West Coast and The Far North
On this occasion we met my parents at Grants at Craigellachie on the shores of Loch Duich. We arrived first, after a brief stop by Loch Cluanie where we were treated to a spectacular rainbow as another shower of rain passed down the glen.
The weather cleared up for the traditional pre-dinner amble down the quiet single track road that runs alongside Loch Duich.
We returned to the accommodation and that evening enjoyed a delicious meal in the little restaurant run by Tony. The food, lovingly prepared from fresh locally sourced ingredients, was exquisite.
The next morning, from Ratagan on the shores of Loch Duich, we headed generally north, passing briefly through Kinlochewe, Poolewe, Gairloch, Gruinard Bay and Ullapool. Each was as grey and rainy as the last and there was little impetus to get out of the car and explore. We enjoyed a nice pub lunch at the Aultbea Hotel by Loch Ewe.
The drive to Ullapool was exciting with the picturesque Little Loch Broom offering tantalising views of a veiled An Teallach above Dundonnell, as well as the lower slopes of the Fannaichs and Beinn Dearg a little further on. At Ullapool we were beaten indoors by a resurgent rain shower but found warmth and shelter in the delightful Ceilidh Place just behind the harbour. This cafe and bar has an adjoining bookshop and served delicious coffee with the food looking just as tempting.
We drove out of Ullapool, following the road northward. Through the gloom of a rain spattered windscreen the headlights briefly caught the sign I had been waiting to see.
“Welcome to Sutherland”
The scenery, though veiled by the cloud and rain, was dramatic, much wilder than anything I’d yet seen in Scotland. Amber and bronze moorland stretched as far as the eye could see, broken only by steel grey pools and lochans and the dark lower slopes of the hills and mountains. It’s a desolate place. Tiny hamlets dwarfed by the landscape around them. Single hills rear out of the moor, their summits crowned with crags.
By Loch Assynt we stopped for a walk along the shoreline to the ruins of Ardvreck Castle,
Unfortunately we had no views of Suilven or Stac Polaidh but by the time we dropped down to the Kylesku Bridge the cloud had lifted sufficiently to give a good view of the buttresses of Quinag.
With darkness approaching we finally arrived at our stopping point for the night, the delightfully eccentric Rhiconich Hotel. This was a great place to spend the night – a friendly host, tasty food, Orkney Island Brewery ales (albeit bottled) and a warm peat fire to lounge around after dinner. Bliss.
The Far North
The following morning, with the air a little clearer, we drove north from Rhiconich along the single track road which winds its way up to Durness and the fringed far north coastline of the island of Britain. Showers were blowing down the glen from behind Beinn Spionnaidh which produced interesting and ever changing patterns of light across the wide strath.
At Durness, a quiet and slightly ramshackle village spread out along the cliff tops just ten miles short of the north-west tip of the mainland, we parked and dropped down to the white sands of Sango Bay.
Although the sun wasn’t shining at this point the splendour and isolation of this place was more than apparent. We wandered about the beach and clambered over the rocks before spying the great black clouds that were billowing up from the south. We didn’t run fast enough back to the cars to avoid a drenching from the intensely heavy rain that suddenly fell on Durness.
This was fortuitous though as after a brief stop at the John Lennon memorial (which although nice is framed by the modern and uninspiring village hall) we stopped off to the visit the famous Smoo Cave. This vast cavern has been formed by a combination of sea and river erosion which results in a stunning set of chambers set back into the rock below Durness. In the second chamber a burn overflows and tumbles down through a sinkhole to create a waterfall. Apparently this is only evident at times of heavy rain and so the poor weather the previous day was shown to have had at least one upside!
Further along the coast we stopped for a wander along the beautiful white sands of the beach at Traigh Allt Chailgeag. Here the clearest of waters met the whitest of sands. The view brought to mind tropical islands, not the far north of Scotland. There was scrambling on the rocks and running on the beach and looks of admiration as we saw some body surfers take to the crashing waves clad head to toe in neoprene.
The coast road now has to turn away from the sea, forced inland by the great bite that Loch Eribol takes out of the northern coastline.
Eribol is a spectacular expanse of wild, deep blue-grey water. There are small cottages strung out along its shores but beyond this, untamed hills march up to dark and lonely mountain summits. Brooding clouds were still hunched over the peaks but we stopped every now and then to get out and admire this great, humbling landscape. On the east shore of the loch the road eventually climbs up to a vantage point where you can really appreciate this wild country.
After Eribol we dropped down along a twisting road, climbed over a high moorland with views to the intimidating north-west ridge of Ben Hope and eventually dropped down to the Kyle of Tongue. A short drive took us into Tongue itself where the Ben Loyal Hotel provided ample refreshment amid the pleasant hustle and bustle of a Saturday afternoon.
We now turned away from the north coast and headed on the single track road which heads to Lairg, passing by the picturesque Loch Loyal before travelling down through Altnaharra, Lairg and Bonar Bridge.
We climbed up above the Dornoch Firth before dropping down to join the busy A9 near Evanton on the shores of the Cromarty Firth.
