Monday, 7 July 2014

The mystery of Scotland

There are some things in life that are a total mystery to me. The fact that the Highlands of Scotland are so empty of tourists (outside of the hotspots) is one of them. But I’m not complaining. The expansive, empty landscapes of Scotland are the nearest thing we have in the UK to wilderness.

Last week I rented a shack (the website, advertising it as a lodge, was over-stretching itself a bit) at the end of a three mile dead-end lane high above Loch Ness. There was a gap in the front door, and the single-glazed windows constantly steamed up with condensation, but it was paradise. Surrounded by moor and birch trees, I woke up every morning to the sound of cuckoo. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard the cuckoo.

The nearest town of Inverness was recently awarded the accolade of ‘second happiest place to live in the UK’ - and I can see why. It takes just an hour to get to Ullapool from Inverness and a couple to reach the Isle of Skye. Then there’s a whole coastline of wide golden strands on the town’s doorstep, along with moors and lochs. This was brought home to me as we drove through the suburbs of the town when we had to hit the brakes for a young fawn that raced out onto the road. That it was at least a quarter of a mile from open countryside was slightly puzzling, I have to admit.

Just up the east coast, we happened on some grey seals lounging, as only grey seals can lounge, on a sandy spit near Dornoch. And although the east coast is Scotland’s poor relation, the coastline between Brora and Dornoch is the cyclist’s, walker’s and wildlife enthusiast’s haven.

Over in Ullapool we bathed in sunshine whilst further south in Britain it tipped it down. Ullapool will now be my place of eternal sunshine. I ate my lunch overlooking the harbour enjoying the warmth on my skin, remembering another summer’ evening in Ullapool when I’d watched the local kids fishing on the harbour wall. Kids knee-high to a grasshopper without an adult in sight, and I remember thinking, what a place to grow up. I was puzzled when I saw they were throwing their catch back into the water. It was then I realised that they were feeding seals bobbing up and down in the sea below them, and my envy of their idyllic childhood deepened. That summer we’d eaten one evening at the Arch Inn and almost suffocated in the heat.

Back in the present, we drove on to Achiltibuie, surely one of the most beautiful places on God’s earth. On the single track road, Stac Pollaidh came into view, a strange conical mountain rising out of the moor from nowhere. Other mountains around rose up from the moors like isolated fangs. It’s a strange landscape with a wild beauty. We drove on past sea lochs, laced with pale beaches until we reached the edge of the village. I walked down to the shoreline as a group of kayakers paddled towards the shore.

“A massive starfish,” one of them shouted.
I wandered across to them to have a closer look.
“It’s lost one of its arms!” exclaimed one of the kayakers.

It was a brittle star, a pale sandy hue with four – or was it five? – long ‘hairy’ sinewy arms. The fifth or sixth detached arm floated at its side.

The kayakers gathered around the sea creature, intrigued.
“This is how the starfish reproduces,” one of the kayakers said knowingly. “Another starfish will grow from the detached arm.”
He looked over at me, smiling. I gave him a half grin, not sure if this was another ‘haggis story’.

Not being an expert on starfish, I looked it up back home, and did indeed discover that asexual reproduction can take place in starfish, alongside more conventional spawning, and indeed a severed arm can reproduce a whole new starfish.

The kayakers dispersed and I wandered on along the shore, carefully picking my way through the pebbles, afraid of treading on dunlin eggs camouflaged in the rocks. All around me the dunlins piped and chirped, dipping and rising close to me. Once on a pebble beach near Fort William I had almost tread on their eggs, being so close in shape and colour to the rocks they were nestled in.

In the village, I sat in the beer garden, drinking a glass of wine while looking across to the Summer Isles and Skye beyond. This place is hopelessly romantic, even the names. I sat on the bench looking across the water, sparkling white, to the islands and the smudged blue hills beyond, wondering yet again why this part of Scotland is so empty.

But that's okay.

