He works very hard to make it clear he is simply a traveller and writer (not a police informant), and then has to work hard again to be sure they understand he is not a rich writer (so not worth kidnapping for ransom). Presumably exhausted by this gruelling process and beginning to relax slightly, he then asks brightly, “So, what do you do?”

After a tense silence that gives Wood ample time to regret his curiosity, he is told that they “grow beans and corn.”

As with previous volumes, the book is a useful companion to the television series. The memorable moments from the series are all here—diving in a cenote used for human sacrifice; walking to the rim of an active volcano; climbing Cerro Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, to see the sunrise; walking edgily through gang territories in San Pedro Sula; and the final slog through the jungle of the Darién Gap. But there’s also much background information on the history of the area, and a lot of moments that never made it to the TV screen—a hilarous consultation with the elderly and  eccentric explorer John Blashford-Snell (during which Wood develops a sort of explorer envy because he won’t be able to take a gunboat with him into Darién); the apology he receives from the gang leaders through whose territory he passes, who say that they would have tidied up the graffiti if they’d had more warning of his arrival; the enthusiastic but seriously underequipped and ultimately ill-fated Belgian travellers who are planning to cross Darién before Wood gets there, and who have the potential to blight his carefully negotiated arrangements in that sensitive region; and a poignant visit to Puerto Escosés, the site of Scotland’s failed colony in the New World, and the focus of the seventeenth-century Darien Scheme, a financial venture that ultimately bankrupted Scotland and ended its existence as an independent nation.

And there are snakes, spiders, vampire bats, river crossings, unpleasant injuries, quicksand … and a moment when they get lost and turn up as unwelcome trespassers in someone’s garden.

What’s not to like?

Ginge Fullen: Sic Diximus

Cover of Sic Diximus, by Ginge Fullen

Within 500m I was stopped by an Army patrol. To cut a long story short, I was stopped three more times by the Army and twice by the Police in the space of the next hour. I fobbed them off each time. Two policemen followed me back to the hotel. My local guide Menpong arrived the next morning and I was glad to get out of town and heading to the mountains but I wasn’t too confident that my troubles would stop there.

I’ve written about Ginge Fullen, and my involvement in his Africa’s Highest Challenge expedition, in my post about his previous book, Finding Bikku Bitti. That one described the gruelling conclusion of Africa’s Highest Challenge, when Ginge managed to climb Bikku Bitti, the highest point in Libya—having already spent five years climbing the highest point in every other African country. Conquering Bikku Bitti took three separate Sahara expeditions, during the second of which Ginge almost died.

This book is an altogether more sedate affair, describing his quest to climb the highest point in Bangladesh. Like Bikku Bitti, it required three separate attempts—but this time because there was so much disagreement about where the highest point in Bangladesh actually was.

I not only get a mention in Sic Diximus, my name’s on the cover, along with that of Ginge’s local guide, Menpong. That’s typical of Ginge’s generosity—I’ve mentioned before that he tends to downplay his own achievements while punctiliously acknowledging the contributions of those around him. But I certainly don’t deserve to appear as an author on this one—the adventure is Ginge’s, the story is Ginge’s, the words are Ginge’s, and the (often beautiful) photographs are Ginge’s.

Cover of World Tops and BottomsMy involvement started back in 1996, when I was compiling a set of tables called World Tops and Bottoms for Dave Hewitt’s TACit Press, listing the highest and lowest points of every country and dependency in the world. There were various “problem countries”, and Bangladesh was one of those—no-one seemed to be entirely sure what the highest mountain in Bangladesh was, where it was, or how high it was. One frequently mentioned name was Keokradong, but that name was associated with at least three different hills in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and with a variety of altitudes from 927m to 1230m. Another was Reng Tlāng, on the border between Bangladesh and India, with quoted heights from 957m to 1003m. I couldn’t lay my hands on any useful national mapping, so checked the 1:500,000 Tactical Pilotage Chart of the area—which showed absolute nothing over 1000m in eastern Bangladesh, except for an unnamed point of 3454ft (1053m) on the border with Myanmar, far from Reng Tlāng and any of the Keokradongs. That point therefore found its way into World Tops and Bottoms— rather dubiously associated with the name “Mowdok”, which seemed more likely to be the name of the whole border range, rather than the specific highest point.

