As a child, many of our family holidays were to places within my home country of Scotland. As an adult, whilst eagerly heading off on adventures on foreign shores, I’ve always made a point of travelling across my homeland as well, revisiting favourite places and discovering new locations. Whilst I have my favourite places on the mainland, my absolute favourite parts of the country as a whole are out on various of the islands dotted up the west coast. I have lugged my trusty tent around a few of them, done road trips on a few others, and a few more still have been the destination for day trips. My passion for the country is yet to dwindle.
I spent 23 years of my life living in a suburb of Glasgow, the largest city in the country. Whilst not having the visual appeal of the capital city, for me it is the city to go for shopping and socialising. I love it. I do not, however, love its weather. The Scottish weather is not the most reliable at the best of times, and whilst I have many memories of gorgeous sunny days, I have a lot of memories of grey, dreich winter days where the rain slams off the streets. Contrast this to my home for the subsequent 5.5 years in Aberdeen on the east coast (Scotland’s 3rd largest city), where it is much drier, and the sun shines for longer. Whilst Aberdeen gets bitterly cold in winter, and gets a good covering of snow, it is complimented by beautifully crisp, clear days where the sun bounces off the snow, making it truly sparkle. Where Glasgow won out, was with its locality as the gateway to some fantastic areas of the west coast: the Trossachs, Loch Lomond, and the islands of Arran, Cumbrae, Gigha, and further afield to Oban and beyond. I missed the ease of access to the Western Isles and the Firth of Clyde islands when I lived in Aberdeen, having to chug across the width of the country to get out to these. Having said all that, the Cairngorm Mountain National Park was within an hour’s drive from the Granite City, and I used this as my playground for hiking and camping as often as the weather was reasonable.
Most of the years of my life I have at some point visited the Spey Valley within the country’s original National Park, Cairngorm Mountain. This is one of my favourite parts of the mainland, and I have visited it in blizzards, and fantastic sunny days, and a full spectrum of weather in between. The Cairngorm Mountain range is littered with Munros (a Scottish mountain >3,000ft high), and these are accessible from the Grampian (Aberdeen) side, as well as the Spey Valley to the west. It is home to Scotland’s 3 ski resorts and the 2 highest roads in the country, the most famous being the ‘Cock Bridge to Tomintoul’ Road (the A939), which is usually the first road to close in the country when the snow appears due to it reaching an altitude of 2,112 ft. Incidentally, this is one of my favourite roads to travel along, and is the access road to the Lecht ski resort, but it needs a really sturdy gear box due to an incline of 20-26% depending on the section.
There are so many fantastic hikes in the National Park that I could write a whole separate blog on these. My favourites are to the summit of Lochnagar (3,789ft) which starts in the glorious glen around Loch Muick, a good 1.5hr drive west of Aberdeen with red deer being a common sighting on this hike; the forest of Glen Tanar near Aboyne; the Spey river valley walk; and the shorter walks to Loch an Eilann and around the Glenmore forest at the foot of Cairngorm Mountain. A fantastic trip to do here is a guided walk into the foothills of the Cairngorm range to visit the local population of reindeer. It is a free ranging herd, the only one of its kind in the whole of Great Britain, and they can be seen roaming the mountains in the summer, or lower down in winter, where they come in for a regular feed and an up-close opportunity to hand feed these delightful creatures. A few of the herd tour the UK at Christmas time to pull Santa’s sleigh at parades and festivals.
The Isle of Mull and the Isle of Iona west of Oban are beautiful islands to visit, and they both demand to be savoured slowly. Mull is littered with single track road, and the best parts of the island are reached on these. Tobermory, the colourful town on the north-east of the island is famous for 2 reasons: the buildings on the waterfront are all painted in differing pastel shades, and it was also the set for a famous children’s tv programme a few years ago, called Balamory. It is an excellent location to hop on board a boat and go searching for whales and dolphins. I was lucky enough to see a sunfish which is exceedingly rare in such northern waters. On one of my visits I attended a production of Macbeth in the Mull Theatre, situated in the village of Dervaig. At the time it was the World’s Smallest Professional Theatre, with around 32 seats, and being so close to the actors, several of us got regularly sprayed with phlegm as the erudite actors portrayed their characters with immense enthusiasm. It is almost a little sad that this delightful little theatre has been replaced with a more modern, and larger production hall near Tobermory.
Taking a long drive to the south-west corner of Mull, the ferry terminal at Fionnphort hails the crossing point to the islands of Iona and Staffa. Staffa is an uninhabited sea stack with the famous Fingal’s Cave, and patrolling the waters around it are the populous basking sharks. These sharks are plankton feeders, and are beautiful to watch trawling the water, sieving the micro-organisms out the water with their giant mouths. I have lost count of the number of times I have visited Iona, and the weather has been glorious every single visit. I love hiking north from the ferry terminal to the northern beaches, and just relaxing as the Atlantic Ocean laps on the shore before me.
