Is a four day solo road trip through Iceland enough to properly explore the country?
Is it, however, enough time to run up into the largely deserted Westernfjords, roam brilliant empty fjords, see puffins, and then hop a ferry down to Snaefellsnes for a taste of more waterfalls, extinct volcanos and gorgeous Icelandic horses?
I’ll talk a bit in a future post about just how powerful, liberating, and wonderful a solo road trip like this is. But, for now, I want to take you through a visual tour (in color) of my road trip through Iceland’s Westfjords. According to one statistic I read before the trip, fewer than 11% of visitors to Iceland visit the region in the far Northwest and in this instance, that lack of tourism is great news for people eager to explore a vibrant but more natural and less touristic Iceland.…
For millenia the Bosphorus has served as an influential gateway that has, and continues to leave a powerful footprint on human society. It has been a key actor and primary muse in the generation of numerous empires and provided a fertile trade and bread basket to the peoples and civilizations that have controlled it. The Bosphorus is a relatively short waterway which connects the Sea of Marma and greater Mediterranean with the Black Sea. It serves as a dividing line between the European continent to the west and the Asian continent to the east, and is straddled by the great city of Istanbul, formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople.
The Kadıköy (Kadikoy) Ferry
For visitors based out of hostels and hotels on the European side of Istanbul the ferry docks located just off of the Eminönü tram station offer a budget friendly, and convenient way to see the Bosphorus. You’ll find three harbor stations (one was under repair during my visit) that offer several different routes. Having heard that the Kadikoy district on the Asian side of Istanbul was well worth a visit I opted to give it a go. I also recall that the Uskudar line leaves from the same location.
The ferries are considered part of the standard public transit infrastructure and run regularly. You can purchase tokens at the small ferry terminals for 2 TL which are good for one voyage, though you could theoretically continue to ride the ferry back and forth for the duration of its shift. The ships are large and pedestrian only which varies them somewhat from many of the other local ferries I’ve ridden in the past.
I can never quite place my finger on the origins of my love of ships. I suppose it might date back to times spent as a toddler in Puerto Penasco, Mexico where we’d spend a month every winter as a family. Boating, fishing, swimming. There’s just something about the rocking of a boat, the smell of fresh salty air, and the sound of gulls and waves that is soothing. The Turkish ferries have large open deck areas as well as cozy interior seating with big windows allowing you to get the most out of the relatively short trip back and forth. Oh, and then there’s the Turkish tea of course which is dirt cheap and a must!
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts my timing was both fantastic and dreadful. I ended up in Istanbul smack dab in the midst of the worst cold front and snow storms they’ve had in 25 years. The result was an unusually snowy Istanbul, incredible light, and very, very, cold weather. While this made spending time out on deck rather rough, it also shortened the days and resulted in visually stunning views from the ferry as the European side transitioned from three dimensions to silhouettes, and then faded into the haze as Istanbul’s famous lighthouse and the Asian side slowly emerged and became visible. The lighthouse which, is perched on a tiny island just large enough for the building and a dock, is gorgeous and has been featured in a number of movies the most famous of which was featured in The World is Not Enough, the semi-recent James Bond/007 film.
I can’t stress enough how incredible the light was. This photo highlights the deep yellow/golden color of the light as it struggled to cut through the sea haze and snow clouds. You can see a mixture of snowflakes and birds in this photo which are semi-indistinguishable. The entire trip back and forth felt as though I was somehow caught in the midst of a 17th century oil painting.
One of the things that really surprised me about Istanbul was the number of major mosques and their size. These structures are incredible. They’re gorgeous. They’re ancient and they’re massive. They also created a really impressive silhouette. From time to time as a traveler you’re greeted with moments that take your breath away. This was definitely one of those moments – the type that, if I was religious, I would call divinely inspired. For me, they resonate as the type of moments where I feel an even deeper awe at the beauty and depth of the universe, humanity, and our relationship with nature. If I could have paused and drawn out that moment, I’m sure hours would have passed without me noticing.
The Tourist Cruise
The following day I opted for one of the actual harbor tours. In retrospect I should have just gone with one of the longer ferry routes. Still, it only cost a few dollars more and was a decent enough experience that I didn’t feel like it was a waste. As we left the docks and steamed in the general direction of the Asian side, the first third of the route was similar to the previous day, only instead of heading to the right we turned left when we reached the coast.
This took us up and past a number of beautiful old buildings that included administrative structures, palaces, and the Turkish military academy. It was a fun look at buildings and areas that were considerably less touristy than the city’s historic center.
They were in widely varied states of repair and it was clear that many were used semi-seasonally to take advantage of Istanbul’s warm weather and plethora of small islands during the summer. Most featured small docks and a few had built in boat garages, which were a really cool touch.