Now we roll forward to 2005, when Ginge was interested in knocking off the highest point in Bangladesh. By that time, a Survey of Bangladesh photogrammetric survey of the region in 2003 had brought up a new name, or rather several new names for one new hill—Tazing Dong, Tajingdong or Bijoy had been announced (with some fanfare in the Bangladeshi press) as Bangladesh’s real highest point, with a height of 987m. (This was almost immediately inflated to over 1000m in popular accounts—Banglapedia briefly topped out at 1280m.) By this time I was in contact with Jonathan de Ferranti, another mountain data-cruncher, who had given me a copy of an early version of the data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), and who had checked the Russian 1:200,000 military topographic maps of the area. We were still seeing no ground over 1000m anywhere in eastern Bangladesh except for the 1053m point marked on the Tactical Pilotage Chart, which corresponded to a spot height of 1052m on the Russian topo map and a highest cell of 1049m in the SRTM dataset. It all looked pretty solid, but no-one seemed to be seeing it but us.

Saka Haphong: TPC, Russian topo, SRTM
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Got all that? Good. So, at this point, enter Ginge, who just wanted to climb the right mountain. The folks at Guinness World Records were telling him he needed to climb Keokradong *. The Survey of Bangladesh (and surely they should know) were telling him he needed to go up Tazing Dong. And two increasingly irritated cartophiles in Scotland were telling him needed to hop over to the Myanmar border to climb something without a discernible name.

Being Ginge, he climbed all three. And that’s what this book is about—Ginge sitting down for tea with Aung Shwe Prue Chowdhury, Rajah of the Chittagong Hill Tracts; Ginge blagging his way past a military checkpoint and browbeating a Bangladeshi general into giving him a lift; Ginge pitching up at the Survey of Bangladesh head office to tell them they’ve got it all wrong; Ginge betting the army major who conducted the photogrammetric survey that he’d missed a higher mountain … and Ginge nearly dying again, but this time from a dodgy chicken curry.

Climbing Keokradong turned out to be relatively easy—the other two summits required machete work on the way up, and to clear enough space on the summit for a good GPS reading. I’m probably not giving too much away if I tell you that the 1053m point on the Myanmar border turned out to be the highest. For a while after Ginge established “ground truth”, it even seemed as if he might get the chance to name the mountain. We gleefully came up with Sic Diximus, as close as we could get to “We told you so!” in Latin. (The translation came courtesy of my brother-in-law George, who is freakishly still able to speak Latin more than four decades after studying it at school.)

But it wasn’t to be. Unsurprisingly, the Tripura people who live in the remote valley below the mountain did have a name for it—Saka Haphong, meaning “Peak of the East”. And, in true Bangladeshi style, there’s at least one other name, too—topographic maps prepared in British India in the 1930s and 1940s label it as Mowdok Taung.

Since Ginge blazed the way in 2006, the way to Saka Haphong has turned into a popular trekking route, and the summit area is now kept clear by the feet of frequent visitors. Here’s a video impression of what the area looks like nowadays:

It’s a remarkable story. As with his previous book, it’s copiously illustrated with photographs clearly printed on good quality paper. You can have a look at the first few pages (which include a photography of yours truly) on the Blurb site at blurb.co.uk and blurb.com.


* This sort of out-of-date advice was a recurring theme with Guinness during Africa’s Highest Challenge—their alleged experts seemed just to be pulling up the CIA World Factbook on their computers, rather than looking at, you know, a map or anything. I’m sure (well, I hope) the CIA World Factbook is just chock-full of actual facts when it comes to important geopolitical matters. But among people who are interested in the highest points of countries (and yes, actually, there are several of us) it is wearily referred to as the CIA World “Fact” Book.

Côte d’Azur (November 2016)

So, back to the Côte d’Azur for one last blink of sunshine and warmth, before the long dreary descent into Scottish winter. Not much to add, really, to my previous report from the same area in the spring of this year.

We stayed in Juan-les-Pins for a few days, a location that (for those of a certain age) irresistibly brings back the 1969 Peter Sarstedt song, Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?

That was back in the day when the Côte d’Azur was an impossibly exotic location. But during our visit Juan-les-Pins seemed quiet and lazy, a little superannuated, distinctly unfashionable and well beyond its peak season. So we fitted right in.

We stayed in a hotel that used to be a villa owned by the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. So we did our best to act like Scott and Zelda as we strolled Juan-les-Pins’s beach front—except without the affairs, arguments, attention-seeking behaviour and the final descent into alcoholism and madness, obviously. We largely succeeded.