First published in Wanderlust online magazine on the 15th June 2014

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Under big skies in Norfolk

Under big skies
The water is steaming, a white vapour sponging the darkening sky. I watch the heavens smudge grey and pink before deepening to navy-blue.
High above us midges dance in dizzying circles. I plunge under the warm, bubbling water and when I surface again, one single star has appeared, alone in the sky. “Vega, Arabic for swooping eagle,” says Tom my husband. “It’s one of the brightest stars in the northern sky.”
We’re in the Norfolk Broads, the part of England that juts out like a bottom. We’re travelled less than 200 miles for an autumn break, but it feels as hot and exotic as the Okavango Delta in Botswana or the Sundarbans of India. We’re sitting outside our cabin in a hot tub.
Vega blinks at me and the longer I gaze, the more certain I am the star is moving, swooping towards me like a silver eagle. “Just think,” says Tom, my husband. “It takes twenty-six years for the light to reach us here on earth. Vega could have died for all we know - since we’re looking at the past.”
It’s a dazzling thought.
And one by one, other stars appear. The sky is clear, the night still, the air almost balmy. It’s hard to imagine that a violent storm, St Jude, had passed over here just a short time ago.
On Monday, Jude - the patron saint of despair - had whipped the oaks behind our cabin in fury. Branches and twigs crashed onto the roof, the birch trees lining the wetlands in front of the window bent over at an alarming angle. We gazed out from the safety of four walls, feeling stranded, like a ship at sea. Then the storm was gone as suddenly as it arrived.
With the return of calm, we’d taken bikes and cycled the Norfolk lanes. The sun shone benignly, the trees motionless: it was as if the storm had never happened - except the roads were swollen with mud and stones and the debris from the winds. Occasionally trees protruded onto the lanes, already cleared, cut back from where they’d crashed onto the road.
But grey returned to gold. Autumn shone. Now and again, the roadside held little offerings of garden fruits and vegetables: marrows and pumpkins, apples and sweet chestnuts. I filled the basket of my bicycle with plump cookers and Coxes. We pedalled on past wooden barns, thatched cottages and village ponds, scattering grouse and pheasant and duck. Overhead wintering geese shot an arrow across the big, big skies of Norfolk. 
By Wednesday, the sky was deep blue, the sun warm on our skin. We hired a canoe and paddled up the River Waveney, listening to the whisper of the reeds. We tied up our canoes and ate our sandwiches, lifting our faces to the sun. Heading back downstream, we held our paddles across our knees and let the current take us gently home.
Now in the hot tub, the sky’s filling, filling up with stars. A satellite shoots across our vision. And I realise that I am an insignificant speck out in space, yet I feel the universe belongs to me.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Through Thai paddy fields by elephant
The elephants had been plodding along quietly in the heat of the day. The somniferous air and the rhythmic swaying of the great beast under my body lulled me into a dreamlike trance. Then without warning the elephant behind me sneezed and let out a great low rumble that vibrated across the valley. She swung round on the path until she was facing the undergrowth below the track. My elephant jolted round too, letting out a high-pitched trumpet that tore through the air and bounced around the hills, blasting my ears. My dreamlike trance was replaced with shock, then fear.

Earlier, as I'd headed out on my journey, the only sound had been the dull slap of my elephant's ears against her head, swipers that would crush any insect that dared to land within their reach; that and the quiet squelch of water as the female carefully planted each footprint into those of the elephant's in front, leaving circular waterlogged pools the size of dinner plates.

From the elephant's back, I could see the valley stretching out on either side of me. Beyond the muddy path, a farmer worked the land with his rotivator, his form mirrored in the still waters between the fresh green plants. To his right, paddy workers hunkered down by the water's edge, eating a breakfast of rice and papaya.

We passed on by farm dwellings: raised, open-sided buildings with corrugated tin roofs; motor bikes and farm equipment stored beneath their stilts. In a garden children made mud pies from the sticky red clay under a line of wet washing. Behind them a  row of upside-down wellies dried out on wooden stakes.