One of the most memorable buildings along the route was the Beylerbeyi Palace which is a historic Ottoman era summer palace built in the mid 1800s. A beautiful structure, it unfortunately sits immediately beside one of Istanbul’s largest suspension bridges. Despite the jarring visual clash between the two, it does serve as an interesting reminder of how things change. I know it’s a small detail, and perhaps i’m just easily entertained, but one of my favorite parts of the palace were the series of harbor gates set up along the water. They added a certain fantasy element to the palace which tugged at my romanticized daydreams of princesses, queens, and luxurious sea yachts. Granted, of course, that this was the Ottoman Empire and the names varied. Still, it definitely had Disney-esque potential.
The final leg of the tourist cruise took us back towards the Maidens Tower. I highly suggest spending time on either one of the cruises or the ferry around sunset. Even though the skies were partly cloudy, the city silhouette was something I was impressed by once again. It’s also fascinating to see the hundreds of ships lined up south of the city waiting for permission to make their way up and through the straights, fill up on freight, or to unload their cargo.
The tower/lighthouse has been used in some capacity or another since at least 1100. At various points it has served as customs station, military installation, lighthouse, restaurant and even a quarantine area. It also seems to be a very popular destination for the local birds. While I may find my way out to it during a future trip, my hunch is that it is best enjoyed in passing as a beautiful and historic oddity.
By the time we prepared to wrap up the cruise and return to the docks the snow had returned which treated me to another gorgeous sunset. There’s something about the minaret spires and domes of a mosque that really lends itself to brilliant silhouettes. Add in diffused sunlight reflecting off of dark water, a few birds battling snow and you end up with a very unique experience. Perhaps part of what makes it such a powerful visual is the seemingly exotic clash between the two. Though I know it is inaccurate, I always associate mosques and Turkey with Arab cultures and the desert. To see it and its occasional palm trees covered in snow in the midst of a light snow storm was definitely a bizarre contrast. Yet, perhaps that is fitting for Istanbul and Turkey as a whole – a city and a nation that sits astride two continents and is caught at the center, standing astride two vastly different cultures and worlds.
**This post is Part III in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Rewind to: Part I or Part II.
One of the most exciting stops along our route was a brief pause at a large waterfall in the middle of the glacier. Easily 8 feet across, the waterfall carved a trough along the surface of the glacier before diving deep into a dark blue hole. As the guide turned and motioned for me to ease towards the lip of the hole, I was thrilled. With him securing my safety harness, I eased up as close as I could to the edge, then leaned out and stared straight down, my eyes hungrily following the water’s course as it splashed of rich blue ice walls and carved away at white crystalline walls. The roar of the falls was mesmerizing and the cool, humid air spilling up and off the waterfall crisp and clean.
As we wound further onto the glacier, we passed a number of large crevasses. Some of which we would skirt, others we would walk along, and yet others – those small enough – we would carefully jump across, all the while with a large lump in our throats and a sense of controlled adventure in our hearts.
Eventually we reached the half-way mark and the group settled in for our pick-nick lunches. The spot we chose? A small hollow which blocked the wind and some of the light rain. As most of the group casually sat on the ice, enjoying the protection of their waterproof paints I dug around in my bag and fished out a bag. It held a massive, bright orange carrot that stood out in an explosion of color against the grays and blues of our equipment, the sky and glacier. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as I saw eyebrows raise, and heads tilt. The thoughts racing through their minds were obvious, “who is this kid, why the hell does he have a giant carrot and how’s he going to manage without waterproof pants – is that really all he brought?”.
As I contentedly finished my carrot, I took the plastic bag it had come in, kicked out a flat space in the ice, set it down, and then plopped my body down on top of it. Next up? Lunch meat. As I sat there with numb fingers, I set to trying to open two plastic packages of lunch meat I’d purchased. Largely unsuccessful, an idea eventually struck. Before long I’d leaned forward and impaled the plastic wrapper on one of my crampon spikes and had set upon the small pile of lunch meat with a voracious hunger.
Ever one to be inclusive, the third and final course was a large bag of baguettes. True, I could have taken the effort to combine the meats and bread, but my approach seemed more fun and convenient. Especially in light of the chuckles I was getting from other group members who had purchased pre-packaged lunches from the local supermarket. I quickly gave away a couple of the 6 or so loaves of bread that had come in the bag, and chewed away contentedly. As we prepared to move on, one of the guides poured a tin of sweetened matte which he passed around and a few of us shared and enjoyed. It was the ideal desert and re-heated us as we prepared for the trek home.
As we wound back along the ice we paused briefly for a rush of excitement as one of the group members failed to step far enough, tripped and almost fell into a crevasse. One of the guides as on hand, stabilized him, and helped him the rest of the way across.
