Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Time is ticking by and my word have I felt every tock. Ever since we booked the flights it has taken every sinew of my distracted concentration to get on with other things. From tomorrow I won't have to.

We shall be away and, touch wood, will not be back until we have circumnavigated the globe (roughly in the way mapped on the picture).

I am afraid this will necessitate a lot more blogging than I have done for many a year. First stop a crazy weekend in Tokyo, a bit of Fuji and the Swede's Japanese wedding!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Itching to run...

A week from now I'll have touched down half a world away in TOKYO. Lapping up the sights, sounds and Asahi of that crazy city.

Those to die for moments when you are, simultaneoulsy, exactly where you want to be and buzzing about what is to come after. Possibilities seem endless. A broad smile and a glint in the eye.

A quarter of a year on the run around the globe.

This week can not go quickly enough......

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hiking in the Highlands

Despite my English nurture, deep down in my blood, there is more Scottish than anything else. Both of my grandfathers were from north of the border, one side from the Orkneys, the other the highlands.

Growing up in suburban Surrey, this heritage seemed a long way away and was not encouraged by a wave of Mel Gibson induced "Braveheart" nationalism emanating from the North in my formative years. The Battle of Stirling Bridge surprisingly had a bridge, William Wallace was not a peasant, he did not wear a kilt, or sleep with Queen Isabella – that is unless he fancied 8 year olds. Don't get me started. Sorry.

The point, I wanted to change this departure from my roots and what better way then to go close and personal to the highlands.

Up close and personal

A zippy, yet annoying car, a tank full of gas and good company. Chris and I spent a week touring around this moody, rippled, rain-lashed outpost of North East Europe. We mixed it up between charming, if slightly odd, B&B's and idyllic country houses. Rarely have I so fallen for a region.
For me, the most striking thing about the highlands, is not that there are phenomenally beautiful parts – a look at any post-card will tell you that – but rather that there do not seem to be any non-beautiful parts. We drove literally hundreds of miles and where ever we went we were surrounded by simply stunning countryside. Magnificent emotional vistas hit you with such rapidity that, at least in my case, you feel shell-shocked.
There is therefore far too much to write about. Not knowing where to start, or to end, I have decided to concentrate on a few separate areas which we particularly enjoyed, but by no means does this indicate that the stuff in between is not just as magnificent.

Loch Shiel and Glenfinnan
A quintessential loch. Steep, glacier-moulded, green-clad hills dive sharply into the dark waters of the Loch Shiel. Trees surround the fringe, fish ply the cold channel and, not that we saw them, golden eagles saw above. This is only the foreground. As seems consistent through the highlands, the changeable highly charged weather completes the scene. Bundles of cloud of all varieties burst across the sky. Rain lashes down, clears and sharp streams of light pierce the heavenly cover. These brief breaches of sunshine play with the hillsides, dancing shapes across shear, escarped forms. I can watch for hours.
At the northern end of the loch, a famed statue for those who died in the Jacobite cause and our temporary residence, Glenfinnan House. Complete with stag heads, exquisite local beer and midgies. The only hotel I've come across in the UK where they don't have locks on doors. Quite phenomenal views of the glen as you wander across the lawn to the lochside.

The Cuillin
At the southern tip of the Isle of Skye lies wilderness. A rare thing nowadays, especially on our crowded little island. The rest of the Skye is stunning, but the Cuillan is something else. Sizable Monro's climbing straight out of the sea. Bashed by the ocean beneath and the ever-morphing West coast weather from above, the Black Cuillan are strange, impassioned mountains. It is hard to describe, but the sight of them left me in abject awe. No roads penetrate the heart of these hills. Compasses can not track them, mist rolls in and obscures them. An ambition to cross them. For now, we trekked to the top of the adjacent bay and admired them. Outstanding beauty, leaving the soulless aspects of this modern world behind.

Ben Nevis

For the cynics, yes, this is a proper mountain, Britain does have proper, fully grown mountains and Ben Nevis is the biggest of them. Setting out from the only disappointing place we visited in the highlands – poor Fort William – we set-off through Glen Nevis in pursuit of the summit.
Rationed to the hilt and kitted out with some remotely water-proof equipment, the prospect rather excited us. The path runs back and forth across the face of the lush-green valley, climbing slowly but surely. Every so often the path is broken by a small stream. The moss and soil of the hills act like a giant sponge, over-spilling water down these narrow channels whenever they reach saturation point.