Hotel Belles Rives, Juan-les-Pins
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Scott & Zelda’s place © The Boon Companion, 2016
Kite surfers, Juan-les-Pins
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Kite surfers © The Boon Companion, 2016
Waterfront, Juan-les-Pins
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Another bleak November day © The Boon Companion, 2016

Then on to Cap Ferrat. We were handily located at the neck of the peninsula, roughly equidistant from Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. So it was an easy stroll almost every day for a baguette or a salad for lunch, and then a local restaurant for dinner. (Isn’t it nice when the humblest pizza place also does a decent glass of champagne?)

Cap Ferrat and Rade de Villefranche-sur-Mer
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Cap Ferrat © The Boon Companion, 2016
Harbour at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
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Harbour at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat © The Boon Companion, 2016
Mackerel sky over Beaulieu-sur-Mer
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Mackerel sky over Beaulieu © The Boon Companion, 2016
Ephrussi Gardens, Cap Ferrat
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Ephrussi Gardens, Cap Ferrat © The Boon Companion, 2016

And the weather was unseasonably fine—shirtsleeves almost every day for two hardy Scots, and only one day of rain. I was pleased to see that French men are still wearing their sweaters tied around their necks by the sleeves, just the way Charles Aznavour was doing it in the 1960s. It’s good to see that an otherwise stylish nation is still keeping one deeply naff sartorial trope alive.

British Airways managed to wreck the relaxed ambience by cancelling our flight home and sending us an urgent text message to say that we had to get to the airport pronto if we weren’t to miss their alternate routing. So we were tumbled back into Scottish darkness, drizzle and single-figure temperatures feeling slightly frazzled, with a vague impression that it might all have been a dream.

Red Admiral
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A Red Admiral deciding whether it’s time to hibernate yet © The Boon Companion, 2016

 

Russian Far East: Part 3 – Chukchi Peninsula

In my first post about this trip, I described how we got to the Siberian port of Anadyr. In my second post, I described our stay at Wrangel Island, in the Russian Arctic. This post is about what we did between Anadyr and Wrangel (and between Wrangel and Anadyr), as we sailed along the coast of the Chukchi Peninsula.

Chukchi Peninsula map
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The Chukchi Peninsula, showing places mentioned in the text
(based on a public domain map – original source)

I’m going for a set of themes again:

WHALES

We saw whales blowing in the distance almost every day we were at sea—mainly grey whales, occasional humpbacks, and a couple of rare bowheads.

Our first close encounter took place between Itygran Island and the outlying bird cliffs of Nuneangan Island. (Itygran is also spelled Ittygran, Yttigran and Yttygran—one of the hazards of transliterating between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.) We were in small boats, returning to the ship, when we found ourselves in the middle of a group of feeding grey whales. With the engine turned off, we bobbed in the gentle swell for twenty minutes or so, as these big creatures surfaced, breathed and dived all around us.

Grey whale tail, Itygran Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Grey whale back, Itygran Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

The textbooks say that grey whales don’t breach (leap almost entirely out of the water) like humpbacks. Our grey whales hadn’t read the textbooks, though.

Grey whale breaching at Itygran Island (1)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Grey whale breaching at Itygran Island (2)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Grey whale breaching at Itygran Island (3)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

Later, as we sailed past the remote town of Uelen, on the north coast of Cape Dezhnev, the ship moved into an area where greys were feeding. For a while, there wasn’t a direction you could look in without seeing the haze from two or three blows hovering above the water, or the fluke of a whale rising smoothly into the air as it dived deep.

Grey whales off Uelen, Cape Dezhnev
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Grey whale tail and blow, Uelen, Cape Dezhnev
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
WALRUS

Huge walrus haul-outs used to be common on Wrangel, but the walrus seem to have shifted their activities to the Siberian coast in recent years. Our best walrus encounter was along the cliffs of Kolyuchin Island, where they lay heaped on the sharp rocks in large numbers. They’re curious creatures, and once they’d caught sight of the boats, several came out to take a look at us.

Walrus haul-out, Kolyuchin Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Walrus in the water, Kolyuchin Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
SMALL MAMMALS

On Itygran Island, we found ourselves a vantage point between a scree slope and some ground squirrel burrows on the open tundra, and settled down to wait. The ground squirrels never put in an appearance, but after we’d sat quietly for a while, a pika came out and started to go about its frantic autumnal business of laying in food for the winter. These little fellows have quite the most remarkable alarm call, shrieking out a high-pitched yelp that sounds as if it comes from something ten times their size.