After so much time spent driving the quiet roads of the Highlands it was a bit of shock to be on a well-used road which turned into dual carriageway after the crossing of the Black Isle to Inverness. In the late afternoon sunshine we continued east until we reached Nairn where we had a wander along the beach before a final drive to our destination for the night, a comfy B&B in Forres.
After failing to find a table at any of the local restaurants we ate a pub dinner in Forres and then retired for the night. The next morning we briefly visited Sueno's Stone and then went our separate ways, Mum and Dad heading for Yorkshire whilst we went east back to Aberdeen.
Winter Solstice Total Lunar Eclipse
This morning's Total Lunar Eclipse was a slightly unusual one, in that if viewed from the UK, the Moon would set whilst eclipsed. In addition this was the first eclipse to occur on the day of the winter solstice since 1638.
It was icily cold at 6:50am when I left the flat to walk up to the summit of Cat Cairn, which is a small lump that sits above Tullos to the south of the city of Aberdeen. It would give me a reasonably clear horizon to the west and allow me later on to watch the sun rise on the shortest day of the year.
The Moon was already eclipsed, U1 occurring at 06:32am, as I walked up the hill with my telescope and photographic equipment.
In the sub-zero temperatures it was a race against time to get my equipment set-up before I lost all feeling in my gloveless fingers (note to self: buy new pair of thin gloves for 2011!). I soon had the 80mm refractor up and the Canon 450D hooked up to it via a t-adaptor. Then I set-up my Panasonic DMC-FZ7 to get a few widefield shots of the event (attaching the Gorillapod to a handy fencepost behind me).
It was clear as I arrived it was going to be perfect conditions for viewing the eclipse which was already well underway. One of the first photos I took is shown below and it is clear that the Earth's shadow has already covered a large part of the Moon's disc. This, as with all the lunar photos that follows, was taken with my 450D at prime focus on the 80mm telescope.
Moon at 7.17am GMT, Canon 450D, Vixen ED80sf Refractor, 1/50s, ISO 200
Now it was really just a matter of enjoying this beautiful and stately event. The sky was clear overhead and Spica and Venus both shone brilliantly in the south. Over the sea and around the horizon line there was a faint, clinging mist which would eventually swallow the Moon as it set.
Moon at 7.20am GMT, Canon 450D, Vixen ED80sf Refractor, 0.5s, ISO 800
Luckily though, as totality approached, the Moon was sufficiently high to enjoy excellent views whilst the colour deepened dramatically, the Moon darkening and turning increasingly russet red.
Moon at 7.26am GMT, Canon 450D, Vixen ED80sf Refractor, 1.3s, ISO 800
I continued to take photos and watch the Moon over the next few minutes, balancing the exposure to catch the Moon against a sky that was very slowly beginning to lighten from the east.
Moon at 7.34am GMT, Canon 450D, Vixen ED80sf Refractor, 1.3s, ISO 800
At 07:40 the Moon was completely within the umbral shadow and so totality had begun. At the same time the dawn sky was brightening with the slow approach of the sun and so the Moon was fading, particularly as it was gradually swallowed by the haze on the horizon. The next shot was a long exposure photo taken with myself appearing as a ghostly figure to the left - I stepped into frame to take a couple of shots via my telescope.
Almost at totality - the scene over Aberdeen at 7:39am
After this the sky brightened rapidly, though it was just possible to track the sinking Moon. Totality rapidly dimmed the brightness and soon it was just the outline of the sphere that could be seen against the increasingly blue sky.
Moon at 7.46am GMT, Canon 450D, Vixen ED80sf Refractor, 2.5s, ISO 400
Below is one of the final pictures I took through the telescope before the Moon was completely lost to sight.
Moon at 7.59am GMT, Canon 450D, Vixen ED80sf Refractor, 2.5s, ISO 400
After the Moon had faded from sight I dismantled the telescope and then headed up with my camera to the top of the nearby cairn to watch the sunrise out of the North Sea.
The Eastern Horizon at 7:56am, Panasonic DMC-FZ7, 28mm, f/5.6, 0.2s, ISO 400
It was then a wait of almost an hour before the sun finally rose above the industrial units on the Altens estate. During this time an Aberdeen Astronomical Society member, who had been watching the eclipse from near Nigg Kirk, joined me on the cairn.
The light display, as the sun neared, and the horizon was washed over with successive colours of purples, blues, oranges, yellows and reds, was stunning. Then the globe of the sun suddenly appeared in a flash of light, and the shortest day had begun.
Sunrise at 8:39am GMT, Canon 450D, 35mm, f/5.7, 1/1250, ISO 400
See also my images from the 2007 Total Lunar Eclipse here.
Laura Veirs at the Tunnels
Despite sub-zero temperatures and a slowly weakening immune system it wasn’t too difficult to leave the warmth of home and head down to the Tunnels for a relaxed night of music from a couple of artists all the way from the North-West of America. It was a very civilised affair with tables and seating filling the venue. On stage a single microphone and a banjo indicated that there was to be only solo performances tonight, despite both artists having bands of their own these days.