We continued on through the hamlet, passing wooden shrines with offerings of Fanta cans, on past water tanks of fish or frogs and squares of cultivated fruit and vegetables.

On and on we plodded, the elephants flanks sashaying to and fro. It was then I noticed my bearer was heavily pregant. I wondered if she felt the weight - her mahout on her head, two passengers and her unborn baby.

We headed down to the river. My elephant scooped up muddy brown water in her trunk and squirted it into her mouth, drinking thirstily. She waded along the stream before joining the mud track again.

I caressed her back. Her hide was thick and rough like stone. Dust gathered between the crevices. Her skin was as wrinkled and tough as a thousand year old woman. I wondered if she could feel my fingers on her body - or was it just the faintest sensation - like a tickle?

It was at that point on the journey that my elephant had startled and swung round. It was unclear what had disturbed the two elephants. Had the female behind caught a glimpse of a shadowy movement through her tiny inadequate eyes? Did something cause her to sniff the air, then sneeze? Had she heard something in the undergrowth? The elephants sudden movements had taken me by surprise. The calm lollop and the near silence in the valley had lulled me into a false sense of security. Now, the swift violent reaction of the beasts made me aware that I was not much more than a gnat on the elephant's back. As she swung round, I grabbed the rope that secured me to the makeshift wooden seat. It was then that she let out an ear-splitting trumpet followed by a long low growl. I felt her great bulk tremble, a small earthquake under my legs. As the sound tore through the air, I was sure this single creature had produced the same number of decibels as an orchestra at full volume.

Later we wondered what exactly had disturbed the elephants. A snake in the grass? Some other threat hidden in the undergrowth? Or was it simply because the elephant behind had sneezed, scaring herself and our skittish pregnant elephant in front?

Then as quickly as the commotion had arisen, our elephants were quietly picking their way through the footprints again, ears flapping, tails swishing, dreaming of the bananas that were waiting for them at the end of the road.





Thursday, 25 July 2013

Butterfly Mountain

Winner if the Australian Times (UK) Travel Writer Competition August 2013

Yellow and white butterflies fluttered like tissue paper along the sheer staircase overhead, receding into the mountain mist with the steps.  “Look, the butterflies are saying to follow them,” Amila said, “just like they told the ancient kings.”
The butterflies come from the four corners of Sri Lanka’s island to worship Buddha’s footprint and die, story has it. As I heaved up the remaining steps, I was thinking I might have to join them. My lungs were wheezing like clapped-out bagpipes. I was sure the air was made of gravel.
 “You mustn’t think of giving up,” my Sri Lankan companions encouraged me. “Don’t think about what’s ahead. Take each and every step as it comes. Don’t look up.”
Worshipers believe it’s unlucky not to finish the climb – causing the mountain gods great displeasure.
Like the butterflies, I’d been lured to the sacred mountain of Sri Pada, Adam’s Peak. I’d been seduced by the fairy-tale picture - like a child’s drawing of a pyramid mountain with its winding staircase leading to a temple in the sky.
But on arrival I’d found a muddy path lined with stalls of bald-headed dolls, plastic bats and balls made in Korea and psychedelic-coloured ornaments. It looked more like a scene from Blackpool promenade than the entrance to a sacred mountain.
And sure enough, Sri Lankans were stepping out in flip flops and smart-casual dress as if taking a stroll on the sea-front, not heading up a mountain of 7,359 feet. They pottered along carrying large flasks of tea, plastic bags of snacks, even children.
The path was easy to begin with, the red tilak pressed upon our foreheads to give us Saman’s protection – one of the guardian gods of Sri Pada. As first-timers, white cloth bands were tied to our wrists too, a coin wrapped in them for luck. At Indikatu Pana we’d unravelled spools of thread along the hedgerow. Here Lord Buddha had paused to mend his robe, it’s said. The threads stretched out along the path-side like a great white cobweb.
“Karunavai,” pilgrims greeted us. Compassion.  “Theruwan Sanarai.”  May the triple gem of Buddha protect you.