Pika, Preobrazheniya Bay
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

We saw ground squirrels on several occasions later, but they’re maddening creatures to photograph—standing at attention in plain view for minutes on end, and then legging it as soon as a camera lens is rotated towards them.

I also came close to treading on numerous tundra voles at Cape Dezhnev. They’re also impossibly fleet for photography, but they create characteristic runways in the surface vegetation to show that they’re around. Here’s a runway at Belyaka Spit.

Tundra Vole runway, Belyaka Spit
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
LANDSCAPE

The landscape is stunning. Farther south than Wrangel there was correspondingly more vegetation, and the ground was awash in autumn colours.

Autumn, Preobrazheniya Bay
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Preobrazheniya Bay © The Boon Companion, 2016
Preobrazheniya Bay
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Preobrazheniya Bay © The Boon Companion, 2016
Itygran Island
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Itygran Island © The Boon Companion, 2016
Autumn, Itygran Island
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Itygran Island © The Boon Companion, 2016
Gil'mimyl huts
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Gil’mimyl © The Boon Companion, 2016
Gil'mimyl
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Gil’mimyl © The Boon Companion, 2016
Vehicle track to Gil'mimyl hot springs
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Gil’mimyl © The Boon Companion, 2016
Belyaka Spit
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Belyaka Spit © The Boon Companion, 2016
Radar reflector on Belyaka Spit
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Radar reflector, Belyaka Spit © The Boon Companion, 2016
AURORA

We had clear skies most nights, and were close enough to the equinox that it got properly dark. There were good auroral displays for six nights in succession, one of the best being as we sailed up Kolyuchin Inlet, with the sea so calm that the ship was an (almost) steady platform for photography.

Moon over Kolyuchin Inlet
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Aurora over Kolyuchin Inlet (1)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Aurora over Kolyuchin Inlet (2)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Aurora over Kolyuchin Inlet (3)
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
HERALD ISLAND

From Wrangel, we sailed 70 kilometres eastwards to Herald Island. Herald is not much more than a ridge of rock rising from the sea, surrounded by steep cliffs and lumpy scree slopes along its whole nine-kilometre length.

Herald Island cliffs
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Orographic cloud, Herald Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Herald Island at sunset
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© The Oikofuge, 2016

There’s a small beach at its southeast end, from which I’m pretty sure you could access the spine of the island with just a bit of scrambling. At the northwest end, there’s a shore-line boulder-field on which four of the Karluk castaways found their way ashore from the pack ice in 1914, only to die under mysterious circumstances, their camp still full of food, their guns still provided with ammunition. So remote and inaccessible is this place, their bodies weren’t discovered for a decade. (I previously wrote about the Karluk shipwreck when I reported on our stay at Wrangel Island.)

Approaching Herald Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Among ice floes, Herald Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

We cruised in boats through sea ice to the south end of the island, and counted polar bears. At one point, there were more than thirty bears visible from our position just off the coast—clambering the scree, walking the ridge, snoozing on patches of snow. Herald is a great denning site for overwintering bears, but at this time of year they’ve got nothing much to do except wait for the sea-ice and the seals to return.

Polar bear on snow, Herald Island
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This bear is sleeping at an old den site © The Boon Companion, 2016
Polar bears on scree, Herald Island
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A family of bears retreat up the scree © The Boon Companion, 2016

And we went ashore on the scrap of beach. There’s not much reason to land on Herald (unless you’re shipwrecked, of course). We landed because it’s something not many people get to do (far fewer people have set foot on Herald than on the summit of Everest) and also because it was freezing cold sitting in a boat under Herald’s cap of cloud and in the shadow of its cliffs, so it was nice to have a chance to jog around a bit to warm up.

Ashore on Herald Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
THE DIOMEDES

The Diomede Islands sit in the Bering Strait between the easternmost point of the Russian mainland (Cape Dezhnev) and the westernmost point of the American mainland (Cape Prince of Wales). They’re about forty kilometres from both mainlands, and less than four kilometres apart. But they’re separated not just by an international border, but the Date Line as well—those meagre four kilometres bring not just a change of government, but a shift of four time zones and a change of date too, so that anyone who made the crossing would need to shift their watch by twenty hours.