I only discovered the Outer Hebrides 2 years ago. I had been to the Western Isles of Skye and to Lewis and Harris in my adolescence, but I decided to take the long drive from Aberdeen across the width of the country, up the length of Skye and on the ferry out to the chain of North & South Uists, Benbecula, Barra, and Berneray. This region has a strong Gaelic (pronounced ‘Gah-lick’, as opposed to the Irish Gaelic, which is pronounced ‘Gay-lick’) heritage, and the signage is bilingual, with a preference towards the Gaelic. One of the many MacDonald clans can be traced back to the Uists. I spent a week touring the chain of islands, and I’ve never been anywhere so idyllic, so remote, and so far from the stress of suburbia in all my life. It is a very wild and rugged region, and it is exposed to the full brunt of the harsh Atlantic weather. Most of the island chains are barely above sea level for large portions, and the tide has a lot of influence on the coastal landscape. As a result, the place is teeming with shore birds, sea birds, and thanks to a plentiful supply of inland water, wetland birds too, not to mention the birds of prey that these smaller species encourage. I can’t think of a better place to go and watch bird life. The only wild otter I have ever seen was also on this trip. Whilst generally colder than the rest of the country, the Outer Hebrides boasts some amazing expanses of white sandy beaches, many of which stretch some distance. It was on one such beach on Berneray where I was walking along daydreaming, that my attention was drawn to a movement ahead of me. An otter had just returned from a trip out at sea, and it was drying itself off on the sand, rolling over and over and having a full body shake down. I stood quietly watching it for several minutes before it disappeared up the sand dune and over the ridge.
Last year, the cogs were already in motion for me to make a move abroad. In an effort to both conserve money whilst taking a break, and to immerse myself in the country I would later leave, I packed up my tent, my stove, and sleeping bag and headed off first to the Island of Arran, and then to the Isle of Gigha. With the exception of the last day on Arran, I lucked out with the weather, basking in the 20s most days, and getting sunburnt on Gigha. Disembarking the ferry at Brodick on Arran, I set off with my 15kg backpack up Goatfell (2,866ft, a Corbett). I was in prime fitness at this point, and although it slowed me down, I amazed myself with how quickly I made it up to the summit. I enjoyed my lunch at the summit, taking in the glorious vista, before heading down the far side and through the glen below to my camp spot for the night. It was only May, not quite in season yet, and I had the campsite to myself. Over the proceeding days, I worked my way south, camping in the forest and enjoying the changing coastal scene. Thankfully the rain only came in the morning I was due to leave, so I managed to get packed up and under cover without getting too drenched.
Gigha is a comparatively small island on the exterior side of the expansive Argyle Peninsula. Getting to the ferry terminal is a mission in itself, but once out on the island, I spent several days soaking up the rays and meandering from one end to the other, pitching my tent wherever I felt like it. One of the glorious things about Scotland is the ‘Right to Roam’ Act. Apart from individual properties, most land is generally classed as public, and therefore free access is allowed nearly everywhere. It is also possible to pitch a tent nearly anywhere you please too on the public land, as long as you’re not causing an obstruction or being a nuisance. As a result, I’ve had some glorious nights in my tent in the middle of nowhere, in some wilderness somewhere that I’ve hiked to. Gigha was no exception. I spent each night camped on the shoreline at a different bay, waking up to the sunlight dancing off the gentle water. It was such a relaxing holiday.
Unfortunately, my memories of the northern isles, Orkney & Shetland, are very faint, having been there in childhood and never having made it back in adulthood. I can remember visiting puffin colonies, and some incredible archaeological sites in Orkney, mainly the World Heritage Site that is Skara Brae, a neolithic settlement from the BC era. There is not enough space to write about every place I’ve ever visited in my home country, many of which I’ve been back to over and over again, and putting more detail into those places I have mentioned would take an inordinate amount of time. Needless to say, I am proud to report that my home country still remains the one that I have travelled most extensively, and I think it is important for travellers to remember that your home country is well worth exploring too.
There’s nothing more refreshing than discovering a preconception about a place is very much wrong. Even after 3 long, sweaty flights (a feat that usually veils my vision with a mood of tiredness and grumpiness), I was pleasantly surprised with Buenos Aires. I guess I’d assumed that the name was more wishful thinking than literal, or a clever marketing strategy to encourage early settlers, or just plain irony, but here was a city that was covered in green. Arriving in November, the Jacaranda trees were in full, glorious purple, bloom, and they were everywhere, adorning parks and avenues at every turn.
