Cairngorms February 2010

A holiday in the north of Scotland in winter is always a bit of a lottery - the temperature can vary from close to double figures (in centigrade) down into the teens below zero, the cloud cover from clear blues skies to heavy cloud (along with persistent rain - or snow - that can last for days on end) and can offer anything from dead calm through to gale force winds.  Sometimes all in the space of a couple of days.

The last February holiday I had in the Cairngorms was about 25 years ago and despite lugging skis all the way up from Bristol on the overnight train I and my companions spent our time walking in the mountains since the high winds had blown away most of the snow.  My recollection of that trip was that it was clear and sunny and also bitterly cold - our real challenge was how to chop up the frozen logs so that it was possible to get them inside to thaw out.

This time round we again started the trip with almost implausibly blue skies but with almost no wind - and temperatures falling overnight to -15C, which was more than enough to freeze solid anything left in the car. Apples survive freezing and thawing much better than bananas - although deep-frozen bananas would appear to be an ideal healthy dessert.  At least we didn’t have the challenge of log chopping - the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey provides very effective oil-fired central heating.

During the first part of the week we visited Loch Morlich (where I once went canoeing, was solid enough to walk on) and Lochs Garten and Mallachie in Abernethy Forest (again both more suited to winter than water sports).  We also did woodland walks around both Nethy Bridge and Grantown.  All of these walks were in glorious sunshine with lots of beautifully crisp snow underfoot.  We also took advantage of the clear sunny weather to go up Findhorn Bay and to briefly visit Culbin Sands.  The most spectacular scenery was on the road north from Grantown and the A939 towards Tomintoul (often described as the first road to shut when the snow comes).

Around mid-week the weather changed pretty much completely - temperatures jumped to just below zero, the cloudless skies filled in and the snow started falling and just kept going - during the first snow-day we were able to keep moving around and visited both Anagach Woods and got at least as far as the bird feeders at Loch an Eilean if not to the Loch itself.  By the morning of the second snow-day there was about 30 cm of snow on the car and on pretty much everything in/around the Cairngorms - and although we had another walk through part of Anagach Woods and looked at the Spey it wasn’t possible to do much more than that - and certainly very few of the cars in front of the hotel moved far.

After snowing for about 48 hours continuously (dumping a total of about 50 cm on the town - and well over 2 metres on the ski slopes, sufficient to bury the ski train) it did eventually relent allowing us (and several other folks in the hotel) to decide that it was time to try and head south.  At this point the A9 was closed in both north and south directions, and the various hill roads out of Grantown to the north and east (the A939 had indeed shut first) certainly weren’t passable in anything other than a high clearance 4x4.  The escape route - once we’d been helped out of our own personal snowdrift - was to head west, going down the A9 to Kingussie then across to Fort William on the west coast.  This isn’t the most obvious route south from the Cairngorms - but was open and very dramatic in places particularly through Glen Coe and over Rannoch Moor.  A 10 or 12 point stag standing in open snow-covered ground near road beside the Glen Coe ski area was particularly spectacular - shame there wasn’t any way to stop and take pictures.

As we got further south the snow mostly stopped - and by the time we made it to Edinburgh it had become messy persistent sleet.

In an effort to prolong my trip a little longer I went slowly through the snows south of Edinburgh, before spending a fantastic few hours at the WWT Reserve at Caerlaverock on the Solway Firth watching huge numbers of whooper swans and barnacle geese.  The swans spend the winter in Scotland and head north to Iceland for the summer.  The geese follow a similar itinerary but go to Svalbard in the summer – hopefully I’ll get to see them again later in the year.

Cairngorms February 2010

Types of Snow – the Inuit are suppose to have names for lots of types of snow – how many have the Scots got?

1. We stayed at the Grant Arms Hotel - and the Bird Watching and Wildlife Club there provide lots of really useful information about what’s around and where - and encourages residents to log what they’ve seen too.
2. Our bird list for the 4 days in the Cairngorms got to 31 species – I was particularly pleased to see Crested Tits in Abernethy Forest.
3. Next time I go to the Cairngorms in winter I’m going to turn up in a 4x4.

The Stuff of Dreams

Life is always full of dreams - some get fulfilled but others somehow don’t and remain with us, sometimes for many years.

I left my childhood with three unfulfilled dreams.  I wanted to join the British Antarctic Survey, I wanted to join a Norwegian brass band and I wanted to get stuck in Aviemore.