The hike back towards the mountain trail was every bit as good as the trip out to the center of the glacier. Where the view before had been of ice, white, and distant mountains, the view on the return was constantly framed by the imposing presence of the mountains.
Each new view dragged my mind further and further into a fairytale. With fresh air in my lungs, spectacular sights bombarding my eyes, and clean rain drops decorating my face I had one of those incredible moments and relished every ounce of the experience. As the thought echoed through my mind I smiled and whispered, “This…this is why I travel”.
Eventually we found our way back to the base camp where we shed our harnesses and crampons, and then wound back along the path. The end of a hike is usually somewhat boring. Not so in this instance. After the lifeless beauty of the glacier, the wealth of blooming flowers and booming thunder of large waterfalls drew my exhausted feet forward.
The view of the glacier where it gave way to rain slicked rocks was also completely different. Given the honeycombed nature of the glacier, the ice formations looked new, fresh and unique as we revisited them from a different angle.
As we wound back down toward the lake, we enjoyed a great view of the glacier’s forward face and another reminder of how small we truly are. Can you spot the ferry, and people out on the glacier in the above photo? They’re both there!
The trip had been expensive by backpacker oriented day-trip standards but if looked at from a purely value oriented perspective, it had been dirt cheap. My only real regret was that there wasn’t more time.
Eager to keep us together and safe, our guides ushered us along as a fairly constant speed. While this allowed us to see more and was good for the non-photographers among the group, it left me as the constant straggler. Pausing here and there for a quick shot, or a bit of video often set to the background of one of the guides impatiently encouraging me to hurry up and stick closer to the group.
Still, it was only a small annoyance and cost to pay for the opportunity to see, experience, and capture the Perito Moreno Glacier in all of its beauty.
Argentina is about much more than just tango and great steak. If you have the opportunity, definitely add Perito Moreno and the Glaciares National Park to your list of must-see destinations.
**This post is Part III in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Rewind to: Part I or Part II.
Enjoyed this post? Please leave a comment, share it, and consider following me on Twitter. Thanks for reading!
**This post is Part II in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. View Part I or skip to Part III.
As the ferry blasted across the lake’s smooth surface, deftly dodging floating icebergs with the appearance of giant sized ice cubes floating in an oddly colored martini, I had to chuckle. Our dock, if it can be called that, was little more than a rock outcropping with a series of old tired tires chained along its face. I watched our approach, pondered briefly the probability that I’d end up getting shipwrecked again, then shrugged and went back to staring at the glacier.
Our docking procedure was as flawless as one might expect. Closely watched by our guides we transferred onto dry land, formed up for a brief orientation and then split into smaller groups. We bid goodbye to those going on the minitrekking trip, and our smaller and more dedicated band set off towards the glacier.
The glacier was massive. It is a glacier after all. That said, it wasn’t until we paused and watched small groups of people make their way out onto the ice that it really struck me just how massive and awe inspiring the glacier was. From afar the groups of people looked more like small specks of dirt than people.
Our trail led us down and across the coast towards the glacier. The path wound over rock outcroppings and along stone beaches backed by a few skeletal trees with rich forest and vegetation further inland. In the distance incredible snow capped mountain walls faded away into the clouds.
It’s hard to say why, but the clean white and rich blues of glaciers always surprise me. Given the pollution caked onto and often staining the white marble of major Cathedrals and statuary the fact that the glaciers manage to remain such a pure white excites me.
While not always ideal for photography, I love seeing certain types of locations on misty days. A periodic light rain, and the lack of wind is ideal for wetting down rocks and vegetation while leaving things with a richer look and feel. My voyage along and eventually out onto Perito Moreno was one such occasion, though for obvious reasons the rain didn’t do much to bring out the color once actually ON the glacier!
After reaching the base of the glacier we passed a larger base camp where the minitrekking people were suiting up and preparing to head out onto the ice. We paused briefly, then turned and began up along a small path, just wide enough for one person. It traced its way up along the glacier’s edge and alternated between being sandwiched and carved into the cliff face.
As we wound along the path I was taken off guard by the number of waterfalls which were visible. In retrospect it makes sense, with snow melt up on the mountain’s peaks, the water would have to melt and run down. Still, with snow and ice surrounding us I was taken off guard by the large falls each crowed by lush vegetation and blooming flowers which cut across our path. Though not tramping through snow, I could not help but fancy myself climbing into a dangerous mountain pass as part of an intrepid company of stalwart explorers of Tolkienesque fame.
A mile in our trail climbed up and into the moss covered vegetation, but not before a steep and muddy switchback. At the top we found a small base camp built to survive hearty weather. Our guides quickly explained that we’d be donning our safety harnesses and would be issued our crampons before heading back down and out onto the ice.
