Category Archives: Travel

Kylerhea, Skye

Descent to Kylerhea, Skye
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Descent to Kylerhea, © 2021, The Boon Companion

With Covid lockdown lifted (at least for now) but international travel still looking like a Very Bad Idea for the rest of the year, the Boon Companion and I are back to travelling around Scotland. Our most recent trip was to Kylerhea, at the eastern end of the Isle of Skye.

It’s not a particularly easy place to get to. From the rest of Skye, it’s reached by a scenic, tortuous, single-track road, the last section of which you can see in the image above.

From the mainland, in summer, it can be reached from the palindromic village of Glenelg, via the little six-car ferry that plies back and forth across the Kyle Rhea narrows. The tide rips through this narrow strait at a rate of knots, such that the ferry occasionally has to travel almost sideways between its two piers.

Kylerhea ferry
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Kylerhea ferry, © 2021, The Boon Companion

But Glenelg is connected to the rest of Scotland by another scenic, tortuous, single-track road.

Road to Glenelg
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Road to Glenelg, © 2021, The Boon Companion

So it’s an interesting place to get to. But once there, we were comfortably installed in a self-catering “cottage” with a fine view over the narrows to the mainland.

Kyn, Kylerhea
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Kyn, Kylerhea, © 2021, The Boon Companion
Interior of Kyn, Kylerhea
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Interior of Kyn, Kylerhea, © 2021, The Boon Companion

The weather was … well … Skye in May. So a bit of mixed bag, but we had a period of sunshine every day, as you’ll glean from the photographs.

We did our usual thing of driving somewhere and then spending a few hours walking through the scenery, but we did also need to keep pulling over to admire the views along the way, too.

Head of Loch Duich from Ratagan pass
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Head of Loch Duich from Ratagan pass, © 2021, The Boon Companion
Blabheinn from Torrin
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Blabheinn from Torrin, © 2021, The Boon Companion
Beinn na Chaillich from Loch Cill Chriosd, Skye
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Beinn na Chaillich from Loch Cill Chriosd, © 2021, The Boon Companion

From the little village of Plockton we walked along the coast through an honest-to-god rhododendron forest, to the baronial pile of Duncraig Castle, which, like Dunrobin Castle, has its own little railway station, complete with an octagonal wooden waiting room (first-class only, I imagine).

Plockton
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Plockton, © 2021, The Boon Companion
Rhododendron forest, Plockton
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Rhodondendron forest, Plockton, © 2021, The Boon Companion
Duncraig Castle, Plockton
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Duncraig Castle, © 2021, The Boon Companion
Duncraig railway station
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Duncraig railway station, © 2021, The Boon Companion

On another day we wended our way past the Talisker Distillery to reach the lovely little Talisker Bay.

Track to Talisker Bay, Skye
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Track to Talisker Bay, © 2021, The Boon Companion

The sand at Talisker is a slightly surreal mix of volcanic black and cockleshell white, which sorts itself continuously into new patterns as the tide ebbs and flows.

Talisker Bay, Skye
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Talisker Bay, © 2021, The Boon Companion

And we drove past the striking war memorial at Glenelg to reach the brochs of Gleannbeag.

War Memorial, Glenelg
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War Memorial, Glenelg, © 2021, The Boon Companion
Dun Telve Broch, Glenelg
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Dun Telve Broch, Glenelg, © 2021, The Boon Companion
Dun Troddan Broch, Glenelg
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Dun Troddan Broch, Glenelg, © 2021, The Boon Companion

I’ve written about Scottish brochs before, when I made my Three Brochs Tour during lockdown, but now I can give you an impression of what the original structures must have looked like. The view of Dun Troddan, above, shows the complex structure of the walls, which contained internal stairs and what seems to have been a passive ventilation system so that rainwater which penetrated the outer drystone wall did not make the interior space damp.

On the wildlife front, we had a few distant deer, a white-tailed eagle above the Talisker road, and this little fellow, who clonked off the picture window one evening:

Willow Warbler or Chiffchaff?
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© 2021, The Boon Companion

It might be a Willow Warbler, it might be a Chiffchaff. Their song is reportedly the best way to tell them apart, but it was understandably not in the mood for singing. But after a while it had a little experimental hop around (straightening those alarmingly bent toes), gave me a reproachful look, and flew off.

So. Our first trip of 2021, after a lockdown cancellation earlier in the year. There are more planned—we’ll see how that turns out.

Rainbow at sunset, Kylerhea
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Rainbow at sunset, Kylerhea, © 2021, The Oikofuge

Ullapool

Ullapool
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© 2020, The Boon Companion

With foreign travel currently falling into the “More Trouble Than It’s Worth” category, The Boon Companion and I have been using the brief periods between travel bans to enjoy what are nowadays called staycations, but when we were growing up were called “proper holidays”—that is, leaving home and staying in another part of the country for a few days.

Ullapool was the venue for the first “proper holiday” I can remember—a week in a caravan at Rhue Point*, enlivened by the fact that my father’s car blew a cylinder-head gasket on the way north, and it took the entire duration of the holiday for a replacement part to arrive. And it rained every day. I contentedly read through a vast stockpile of espionage thrillers, blissfully assuming that this was what a “proper holiday” involved, while my parents went quietly stir-crazy.

No caravan, this time. We stayed in a spacious self-catering place above the town, and largely avoided the rain despite the lateness of the season.

