MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Europe”

Wildlife of Scotland

It is said that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. After spending over 28 years of my life living in Scotland, it took moving to the other side of the world to really appreciate some of my homeland’s special qualities. As brimming as it is with beautiful scenery, it is also full of wildlife, both urban and rural. Over the last few years I have become a bit of a bird enthusiast, and I’ve found myself paying more attention to the feathered creatures that flit about around me. Whenever I go abroad, I’m very conscious of the wildlife that lives in that foreign land, and now when I go back to Scotland, I see the wealth of wildlife with fresh eyes. From cities to lochs, and mountains to the coast, there is something to spot everywhere. Special mention goes to the otter, red fox, red squirrel, hedgehog, minke whale, harbour porpoise, bottlenose dolphin, basking shark, white-tailed sea eagle, buzzard, kestrel and osprey which I have had the joy of seeing but haven’t been able to photograph.

MAMMALS

Reindeer

There’s only 1 herd of reindeer in the whole of the UK and they roam the mountain tops near Cairngorm, many of them coming down daily to hand-feed from visitors.

Adult Reindeer

Reindeer calf

 

Red Deer

The ‘Monarch of the Glen’, the male deer in full antlers and rutting mode is a sight (and sound) to behold. Spotted in the mountains and moors.

Red deer in Glen Muick

 

Roe Deer

The shy and solitary member of the deer family. Much harder to spot than the other deer species. This one was spotted in Caithness.

Roe deer

 

Grey Squirrel

An introduced species that has played a major part in the decline of the native red squirrel, these guys are a common sighting in parks and gardens, and are easy to spot without even leaving the city.

Grey squirrel

 

Rabbit

Seen as a pest by some, rabbits are often easy to spot in farmland and open fields.

Rabbit

 

Common Seal

From a distance, the common and grey seal can look very similar. Usually spotted hauled out onto rocks up the west coast or on the islands.

Common seal

 

Grey Seal

Newburgh beach north of Aberdeen offers near guaranteed sightings of these seals. They usually haul out on the protected north side of the Ythan river there, and can also be seen swimming in the river itself watching the beach goers and dogs go by.

Grey seal in the Ythan river

Seals hauled up on the beach at Newburgh

 

Humpback Whale

A seasonal visitor to Scottish waters, they can be spotted for a very short time in the waters around the islands of the west coast.

Humpback whale off the west coast of Scotland

Humpback whale fin slapping

 

White-beaked Dolphins

Feeding pods can be spotted around the islands off the west coast if you are lucky.

White beaked dolphins in Scottish waters

White-beaked dolphin leaping

 

Common Dolphins

These deep sea feeders are my favourite species of dolphin. They can be spotted off the west coast if you are lucky.

Common dolphin

 

BIRDS

Pied Wagtail

These are commonly spotted garden and pasture birds and are widely spread across the country.

Pied wagtail

 

Chaffinch

The colourful male is easy to spot in gardens and green spaces. The female blends in more and is less distinctive, but the species is well spread across the country.

Chaffinch (male)

Chaffinch (female)

 

Blackbird

Another common visitor to gardens and green spaces. This juvenile was trying to grab the attention of its parents.

Blackbird (juvenile)

 

Wood Pigeon

This is the porky version of the common run-of-the-mill street pigeon that plagues city centres. Although they will occasionally be seen amongst their scrawny city-dwelling cousins, they are more usually seen in the suburbs or near woods.

Wood Pigeon

 

European Robin

The recognisable robin redbreast that adorns many a Christmas card is best spotted in gardens.

European Robin

 

Starling

A common and easily spotted bird in both urban and rural areas. These birds often flock together in mesmerising murmurations in the evening as they prepare to roost in large groups.

Bedraggled starling parent

 

House Sparrow

Another common and easily spotted garden bird.

House Sparrow

 

Song Thrush

These are the birds that I fondly remember from my childhood, singing away in the trees behind my parent’s house. They have a beautiful song, and are best spotted in areas with trees, but this includes many public green spaces and gardens.

Song Thrush

 

Carrion Crow

One of the county’s most diversely spread birds, they don’t seem fussy with their habitat and can be spotted in both urban and rural areas either singly or in groups. They are adaptable and have a varied diet, and are also known to be intelligent.

Carrion Crow

 

Swallow

Less spotted than the more common and similar-looking swift, these birds love to fly over high-insect zones such as farmland and waterways. They are exceedingly agile on the wing and are amazing to watch in action. It is also rare to see them on the ground and uncommon to see them perching as most of their life is spent on the wing.

Swallow

 

Common Linnet

This is a bird I never knew existed until I was going through my photos after my most recent trip home and wondered what it was. I’m certainly not aware that I have ever seen one before. This colourful male was spotted near the coast on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands.

Common Linnet (male)

 

Mallard Duck

Anyone who has ever fed bread to a duck in a city park in Europe and North America has likely been feeding these guys. They are everywhere, and have been introduced to many other countries outwith their original range.

Mallard Ducks

 

Mute Swan

Another common occupant of urban waterways as well as coastal estuaries. I grew up knowing nothing but white swans, and remember a news story from my childhood about a black swan that appeared in the river in the town of Ayr south of where I lived. There is something very majestic about these creatures, although they can be very vicious if you get too close, especially when they have youngsters.