Amila encouraged me to greet the pilgrims with these ancient spiritual greetings. I stumbled clumsily on the words but the Sri Lankans smiled and answered, delighted that this European was speaking ‘their language’.
The atmosphere on the path was one of cheerfulness and encouragement. A couple of teenage girls stopped to give me a handful of dried fruit.
As we climbed every upwards, the steps felt relentless. A mother and daughter struggled upwards. “How old is your mother?” I asked. “Eighty-three – and on her 65th ascent.”
I scolded my 50 year old self: Get a grip.
At last we’d ran out of steps. Below the temple, monks were laughing together, huddled over steaming cups of tea.  We passed on by, making our way to the shrine of the giant footprint venerated by four major religions: For Buddhists, none other than Lord Buddhas; for Hindus, Shiva’s; for Muslims, Adam’s and for Christians, St Thomas’.
I stood with my own thoughts as Amila bowed down at the shrine of the footprint. We tied our wristbands on a post and made a wish. Dimuthu and I rang the bell, its announcement of our ascent echoing over the Peak Wilderness. I thought of the eighty-three year old ringing the bell sixty-five times – one peel for every ascent.
 “You know, if your wish comes true,” Dimuthu said. “You must come back and climb the mountain again.” I nodded and smiled. I’d asked for happiness - and happiness was climbing Sri Pada just the one glorious time.
Turning to face the long downward climb, I felt strangely emotional. It was just a mountain for me, yet at that moment I felt something in my life was going to change.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Searching for ice caps in Sri Lanka

"Ice caps?" asks Dimuthu.

It’s 8pm at night and the pavements of Bandarawela are packed cheek-to-jowl with shoppers seeking out fire-crackers, clothes and last minute gifts for the Tamil-Sinhalese New Year. Dimuthu is on a different quest, however.

Bandarawela is a vibrant, thrown-together kind of town stuffed into a deep-sided valley. In the darkness beyond, hills of thick rainforest, tea plantations, waterfalls and flat valley floors of watery paddy fields stretch out for mile upon mile.

But here in town, festive lights drape from shop fronts and trees. Colourful tuk-tuks line the roadside like matchbox cars, decorated with home-spun stickers: ‘Life is nice with whife,’ ‘Only one sun shine for all’ and ‘Who flies not high, falls not low.’

Dimuthu weaves through the three-wheelers as I follow behind intrigued.

"Ice caps?" Dimuthu calls out above the high-pitched sound of horns and squealing brakes. "Ice caps?" she inquires over the cries of hawkers selling string-hoppers, oil cakes and sweet sticky dohol from kiosks.

Puzzled by the odd request, I catch up with Dimuthu striding purposefully along the street, sweeping aside flowing saris, loitering teenagers, hawkers with crates on their shoulders and young women in sparkling t-shirts and jeans. We side-step stacks of empty cardboard boxes and pavement displays of fruit and veg.

"Ice-caps?" Dimuthu asks a street vender selling coconut. My curiosity deepens: we may be in a highland town decidedly cooler than hot and sultry Colombo, but hardly cold enough for ice caps, surely?

I try to guess what an ice-cap might be: An iced drink? A cooling lolly? I’d settle for either. I’m guessing Dimuthu isn’t after an ice mass covering a highland area? Not here. Not in Sri Lanka, a mere four hundred miles from the equator.

The hawker points us in the direction of one of the grey concrete blocks stacking the main street, Jenga-style. I follow Dimuthu inside the store. The walls are lined ceiling-to-floor with shelves of fabric displaying every colour, pattern and texture imaginable. There’s enough material to clothe the entire female Sri Lankan population in saris for the New Year - but not an ice cap in sight.

"It’s the wrong season," Dimuthu sighs, but still she continues her search.

"Ice caps? Yes, Madam," a shop assistant says several stores later, and from behind the counter he lifts out a stack of … balaclavas.