From the hotel, it was an easy walk down chaotic streets to the city docks, a sight that I hadn’t expected either. The water was a dirty muddy brown, but lining the waterfront was a multitude of boutique bars and cafes, and sitting in the dock was a beautiful collection of tall ships. I suddenly felt naive, and shameful for having pre-judged the city on it’s South American location and assumption that it would be poor and run down. Running along one side of the waterfront was a temporary art exhibit of painted torsos, reminiscent of the cow statues that toured the world. One of the cities’ beautiful green spaces was the rose garden, filled with roses of all types and species, and with ponds running in amongst it, filled with waterfowl. It was a glorious sunny day to be wandering round parts of the city, and my first taste of the amazing Argentinian ice cream was at the square along the street from the presidential palace, scene of Madonna’s famous song in Evita. As the sun lowered, we took a quick tour of La Boca, an artisans paradise.
Unfortunately, the airport staff were striking the day of the flight to Ushuaia, so it was after much delay and a waste of half the day, that I reached El Fin Del Mundo (the ‘end of the world’), the southernmost city of the world. It may have been late spring but it was freezing, and by the time we reached the base of the ski field behind the city it was snowing. We hiked up to the viewpoint, but the Beagle Channel below us was shrouded in low cloud. The following day was still cold, but the sun streamed through the patchy cloud, illuminating the beautiful landscape of Tierra Del Fuego National Park. Looking across Bahia Ensenada, I got my first glimpse of Chile, at the far side of the water, and further round the park across the Rio Roca, the southern Andean mountains were snow capped. That afternoon, a group of us took a cruise on the Beagle Channel to see some sealions and Magellanic penguins. It was over a month later, when looking back at the photos, that I realised there had been a second species of penguins present, what I reckon are Southern Rockhopper penguins. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed at the time.
The city of Ushuaia is relatively compact. Its social hub is restricted to just a few blocks, and a few streets from our hotel, my travelling companions were delighted to find an Irish bar. I, on the other hand was more eager to go somewhere Argentinian, or at least less European, but eventually I was persuaded on the premise that it must be the southern-most situated Irish bar in the world. Inside, it couldn’t have been less Irish if it tried, and we settled in to some beer drinking. Heading out for dinner, I was disheartened to discover another Irish bar one block further south, meaning I’d only been in the 2nd most southern Irish bar in the world. Another block east, and there was a third Irish bar, relegating our drinking hole to just the 3rd most southern Irish bar in the world. It didn’t have quite the same ring to it.
It had repeatedly been mentioned to us about the supreme taste of Argentinian beef, and there were several restaurants dedicated to whetting up a carnivore’s appetite. We selected one, sat down and were presented plates and pointed in the direction of the buffet. There was a multitude of meat and veg options, and we all filled our plates and stuffed ourselves silly, several people helping ourselves for seconds. We sat back satiated, and were about to consider dessert, when our waiter appeared out the kitchen with 2 mini grills laden with meat of varying types. Our lack of Spanish had fooled us: the buffet was designed as a starter or side, and here was our main. Laughing at our foolishness, we force-fed ourselves as much of the meat as we could stomach, then laughed our way home, wondering what the waiters must have thought of the strange tourists.
It was a long drive across Isla Grande de Tierra Del Fuego, and a slow border crossing into Chile, racing against the clock to catch the ferry across the short, but choppy crossing of the Magellan Strait. Staying overnight in Punta Arenas, a port city with no real tourist draw, it was another long drive via Puerto Natales into the stunning Torres Del Paine National Park. The mountains seemed to appear from nowhere, and then suddenly they towered over us from all sides. Littered in between were beautiful lakes, and rolling green hillsides. Our first view of the Cuernos del Paine, the park’s most famous mountain area, was across the expanse of Lago Torro, and I was getting increasingly excited the closer we got to them. The lake was massive, and it took some time to reach the other end of it, where the road followed the route of the Rio Serrano through the valley at the base of the mountains. I was giddy when I discovered that my bed for the next few nights was in one of the little wooden cabins down in the valley on the bank of the river. The view of the mountains from the balcony and the river bank were divine.
No thesaurus contains enough adjectives to describe the beauty of Torres Del Paine National Park. No photograph will ever do its beauty justice. I certainly tried, taking photographs from every conceivable angle, in an effort to find that perfect panorama that could relate what I was seeing before me. The mountains were snow-capped, the lakes were glacial blue and grey, the rolling hills were green, the blooming flowers were red, and the ice-bergs shelved from the glacier fronts were monumental. The first day in the park was spent visiting Lago Grey which was littered with icebergs that had shelved from the front edge of the glacier of the same name. Standing on the stony beach, there were remnants of previous icebergs melting away at the lapping edge of the lake, and a hike to a viewpoint gave a spectacular view across to the main icebergs in front of the glacial wall.
A further drive from Lago Gray, crossing the Rio Paine, we stopped at what I can only describe as the most beautiful panorama I have ever seen: a little island in the middle of a large glacial lake with Torres del Paine towering over it. With blue skies above and the sun beating down, it was gorgeous. Further along the road, we reached the start of a hike taking us past guanacos, raging waterfalls, bright red chilean fire bushes, and towards the Cuernos, keeping to the far side of the lakes to afford a fabulous panorama over the range. Whilst standing at one lakeside, there was the thunder of an avalanche taking place on the mountain across from us, and we could see the snow tumbling down towards the rocks below. Everywhere we went in the park afforded a spectacular but alternative view of the range, and I couldn’t get enough of it. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect, and somehow I managed to miss my chest with the suncream, resulting in a large red arc at the base of my neck.