Curved Stone House, Ullapool
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© 2020, The Boon Companion

From Ullapool, we made short drives north, south or west and then got out of the car, wandered around, and looked at stuff. Very much the way a “proper holiday” was supposed to be, back in the day.

To the north is the mad landscape of Coigach and Assynt. We made a little circuit of the Coigach peninsula, lurching frequently off the single-track road at random flat bits as each new photographic opportunity arose.

Stac Pollaidh and Loch Lurgainn
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Stac Pollaidh and Loch Lurgainn, © 2020, The Boon Companion
Summer Isles from Altandhu
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The Summer Isles from Altandhu, © 2020, The Boon Companion

And we wandered around the path network on Knockan Crag, which is full of interpretive signboards explaining the geology, interesting geology-themed sculpture, and really jaw-dropping views of the surrounding mountains.

Stone sphere, Knockan Crag
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Stone sphere, Knockan Crag, © 2020, The Boon Companion
Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh from Knockan Crag
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Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh from Knockan Crag, © 2020, The Boon Companion
Coigach panorama from Knockan Crags
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Coigach panorama from Knockan Crag, © 2020, The Oikofuge

South lies Leal Forest and the Corrieshalloch Gorge. Leal is a “forest garden”, deliberately planted in groves of native and foreign trees during the nineteenth century, so there’s plenty of mature timber to gawp at. Corrieshalloch is a surprisingly spectacular slot, carved by the Abhainn Droma, hidden away right next to the A835. In the past, its presence was heralded by busloads of tourists wandering obliviously back and forth across the trunk road from a conveniently placed lay-by, but that access has now been shut down, and a proper car park constructed on the opposite side of the gorge, off the A832, which doesn’t involve death-defying mass road crossings.

Red cedars, Lael Forest Garden
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Red cedars, Lael Forest Garden, © 2020, The Boon Companion
Poplars, Lael Forest Garden
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Poplars, Lael Forest Garden, © 2020, The Boon Companion
Old wall, Lael Forest Garden, Ullapool
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© 2020, The Boon Companion
Falls of Measach, Corrieshalloch Gorge
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Falls of Measach, Corrieshalloch Gorge (note footbridge for scale), © 2020, The Boon Companion

West took us to the beaches of (successively) Gruinard Bay, Loch Ewe and the tautologous Loch Gairloch. I can never get these three inlets straight in my head, in part because each of them contains its own right-of-centre island—Gruinard Island, Isle of Ewe and Longa Island. The first-named is the notorious site of a British bio-weapon test in 1942, which left it uninhabitable for fifty years. The old warning signs along its beaches used to be easily discernible with binoculars from the mainland. Since the alleged decontamination of the site, they seem to have been removed—but I saw one behind the bar of a local hotel a few years, which was disconcerting.

Gruinard Bay
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Gruinard Bay, © 2020, The Boon Companion
Torridon and Flowerdale hills across Loch Ewe
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Torridon and Flowerdale hills across Loch Ewe, © 2020, The Boon Companion

On the wildlife front, we were regularly visited by a couple of young red deer, one of whom I managed to catch teetering across our patio at dead of night, investigating (and then rejecting) some sliced apple I’d left out as bait. (Calum the Stag at Torridon is very partial to a bit of sliced apple.)

Red deer calf, Ullapool
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© 2020, The Boon Companion
Red deer calf by night, Ullapool
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And that was that. Home just in time for another travel ban. Oh well.


* A bilingual tautology, Rhue being derived from Gaelic rubha, “promontory”.

Morocco

Morocco map
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(Base map source)

Only a few years back, a voyage to Morocco necessitated long preparation: servants, guides, animals for riding, camping materials, much time, and therefore great fatigue and heavy expenses. Though the greatest care was taken, comfort, while moving or at rest, was non-existent, and travellers were sometimes exposed to very disagreeable adventures. Things have changed.

Prosper Ricard, Morocco: The Illustrated Guide (1924)

We took our trip for a little winter sunshine farther afield this year, and spent some time in Morocco. We divided our time between Marrakesh, north of the High Atlas; Ouarzazate, on the south side; and Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast.

Having flown into Marrakesh’s rather spiffy airport, we spent our first night at the entrance to the Ourika Valley, with a view of the snowy Atlas Mountains in the distance.

Ourika Valley
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

When visiting Moslem countries I’ve always enjoyed hearing the adhan, the call to prayer. It was particularly pleasant in the evening cool at Ourika, when the mu’azzins at each mosque in the valley seemed to take turns, to avoid drowning each other out. So the cry of Allahu akbar! came again and again, from different locations in the twilight, each time in a different voice and with a different style.

The next day, we drove (were driven, actually, and thank goodness in retrospect) over the Tizi n’Tichka, the highest pass in the Atlas. The whole northern approach seemed to be one long, continuous roadworks, with steep drop-offs on one side, decorated with the bent remnants of crash barriers, and falling rocks coming down from the other side.

The contrast between the north and south sides of the Atlas is dramatic, with the south lying in the rain-shadow of the mountains. Compare the fertile view above with the one below, taken a little distance east of Ouarzazate:

Atlas from the south, near Skoura
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

Ouarzazate itself was a surprise. We had half-expected a sleepy little desert village. It turns out to be a large and prosperous-looking town, full of new buildings, fresh paint and impressive boulevards.