Dimuthu tries one on. Her dark brown eyes peer out doubtfully from the slit in the thick woollen hat. The hat looks incongruous in a store crammed with shoppers dressed in summer cotton. We may be in the uplands but it’s still 20 degrees. Dimuthu shakes her head. The balaclava is hardly a fashion statement.

In the next store, a bare-footed shop assistant leaps onto the glass-topped counter and reaches for an assortment of woollen caps from the highest shelf. Dimuthu picks out a navy beanie embroidered with New York and pulls it on her head. She gives a sideways head-wobble: it’ll do. Tomorrow she won’t freeze on the sacred mountain of Sri Pada, Adam’s Peak – Sri Lanka’s second highest mountain at 7362 feet.

If only we could have invested in a crystal ball instead. We’d have discovered that the 3 hour journey to Dalhousie from Bandarawela would take 5 hours over pot-holed roads; that we’d sweat our way up more than 5000 knee-wrecking steps under the heat of the midday sun - and that we’d curse the hats, jumpers and coats weighing down our bags, never once used.

Instead Dimuthu emerges happily from the shop, scanning the higgledy-piggledy buildings in front of her.

"Right," she says. "Jumpers?"

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Quiet Woman

I've entered this piece into the Mob Flash Writing Competition. It goes live on the 21st June here:

This is not a travel piece in the conventional sense. It is a journey through life.

The Quiet Woman
She rarely spoke to me.
A quiet woman.
Yet her body told a thousand stories.
Her hair
snowy-owl white, feathery, falling in wisps about her face. She’d no time for herself, always tending others: a husband, twelve children and any other strays who came her way - the homeless, the abandoned, the neglected and the orphaned; the endless stream of farmhands passing through, stopping by her kitchen table. She thought nothing of cooking up breakfast for twenty.
Her skin
weathered brown and rough like an old chamois. Lined and cracked, I’d trace each story line with my mind - a lifetime of lines, a lifetime of stories.
 Her hands
 gnarled and twisted. Hands that cradled babies, buried month old twins, wiped away tears, smacked bottoms, shook a child in anger, held a child in love. Those hands had tugged knots from hair, twisted strands into braids or tied them down in rags.
Hands that manhandled pigs, wrung the necks of turkeys, squeezed the teats of milking cows and laid orphaned lambs into the Aga to thaw.
Hands that chopped wood, baked countless cakes, kneaded dough upon dough, pulled the sour fruit from garden shrubs and trees; sliced and diced, stirred and beat, pressed and shaped and supplied endless mouths.
Hands that scythed hay, dug earthy potatoes, mucked out, hauled meal bags, wiped away sweat, wiped away tears, wiped away fear and longing and all the other emotions never expressed.
Her body
 savaged by childbirth, farm labour and domesticity. Stooped, twisted, worn down, worn out, well used, not loved enough.
Her eyes now closed, her words ran out, her heart given up. No words at all: the quiet woman.
Looking back, I wish I’d asked her about the stories; wish I’d held her more - for she was my grandmother.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

To accept the award, the rules are as follows:

1) Display the Award logo.
2) Link back to the blogger(s) who nominated you.
3) State seven things about yourself.
4) Nominate 5 bloggers for the award.
5) Notify chosen bloggers.

1) See above. I have displayed the Award logo

2) I have been nominated by The cycling Scot. Colin has written a useful and inspirational blog about cycling, specifically in Scotland..

3) Seven things about me:
>I live in the great Peak District of England.
>I'm hoping to cycle to Istanbul next year.
>I once did a cross country ski marathon.
>I have climbed to above 9,000 feet in Switzerland - and would love to complete a peak over 10,000ft one day.
>I am a sucker for travel writing comps.
>I've walked the Wainwright Coast to Coast.
>I can't resist a packet of crisps.

5) I hope that you do not mind me nominating you. Your blogs are fantastic and inspirational.