A marked left turn, and the first sight of Nevis proper. Top crested in thick cloud, the high parts are rocky, but slowly give way to sparse greenery and forest as the altitude drops. We make our way round this corner and up onto a plateau edged by a smaller summit with a lake at its feet. Climb a little further and the landscape for miles around is opened up before your eyes, but only for brief moments as the cloud and mist swirl in and out.
Round to the right and a long side to side traverse leaving the valley long behind. Out of nowhere, the weather closes in, and at the height of summer we are lashed by ice cold rain. Soaked through, we trundle on. The cloud is thick all around as the ground turns to small dark grey boulders, we are entering the final stage of the climb. Chris's step is slightly quicker than mine, but I just about keep up.
And there we were, on the summit of the British Isles. A creepy place of the odd memorial to fallen climbers, some snow and the old abandoned observatory all enveloped in a moist wisp. Smiles, hugs and a piccie or two and we head back down.
Perhaps a quarter of the way down, the weather clears-up sharply and we are blessed with a simply startling panoramic of the highlands for miles and miles around.
Before I settle down for what felt like a well earned pint at the bottom, we are reminded of just how remarkable some people are. A blind guy is being led up by his father and a kid with cerebral-palsy has done nearly all of it himself. Lessened as our "achievement" was, I still enjoy the beer.

The Isle of Eigg and back again

From Arisaig we took the little boat out to the only just about inhabited Isle of Eigg (maybe I am being harsh, there are nearly 100 permanent inhabitants). The real reason for the trip quickly comes to fruition. At first barely visiable and doubted, then up close and personal, a colony of common and grey seals basking on the rocks. What a pick me up!
A few hours of spotting black sheep and rambling around the island and we're back on the boat. The distant Cuillan disappear into the weather and the boat splashes all around as the rain pelts. An interestingly rollicking journey is interrupted by a sighting of what I firmly believe to have been a basking shark. A serious bonus. Back via the seals we make it to dry land with just enough time to take a loop past a few white sand beaches that have no right being this close to the Arctic circle.

To return

A brief glimpse of our brief glimpse of the highlands. We merely whetted our appetites for this ever surprising and emotive landscape. And to think I have not even mentioned how friendly and welcoming everyone we met were. Needless to say we must return.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Hellenic Writing

Of the parts of the world I have been lucky enough to visit, the one I venture to most is Greece. For various reasons the country is very close to my heart and I am an abject Hellene. Despite, or perhaps because of this, I have never written about my time in Greece. To change this, what follows is a brief description of but one part of that varied, oh-so-charming country.


One of literally thousands of Greek islands, this small piece of rock jutting out of the Western Aegean is perhaps no more or less special than numerous others. To me though, it is very special.

Christina in her natural environment
A Cycladic island, it is a sea-mount, rising from the deep. Sizeable cliffs soar out of the water, protecting a hinterland of steep rolling hills. Unlike many of its neighbors, its topography protects relatively lush valleys of vineyard and olive grove, alongside the sparse, sun-baked mountainsides. At the core of the island, the attractive capital town of Appolonia. From there, windy roads stretch out via cedar and the odd donkey to small white-washed villages and, in a few directions, protected bays, horse-shoed by rising hills, dotted with small sailing-yachts and backed by golden sandy beaches. And that isn't even my favourite part. Directly to the East of the main, well…only, town, the land descends into a narrow valley, spilling over a small cliff on one side and into a narrow smuggler's cove on the other. Between the two rises a small-steep hill, which has been the natural defensive focal point of the island for millennia. Atop is Kastro, the amended remnants of a Venetian fortified town and the ancient capital of the island. Picture-postcard perfect white washed houses packed densely on the summit and cut-across by narrow streets of painted flag-stones, which provide essential shade in the heat of the day. On the inland facing side, cafe's line the edge of the settlement. Bliss to just kick back, catch a refreshing breeze and watch the hills as you gorge yourself on scrumptious Greek food and the odd Alpha bira. At its sea-facing higher elevation, Kastro literally falls into the sea. Hundred foot cliffs fall away to nothing but the glittering Mediterranean, distant islands and one idyllic blue-roofed church perching on a rock protruding into the sea.It is atop that cliff we stayed, in the spare room of Maximo. Day after day, as the sun sank over Antiparos, scarring the sky yellow, orange and red, I sat with the love of my life and stared into the future.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The SS Thistlegorm

I awoke in a mildly confused, languid sweat. A short moment of "where am I?", followed by satisfied realisation as I sat-up and soaked in the refreshing breeze. With the sun rising I was yacht-borne, heading up the Gulf of Suez with blazing Egyptian desert hills rising to the East and the West.