Taourirt Kasbah, Ouarzazate
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

It’s the centre of the Moroccan film industry (“Mollywood”, we were told), and we drove past several sprawling studio lots, which have provided locations for many motion pictures over the years. And just outside town there’s the old fortified village of Aït Benhaddou, which has provided settings for many more:

Aït Benhaddou
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

Then back over the pass to Marrakesh, a town that enjoys two different spellings of its name—in English, Marrakesh; in French, Marrakech.

La Menara reservoir, Marrakesh
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

French is commonly spoken in Morocco, a relic of the French Protectorate period in the early twentieth century. Road signs are bilingual in Arabic and French, which is a blessing if (like me) the Arabic alphabet is a closed book to you. Government buildings also frequently sport a third language, in a third alphabet:

Moroccan alphabets
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

The middle band of writing is in the Neo-Tifinagh alphabet used for Berber languages. Until fairly recently you could be arrested for using Tifinagh in Morocco—but times change, and this sign is outside the police station.

There seems to be some sort of ordinance in Marrakesh that it must live up to its nickname, “The Red City”. Although most buildings are concrete, they’re all painted in shades of ochre and terracotta—the colour of the traditional building material, rammed red earth.

Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakesh
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

Marrakesh is mad with bustle and crazy driving. Most of the zebra crossing appear to be advisory only—the only way to cross the road is to stride out boldly into the traffic, and hope that motorists will be too embarrassed to actually kill someone at an official crossing place. Even in the narrow streets of the souks, there’s an alarming amount of traffic:

Marrakesh souk traffic
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

But the souks are fascinating, divided into sections according to trade. The owners seem to vie with each other for the most colourful and symmetrical displays:

Marrakesh Souk
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

From the souk, you stumble out into the sunlight of Jemaa el-Fnaa, a teeming open square lined with even more shops:

Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakesh
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

In Jemaa el-Fnaa, you can have your fortune told, get a henna tattoo, hold a Barbary macaque, listen to Gnaoua music, and watch the snake tormentors charmers at work. Oh, and buy a bit of fruit if you’re so inclined.

Trek El Koutoubia, Marrakesh
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

Nearby, in a street leading down to Koutoubia mosque, horse-drawn carriages are lined up, ready to take tourists on a tour of the city. The horses must be high on actual horse tranquilizers, since they trot along unconcernedly as Marrakeshi drivers shoot past inches from their shoulders. The street smells exactly the way you’d expect, for a cobbled street in which many horses spend a lot of time—it smells jumentous, which is a word meaning “resembling the urine of a horse” I’ve been waiting all my life to use in natural conversation.

Our last visit was to Essaouira, with its rolling Atlantic breakers, colourful old Portuguese harbour, constant winds, and (it would appear) and ordinance requiring white paint on all its buildings.

Essaouira
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© 2020 The Boon Companion
Essaouira harbour
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

After frenetic Marrakesh, it was nice to stroll down a street that contained nothing more threatening than the occasional bicycle.

Essaouira Souk
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

On the wildlife front, we had some interesting bird encounters. There were a lot of urban White Storks, often roosting on top of Morocco’s many mobile-phone-masts-disguised-as-palm-trees:

White Stork, Phone Mast
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

Or making their gigantic nests on mosque minarets:

Stork Nest, Ouarzazate
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

They perform an amicable bill-clapping ritual when they’re both on the nest, and our hotel room in Marrakesh used to resound to that curiously soothing sound. Here’s a sample from xeno-canto:

Isn’t that nice?

In the evening, the pretty tingitanus subspecies of House Sparrow would arrive in noisy flocks to settle in the courtyard of our hotel:

Villa des Orangers
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

In the hour before dusk, the room would fill with a cacophony of social chirping—which would suddenly and intermittently fall silent. Peering into the trees from our window, I quickly spotted the cause:

Kestrel in Palm Tree, Marrakesh
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

A male kestrel was sitting in the palm tree outside, occasionally launching attacks on the sparrows as they arrived. At the sight of his wings in the courtyard, the assembled flock would immediately fall silent. I was able to find my way on to the hotel roof, and look down on the fierce little raptor as he went about his business—falconry by proxy.

Finally, there is the vexed matter of goats up trees. There’s no doubt that goats climb trees in Morocco. They do it in pursuit of argan fruit. Here are some, for instance, going about their happy caprine capers:

And on the road to Essaouira, we were flagged down by a little boy who pointed eagerly towards … a tree full of goats. Positively brimming with goats, one would have to say:

Goats in a tree, near Essaouira
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

While the Boon Companion took photographs. I contemplated the goats. None of them were eating anything. Many were standing at the ends of branches with no foliage at all, facing outwards. And some of them seemed to be standing on tangles of branches that looked … well, platform-like. I let my gaze wander to the other trees in the vicinity. As far as they eye could see, they were uniformly goatless. I let my gaze wander back to “our” conveniently placed roadside tree, where our guide was passing out money to the child and an accompanying adult. Hmmm.

I’m not at all averse to farmers scoring a bit of extra cash from passing tourists. I’m just not entirely convinced that these goats were willing participants in the scheme. To paraphrase Hippy Carnes from The Abyss (1989), I think they may be doin’ it, but they ain’t diggin’ it. (I would like to know how they get them up there, though, and how often the shifts change.)

And then it was time to go home. Where we slipped into Heathrow under the coat-tails of Storm Ciara, and then didn’t see the sun again for a week.

