Category Archives: Scotland

A Contented Traveller (part 2)

Top Experiences

Many people have asked me which is my favourite place on this trip, and believe me it is very difficult to pinpoint one! The emotions, encounters and weather at that place at a particular time or season also affects the entire experience. So how about I give it a go with “Great Experiences” instead? And this time, with photos.

In no particular order:

1. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

There may be a bit of bias with this choice since the Galapagos had been my dream islands for years. But many people whom I later met and who had also been there couldn’t get enough of it either, so I really don’t think I’m over-hyping this. Apart from being pampered on a relaxing cruise and visiting pristine islands where animals frolick about in their daily activities oblivious to the snap-happy human visitors, the climate was another surprising factor: not too hot and not too cold in July. The scenery was also more beautiful than I had expected.

It would be a mistake just to use mainland Ecuador as a hop-over point to the Galapagos: Ecuador is a beautiful country with warm & friendly people and relatively good infrastructure. As a visitor, the biggest observation is how family-oriented Ecuadorians are. I did not encounter any difficulty at all travelling solo in Ecuador.

 

Isla Santa Fe, Galapagos

Galapagos wildlife. From bottom left (clockwise):Galapagos penguin, land iguana, blue-footed boobies, sea lion, giant tortoise

 

Foreground: tiquila cacti. Background: Volcan la Cumbre. At Punta Espinosa, Isla Fernandina


2. San Pedro de Atacama & around, Chile

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest in the world and is prime spot for star gazing, both for professional astronomers and amateurs. You could see the Desert from the bus on the way from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama (San Pedro). I loved how San Pedro itself does not have paved roads, preserves the older adobe houses made of mud & cactus branch with little roofing and only minimal street lights at night. During the day, the town itself is a base for venturing into the outlying natural wonders and those that I’ve visited include: Valle de la Luna, Valle de Muerte, Piedra del Coyote, the Altiplano lagoons, Salar de Atacama and El Tatio Geyser. At night, just lift up your head and you are treated to more spectacular wonders even with just the naked eye: the cloudless night sky is the perfect canvas for the milky way and the planets of the solar system.

Although San Pedro and the outlying sights are very popular with tourists, the town itself is still very laid-back and a nice place to relax and chill. One simply could not say the same of other popular tourists sites.

 

 

Top: Laguna Chaxa Bottom: Salar de Atacama

Top: Volcano Putana Bottom: church at Macucha Village

 

3. Salar de Uyuni & Reserva Fauna Andina Eduardo, Bolivia

This region is one of the most visited places in Bolivia, and with good reason too. I went during dry season and the expanse of the salt flat’s whiteness stretches far beyond the horizon. You would think it is a snow-covered desert, except that if you lick the ground you will know it is not.  This region is also rather close to Calama and San Pedro de Atacama of Chile, so there are some similarities in landscape, but there are simply no two identical lagoons, geysers, mountains or salt flats; both regions are rugged and dramatic in their own way. A lot of the sights on the Bolivian side are on higher altitude and are not accessible by paved roads, so travel by land-rovers/jeeps are absolutely necessary. Expect an adventure when in Bolivia; you won’t be disappointed.

Sadly too, the Bolivian side lacks proper management and the environment runs the risk of being overburdened. The social atmosphere of the region in the two countries is also very different and if you have the time to spare, you should still try to visit both. Money should no longer be an issue as you would have expended so much just to get this part of the world that in fact, it makes more sense to visit both. Border crossing by land from Bolivia to Chile and vice versa in this region is possible and can usually be done within half/1 day.

 

Photo taken on Isla Incahuasi. In the background, the Uyuni salt flats.

Near Laguna Canapa

 

4.Flying above the Andes in South America

Secondary school level Geography hardly serves any practical purpose in most people’s adult life. But stripped of all the dry facts that one is forced to commit to memory for exams are glimpses into age-old, far-flung, exotic places that are nature’s greatest gifts.  Even though Geography text books then hardly came with much photos, learning about the Andean range left a deep imprint in this ex-school girl’s mind.

While it is a lot cheaper to travel in South America by bus (especially if you have the time to spare), I would certainly recommend flying some legs. Conveniently, my round-the-world ticket allowed me to fly quite a few segments in South America, and the domestic flights in some countries are very reasonably-priced. The view over the jagged peaks of the Andes – the spine of South America that stretches from the south in Chile all the way to the north in Columbia & Venezuela – evokes a sense of humbled awe, high-spirited imagination or just simply more wonderful day dreams.

 

Chilean Andes

Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

 


5. Scotland, UK

Scotland itself has so much to offer, so justifiably I should have a sub-category of “great experiences”! It is one of the few places on this trip that I would like to visit again, not least because it is closer (more or less 13 hours flight), but also because there are other parts of Scotland that I’ve yet to explore.

On this trip, I would say some of the best moments are:

(1) Walking through glens and along the lochs and simply just enjoying the fresh air & scents from trees & flowers.