Throughout the national park we were greeted by the sight of Andean condors circling the heavens above us. They are magnificent, and massive birds, and whilst difficult to spot the first one, on achieving that, suddenly you could spot them everywhere. We took another hike in the late afternoon up to the Mirador Condor (Condor viewpoint) where ironically we didn’t see any condors at all. The view was worth it anyway: more mountains, more glacial lakes, more colour, more blue sky and sunshine. Taking a short cut down, however, was a challenge for some in the group. Our guide decided that skipping down a sheer scree slope was a much better return route to the bus than hiking down the well maintained path that we had come up. There was not one of us that made it to the bottom without ending up on our arse at least once. Back at our cabin complex, we enjoyed dinner overlooking the view of the same granite mountain range glowing red in the lowering sun.
Our last full day in the park was the one that most of us had been waiting for: the hike up to the famous 3 towers. Our luck had run out with the sunshine, although at least it remained dry. The hiking trail was exceedingly busy, being at the start of peak season, and we were sharing the initial steep ascent with groups on horseback, as well as hikers on foot. Circling above us for company were scores of condors. After the initial steep ascent, the path levelled out for a reasonable length, exposed on the side of a valley, before disappearing into a forest. For a while, the 3 peaks were hidden, and even when the trees petered out, all that was visible was a massive boulder scree and a path marked through the boulders. It was a long and steep climb up the side of, and then over, the large granite boulders. So many times we thought we were near the summit, only to reach the ‘top’ and discover there was another slog ahead of us. The group thinned out by this point, and we fell into silence as we focused on our breathing, and for some people, their constitution. The oldest of our party was in his 70s, and he had fallen behind in the forest section. At our meeting point prior to the forest, he had voiced concerns that he wasn’t going to make it up to the summit, and insisted that we all continue on without him. One by one, we made it to the summit (not technically the summit as the 3 towers protrude some height above, but more of a ‘rim’ surrounding a glacial lake at the base of the towers) and went about regaining our breath prior to competing to take the most pictures from as many different views as possible. As a group, we sat around together, smiles beaming at our achievement, reflecting on where we were and generally chit-chatting about the landscape around us. All of a sudden a cheer went up behind us, and here was Allan, our septuagenarian companion and Santiago, our guide. They had made it, to tremendous applause all round, and a big beaming smile on his face. Santiago was clearly proud of him, having kept him company the whole way, and remarking that he was the oldest person that he had guided up there. Allan was understandably proud of himself. Allowing him time to regain his breath and take some photos, we started on the ascent back down, surrounded by condors and happening across a skunk on the way back to our cottages. That night, we had a double celebration: my roommates’ birthday and Allan’s triumphant ascent of the mountain.
Leaving the park behind, we set off back to Argentina. Border crossings between Argentina and Chile are a double border affair: you queue to get your passport stamped on leaving the one country, cross a ‘no-mans-land’ for a mile or so, then queue up to enter the other country. It dragged out the whole crossing by an extra hour or so more than was really warranted. Our destination was El Calafate, the tourist city famous as the stopping off point for visiting the Perito Moreno glacier. On the bank of Lago Argentino, the largest lake in Argentina, a wander through the compact city takes you through a ream of tourist gift shops, eateries, pubs, and down to the lake side where flamingos wander through the shallow lake edge. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of the birds as far as the eye could see, but getting near enough to photograph them was impossible. Every time we had stopped at lake sides on the drives to photograph them, they had flown away as soon as the bus started to idle. A few of us picked our way through the pools of water and soft earth at the lake edge to get as close to them as we could. Whilst they didn’t fly away, they simply waded further out, resulting in the same distance between us at all times. Flamingos clearly don’t relish the human attention.