Sunset from the air
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© 2020 The Boon Companion

Torridon

Liathach from Glen Torridon
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

Climbers who know this great mountain will agree that it is the mightiest and most imposing in all Britain. On leaving Kinlochewe to drive down Glen Torridon, you first skirt the quartzite slopes of Beinn Eighe, but on reaching Loch Clair it suddenly burst upon the view across the moor, its eastern ramparts falling almost vertically and its impending cliffs of red sandstone stretching as far as the eye can see.

W.A. Poucher The Scottish Peaks (1965)

That’s Walt Poucher waxing typically overblown about the view of the mountain Liathach from Glen Torridon, captured above by the Boon Companion. Not exactly “as far as the eye can see”—but the sensation on first rounding the corner and catching sight of this  hulking great mountain is not unlike coming out of harbour in a rowing boat and finding an aircraft carrier bearing down on you.

We were bound for the far end of the glen, to a cottage on the shore of Loch Torridon.

The Boat House, Torridon
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

It boasts a fine view of the gentler, western end of Liathach, with the village of Torridon nestled below:

Liathach and Torridon village across Loch Torridon
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

And to the left of that view, the cliffs of Beinn Alligin loom across the loch:

Beinn Alligin above Loch Torridon
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

So a fine spot to spend a few short November days. We didn’t stray far. One trip took us above the snow-line on the infamous Bealach na Ba road to Applecross, with its stunning view of the Skye Cuillin:

Skye Cuillin from Bealach na Ba
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© 2019 The Oikofuge

On other days we went north to Loch Maree, to wander through the woodlands there, with views towards the castellated bulk of Slioch:

Slioch and Loch Maree
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

The frosty tracks behind the Beinn Eighe Visitor Centre were still accessible, even though the centre itself (along with a large chunk of the Highland hospitality industry) was closed for the season. There’s been a big change since I first visited this spot, fifty years ago. At that time a visitor centre for a geographical feature was a complete novelty. The paths were rough and un-signposted. Nowadays they’re broad, smoothly surfaced tracks, waymarked and decorated with sculpture and carvings and … other stuff:

Stone stack, Beinn Eighe Visitor Centre
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

We had some good and bad wildlife encounters. The bad one happened at Applecross, where a dog broke its lead and attacked a pair of red deer stags on the shoreline:

Deer being harried by dog, Applecross
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

The deer made a good job of defending themselves, but eventually one broke and ran for the hillside, while the other plunged into Applecross Bay and swam a kilometre to the other side. We watched it through binoculars until we saw it wade out of the water on the far side, and breathed a sigh of relief—but perhaps prematurely. An hour later, as we drove around the coast road, we saw it still standing on the shoreline—a wet and exhausted deer at sunset, with a frosty night ahead.

On a happier note, we also communed with Calum—a thirteen-pointer stag who intermittently hangs around the walkers’ car park below Liathach, successfully cadging food.

Calum the Stag, Glen Torridon
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

And then there was our almost customary encounter with distinctly un-wild life:

Highland cattle, Torridon
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

But the highlight was this little fellow:

Pine Marten
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

The picture was taken through a glass door, using a security light for illumination, so it’s not the sharpest of images—but it gives a good impression of what a smart little creature a pine marten is.

It turned out our cottage was on the beat of a pair of martens, who visited several times every night. Using advice the Boon Companion had gleaned from a wildlife photographer, we baited our picnic table with dollops of jam topped with raisins, and I was able to get this little burst of infra-red footage of a pine marten experiencing some kind of culinary ecstasy:

The martens were (obviously) the highlight of the show outside our front window. But the view was never really dull.

View from The Boat House, Torridon
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

Western Norway

Norway fjordland route
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(Public domain base map: Geonorge)

ARTHUR: You… are you saying that you originally made the Earth?
SLARTIBARTFAST: Oh yes… did you ever go to a place… I think it’s called Norway?
ARTHUR: What? No, no I didn’t.
SLARTIBARTFAST: Pity… that was one of mine. Won an award you know, lovely crinkly edges.

Douglas Adams, Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:
The Original Radio Scripts
(1985)

Well. That’s the obligatory Hitch-hiker’s quotation out of the way. Which of course springs unbidden to the mind of anyone (of a certain vintage) who travels through the Norwegian fjord-lands.

We spent a couple of weeks with a hired car, wending our way from Bergen to Ålesund and back, crossing the ramifying drainage basins of the Hardangerfjord, Sognefjord, Nordfjord and Storfjord.

Hardangerfjord
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Hardangerfjord © 2019 The Boon Companion

These fjords are so complicated in their windings and branchings that I found I couldn’t hold more than a day’s-worth of terrain in my head at any one time. And the mountainous complexity of the terrain led to three main driving experiences, all more-or-less unnerving when first encountered while sitting on the wrong side of a strange vehicle—tunnels, narrow mountain roads and ferries.

The tunnels were a doddle compared to the unlit, single-track-with-passing-places nightmares we encountered in the Faeroes. Almost all were wide enough for two cars, and all contained at least a gesture towards illumination, even in remote areas. The Norwegians do seem to delight in carving their tunnels in long curves or gentle spirals, which is a little disorientating when oncoming headlights suddenly appear in unexpected parts of your visual field. But from time to time, in mid-tunnel, we’d be suddenly overtaken by a local Norwegian, apparently confident there was a straight run ahead that would reveal any oncoming headlights. Or they were just crazy people—it’s sometimes difficult to tell.