First up was the delightfully quirky Clyde Petersen, lead singer of the collaborative music project Your Heart Breaks. She entertained the crowd with a series of songs that took us across the United States, and through a series of not altogether successful relationships. A consumate story teller her lyrics were full of little gems of pop-culture, my favourite coming from the song Torry Pines, which illustrates the level of crazy her Mother achieved through the lyrics:
“Cos you got into a fight with your Mom who did believe, she could speak to Deanna Troi telepathically, you know that psycho-crazy bitch from Star Trek:TNG who could read everyone’s thoughts, your Mom said she could do that to me”
Her songs were all accompanied by her simple-but-effective guitar playing, but later efforts brought in some percussive and vocal extras, all done through her pedals, and culminated in a whole series of audience participation in the song God Speed John Glenn.
With minimal equipment to changeover Laura Veirs soon took to the stage with her acoustic guitar, opening up her all too brief set with Pink Light, the first song off her latest album Saltbreakers. Over the next three-quarters of an hour she played through a great selection of songs from her back catalogue, though emphasising Saltbreakers, as well as playing a couple of her favourite traditional songs on the banjo.
The songs translated very well from the lush arrangements on the records to this more spartan setup, and her voice was as beautiful as you would expect. Her music is the sort that manages to bring a smile to your face, and despite the lack of other instruments there was still the same sense of whimsy and other-worldliness that her songs so easily evoke. She also warmed very quickly to the audience and was soon telling us stories including a past trip to Aberdeen where an argument with a promoter earned her a “You’ll never play in Aberdeen again!” to her recent flights across the Irish Sea in the terrible weather.
Her set was way too short though and even after the encore which included both Rialto and Riptide there was a feeling she could have gone on another hour or more, such is the charm of her music.
As it was I had a hurried walk back through -5oC temperatures to the nearest taxi!
Youtube user Trippinflags evidently attended the gig and has posted this video of Laura performing Riptide, the final song of her set.
New Zealand Part 1
And so begins the great holiday journal. New Zealand: North, South and Stewart Islands in just 34 days. I’ll try to keep it brief and informative and where possible link to further information about this incredible country that should definitely be high on people’s to-visit list.
According to my watch it is some ridiculous time of the morning and the bright sunlight of day is attempting to find its way into this sleepy aircraft of ours. From the map in the screen in front of me I know it is the former USSR below us, away to our south the Himalayas begin their great march towards India, and ahead lies China and our refuelling stop in Hong Kong. At our cruising altitude of 11,430m its a chilly -50 centigrade and so far I’ve covered 6,500km with many more yet to go before touching down in Auckland, New Zealand.
The day started under bright sunshine in Northallerton where I caught the train down to Stevenage. From here it was an uncharacteristically quick car journey around the M25 with J and her mum to Terminal 3 of Heathrow where we crawled through the endless construction sites and into the car park. It doesn’t seem like a place worthy of sending people off to exotic and exciting destinations but it was all we had.
We made our way through to the Terminal itself, a grim 70’s town center shopping mall where after checking in (only about 4 hours early just to be sure!) we enjoyed sushi and a sandwich before going through the indignity of taking our belts off to get through airport security. We killed time in duty free and a “quaint Irish pub” before heading off to our gate where a shiny looking Boeing 747 stood in the late evening sunshine. On its side was the famous Whale’s tail of Kaikoura, a place we hoped to be visiting. Boarding was delayed by about half an hour or so but we eventually were on our way, bound for the southern hemisphere and much adventure.
After more than 11 hours flying time (including watching 300 and writing some of this journal) we reached Hong Kong where in sweltering 35 degree temperatures our airplane was refuelled and again we were on our way. Taking off over the water we saw the high-rise of Hong Kong nestled in amongst dramatic mountains – it looks a surreal and interesting place to visit – and then we were away over the South China sea passing into the night and flying over the Phillipines, Indonesia and then the northeastern coast of Australia. The dawn arrived with a blanket of cloud which we descended through to reach our destination, Auckland.
Arrival in Auckland
New Zealand, known to the Maori as Aotearoa or The Land of the Long White Cloud was certainly living up to its name as we got our stash of cereal bars, polos and locketts through (bio)security and out onto the wet and windy concourse from which we caught the Airbus to take us into the city centre and our hostel.
Everything was going fine at first as we twisted through the streets of downtown Auckland and we were fairly confident of our destination until our friendly bus driver stopped calling out the stops and we suddenly found ourselves heading up and out of the city! We went and asked what was going on and in no time we were racing across a busy road to get a second bus coming the other way which this time delivered us straight to our hostel, Base Backpackers on Fort Street.
Given the nasty weather we investigated the comically upside down TV, our bunk beds and then had a quick nap before heading out onto the main shopping street, Queen Street where we got a New Zealand SIM card and a few other things before heading for a tasty pizza at the Kiwi Music Bar and Cafe – a cool little pizzeria where a Flying Nun pizza (mushrooms, olives and pesto)[^1] was served by a cheerful guy whose bar had entertained the White Stripes on their first visit to New Zealand in 2002. It was then time to check e-mails before succombing to the jet lag.