We took a back road to Perito Moreno, giving us the chance to observe ‘real’ Argentinian life. Rural Argentina is littered with massive livestock ranches, and these are mustered by gauchos on horseback. We passed by the gated entrances to multiple ranches, prior to stopping at what can best be described as an Argentinian version of a service station. It was essentially a wooden cottage with a cafe inside at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, some toilets round the back, and sitting on every spare piece of ground possible was a multitude of goats. It made for a smelly toilet stop. Heading onward, we wound our way round the very long shore of Argentina’s largest lake, entering yet another National Park, until we were treated to the delightful site of Perito Moreno glacier in the distance. This was a place I had been dreaming about coming to for years, and when the bus pulled in at the visitor’s centre and let us out, I raced to the top observation deck to get a glimpse of it close up: and what a sight it was. Standing at the top of a series of winding walkways descending down the hillside, directly in front of me was the immense 5km wide glacier itself, the width dominating the bulk of my visual field, and like an optical illusion, it really felt like it was coming to get you, as if it would swiftly mow down the trees that stood in its way and swallow you up in a heart beat. It was another of those pinch-yourself moments that I love so much when I travel. Following the varying levels of the walkway allowed differing views of the glacier and its advancing edge, and everyone fell hush when the thunderous noise signaled a shelving of a fragment of glacier into the lake water below. The resultant splash created woops and cheers all around the crowds. I could have spent all day there staring at it without getting bored. It was mesmerising, and for me pure heaven to stare at. After a couple of hours, I felt rushed to leave to make a boat trip which took us out onto the lake and up close to the wall of ice from water level. It was a totally different viewpoint on what is one of the most beautiful forms nature has ever produced.
El Chalten is one of the cutest little villages I have ever been to, nestled in a valley by the Rio de las Vueltas, and a stone’s throw away from Mt Fitzroy and several glaciers that lead onto the Patagonian Icefields, playground of only a select few explorers and ice-treckers (a year later, this select number included my boss at the time who has a passion for adventure travel). I got my first experience of wearing crampons and hiking on a glacier following a boat trip on nearby Lago Viedma to the glacier of the same name. Whereas Perito Moreno glowed a relatively pure white, Viedma was narrower and due to the slopes of the surrounding mountains, it had collected a large amount of sediment, staining most of it’s surface a dirty brown colour. Picking our way round the sometimes massive crevices, and ascending ridges of ice was surreal, and was topped off by our glacier guide presenting us with a bottle of Baileys liqueur for us to enjoy. He scooped a handful of glacier ice into everybody’s glass and served us a dram. Whilst not the most environmentally friendly maneuver, it was an enjoyable end to our hike (I was informed that the ice is thoroughly rinsed prior to being returned to the site of collection – you can debate amongst yourselves the ethics of such a practice).
El Chalten itself is little more than a collection of tourist accommodations, a couple of supermarkets, a few tourist shops and, most importantly to a lot of people: a microbrewery. Now not being an imbiber of beer, I found their home-made ales distasteful, but it was an excellent social place, and a great way to spend the evening after hiking. Our first hike in the region was through a beautiful alpine landscape to Lago Torre and it’s associated glacier. The cloud hung low over some of the neighbouring mountain tops, but it was otherwise a spectacular day for hiking, and another day to get a bit more sunburnt where I hadn’t already got sunburnt before. Our guide, who was one of those lucky few to get up on the icefield, pointed out the disappearing track up to the glacier that was the entrance route to the ice field. I can’t imagine anything more spectacular than hiking up onto that ridge of ice and seeing nothing but ice stretching out for miles in all directions.
Our luck changed with the weather. We had apparently done exceptionally well with our hours of sunshine for our trip so far (by this point 2weeks in), but on the day we had set aside to hike up Mt Fitzroy to the glacier viewpoint, the cloud level descended and the rain came in. We had to settle for a hike up through the valley and up a lower track. It was a beautiful trail surrounded by trees covered in dead man’s beard, a lichen that only grows in the purest of air, and alongside rivers. At one point it gently snowed and the clouds closed in on us, but by the final hike through the forest and the hillside descent back towards El Chalten, the cloud lifted, and the sun beamed once more. We were disappointed not to get up Mt Fitzroy, but it was a spectacular hike none-the-less. The cloud and rain came and went as we ascended yet another Mirador Condor for an alternate view of the town and the river valley, before heading back to the microbrewery to heat up. A morning playing gaucho on a rather petulant horse rounded up the visit, but the top of Mt Fitzroy was not to be seen again, hidden behind a layer of cloud for days on end.
Our final day in Patagonia was spent based back at El Calafate. Essentially a free day to please ourselves, a few of us took a boat tour of the lake. Lago Argentino is fed by several glaciers shelving into the lake from various fjords. We sailed for several hours, working our way round and up several of these to visit a few of the accessible glaciers. The most impressive of these was the Upsala glacier, not so much for the glacier itself, but for the immense icebergs that littered the entrance to its fjord. They were huge, and packed so tightly that the compressed water molecules made them a deep blue colour which simply added to their beauty. They towered over the boat, and their sheer size was impressive enough, never mind the knowledge that in these icy waters, only 1/7th of their mass was above the surface. Again though, the weather failed us, and the clouds descended, and the snow began to fall, obscuring our view of the last 2 glaciers, and dulling the vision of the Perito Moreno glacier which we visited again, this time approaching from the opposite side.