Approaching Big Diomede
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Approaching Big Diomede © The Oikofuge, 2016
Little Diomede and Big Diomede
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Little Diomede and Big Diomede © The Oikofuge, 2016

Not many make the crossing, though. The Soviets relocated the Yupik residents of Big Diomede to the mainland, set up a Border Guard post at the north end of the island, and closed the border—disrupting what had until then been a trans-Bering Inuit community. On Little Diomede, a tiny community remains in the village of Diomede, with 200 inhabitants.

Alaska and Little Diomede from Big Diomede
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Alaska beyond Little Diomede © The Boon Companion, 2016
Cape Dezhnev from Big Diomede
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Cape Dezhnev from Big Diomede © The Oikofuge, 2016

We weren’t permitted to land on Big Diomede (which the Russians call Ratmanov), or to cross the border to Little Diomede. We were permitted to cruise the boats along the north coast of the island, so long as we didn’t move out of sight of a Border Guard standing on an observation platform next to the station. Like anywhere in Russia, we weren’t allowed to take a photograph of the government buildings of the station (though you can find them easily enough on Google Earth). But we did give a yell and a wave to the little group of (presumably off-duty) men who came out to take a look at us, and got a yell and a wave back.

Every now and then, of course, as we dipped in and out of various inlets along the bird cliffs, we did move out of sight of the guard. We framed elaborate (and entirely theoretical) plans of how we could get someone ashore in those moments, replacing them with an inflatable dummy in the boat to keep the head-count correct. We weren’t sure what the point of that would be, but we’d all read too many Cold War spy thrillers not to consider it desirable as an end in itself. Thwarted on the espionage front, I contented myself with leaning out of the boat and slapping a Big Diomede rock in passing. Next best thing to a landing, really.

Bird cliffs, Big Diomede
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Plotting our way ashore © The Boon Companion, 2016
CULTURE

On Itygran Island we visited Whalebone Alley, a 600-year-old site in which whale bones are arrayed in a linear pattern extending for over half a kilometre along the shore, with ribs and jaw bones set up on end in the tundra. It’s clearly a ritual site of some kind, but no-one seems very sure of its significance.

Whalebone Alley, Itygran Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Professor Khromov, Whalebone Alley, Itygran Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Whalebone Alley, Itygran Island
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© The Boon Companion, 2016

At Cape Dezhnev, we walked through the atmospheric ruins of Naukan, an abandoned Yupik settlement. People lived here for centuries, on a tilted plateau perched above a gravel beach looking out on the chilly Bering Sea where they hunted for sea mammals. But the Naukan people were forcibly relocated by the Soviets in 1958, who pronounced their village “uninhabitable”, in the teeth of the evidence to the contrary. In the museum in Lavrentiya, we met a Yupik woman who had lived in Naukan as a small child, and still missed it.

Ruined Yupik village of Naukan, Cape Dezhnev
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
Cape Dezhnev lighthouse
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Cape Dezhnev lighthouse above Naukan © The Boon Companion, 2016

In Lavrentiya, we found ourselves being photographed by the locals almost as much as we were photographing them, which was an interesting experience. In Lavrentiya, too, I heard unmistakable sounds from overhead, and stopped in the middle of the street to gaze up at a skein of migrating sandhill cranes passed overhead on their way to spend the winter somewhere near Mexico. Have a listen to their flight calls:

(Recording by Paul Marvin, downloaded from xeno-canto, used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 licence)

Isn’t that an atmospheric sound?

Downtown Lavrentiya
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Downtown Lavrentiya © The Boon Companion, 2016
Chukchi-Yupik dance, Lavrentiya
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Chukchi-Yupik dance performance, Lavrentiya © The Boon Companion, 2016
Children & puppy, Lavrentiya
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© The Boon Companion, 2016
AND FINALLY …

The flight home from Keflavik to Glasgow had one more holiday treat to offer. The flight path slants across the Hebrides of Scotland, and for the first time we had clear weather.

The show started when I caught sight of the Flannan Islands (location of a famous mystery disappearance) from my seat on the left of the plane. Craning to look ahead, I could see the whole of Lewis laid out ahead of me. Then we flew past Harris, looking down on Luskentyre Beach and Scarista Beach, where we’d walked earlier this year, then down the west coast of Skye, over Rum and Eigg, and then between Ardnamurchan and the Isle of Mull.

Skye Cuillin
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The Skye Cuillin © The Boon Companion, 2016
Island of Rum
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Rum © The Boon Companion, 2016

The cloud eventually close below us as we passed Ben Cruachan. Show over, and back to rainy Glasgow.