What is a Crampon? It’s a re-sizable metal shoe, not unlike strap on roller skates. You sandwich your shoe onto the top of the crampon, then carefully strap and clamp it down. The crampon itself is little more than a flat shoe base with large spikes protruding down and out from it. Made for icy conditions, they allow you to dig into the ice and turn otherwise difficult walking conditions into leisurely strolls.
Crampons attached, we struck out and began our trip across the ice. As we prepared to travel up and out onto the glacier we split into smaller groups of 8-10. Though wearing harnesses we did not need to tie ourselves together or ever really approach anything nearly dangerous enough to feel as though it was necessary.
The path our guide took us down wound up along the edge of the glacier for a while and then down through large fields of dirty ice that looked like massive ant colonies.
Our guides explained that what we were seeing was the stone which had been carved off of the mountainside, then gathered together as the top levels of the glacier melted. As other parts of the glacial ice melted away, the areas underneath the accumulated stones and dirt remained protected and cool creating small rock covered ice hills. All in all a pretty fascinating process which left deep blue, rock hard ice underneath the stones.
After getting accustomed to the ice, our crampons, and the rules of the road we struck out along a smoother area on the glacier. With gentle rolling ice hills it still offered access to a plethora of small crevasses and min ice-falls, but lacked the jagged, shark tooth like feel I had expected after seeing the glacier from afar.
Along the path we wound past, over, and along a series of small surface streams which cut their way from tiny pool to tiny pool before eventually diving into a crack and cutting their way down into the glacier’s inner bowels.
As we neared the halfway mark I paused briefly and turned around. As i did so, I stumbled slightly and let out a sharp intake of breath. The view back the way we had come was incredible. It was one of those moments that feel straight out of the movies. Fairytale crafted into reality so powerful, so magnificent it takes you several moments to accept it as real. Was this middle earth? Perhaps not, but it sure was indistinguishable from it. A long expanse of ice, stretching out before me towards charcoal grey mountains, thousands of feet tall stretching in either direction like a massive wall. A wall cut and carved by giant waterfalls tracing their way down from the snow capped peaks and periodically crowned by small mountainside forests of a rich green so dark that it almost blended with the gray-black of the mountainside. Words fail to describe the majesty of the experience.
The falls, cliffs and general feel of the experience reminded me heavily of the Norwegian Fjords. Though in this rare case the falls were larger and the backdrop more impressive than what I’d enjoyed in Norway. Truly, this was the Andes and southern hemisphere in finest form. The fact that I was at a similar latitude to New Zealand’s south island and exploring a similar backdrop was not lost on me. I will say that for those who have a deep desire to explore New Zealand’s natural beauty, adding Patagonia and southern Chile to your list is an unanticipated must.
The ice itself fascinates me. Clean enough to drink straight off the glacier (and believe me it was delicious), it is crystal clear but with a deep blue tint to it. In some places small pools have formed on the surface creating spaces that give the illusion of walking on water. The trick quickly became judging just how shallow (or deep) that water was and where solid ice began.
I mentioned earlier the role rocks play in protecting certain areas and raising small ice mounds. In other areas the opposite would occur. Note the above photo where a large rock is gradually sinking down into the ice. You can see that the pool forming around it is roughly shaped in the same size as the rock itself.
As we neared the center of the glacier, the ice fields were something to behold. Despite the light rain the reflection off the ice and clouds was extremely bright creating an odd type of light that was half middle of the day and half twilight.
**This post is Part II in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Rewind to: Part I or fast forward to Part III.
Enjoyed this post? Please leave a comment, share it, and consider following me on Twitter. Thanks for reading!
**This post is Part I in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Fast forward to: Part II or Part III.
The adventure began sometime between 7AM and 8AM when a small 16 person van pulled up in front of my hostel. I’d been briefed quickly the day before by one of the hostel staff while investigating various ways of exploring the nearby glaciers. They’d shared the three primary options available from El Calafate: A basic bus trip out to the “balconies” AKA a long boardwalk that stretches along the lake shore opposite the face of the glacier. A more advanced middle of the road option called minitrekking which tours the balconies, then ferries across to the glacier for an an hour and a half hike. Lastly there was the third and final option, the “Big Ice” tour.
At over 7 hours long it included the balconies, ferry ride over, and then another 4 hours spent hiking along and out to the middle of the glacier. As I read over the pricing and descriptions I groaned slightly. The minitrekking tour was about $150 USD, the Big Ice tour right at $200. Both of which are expensive for day tours. Still, as I thought about it, the glacier was one of my main reasons for heading south. Then I saw it – the Big Ice tour, in addition to spending 4 hours on the glacier and covering 6km, had a suggested age range of 18-45 vs minitrekking’s 10-65 age range. Game on. An extra 2.5 hours on the ice and a more rigorous adventure for an extra $50? You bet! Was it worth it? Oh, you better believe it!