In the reducing sunlight we flew north-east, away from the Andes range and towards another region that I had been desperate to get to for some years: Peninsula Valdes. The peninsula is a wildlife-lovers dream, and is not only a protected area for the myriad of land animals that call it home, but it also creates some relatively shallow bays for Southern Right whales to use as a nursery for rearing their young calves prior to introducing them to the open water. These were the same species of whale that I had encountered in abundance in South Africa, and I was eager to see them again (whilst the same species, they are a genetically diverse group of whales, following completely different migratory routes to Antarctica, and therefore their paths will never cross). To whet our appetites for the whales, we took a tour of the peninsula witnessing an assortment of wildlife all over the plains: mara, foxes, rheas and lizards; and marine wildlife: immense numbers of elephant seals sunbathing on the shore and a small group of sealions. The highlight of my day however, was getting on that boat in Puerto Pyramides and setting off into the bay in search of whales. We got an absolute treat, finding a mother and a white calf, estimated to be just 3weeks old. The calf was very inquisitive, often coming up to the boat, followed by the mother who often floated just under the surface at our side, as if contemplating us. The calf frolicked at our side, and the mother at times stuck close by, and at other times left it to explore on its own, letting it circle the boat, then following behind. We watched in joy as they floated on the surface, only to have a seagull land on the mother’s nose, prompting her to snort it off, and later the same seagull also gave the calf a bit of a fright when it landed on its back, causing it to splash quickly under the surface. It was a pure delight to watch them, and once again, I could have happily stayed for hours just marvelling at them. Even back at our hotel in Puerto Madryn, the whales were both visible and audible playing out in the bay, often breaching and lobbing just out from the beach.
South of Puerto Madryn is a place called Punta Tombo which as a place holds no significance other than the fact that one of the largest colonies of Magellanic penguins choose to make nest here. There are thousands of them, nesting in shallow burrows away from the sea, mating for life, and rearing their young ones almost on top of their neighbours, as well as under and right next to, a wooden boardwalk marking a relatively safe footpath through the colony. The boardwalk was extensive, as was the colony, and it was entertaining watching these birds carrying on their routines as if all the people weren’t there: preening themselves, renovating their burrows, bonding with their mates and fighting with their neighbours. It was a magical end to the South American adventure.
With one day back in Buenos Aires, I took a trip to Tigre, a marvellous town on the edge of the Paranas delta. Interwoven with waterways, it is a beautiful place to go for a day trip, to either wander the streets along the edge of the waterways, or to get out on the water itself. Unfortunately, my visit coincided with a public holiday and the queue at the ferry terminal was too prohibitive. Instead, a wander along the water’s edge brought me to the Museum of Art where a classic car rally had ended, with all entrants parked up on the grounds for all to see, and many of the drivers were dressed up in old-fashioned clothing in preparation for a function within the museum itself. It was such a novelty to see all the old models of cars so well maintained. The final morning in Argentina, following a visit to the sarcophagus of Eva Peron, I took a walk to another of Buenos Aires’ many green spaces: a massive nature reserve at the edge of the city on its border with the Rio del Plata, the river which separates Argentina from Uruguay. The good weather finally gave in as a thunder storm began to roll in, but despite the grey skies, the trees were filled with colourful and loud parrots. When the heavens finally opened, the rain came down with intensity and the thunder rolled around the city. I took shelter in an ice cream parlour, and treated myself to my last taste of the amazing Argentinian ice cream. It was with a full belly, but a sad heart, that I returned to my hotel to collect my belongings and head to the airport.
My hands turned white with the force of gripping the seat in front of me. With nothing but a windscreen between me and the road in front, I held on to the head rest tighter as the speedometer on the taxi climbed higher and higher, and the driver weaved more manically through the busy streets of Athens, ignoring stop signs and chasing red lights. It was the wildest taxi ride I’d ever been on, and even a few clicks on Youtube before the holiday couldn’t prepare me for the crazy driving in this country.
The heat on arrival in Athens was overwhelming. My partner at the time was an Athenean, and we were met at the airport by his aunt and cousin. From there it was an hour’s drive to his mother’s summer house, and I sat crumpled in the back seat listening to the argument about the air conditioning. Many Greeks decamp in the summer months to their second homes, somewhere in a small town or village, and generally on the coast. His mother lived in an area not officially recognised on a map: a collection of relatively new homes with no shops and little business. But it had a beach and that was all that mattered. I spent those first few days of our 2-week holiday failing miserably at the Greek language, missing out on half the conversation, and awkwardly trying to get along with my potential in-laws. The weather was divine though, and I enjoyed chilling on the balcony, watching some amazing sunsets, and tucking in to locally caught fish and savouring frappes.
One of the fantastic things about my Athenean was that he held a private pilot licence. He had a friend who worked in the Air Force, and on his day off, we arranged to rent a little Cessna and fly out to the island of Skiathos. So we turned up at a little airstrip outside Athens and the two of us, the friend and his girlfriend loaded up and took off. Greece is a beautiful country at ground level, but it takes on a whole new perspective from the air. We flew over forests, lakes, and mountains before hitting the sea. Unfortunately for me, my obsession with filming and taking photos out of the window resulted in an acute onset motion sickness, and I missed a good portion of the view whilst keeping my eyes tightly closed and concentrating on my breathing, desperate not to vomit in front of 2 people I’d only just met. It was embarrassing enough just cradling the sick bag. I managed, thankfully, to regain some composure to witness the approach to Skiathos over a myriad of little islands, and beautiful blue sea scattered with pleasure boats. It felt surreal to pull onto the tarmac next to a large jumbo jet filling up with tourists.