Gaularfjellet road
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Gaularfjellet road © 2019 The Boon Companion

The madly steep and winding roads were great fun, and the Norwegians have made a virtue out of them, incorporating some of the steepest and most winding into their 18 Norwegian Scenic Routes. We sampled a few, and in fact made a detour to take in the Stalheimskleiva, with its 20% gradient and 13 hairpin bends on the descent into Nærødalen. Here’s what it looked like in 1890:

Stalheimskleiva 1890
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Stalheimskleiva and Nærødalen, 1890 (Source)

Not much has changed since then, except it has been surfaced and declared one-way (descent only), and is now bypassed by the main road which travels (you guessed it) through a long curving tunnel. Well, I say one-way—but when we descended it, we met a young woman on a bicycle coming up. Quite slowly.

Stalheimskleiva 2019
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Stalheimskleiva and Nærødalen © 2019 The Boon Companion

In the main, these mountain roads are not nearly as terrifying as some of the more breathless TripAdvisor reviewers would have you believe. But they can be a bit of a pain if you meet a fleet of sight-seeing buses coming up the hill from a cruise ship that has just docked in the village below, as we did on the pretty descent into Geiranger.

Geiranger
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Geiranger © 2019 The Boon Companion

The only real exception we encountered is the madness that seems to prevail on the western end of the Aurlandsfjellet road. This is steep and hairpinned and about a car-and-a-half wide, with infrequent passing places, and unfortunately mobbed by traffic trying to get to the beautiful Stegastein viewing platform above the fjord. And a lot of this traffic seems to involve anxious people driving RVs they’ve apparently only just hired that morning, and on which they can’t find reverse gear. When we were there, a car towing a caravan had broken down about halfway up, and another driver was apparently attempting to reverse all the way back down.

Stegastein viewpoint
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Stegastein viewpoint © 2019 The Boon Companion
Aurlandsfjord from Stegastein viewpoint
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Aurlandsfjord from Stegastein viewpoint © 2019 The Boon Companion

And then there are the ferries. Foreign ferries are always a little anxiety-provoking: strange methods of payment, incomprehensible warning signs, unknown queueing systems, and brusque attendants making impenetrable hand gestures. But they’re an integral part of travel in these parts, and they establish a pleasant rhythm to the day—drive up a windy road; drive across a high plateau, stop for goats; drive down a windy road; take a ferry; repeat.

Goats on the road
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

Some of these fifteen-minute ferry crossings are … informal. People drive on and choose a random lane to park in. On arrival, when the bow door opens, everyone drives off four abreast and then merges chaotically into one lane of traffic at the far end of the dock. Sometimes people start driving on for the return journey while the last few cars are still disembarking. And the triangular route between Dragsvik, Hella and Vangsnes adds a new level of excitement, as people who want to go on to the next destination have to drive off and then drive on again, so that their cars are pointing in the same direction as the people who’ve just boarded—disembarkation is followed by a mad little rally around a mini-roundabout before driving back on board. Norwegians travelling in Scotland must find the regimented approach of the CalMac ferry operators deeply oppressive.

Dragsvik-Vangsnes ferries
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

So, apart from driving and sailing through astonishing landscapes, what else did we do?

Over Fartsgrensa signWe puzzled over the meaning of road signs, as you do in a foreign country. In particular, we couldn’t deduce the meaning of “Over fartsgrensa?” from its accompanying picture. You can find at least one person on the internet who thinks it has something to do with driving fatigue, which sort of vaguely makes sense, but plugging the phrase into translation software reveals that it actually means “Over the speed limit?” The significance of the half-blurred girl eluded us, though.

Over fartsgrensen signBut then there’s another puzzle, because an internet search on “over fartsgrensa” turns up lots of pictures of otherwise identical signs that read “Over fartsgrensen?” Why the different endings? It’s because Norway has two official written languages, bokmål and nynorsk, and it turns out that grensen means “the limit” in bokmål, while grensa means the same thing in nynorsk. And although much of Norway uses bokmål, our fjord-land journey was taking us through the heartland of nynorsk. (I get excited about these little revelations, but I completely understand if you don’t.)

We wandered pleasantly around Bergen and Ålesund, the two towns at either end of our trip. Both have pretty little centres facing on to the harbour, and both have scenic hills looking down on them.

Bergen harbour
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Bergen harbour © 2019 The Boon Companion
Ålesund from Aksla viewpoint
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Ålesund from Aksla viewpoint © 2019 The Boon Companion

We looked at a lot of waterfalls—as with our experience in the Faeroes, we pretty soon re-calibrated our perceptions of what constituted a noteworthy waterfall.

Steindalsfossen
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Steindalsfossen © 2019 The Boon Companion
Tvindefossen
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Tvindefossen © 2019 The Boon Companion

We took a train up (and then down) the Flåm valley. This is a (predictably by now) steep and winding scenic ascent that links the ferry port of Flåm to the main line between Bergen and Oslo. At the railway junction sits Myrdal, a station in the middle of mountainous nowhere which exists only to allow people to change trains. But as the train gets close to Myrdal, something positively surreal occurs. The train halts at a viewing platform overlooking Kjosfossen, a spectacular waterfall even by Norway’s standards. Passengers get out to photograph the waterfall. After a brief pause, a female voice begins to sing from the direction of the falls (hauntingly and slightly threateningly), and a succession of dancers in red dresses appear among the ruined buildings and rocks. They’re depicting huldrer (singular, hulder)—members of that apparently endless list of mythical female creatures who seduce men only to kill them. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens?)