Unsure just what I was getting myself into I packed warmly with all of my backup layers stashed away in my day pack along with a picnic lunch (despite the price it was BYOL). Our shuttle took us out of town to a large 50 person bus and then sorted us out into different groups. From there it was an 80km drive through the Patagonian country side and along Lago Argentin0 to the Los Glaciares National Park.
A unique glacial blue the lake is truly gorgeous to behold, especially dotted as it is by small icebergs and set against the backdrop of the Andes on one side and sweeping open flat lands on the other. In many ways it looks like a jagged castle forged by the gods for Titans with the mountains serving as the castle wall and the lake a long, serpentine moat.
Once at the park we headed straight away for the boardwalk where we disembarked as a group and set out towards our first glimpse of the glacier. The walk wrapped around the water’s edge and was a stout wood and steel raised walkway. I paused often during the 30-40 minutes the walk took, and snapped photos greedily.
It was my first glacier. At least up close. I had seen them in the past from above and from afar but never from within a stones throw, despite my trips to Norway, Scotland and above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. In researching the Perito Moreno Glacier while stateside, I had only come across info from people who had done the boardwalk which had led me to believe that was as close as I was going to be able to get. The knowledge that the boardwalk was to serve as little more than a table of contents for the day’s adventure left me with a giant foolish grin on my face.
As I walked the giant circuit, I led the way with the guide. Immersed in conversation she shared exciting pieces of information about the glacier, the region and her job. Eventually, however, I slowly drifted towards the back of the pack as I paused to take photos, video, and watch the clouds gently roll over the snow capped peaks surrounding the glacier.
The sky had traded the morning’s cloudless existence for good visibility and medium cloud cover along the mountains. It suggested rain and mist further up the valley, but left us with a great view of the glacier’s jagged face along with a beautiful view back towards the area I assumed we would be hiking.
As we strolled casually along the path and stretched our legs we would pause often. Heads would whip around, ears perk up, eyes frantically searching and photographers drawing cameras to eye at the booming crack of ice giving way as the glacier shed a layer off its forward face. I got lucky with the above shot which features falling ice in front of the small cave.
As we reached the end of the boardwalk and prepared to head back to the bus I paused and took in one final view of the glacier as it stretched away to the right and out into the lake. The scale and size is incredible. The rich blues and majesty captivating. I felt torn, eager to race towards the ice and to scale it, but at the same time caught in the moment and left wistful that I didn’t have longer to relax and watch the lake’s still waters gently tease away pieces of the glacier.
The bus whisked us down and around the point to a small bay on the lake. There we disembarked and boarded a mid-sized ferry with a warm interior and exposed upper deck. Eager for an unobstructed view I headed to the roof with several other group members who I had befriended: An Israeli backpacker my age and an American couple from the east coast. There we watched as the boat wound past small icebergs and cut in front of the far side of the glacier towards an area which had been invisible from the observation platforms.
The view from the water helped drive home the sheer size of the glacier, but it wasn’t until we started to see people hiking up on it, and decorating it like small specs of dirt that the true size and scale struck home.
**This post is Part I in my three part series on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Fast forward to: Part II or Part III.
After our brief photo and bathroom stop it was back into the bus. Energized by the damp crispness in the air we wound through stunning countryside cloaked in rolling wisp like clouds and decorated by the rich, green layered mixture of plants and grasses that give peat its dense nature.
A relatively short drive up the road we stopped at a small overlook. There, after choosing choice seats with stunning views of the valley as it stretched out below us, we settled in and ate our picnic lunches which we’d purchased at the Tesco earlier in the day. For Nate and I it was a delicious, albeit terribly messy, rotisserie chicken, bag of fresh raw peas, baby corn and macaroni salad. Somehow we’d managed to forget to purchase a fork, leaving fingers, fingers, and more fingers. Needless to say, with spaghetti sauce stained fingers and chicken juice running down our chins we were in heaven.
Full, we took in the sites and as I recorded a bit of video Nate hoisted Elena – the Russian member of our tour – up onto his shoulder for a quick ballroom inspired lift/photo opportunity.
Recharged and energized we struck off along the coast and eventually arrived at Smoo Cave. An odd formation, which seems to have been formed by a combination of oceanic erosion, wind and river erosion from the small stream that carved its way underground.
The cave’s mouth was massive. A large gaping entrance into a cavernous entrance area.
With a lone hole in the cave’s ceiling, small raindrops and light streaming through from above and green, moss covered walls – the entire place was spectacular.