Skiathos was beautiful, but had a few too many Brits for my liking. I like to go on holiday and feel like I’m escaping all things British, so it is always slightly disappointing to travel for hours or days to find the place riddled with British tourists. It was a short walk into Skiathos town, and the place was crammed with locals and tourists alike. Having recovered from my motion sickness, I was starving, and the food was an absolute delight. I’ve often acknowledged how different that holiday would have been if I had not been there with a Greek. My grasp of the language was pathetic, and my stubbornness to avoid speaking English, meant I relied heavily on my partner doing the talking. With a local, the places that you end up going to and eating at are often very different from where the typical tourists go, and I definitely feel the reward is the most amazing food ever. The lunch we had that day in Skiathos was one of my favourites of the whole holiday, and I felt better prepared for the flight home that evening. It was another stunning flight over the islands and onto the mainland. It was very much a shame that large sections of the forest that we had flown over were destroyed in a massive bush fire just a few days later.
After over-nighting in Athens, we caught a bus north heading towards Volos. This time, we were off to visit the father’s holiday home in a little sea-side village, again missing from most maps. This little village round the coast from Volos, quickly became my favourite place in the whole country. The house we stayed in was amazing, albeit riddled with mosquitoes, and it overlooked a beautiful bay with crystal blue water. It was a mecca for seafood, and I loved every night dining out on the waterfront with most of the village people around us, savouring mezzes of all varieties and soaking up the warm evening air. This was a place that no tourist would know to go to, nor find reference to on any map or in any guide book, and yet here was the authentic Greek summer experience, and I adored it. The heat during the day got unbearable at times, and I struggled with the concept of taking siestas, stupidly ignoring advice to stay indoors and insisting on going for hikes round the coast in the heat of the day. My reward was verging on sun stroke on one occasion, and generally being eaten alive by every mosquito in a 12km radius. By the end of that stay, I looked contagious, such were the numbers of wheals all over my body. The language barrier was hardest with this side of the family, but yet we all had an amazing time together, and I was sad to leave at the end of it.
After another long bus ride back to Athens, watching the smoke from the forest fire advancing towards the city, we prepared for our big adventure out on the Cyclades island of Sifnos. We planned on hiking round the island and camping under the stars, and went prepared with hammocks and mosquito nets. Zipping across the Mediterranean in a catamaran, we arrived as the sun sat low on the horizon. By the time we had enjoyed yet another amazing meal, it was dark, and the mountain that we had planned on hiking over was invisible in the gloom. We decided to reverse our hike, and grabbed a taxi to drop us off in the middle of nowhere. The driver was bemused by our request: Greek people don’t hike – what were we thinking? It was a challenge in the dark to know that we were at the right track, but we waved the taxi goodbye and started hiking by torch light. It is amazing how simple noises are magnified in the dark to unknown terrors that may be hunting you down for a meal, and we got a bit of a shock when our torch light detected some pigs at the side of the track in a make-shift pen. The intermittent sound of dogs barking in the distance kept us wary, never knowing if they were loose, and how domestic they would be if they found us. Eventually, we grew tired, and in the dark, the hammocks were trussed to some trees and we fell asleep.
I was woken by rustling and scuffling around me, and peeked out to find us surrounded by a herd of inquisitive goats. With the benefit of daylight, I could see that we had erected our hammocks in a little copse, and the goats were foraging for food. Scrambling out and walking to the path, I was met by a stunning view of a dramatic coastline… and more goats. Following breakfast, we continued on our hike, skirting round to the south coast of the island and following beautiful rugged coastline down to secluded bays and beaches where we relaxed in our hammocks waiting out the heat of the day. Eventually though, a shower called us, and we hiked back to civilisation where we got stared at by the bikini-clad beauties on the beach as we trudged through them laden down with hiking boots, backpacks and hammocks.