Kjosfossen viewing platform
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© 2019 The Oikofuge
Kjosfossen and Hulda dancer
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

After a while, the song ends, the huldrer drop out of sight, and everyone piles back on the train. It’s a remarkable little interlude.

And we wandered accidentally into a Viking village. Looking for a place to stop, stretch our legs and take a look at the head of the Nærøfjord (a branch of Sognefjord), we drove into the village of Gudvangen. We found ourselves being flagged into a huge informal parking area by a woman dressed in Viking costume (with a hi-vis jacket on top). When we arrived in the parking area, people dressed as Vikings were getting out of the cars—and some were carrying bladed weapons. We had strayed into a weekend market in the recreated Viking village of Njardarheimr. I could have bought a battle axe. (Only the puzzle of how to get it home prevented me from actually buying a battle axe, to be honest.)

Kayaks meet longship, Gudvangen
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Kayaks meet longship © 2019 The Boon Companion
Axe-throwing tutorial, Gudvangen
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Learn how to throw an axe while wearing a hooded garment? What could possibly go wrong? (Before you ask, that’s not me.) © 2019 The Boon Companion

It’s only a little unnerving that the otherwise peaceful and rational Norwegians have so enthusiastically embraced their blood-thirsty Viking past. It reminded me of our visit to Mongolia, where we discovered that the national hero is Genghis Khan.

Viking number plate, Gudvangen
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to this rather splendid Norwegian object:

Kokosbolle
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

It’s called a kokosbolle, which I think means something like “coconut bun”—marshmallow, chocolate, grated coconut.

Now consider this homegrown Scottish object, locally known as a “snowball”, and reputedly invented in Scotland* by Tunnock’s in 1954:

Lee's snowballsMarshmallow, chocolate, grated coconut.

I find this as unreasonably satisfying as my previous find of Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, Caramel Wafers, and Barr’s Irn Bru in the Faeroe Islands. Though I do think the lady in the café in Ålesund was a little surprised when we photographed her kokosbolle.

Storfjord Hotel
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

* You may (or may not) be fascinated to know that the snowball, as manufactured in Scotland by Lees and Tunnock’s, has been legally declared a cake. Apparently confectionery in the UK is subject to Value Added Tax, whereas cakes are not. The two companies went to court to challenge a decision by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, who had classified the snowball as “standard rated confectionery”. Judge Anne Scott upheld their appeal with the words, “A Snowball looks like a cake. It is not out of place on a plate full of cakes. A Snowball has the mouth feel of a cake.”
I’m glad we got that sorted out.

Mull

Leaving Oban
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

At the end of my report on Islay, I promised you more Hebrides.

This time, we headed off to Mull. We stayed in a house on Calgary Bay, in the northwest of the island—here’s the view from our front window:

Calgary Bay, Mull
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

The tiny village of Calgary (Calgaraidh in Gaelic) is the namesake of Calgary in Alberta, thanks to Colonel James MacLeod of the North-West Mounted Police, who seems to have spent a happy time here in the 1870s.

The roads of Mull are largely single-track and winding, and we wanted to take advantage of (another!) spell of good weather by being out in the open air, so we didn’t drive far.

We got as far north as Glengorm Castle which, despite sounding like a place from the writings of Compton Mackenzie, is a pleasant spot from which you can wander along the coastline, looking out towards Coll and Tiree and the Small Isles.

Glengorm Castle, Mull
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

And we got no farther south than the island of Ulva, which lies only a short distance from the mainland. It boasts a rather fine tearoom, and a particularly bijou ferry, which is summoned to the mainland using a sliding shutter to reveal a red square on an otherwise white placard.

Summoning Ulva ferry
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© 2019 The Boon Companion
Ulva ferry
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© 2019 The Boon Companion
Ulva boathouse from mainland
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

Ulva is dotted with the ruins of old cottages, a reminder of what a populous place it once was. The war memorial in the grounds of the church also gives one pause—this tiny island parish (just 10 by 5 kilometres) lost four residents to the First World War, and two to the Second.

War memorial, Ulva
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I found myself particularly wondering what had happened to Mary Melosine MacNeill, of the Women’s Land Army.

Our nearest town was the metropolis of Dervaig:

Dervaig, Mull
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

Driving in the opposite direction took us along a rugged coast road, past the triply tautologous Eas Fors Waterfalls (eas is “waterfall” in Gaelic; fors is “waterfall” in Norse).

Middle Eas Fors waterfall, Mull
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

(While the Boon Companion was taking this long exposure image, there was a sudden burst of alarm calls from birds in the trees, and a sparrowhawk shot right around the little bowl of the waterfall.)

From the crest of the same road, driving south, you’re also treated to the sudden appearance of Mull’s highest mountain, Ben More.

Ben More across Loch Tuath, Mull
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

(While the Boon Companion lined up that image, I was distracted by big wings soaring overhead. White-tailed eagles are nowadays so common along this stretch of coast that it’s almost unusual to have a day out without seeing one.)

We also took a trip to the colourful harbour of Tobermory:

Tobermory, Mull
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

From there, we were able to catch a boat to the Treshnish Islands, on the same excursion we took last year when we were in Ardnamurchan. The main attraction, of course, were the puffins on the uninhabited island of Lunga:

Puffin, Lunga
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

While the Boon Companion busied herself with these little characters, I wandered off to take a look at the ruined “black houses” that look out across the sea towards Mull, and wondered what life must have been like here, during a winter storm.