With the sun now someway up in the sky, we reached our destination. Down below, through calm turquoise waters it was visible. A 5,000 tonne 130 metre wreck famed amongst divers the world-over. The SS Thistlegorm.

The armoured-freighter was sunk in October of 1941 by German bombers while transporting military equipment to the British Eighth Army in North Africa, sadly, with loss of life.

It sank to 30 metres, nestling on its hull as if still afloat, hidden from the world until discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the early fifties. For another forty years it was left to its own devices gathering resident sea-life until rediscovered by the diving community. It has been a Mecca for recreational divers ever since.

Last minute checks, plunge and descend…an eerie experience as you glide down towards this massive object surrounded by the open sea. The scale of the ship imposes itself ever more as you come near. It looks so unnatural and yet, as you approach, the gathering coral covering and resident fish community show it is being naturalised before your eyes.The ship is largely intact except for a mangled pile of metal at the stern where the bombs hit. We neutralised our buoyancy just above this memory of carnage and, with the innards of ship rising above, made our way across the ship. Staring at the entanglement below and to the side, the eyes suddenly picked out tank tracks. On its back amongst the entanglement, there was an upside down Bren Gun carrier (effectively, a tank). Again, so out of place, so strange.Around the side we went, past long-dormant, sizable propellers and then back along the high side of the ship, dolphin kicking on my back with the current. As is the mind's way, it relaxes, but is interrupted every so often by a shrill of excitement, in this case triggered by the reality of the large riveted sheets of metal towering overhead.I start noticing the variety of fish. Sea anemone poking their heads out of their tentacled homes and a crocodile fish lurking on deck. My eyes had a double-take as we drifted past and beside two trains still on their tracks. How they did not topple off as the ship went down is a mystery to me. Then, for the first time, into the ship itself. Over the cargo-bays full of vehicles largely obscured by shadow and into the bow. A door enters into a small room, through and out a top-hatch. Then up, over the prow, looking a long way down to the sea-floor and back, hard against the current. We ascended elated.

On the surface you could not wrench the grin off my face with a crow-bar. Excitement and stomach churning anticipation, we were soon heading back into the depths. Descending to the same site of metallic carnage, this time we entered the very bowels of the vessel from where they had been scythed open by the blast. Like nothing else I have ever done. Gliding up past and over motorcycles, armoured vehicles and trucks, intact even down to the windscreens. In the riveted nooks and crannies of the hold, our torches showed up various bits of equipment, clothing and ghostly white fish with large staring eyes.

Up to the next level, and more of the same. Some tight squeezes in the openings between the levels and where the vehicles are a tight fit. Then into the living quarters. A bathroom, the galley and the captain's room. Rolling time back in the mind, a peculiar sensation. Before the divers' bubbles percolate out through the slowly rotting shell of the ship, many are caught under the ceiling, forming a "dry" area. A cheap thrill in sticking my head into one of these giant bubbles. Distinctly odd so far beneath the surface.

Eventually, like all remarkable things, the penultimate dive of our trip had to end. A safety stop surrounded by a shoal of inquisitive fish and back onto the boat.Sometimes, rarely, you do something that really is it. Not just good, great, whatever, but so bloody fantastic that, in it, you are lost in a world of excited contentment, and for ever after it, your mind is drawn back to just how good it was. That my friends was diving the SS Thistlegorme.

Ras Mohammed to home

With seriously contented grins all round, we sailed back down the coast basking in the heat. A final dive in the Ras Mohammed National Park beckoned to send me home content - well, to be honest, I was already more than content, but you know what I mean. Dolphins were spotted by the dive-site and we kitted up in a jubilant hickledy-pickledy rush. Crash in to the water for one last time. My head immediately searching, left, right, up and down for those most playful of mammals. Gone.

A quad testing swim against a contentious current graced us with a great variety of sea-life. Nutrients are aplomb in this channel and accordingly everything is BIG. BIG tuna, BIG travelli, BIG barracuda, Big blow-fish and GINORMOUS moray's - I've seen them longer, but never as fat, there were three of these dark coloured mother's with a head bigger than mine. Huge shoals of fish surround us in all directions. Past a toilet ship wreck (literally a ship was wrecked carrying toilets), a top-sighting of an Indian eagle-ray in between two blue-spotted stingrays, and a neat right-angle swim-through to say goodnight.

A beer, a hookah-pipe, home and happy!