The Norwegian brass band idea was probably not really my thing - and almost certainly had more to do with location than any deep understanding of Scandinavian music or of brass bands for that matter.  I did manage to get mixed up with a group of other kids of my age from a Norwegian band on the ferry from Newcastle to Bergen - and still wonder what might have happened if I’d run off with the band rather than joining my parents on a caravan tour around southern Norway.

I’m not altogether clear why the BAS thing didn’t happen - I did fill in all the paperwork when I was finishing my physics degree but never quite got round to sending if off.  This meant I spent the next three years of my life sitting in small dark rooms playing with computers and microscopes in Bristol rather than wandering around the ice in the far south.  Maybe recent trips to the Antarctic and the Falklands have got this out of my system, at least a bit.

Getting stuck in Aviemore was always The Big One.  Year after year my family would spend either Christmas or Easter, and sometimes both, staying in one of the hotels in Aviemore and depending on the weather spend the days walking or skiing on or around Cairn Gorm or Ben Macdui or even canoeing on Loch Morlich (that was one late and strangely warm Easter).  On every trip I would hope that we were going to get stuck there.  One year we managed to not get there at all - the snows prevented us getting north from Edinburgh, another year the road was closed just behind us as we went south, and to add insult to injury my school headmaster at the time got stuck in Aviemore - which meant that I got home in time for the start of term but he didn’t. But in all those visits we never managed to get stuck in Aviemore.  With the benefit of hindsight, I was probably picturing a very particular sort of getting stuck - the sort where it’s not possible to get home but where all the local facilities remain fully operational.

Which brings me to now.  I’m sitting in a hotel room in Grantown-on-Spey about 14 miles north of Aviemore - snow has been falling steadily for about 24 hours and is forecast to continue doing so for another 24 hours, the car had about a foot of snow on it this morning and when I last looked the snow gates on the A9 were closed.  By most definitions we are stuck here.  We’re actually due to try and head south tomorrow but most of the locals seem to think that this latest fall is going to carry on for a few days yet and that getting south (or north or east or west) isn’t a great idea.  

So is this the stuff of dreams? Maybe I am going to get an extra day or two up here which might even put off going back to work at the start of next week.  We did get out for a walk this morning in a mild blizzard which was fun when the wind was behind you but a bit bleak heading the other way.  We did get to see goldeneye and goosander on the Spey this morning both seemingly oblivious to the snow, but standing watching them was only really realistic for a few minutes.  And the fantastic scenery we were able to both see and get out into a couple of days ago is now pretty much inaccessible (and certainly invisible).

This is clearly one of my dreams coming true - it looks like I really am going to get stuck in or near Aviemore but like lots of dreams it’s not going to be quite as good as it might have been.  However I can finally cross it off the list.

Which, I guess, just leaves the brass band - should I try the cornet or the trombone?

Big Kid in a Candy Store

Recently I spent some time at the Destinations Show in London - I hadn't been to the London version of the show before having previously only done Birmingham.  In lots of ways it's a seriously dangerous place for me to be - my enthusiasm for trips almost inevitably bubbles over learning about new destinations and contemplating revisiting places I've been too before, and I can feel the credit card twitching in my pocket.

There were a few companies (and places) I expected to see represented and others I didn't expect to see there.  I probably do need to apologise to the nPower employee who tried to engage me in a extended conversation about my domestic energy provider - but really, what where nPower doing there?  I was much more interested to find out about trips by jeep up the Karakorum Highway or heading across Central Asia on horseback than to contemplate gas and electricity. And no, I really don't know what I pay for my electricity each month.

In the "missing" category I was hoping to see the folks from Discover the World again, and the RMS St Helena - and I was hoping that the Falklands Islands Tourist Board would be there to back up the heavy advertising they've been doing in the UK.

The region that surprised me most (by the scale of the presence) was South America - and particularly Colombia.  I was still picturing drug barons - but I was quite taken by the slogan "The Only Risk is That You'll Want to Stay".

Like lots of people - e.g. Wanderlust - I felt a need to put together a list of 10 new/reinvigorated travel ideas from wandering round the show (so in no particular order).