The beauty of Sifnos was that it lived in a time that was not our own. Relatively untouched by the buzz of modern life, it was peaceful and idyllic, and reassuringly simple. Goats littered the landscape, and donkeys were still kept for pulling carts. The settlements were quaint, and only just beginning to be touched by the tourism scene, but it didn’t take much of a wander to feel that you were in the Greece of the past, and it was wonderful. We did several day hikes round portions of the island, including up to a monastery on top of the mountain overlooking Kamares, the ferry port. It was the hike that we had planned to do when we arrived, but it was worth the view to do it in daylight hours, and it was hard not to get lost in the blistering sunshine, never mind the darkness when there would have been no landmarks to keep our bearings. It was exceedingly windy at the summit, and it was delightful to get there to find some utensils and some coffee for making a cup of Greek coffee. Anyone who has drank Greek coffee will know that it tastes very different to what the rest of us would define as coffee, and frankly it fails to do coffee justice: it is gritty and very bitter. After a short break, we braved the cross winds to traverse the summit, hunkered down against the ground to avert being blown off the edge, and made our way towards an old mineral mine. The landscape resembled a scene from Star Wars, as we worked our way round the abandoned mine entrances, and picked our way down the unmarked mountain-side. Eventually we picked up a trail again, which took us down a relatively hidden, yet very steep path down the mountainside, and back towards Kamares. We approached the town as the sun was setting, and we treated ourselves to a dip in the hotel pool on our return.
Our final hike on the island took us round the west coast, past monasteries, both used and abandoned. It was surprising how remote some of the active ones were. We camped overnight hanging in an orchard, and both the sunset and sunrise were stunning from the hammock. I was rather sad to board the ferry and leave the island behind. For nearly 2weeks, my partner had been encouraging me to speak to people, forever lamenting that everybody in Greece spoke English and I would be perfectly understood. Waiting in Kamares on the ferry, I had decided to use my well-rehearsed Greek phrase for ordering a frappe (Greeks love their frappes!), only to be met with a response I wasn’t anticipating. I stared at her blankly, then looked in despair at my partner who just laughed at my misery. I felt particularly ashamed to discover that our waitress was Swedish, and was fluent in both English and Greek on top of her mother tongue. Another example (there are many from several countries) of my lament at being British and so poor at foreign languages. On the ferry back to Athens I gave in and decided to order (yet more frappes) in English. I went to the counter and addressed the guy in his early-20s, only to be met with a blank stare and a look of desperation directed towards his colleague. Thankfully his friend spoke fluent English, but I blushed none the less, and sheepishly pointed out to my partner that not everybody speaks English. Apparently, I found the only non-English speaking Greek in Greece!
Arriving back in Athens, we were bundled into a taxi with 2 other strangers, and taken for that most interesting taxi ride through the night-time streets of Athens. We had already experienced an interesting taxi ride in Volos where the driver told us not to fasten our seat belts (because Greeks don’t do that apparently), and then proceeded to drive us for an hour, mainly facing sideways conversing in Greek with my partner, and paying only vague attention to the road ahead, all the while maintaining a good amount of pressure on the accelerator. This time in Athens, I was squashed in the middle of the back seat with no seat belt, and only the head rests of the 2 front seats to grip onto whilst our madman of a driver negotiated the busy streets of the city at high speed. Apparently stop signs and red lights do not apply to taxi drivers, and any gap in crossing traffic was a challenge to push out. It was vaguely reminiscent of India, only the cars get up to a much faster speed than the tuk-tuks ever did. I worried with every emergency stop that I was just a hand-grip away from being sent flying through the windscreen onto the tarmac.
The last 2 days in Greece were a very rushed affair, trying to get round some of the historic sites of the city, mainly focusing on the Acropolis and the surrounding area. It doesn’t matter how much I travel, but I will always get excited to find myself at some well-photographed landmark, and have that pinch-myself moment of comprehension that I’m actually there! It was the same at the Parthenon, although I was slightly disappointed at the amount of scaffolding marring the site. One whole side of it was hidden behind immense steel scaffolds and platforms. That aside, the view from the Acropolis over the old and new sections of the city was amazing. It was bakingly hot, and there was a constant shimmer on the surface of the ground. Spending hours in the intense heat was hard going, and it was refreshing to finally sit down in the shade with a beer. By this point, I could understand enough Greek to freak out my partner. When he was chatting away to his friend, he turned to translate for me and before he got a chance, I related pretty much what he had just said. Incidentally, Greek, like many languages, is easy to learn on the ear, but the written language is a whole other ball game. Having said that, once you master the alphabet, it suddenly becomes a whole lot easier to read and write (I subsequently took several Greek classes in an effort to be more competent on any future excursions there).
I love wandering through foreign cities after dark and marveling at the similarities and differences to those Scottish cities I grew up in. I watched in awe at the controlled way that Greeks drink alcohol, a stark contrast to the rowdy, drunken behaviour that tarnishes the British social culture. Bars were packed out to the pavements, and drink was a plenty, but yet no matter how many streets and lanes we walked through, nowhere were there the signs of passed out drunks, or people peeing against every wall they could find. It was refreshing to find coffee shops open as late as the bars, something which I have always dreamed of in Scotland: somewhere social to go at night, that doesn’t revolve around alcohol. It was a fun place to be, just a pity the Athens stop-over was so rushed. I could have easily spent a lot longer immersing myself in local life, and the history of the place.
Looking back, it would have been an all together less satisfying holiday without a Greek at my side.