As water streamed out through a small opening deep within the cave we paused and watched as damp tourists made their way over the small bridge and across the small stream – which was seemingly flowing out of the side of the cave wall.
Only to return – drenched – mere seconds later. Eager to partake, I zipped up my rain jacket, pulled my hood down tightly over my head and set into the breach in the cave wall. The sound and vibration of crashing water was deafening. The wooden platform which stretched into the small side channel of the cave quickly ended in a railing, leaving me standing face to face with a giant waterfall as it thundered into the cave from above. A raging, swollen torrent made fierce by the afternoon’s steady rainfall.
After filming a quick video, pausing to take in the downpour and reflecting on what I was seeing and experiencing I bowed my head, turned my back and carefully made my way down the slick wooden walkway and back out into the main cavern. I was drenched. It was worth it.
Eager to explore further we wound up steep steps to the top of the near bye cliffs and made our way along the cliff top out towards the open ocean. With a thick grass/peat layer covering the tops of the coastal hills and sharp, jagged, rugged rocks fending off the beating waves below – we meandered along the coast enjoying its incredible natural beauty and majesty.
Though I could have easily paused and read for a while, time was of the essence and a light rain had begun to fall. Legs pumping I sprinted back towards the Bus and hoped I wasn’t the last to return.
To my relief we still had a short while before moving on to the next location – which gave me time to explore the top of the waterfall I’d seen in the cave. It had carved two holes in the cave’s roof. The higher of which was where the water currently fed into the cave. Which turned the lower of the two (pictured above) as a window of sorts. Offering a view of the top of the waterfall as it dove down into Smoo Cave below.
From Smoo Cave it was back inland and up between majestic bald mountains crowed with sharp crumbling rocks and steep cliff faces. As we wound along pristine roads through fog, light rain and dry patches we could not help but marvel.
At one point we spotted a mound of cut peat a ways back from the main road. We paused along the side of the road as our guide sprinted to the cut and piled peat for a small piece to show us. As he sprinted across the grasslands, I paused and enjoyed the above shot as the road wound through the grasslands and vanished into the fog. Truly a magical place – one that brought fairy-tales to life – seemingly as careless accidents.
With 7:00 quickly approaching, we raced across the 2nd to last leg of our day’s voyage – the ferry to the Orkney Isles.
We arrived at the ferry landing with ample time to get out, stretch our legs and take in our surroundings. A small, industrial dock the area was anything but attractive. With an old, rusted out dump truck playing the role of flowerpot, we stretched our legs before watching Martin back the 16 person min-bus onto the ferry. More than a little impressed we carefully slithered out of the Bus and wound our way through the tightly packed cars, vans, campers and trucks that were sardine’d into the parking level. A smaller open air ferry we wound up to the top deck and enjoyed the crisp ocean air.
Though slightly cool, the air was incredible. With our hair being tussled by the ocean’s breeze we strained our eyes watching for seals, dolphins or other sea life. All the while enjoying the lazy northerly sunset (if you can call it that), as the sun slowly made its way towards the horizon.
The trip took about an hour and wound between several smaller islands. Some were decorated by beautiful, picturesque farm homes, while others were barren except for the occasional light house, or left over pillbox and military fortifications from the 2nd world war.
Eventually we rounded the northern tip of one of the Islands and were greeted be a beautiful, quaint island town. Picturesque and framed beautifully by the setting sun the ferry drifted up to the quay. Eager to begin preparing dinner, we made the quick 3 minute drive into town and the hostel we’d be spending the following two evenings at.
We quickly set to cooking a delicious seafood dinner before migrating next door to a small pub for a few games of pool, several pints and round after round of delightful stories. Tired, but not ready for bed I wandered outside to explore the town briefly before finding my way back to the hostel common area where I settled in with Paul the Irishman, Martin our guide and my brother for a few more beers and a batch of hilarious stories that left us laughing until our cheeks hurt.
On that note, I’ll leave you until tomorrow. Any questions or comments? Just enjoyed reading the post? Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below. I love your feedback!
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The following morning we dragged ourselves out of bed at what seemed like the crack of dawn. We had about a mile’s walk to get to the Wild in Scotland office – which was located about halfway up the Royal Mile – before the 8:30AM start of the tour.
I’d had the pleasure of doing Wild in Scotland’s 3 day Isle of Skye trip during my 2007 trip, which started in Scotland. At the time, I had been incredibly impressed by the company. Utilizing 16 person mini-buses and hostels for evening accommodation the company is designed to cater to backpackers and experienced travelers who want the history and convenience of a quick guided tour – but are eager to maintain the backpacker feeling.