1. Eagle Festival in Mongolia

Thought the scenary looked fantastic - and Mongolia definitely fits into my pattern of heading off to places that most other folks don't want to go to.  I'm pretty keen to try and get to the Altai Eagle festival - would have some really good photographic opportunities.  The folks from Panoramic Journeys were very enthusiastic about this being a good place to visit in the autumn, and were also pretty sure that I really needed to stay for a month (or "maybe six weeks") to really see everything that Mongolia had to offer a photographer.  I wonder if gers are anymore comfortable than yurts.

2. Monks and Rhinos in NE India

I've been to India a few times before, but only to the 'main' part of India - and I hadn't really given much thought to the Assam area (I might have been able to point to it on a map but not with much confidence).  Travel the Unknown weren't a company I'd seen before - but some of their rather less usual destinations do appeal.  Their collection of trips to Assam and Arunchal Pradesh has certainly got my attention - with an interesting mix of culture and wildlife.  

3. Eastern Bhutan

I really enjoyed talking with the folks from Blue Poppy - we'd used them via Cox and Kings when we went to Bhutan a couple of years ago.  It was interesting to hear a bit more about the eastern end of Bhutan - which we didn't manage to get to on our first visit - it's further off the usual tourist circuit (is any part of Bhutan on a usual tourist circuit?).

4. Karakorum Highway in Pakistan

Long long ago I did manage a trip to Pakistan - spending a few days in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, before going up to Peshawar and not quite making it to the Khyber Pass.  Peshawar is pretty much off the tourist route at the moment - but it was good to hear from TravelPak that some parts of northern Pakistan are good to go to at the moment.  I was particularly interested to hear about a possible trip up the Karakorum Highway towards the Chinese border - almost joining up with the trip from Kashgar last year.

5. Self-guided touring in Japan

I first found out about self-guided tours in Japan at a Destinations Show a couple of years ago - I'd always assumed that language meant that Japan (outside the big cities) was only doable on a group tour.  However there are a number of companies offering self-guided tours - everything is booked and planned - and you get a phone contact to bail you out if you need it.  The companies I talked with this time were InsideJapan and IntoJapan.  

6. Faroe Islands

This has been on my list for a while - but it was interesting to hear more from Atlantic Airways who fly direct (in the summer) from Stansted to the Faroes.  Atlantic Airways did fly from Stansted via Sumburgh in the Shetlands - but I gather they needed to stop doing that because it was often too foggy to let them land on Shetland and they kept winding up with stray Shetlanders on Faroe.  National Geographic Traveller came up with the label of "The World's most Appealing Islands" - the pictures and descriptions would support that.  Looks like a really strong candidate to to add to my island collection - and not too far away.

7. National Parks in Tanzania

Another destination that was already on my wish list - there were a number of companies making really interesting pitches about visiting various of the Tanzania National Parks - everything from pretty basic tented camps to seriously expensive camps and lodges.  The two companies I talked for longest with were Simply Tanzania Tour Co and Cox and Kings (who we've used on several previous trips to India and Bhutan).    

8. Photo safari in Sri Lanka

We'd wondered about Sri Lanka a few years ago - post tsunami when there was a lot of push to rebuild the tourist industry.  There were two reasons why Sri Lanka attracted my attention this time - firstly that the island is now said to be safe to visit all over (which certainly wasn't the case a few years ago), and a fun sounding Exodus photo safari looking for Whales and Leopards - there can 't be too many places that combines these.  I'm due to do a photo trip to Svalbard with Exodus later this year - maybe Sri Lanka as a my photo trip next year.

9. Whale Watching in the Azores

Picking up both the whales and atlantic islands themes again - the Azores sounds like a good bet - offering whales all year round.   Again lots of people offer this - I talked with Sunvil Discovery.

10. Wildlife Tours in Iran

I've been to Iran before - a week long visit to Shiraz, with a chance to have a look at Persepolis, and while I had thought of visiting there again I hadn't thought of Iran as a place for a wildlife holiday. Persian Voyages had other ideas and have at least one interesting tour combining natural history and Iranian culture.

I talked with lots of other people too - and my brochure stack also included Jordan, Cape Verde, Nova Scotia, Chile and the Trans-Siberian Railway.   The folks from Promote Shetland were there too - trying to cope with the volume of interest driven by Simon King's Shetland Diaries.  I don't really need my interest in Shetland encouraged - we're already due to be up there for (at least) a couple of weeks in the summer.

So many possible trips - so little annual leave.