 

Top: Glencoe Lochan Bottom: Glenfinnan

 

(2) Rocky boat ride to Islet of Staffa – Fingal’s Cave. It was costly to travel to Staffa, but the sight of the hexagonal basalt columns rising vertically out of the emerald waters is worth it. And dolphins somehow never fail to cheer people up even in bad weather. Would have loved to spend more time on the islet if the weather had permitted. Not the season for puffins-sighting, but was already very contented with the visit.

 

Walking on islet of Staffa

 

Hexagonal basalt columns rising out of emerald waters to form this Fingal's Cave.

(3) Driving around & exploring Isle of Skye. Skye is rated by National Geographic as one of the best islands in the world for sustainable tourism. Do not expect resorts a la Banyan Tree style – this does not Skye maketh. Instead, look forward to rugged dramatic natural beauty.

 

and last but not least,

(4) Chatting with friendly down-to-earth Scots!

 

Thistle, national flower of Scotland

Of course, this list of “Great Experiences” is non-exhaustive. The list of wonderful places that I have been to on this 4-month trip goes on, including the Great Ocean Road in Australia, Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, Lake Titicaca in both Peru & Bolivia, the great Machu Picchu as well as all the people I’ve met who made up the entire experience.

Till the next trip. Right now, my heart is warm & contented.

May I wish everyone of you find and pursue your dream adventures. Happy travels!

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30.08.10 – Edinburgh, Rosslyn Chapel

Visited Rosslyn Chapel, and spent quite some time looking at the intricate details, in this little chapel. The founder of the chapel brought skilled stone masons from around the country to build this chapel. Rosslyn village was also founded as a consequence of housing this community of stone masons.

Although the interior of the chapel had been painted over with grey cement, one can still see the details, and formulate one’s own interpretation of the carvings.

Thanks to The Da Vinci’s Code, this chapel now sees more visitors than before. Hopefully the visitors’ contributions (which is very expensive in my opinion) will go towards fruitful conservation.

27.08 – 28.08.10 – Cromarty, Rosemarkie, Forres, Elgin

The next couple of days were spent in some small towns near Inverness.

Cromarty and Rosemarkie are quaint small towns (locals call them villages) on the Black Isle. Came up close and personal with some cute Highland cows! Felt particularly bold to stand so close to them (in my bright red jacket no less, even though logically-speaking, cows are colour blind, and therefore the colour red has no effect on them…) because of a fence! Rosemarkie is also known for dolphin sightings during high tides, but I wasn’t there at that time. Instead, took a walk to Fairy Glen in the woods, pleasant if a bit muddy. Also visited the Groam Museum to take a look at some Pict stones. Find petroglyphs in general very fascinating. There’s even a Pict Trail in Scotland, something to consider on a next trip.

Also visited Forres since there was a whiskey distillery there, a small one which is essentially run by one man, plus two others running administrative work. Enjoyed the tour, and even the free drams, even though am not much a whiskey buff. Perhaps, one just has to go around tasting more to find the one that suits one best – and no, this is not an excuse for drinking more. Tasting is fun, but quite an art too!

In Elgin, even in the drizzle, the Cathedral was quite a pleasant surprise.

Back in Inverness, my dorm mate and I were determined to try more Scottish food… and we totally lapped up some Haggis!

26.08.10 – Isle of Skye to Inverness

Bidded farewell reluctantly to the Isle of Skye: this is a place where I can sleep soundly in a bunkhouse that doesn’t have a single lock on any of its doors, and a place where you can leave the car keys in the car, and where strangers say hi with a smile!

On the way to Inverness, passed by more lochs and rolling glens gleaming under the warm sun. Also passed by Urquhart Castle and the Loch Ness visitor centre and some plastic moulds of the rumoured monster, teeming with tourists. Made a mental note to skip this!

24.08 – 25.08.10 – Isle of Skye

Finally I came to the Isle of Skye, the most famous and biggest of all the Scottish isles, and recently ranked 4th best island in the world by National Geographic. The journey here was ruggedly scenic peppered on by rain and grey clouds.

But now I’ve finally reached the isle. After collecting the rental car, I’m now sitting on a picnic bench in the sun, on a 12-acre field with the view of Loch Harport. Life could not be better!

The next day, I continued driving across the beautiful isle, passing meadows, lochs, bleating sheep (either dodging them or waiting for them to clear the road), thistle shrubs, cattle grid, rolling glens covered with purple streaks of heather and picture-perfect cottages. First stop was at Talisker Distillery but didn’t take a tour because of the timings. Along the way, stopped to take photographs as and when I fancy. Stopped for a quick nibble outside Dunvegan Castle. Wasn’t quite keen on visiting the castle when outside the weather is splendid, so continued driving past the castle entrance to reach the car park to the Coral Beach. Along the way, BBC Radio 3 played Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy played by David Oistrakh! I’m not the kind who pairs music with scenery, since the two are so different (like pairing a spoon and say, a pair of trousers), even though Bruch’s piece was inspired by the Scottish scenery. Nonetheless, I was feeling very happy.