Most tour companies use large 60 person coaches, ferry you from tourist trap to tourist trap and are geared towards luxury travelers and retirees. Wild in Scotland on the other hand focuses on delivering a down and dirty experience that blends the basic structure and framework of an organized tour, with a flexible schedule allowing the driver to personalize the experience with their own detours and discoveries. All the while, the size and approach also allows you to stop at any point you want for photos or to explore. Even if it’s not on the itinerary.
Case in point. The itinerary for our 5 day, 4 night voyage into the northern reaches of Scotland was scheduled to move counter clockwise across the island. Instead, our driver elected to do it in reverse and to toss in some new places he’d discovered along the way.
The other thing I really like about Wild in Scotland is that they charge two fees. How’s that a plus? The first – 150 British Pounds or $225 covered the tour itself and went to the company. The second 120 British Pounds or $180 went into the kitty. The kitty cash covered our hostel each of the 4 nights, entrance into several attractions, a few drinks, our ferry crossings and the purchase of food each of the 4 nights. The pot luck food purchase works great as a way to bring people together, and ensures that you eat well during the trip. Combine the kitty cost with the limited number of tourist traps the company strands you at – and you get a more enjoyable and far less expensive experience than the standard super coach tour.
Having made better time than expected, we arrived at the office around 7:40. The rain was coming down in a light mist which was pleasant and hardly noticeable. We settled in and waited for the office to open. By 8AM they opened the office up where we paid our kitty money, set down our bags, and stepped next door to the Subway which had just opened for breakfast. We also bought a half sub to take with us on the road.
By 8:30 we had all arrived and piled onto the 16 person bus. Our driver and guide introduced himself with a bright smile and thick Scottish accent and then we were off. Weaving tales and explaining Edinburgh’s history we wound through the city’s streets and found our way out into the countryside. There we were greeted by gorgeous rolling green hills, dam roadways, pastures full of sheep and large patches of blooming foxglove – a beautiful pink-purplish flower you’ll see in many of my photos.
Our drive took us towards Sterling. We drove past Sterling Castle and wound up past the city of Sterling to the Wallace Monument. A large medieval looking structure that has been built on top of a nearby hill. We parked and began the first stroll of the trip. Up a rather steamy hillside, winding through ferns, trees and wild foxglove I paused briefly to pick several ripe raspberries. Once at the top we gathered around, dodging the Scottish thistles, with the monument to our backs and an incredible view of the valley surrounding Stirling laid out before us.
There Martin explained the true story of Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Debunking the mythology and creative re-write of history in Braveheart. He explained Wallace’s role and that the monument itself should actually have been dedicated to Robert the Bruce – a character who was almost vilified in Braveheart. He also explained that there had been a statue of Wallace located in the car park by the visitors center, which had since been destroyed.
It turns out, it was the famous statue of William Wallace with “freedom” engraved in it. I say famous, because a photo of the statue has been circulating the web for a year or two showing the statue of Wallace – a freedom fighter – encased in a large steel cage. As I chuckled, Martin explained that the locals hated the statue (which looked a lot like Mel Gibson) with a passion and had taken a sledgehammer to it. Undeterred the government had re-commissioned the statue/repaired it, and then encased it in a large steel cage. Thus the famous photo. Equally persistent and in true Scottish fashion the locals apparently traded their sledgehammer in for a shotgun and blew the face off the statue – which is no longer on display.
After the Wallace monument we wound through stunning countryside, before pausing at a small castle ruin. The castle itself was not particularly incredible, but was an exciting stop for those of us who love Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Don’t recognize it? It’s the same very same castle ruin used in this clip:
Imagining French taunters and flying cattle, Nate and I wound around the castle and enjoyed the natural beauty of the area. Now well manicured the castle sits on a hill, in the midst of a small clearing surrounded by trees next to a beautiful moss adorned stream.
Chuckling, it was back onto the bus and onward to Kilmahog where we snagged a quick bite of lunch. How’s that for a name? From Kilmahog we hopped back in the bus for a quick 3 minute drive down the road to see Hamish the world famous hairy coo. What’s a hairy coo? Why it’s a hairy cow. Having trouble picturing a hairy cow? Well, believe it or not they exist. Not only do they exist – but they’re relatively common in Northern Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland. Most are Red but some are black. As it turns out one of the Queens (I believe a red-headed one) decided that the cows should match their herders and worked to selectively breed them, so that they are almost exclusively ginger colored.
After feeding Hamish sliced turnips, apples and carrots it was back onto the bus and down winding 2 lane roads with low hanging trees, stone fences, and thick underbrush.
As we rounded a bend, in a light Scottish drizzle, the road began to wind along the shores of our first sizable Scottish Loch. With still water gently lapping a small sandy beach and small stands of foxglove dotting the shoreline we made a brief unscheduled stop to snap a few photos and watch the clouds lazily roll over the mountains.