Black houses, Lunga
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Then there was a hitch. The boat that was to take us onward to Staffa and Fingal’s Cave had developed an engine fault. So we stood around in the sunshine while another boat motored out to pick us up. Being British, we formed a neat queue in the middle of an empty and featureless pebble beach:

Queuing to leave Lunga
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Staffa was, as ever, mobbed. We found ourselves a nice place to sit beside the path to Fingal’s Cave, and watched the surf breaking over the rocks. We each had a neat hexagonal basalt column to perch on.

Route to Fingal's Cave, Staffa
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

And that was that. Another week in the Hebrides, another week without rain. I assured an Australian couple on the Ulva ferry that the weather in Scotland was always like this. They didn’t believe me for a moment.

Iris, Calgary Bay, Mull
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

Islay

Islay ferry
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

Another year, another Hebridean island. This time we spent a week on Islay. (For non-Scottish readers, it’s probably worth mentioning that the second syllable of the island’s name is pronounced “la”, rather than “lay”. Nothing betrays the whisky dilettante more quickly than a profession of enthusiasm for Is-LAY malts.)

We stayed in another one of those turf-roofed, stone-walled, eco-friendly houses that seem to have become all the rage in the Highlands and Islands self-catering market.

A' Mhoine Bheag lodge, Coillabus, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

This one was called A’ Mhoine Bheag, which is a name any Scottish hillwalker would make a detour to avoid if it appeared on a route map—it means “the little bog”. But the house was airy and comfortable and showed not the slightest sign of sinking into the ground, so that was all good.

Islay being the home of several world-famous distilleries, we set aside a distillery tour for a rainy day. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a rainy day, so this was as close as we got to the inside of a distillery:

Bowmore distillery, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

White buildings were a bit of a theme on Islay:

Port Ellen, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

From isolated lighthouses to entire villages, someone was making a killing on white masonry paint:

Lighthouse, Port Ellen, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion
Port Charlotte, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

Another theme on Islay is its tooth-grittingly bad roads. There’s an amazingly straight stretch of tarmac between Port Ellen and Bowmore along which the locals blast at 70mph, but (by virtue of being built across a peat bog) it has quite the most alarming undulations along its length, limiting those who don’t want to become unexpectedly airborne to a more sedate 50.* Elsewhere, roads can consist of a ridge of grass flanked by potholes—and sometimes they omit the ridge of grass. Islay is the only place I’ve been where the direction signs include “C” roads.

Road sign, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

(If you enlarge the image above, you’ll detect evidence for a little-known but nonetheless significant Rural Scottish Tradition—discharging firearms at road signs. No-one knows why this occurs. We only know that it is so.)

But these hellish roads get you to interesting places. One of them is the Big Strand, 12 kilometres of (oddly un-Gaelic, un-Norse) beach, directly exposed to the Atlantic swell that rolls endlessly in through the gap between Ireland and the Outer Hebrides.

Big Strand, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion
Big Strand, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

Another possibility is Islay’s sparse (but green and pleasant) woodland:

Bluebells in Bridgend Woods, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

And then there’s the dramatic coastline between the beaches:

Mull of Oa, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

The view above looks south from the American Monument on Mull of Oa, which commemorates the servicemen who died in the sinkings of the troop ships SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto off these rugged coasts in 1918.

American Monument, Mull of Oa, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

The Mull of Oa (the name is pronounced “oh”, not “oh-a”, as if it were some mind-boggling Scottish Presbyterian sequel to The Story of O) is the westernmost point of The Oa, which is a nature reserve and also the location of our A’ Mhoine Bheag lodge. Our little traipse around the vicinity of the monument generated welcome encounters with choughs and golden eagles. My wildlife cam, posed outside our front door, took a lot of pictures of grass waving in the wind, mice, hoodie crows and pheasants, but also a surprising visit from a snipe:

Snipe from wildlife cam
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I’ve no idea why a snipe would want to walk past our front door in the early hours, but (s)he was very welcome.

That’s it for now. More Hebrides soon.

A' Mhoine Bheag lodge, Coillabus, Islay
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

* Which would be a violation of The Oikofuge’s Third Law: Never become airborne using any mode of transport that is not actually generating lift.

Gibraltar

Rock of Gibraltar from the airport runway
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One party elected to explore St. Michael’s Cave with almost tragic consequences. For a peculiarly long subaltern of Rifles succeeded in becoming jambed [sic] in “Clincher Hole”. In his case, it was not owing to extra width of shoulders or depth of chest as in that of the British bluejackets who had been unable to pass through it, and I imagine his sticking was more of the nature of a fish-bone across the gullet type. Anyway he became fixed, to the consternation of those below him who thus saw their retreat cut off. The tale goes that at one time it was under consideration to sacrifice him for the good of the majority and remove him piecemeal. Happily, he was eventually dragged out.

Willoughby Verner, My Life Among the Wild Birds in Spain (1909)

Our by-now customary trip to the Mediterranean in search of late winter sunshine took us to Gibraltar this year, in early March. We flew into Malaga and drove down the coast. While everyone has been rather hypnotized, of late, by the slow-motion train crash Brexit has created on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, no-one seems to have been paying much attention to the UK’s other land border with the EU—between Gibraltar and Spain. Relationships there have never been particularly cordial at the best of times, and we decided that we’d like to make the journey before Brexit made things any worse.