Coral Beach is about a mile’s walk from the car park and one has to walk through farm animal grazing land (walking past a herd of unsupervised oxen while wearing a bright red jacket can be unnerving, however irrational the fear is!). The beach is really not bad – one wouldn’t have expected white sand here, but it is there. Apart from that, the beach is rather rocky and covered with coral remains and shells, and is draped with long strands of sea weed.

Stayed out for longer than planned as I was enjoying the walk, scenery and weather way too much. By the time I got back to the car and then drove to Stein for lunch, it was already 230pm.

After a crab sandwich and Scotch broth for lunch, continued driving towards Uig and then it started to drizzle a bit. But it cleared in time by the time I got to the Quiraing region and when I stopped to go walk about a bit to catch a better view of the unusual rock formation and the spaghetti-striped roads below. While walking and taking photos of more sheeps, I got swarmed by what I think are midges!

Continued driving, and again it rains. The weather is unpredictable! But by the time I reached Sligachan, it cleared up again. Today was also a better day to behold the sight of Cuillin Ridge, and in spite of the day’s changing weather, the afternoon was lovely with a rainbow peering through the thick clouds.

Continued driving into Glenbrittle, a beautiful forested area and eventually catching the pink hues of the setting sun at Loch Brittle.

What an amazingly beautiful isle and after driving an estimated 170 miles, I have only seen half of it! Till next time…

23.08.10 – Glenfinnan, Mallaig & an authentic Scottish Highlands experience

Whilst cooking in the tiny kitchen back at the lodge, I learned of Glenfinnan from two Englishmen who were also lucky enough to have spotted some Highland games (was so jealous – I also want to witness burly Scotsmen throwing logs like tossing toothpicks!) In addition to being scenic, Glenfinnan is famous for also being the film location for one of the Harry Potter movies. The railway viaduct overlooks a loch and glens and must have always been destined for a postcard.

Took a train to Glenfinnan today. On the way there, the train driver even stopped the train on the viaduct and invited us up to the driver’s pit to take photos! By the way, this is not a chartered tourist steam train but the regular Scotrail service.

It was a very wet day and the rain didn’t stop even after I got off at Glenfinnan. But then again, without the rain, this trip would not have been an authentic Scottish experience, so I say! Tried walking in the rain for about 45mins but the route up to the viewing point is so wet that I decided to retire to an old train carriage-turned-cafe for a hot cup of tea instead while waiting for the train to Mallaig.

My intention was to go for a good walk in Glenfinnan to work up an appetite so I can justify a good lunch when I reached Mallaig. But just because the first part of my plan didn’t work out doesn’t mean I have to compromise on the second part.

It was still raining when the train pulled in at Mallaig. Had a cullen skink (a typical Highland fish soup with milk, fish, potatoes and other vegetables) and some seared scallops and that was basically my day. Oh yeah, forgot to mention that the lunch was yummy!

22.08.10 – Nevis Range, Glencoe Village

Went to Nevis Range in the morning. It was drizzling a bit but decided to take a 8.50 pounds gamble for a gondola ride up the mountain. Walked about an hour and a half in the wind and slight drizzle, just to catch the views of Ben Nevis’ northern face and Loch Linhe. Was not disappointed as the weather contributed to the overall ruggedness. Nevis Range is also the venue for extreme mountain biking with padded bikers (well, some were less armoured than others) tumbling down a very formidable terrain.

Got back to Fort Williams to pack a salad lunch and catch the next bus to Glencoe village. It was still drizzling whilst I was on the bus, but managed to catch a glimpse of the small town of Ballachulish, sitting prettily by a loch. And by the time I reached Glencoe village, the skies cleared and the sun greeted me as I stepped off the bus! It is moments like these that make my day.

Glencoe is known to be one of the most scenic glens in Scotland, although quite difficult to access without public transport nor to walk through under a day without camping/staying overnight. Still I was happy to be on the fringe at the village in this beautiful weather.

Before the advent of the likes of Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, enjoy what this 19th-century guidebook – Black’s Picturesque Tourist Guide of Scotland (1889) – had to say of the Stage Coach Route from Ballachulish Pier to Glencoe*:

The road enters the neck of Glencoe at the Bridge of Coe, skirting the river between two huge mountains, some green patches and ruined huts by the river-side indicate the place where the massacre occurred. The cluster of precipitous mountains whose rugged summits impart such wildness to this scene has been aptly called the Alps of Glencoe… A crowd of mountains, heaped in wild confusion… stamped by sublimity and grandeur“.*

*As read off a notice board near the Bridge of Coe

Couldn’t resist having cream tea, sitting on a bench under sunny skies with a view of the lush forested mountain. Thereafter, burned it off by visiting a monument for the Glencoe massacre and then crossing Bridge of Coe into the forest for a very pleasant walk. The extra oxygen and the lush greenery was refreshing and are still vivid in my mind even as I’m writing this.

What a great Sunday afternoon I had!