From there it was onward to Balquhidder. No, that’s not a spelling error – though I’m not sure how you’d even go about pronouncing it. I’ll leave it to the Scots!
We parked at a community center, before walking up a small lane that looked more like someone’s driveway than an actual path. The driveway eventually diverted over a moss covered old stone bridge. Our path split off and wound – sandwiched – between two properties. With an old stacked stone fence on our right, we were delighted to find the small path hedged by ripe raspberry bushes on our left. With red fingers, we skipped along up a slight incline, before curving right and encountering a wet wooden bridge over a small stream, which ran by the gorgeous waterfall shown above.
From there it was up a small muddy footpath, which dumped us out behind the old stone church we’d come to see. Well, to be more specific, we’d come to see a specific gravestone – one among many, all worn by years of harsh weather and rains. There, with a beautiful view of the countryside was Rob Roy’s grave. For those unfamiliar with the movie, or story attached to him. He was a clansman who many believe was the basis upon which the Robin Hood myth was born. Buried in another clan’s cemetery as a passive aggressive act, the famous bandit and swordsman’s grave is the only one facing the opposite direction. Apparently, tradition was to bury the dead facing one direction – to ensure they were able to enjoy the sun’s first rays every morning. Poor Rob Roy however, has been deprived of that otherworldly pleasure.
After a brief story recounting the circumstances of Rob Roy’s death (blood poisoning from a self inflicted wound received as an act of charity during a sword fight with a young man) we set to scaling the hill at the foot of the old Church. Legs pumping, breathing heavily and with a grateful grunt, we walked through a light misting, stripping down to our t-shirts as we went. Grateful for the cool weather, we paused briefly by the moss covered stone wall pictured above, before climbing the last (and steepest) part of the hill to the lookout. I’ve included the picture of the wall to help convey what I’m talking about when I say a moss covered, stacked stone wall. Something that green and that covered in moss is without a doubt a foreign concept to those of us who spend most of our days sweltering in the dry Arizona heat.
The path was lined by ferns, blooming heather, Scottish thistles and gorgeous foxgloves in blossom. By the time we reached the top of the hill we could smell and see smoke rising. Someone had started a small traveler’s fire at the summit. Huddled around the fire warming their hands they relaxed as a gentle rain fell. We walked past, said friendly hellos and then took in the vista that stretched out before us. With a gorgeous loch fading away into the highland mists to our right and the gently rolling farmland sandwiched between majestic mountains winding away to our left, it was truly an incredible view.
You’ll see me mention rain quite often as I write. Most places, it would be a pain. When in Scotland – it’s part of the experience. In fact, without the clouds the place loses some of it’s magic. There’s something incredible about the way the clouds drag slowly across the countryside, lazily pausing on mountaintop after mountain top. It pulls you in, hugs you and shares a story.
From Rob Roy’s grave it was off towards Glencoe. Easily one of my favorite spots in Scotland. The sheer scope and majesty of the valley is breathtaking.
Once at Glencoe we paused and walked down to a small grass hill in the middle of the valley. With sheer cliffs skyrocketing towards the heavens in every direction our guide began an introduction to the highlands and recounted the tragic story of the Glencoe Massacre. A pivotal point in highland history which occurred in 1692. As he recounted the sad story, with a light rain falling and gentle gusts of wind tossing our hair the story wound to an end – he paused – and then began another.
This was the story of Highland Scotch. As he introduced what has become a famous part of Scottish culture, he reached into his small backpack and produced a bottle of single malt Scotch. With a quick cheers it began it’s away around the circle as we each took turns taking a swig, while Martin explained the various differences between Whiskys, Whiskeys and proper Scotch.
From there it was down into the lowlands once again as we wound west, where we paused at a Tesco and sent in a small group to pick and gather the goods we’d need to cook that evening’s dinner.
With food stuffed into every spare nook and cranny in the bus we took advantage of the long summer days in Scotland and paused at the ruins of an old castle. The castle was beautiful, but made far more impressive by the huge stands of violet flowers that surrounded it.
From there we paused at the canals used to connect Loch Ness to the other great lochs/ocean. The small town was gorgeous and every bit what you’d expect. After taking in the great docks used to manage the different water levels between lochs we hopped back into the van and made our way towards our hostel.
Located just off Loch Ness – the small backpackers hostel was perfect. We settled in and set to cooking a large bowl of pasta with meat sauce, potatoes, stuffed mushrooms and garlic bread before heading over to the local pub where I tried a delightful 18 year old Highland Park Scotch. Each sip had a different flavor, each whiff a different aroma.
Amazed by all we’d seen, it was finally time for bed. With a contented smile on my face and an exhausted sigh I crawled into my top bunk and began to snore contentedly.