We travelled through balmy Costa del Sol sunshine, and arrived to a warm evening in Gibraltar—and that was the last glimpse of sun we had. A levanter wind established itself for the duration of our stay, establishing a cap of cloud on the Rock, and pushing chilly easterly winds down Gibraltar’s side streets.

Here’s a nice time-lapse video of the levanter cloud in action, as seen from the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, just north of the Gibraltar border. The town of Gibraltar sits west of the rock, under the cloud, while all around is bathed in sunshine:
So we had brought British weather with us. Pretty much everything else British was already there. Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, its Britishness intensified by something of a siege mentality, generated by … well, several sieges. So Gibraltar is characterized by a unique mixture of British institutions (fish and chip shops, red telephone boxes) and massive fortifications. You can’t travel far without encountering some huge curtain wall, or a row of shops and pubs built into the casemates of a bastion, or a war memorial, or just a stonking great gun.

Grand Casemates Square, Gibraltar
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Gibraltar in a nutshell – two fish-and-chip shops and Koehler’s Depressing Gun Carriage, © 2019 The Boon Companion
Bomb House Lane, Gibraltar
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

The Spanish are not happy with the British presence on Gibraltar, and one does rather take their point. And although the Rock has been of serious strategic importance to the UK as recently as the Second World War, times change. If it were just a matter of handing over a few square kilometres of arid peninsula to Spain, Her Majesty’s Government would have done the deed decades ago. But the Gibraltarians keep voting to be British—once in a referendum in 1967, and again in 2002. The first referendum returned the sort of result you otherwise encounter only during Central Asian presidential elections—99.6% in favour of staying under British sovereignty. In 2002, support slumped to a mere 99.0%. These results are so important to the Gibraltarians they even commemorate them on their coinage.

Gibraltar commemorative 20p coin
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Fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum

In Gibraltar, paradoxically, it’s impossible to get lost, but very easy to go astray. Since the whole territory occupies only seven square kilometres, and has a monstrous rock in the middle that is never out of sight unless you’re actually underground (of which, more later), it’s easy to stay orientated. But because the road system winds endlessly around and through centuries-old fortifications, it’s surprisingly easy to find yourself on the opposite side of a wall from your destination.

Eighteenth century fortifications, Gibraltar
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© 2019 The Boon Companion

Above the town of Gibraltar sits the upper part of the Rock. You can get there by cable-car, or by taxi, or you can walk (the Rock is only 426m high). We walked once—that’s quite exciting, because you share narrow, steeply sloping roads with Gibraltarian drivers, some of whom drive like they’re angry and park like they’re blind.

Upper Rock road, Gibraltar
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Upper Rock road, © 2019 The Boon Companion

The roads haven’t changed much in the 30 years since the opening sequence of The Living Daylights was filmed, and the driving techniques are remarkably similar:

We divided our time equally between wandering the streets of the town and exploring the upper Rock. In town there are shops, pavement cafés, a very nice little museum and pleasant park, and a load of history all around you.

Gibraltar back street
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Gibraltar back street, © 2019 The Boon Companion
Gibraltar government office
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Gibraltar government office (with more guns), © 2019 The Boon Companion

The Alameda Botanical Gardens even houses a small zoo (with large, pleasant enclosures), which is stocked with birds and animals that had originally been brought in by smugglers attempting to get exotic pets into Europe.

Wellington bust, Alameda Gardens, Gibraltar
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Wellington in the Alameda Gardens (with more guns), © 2019 The Boon Companion
Marmoset, Alameda Gardens
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Common mormoset, © 2019 The Boon Companion

On the upper Rock there’s even more history, most notably the 50-odd kilometres of tunnel that have been dug through the limestone by the British military, from the eighteenth century to the Cold War. Some of these are now off-limits because they’re dangerous; some are off-limits because they house the computers of Gibraltar’s on-line gambling industry; and some are off-limits for “security reasons”. But you can wander freely through the extended museum exhibit of the Great Siege Tunnels, which were burrowed behind the north face of the Rock to create cannon emplacements that peer down on the Spanish border.

St George's Hall, below the Notch, Gibraltar
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St George’s Hall, the largest chamber of the Great Siege Tunnels, © 2019 The Boon Companion
The Notch, Gibraltar
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St George’s Hall from the outside, © 2019 The Boon Companion

And you can take a guided tour of some of the Second World War tunnels, which in their heyday constituted an entire underground town, with its own hospitals, generators and water supply. Both sets of tunnels are dotted with uniformed mannequins, which in the dim lighting produce a strikingly atmospheric effect.

World War II tunnel, Gibraltar
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World War II tunnel, © 2019 The Boon Companion

And then there are the natural caves. St Michael’s Cave and its offshoots were once a source of the sort of adventure described at the head of this post, but the main cavity of St Michael’s is nowadays a concert hall, spectacularly festooned with stalactites and curtains of limestone (and, it has to be said, illuminated with slowly shifting coloured lights reminiscent of a naff 1970s night-club).

St Michael's Cave
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St Michael’s Cave, © 2019 The Boon Companion

And there are the monkeys—the so-called “Barbary apes” are actually Barbary macaques. They’re pretty well habituated to humans, and will certainly climb a person to have a rummage in their rucksack if they can smell food—but otherwise they just go about their own business under trying circumstances, with a sort of weary insouciance I found rather endearing.

Barbary macaque, Gibraltar