Mute swans on the farmland

 

Common Redshank

A lover of dampness, these birds are best spotted around marshes, meadows and lakes. Despite its name, its not as common as it used to be.

Common Redshank

 

Northern Lapwing

It is usually their cry that draws your attention to these birds. Although they are wading birds, they are best spotted on farmland and cultivated pastures. Unfortunately, population numbers are showing a decline and they are classified as a threatened species.

Northern Lapwing

 

Great Grey Shrike

I photographed this bird but didn’t know what it was at the time. Their preferred habitat is grassland with shrubbery, and it is uncommon to spot them. This particular bird was spotted near the coast next to some open farmland in summer time which is unseasonal as they usually migrate to breed elsewhere.

Great Grey Shrike

 

Pheasant

Native to Asia, the pheasant was introduced historically as a game bird. Many a painting adorning Scottish castles and mansions will depict dead pheasants hanging in a kitchen or off the arm of a shooter. Even today, these birds are still popular to shoot during the right season. To shoot them with a camera, they tend to be found in the countryside where they like to dash out in front of cars on rural back roads, and are occasionally spotted when out hiking in the glens.

Pheasant (male)

Pheasant (female)

 

Red Grouse

Another bird that is still shot in Scotland during the beating season. They are very difficult to spot, hiding in amongst the heather of the open moorland in the highlands and some of the islands. It is easier to spot them on a bottle of whisky where their image has had a worldwide audience thanks to the Famous Grouse brand. I came very close to standing on this little grouse chick that was easy to overlook and refused to move when I got close. I’ve never seen an adult in the wild.

Red Grouse (chick)

 

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

With their distinctive call, they can be the rowdy accompaniment to any beach walk and are one of many bird species that wander around the tidal zone looking for a meal.

Eurasian Oyster Catcher

 

Ringed Plover

These pretty little birds are another common sighting at the beach, feeding in the tidal zone, and often seen in small groups.

Ringed plover

 

Common Sandpiper

These migratory birds are only seen in the summer months but are beach goers that forage in the tidal zone, and are more solitary in their habits than the ringed plover who they share a habitat with.

Common sandpiper

 

Curlew

The largest wading bird in Europe, the curlew is sadly a threatened species. Usually seen on their own, they can be spotted either on the shoreline or inland.

Curlew

 

Temmincks Stint

One of many similar looking shore birds seen around the tidal zone.

Temmincks Stint

 

Common Eider

These large ducks are sea-dwellers, living along coastlines of Europe and North America. They are an easy spot in Scotland due to the distinctive colouration of the male and their size.

Eider (male)

Eider duck (female)

 

Red-breasted Merganser

This migratory diving duck breeds in Scotland, and this particular female was spotted in Loch Lomond cruising near the shore.

Red-breasted Merganser

 

Black-Headed Gull

A commonly spotted gull near the coastline.

Black-headed gull

 

Common Gull

As the name suggests, these are a common sighting, mainly on the coastline but can be spotted in cities and farmland. They are bigger than the black-headed gull but smaller than the black-backed gull.

Common gull

 

Black-backed Gull

The big bully of the gull world, there is no shortage of these gulls around Scotland and they will happily scavenge in urban zones as much as the coastline.

Black-Backed Gull (juvenile)

 

Fulmar

These birds are wanderers of the sea, only coming to shore for the sake of breeding. They are a loud and common sighting along many coastlines in the summer months.

Fulmar

 

Great Skua

Also known as Bonxie, these large birds are the robbers of the bird world. Why obtain your own fish when you can steal from another? They can be spotted at rest on land or more commonly seen swooping and mobbing at other sea birds in the air or on cliffs.

Great skua

 

European Shag

Shags and cormorants are terms used differently for different birds within the cormorant family. They are best spotted on rocks where they like to spread their wings wide to dry. This nest with juveniles was on Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands, but they are widespread along the Scottish coastline.

Shag parent with chicks

 

Gannet

This is one of my favourite sea birds and are most impressive when seen diving at great speeds from the air to catch fish. A flock of diving gannets can be a good way to find feeding whales and dolphins as they will often track feeding pods where the fish are pushed nearer the surface.

Gannets

 

Puffin

One of Scotland’s most special birds. Unfortunately their numbers are in decline as they are selective feeders. I remember seeing great flocks of these when I was younger, and now they are in small clusters. Despite their petite size, they spend most of the year at sea, returning to land only to breed where they nest in burrows. The cliffs on the west coast of Mainland Orkney, Faraid Head in Sutherland, and the Isle of Staffa are recommended places to spot them in the summer months.

Puffin

 

Guillemot

A similar size to the puffin, though much more populous, and often seen hanging around in the same places.

Guillemot

 

Razorbill

Another cliff-loving sea bird, they are often seen milling around near guillemots.

Razorbills

 

OTHER – THE OFTEN OVERLOOKED INSECTS, AMPHIBIANS AND FISH

Six-Spot Burnet

This pretty moth was spotted amongst the dunes on the Aberdeenshire coast.

bug at the beach

 

Hairy caterpillar

One of many reasons to watch where you tread. This guy was crossing the hiking path on the West Highland Way.

Caterpillar

 

Blue Damselfly

A pretty little dragonfly, their colour is mesmerising. Spotted near a loch in Sutherland.

Blue damselfly

 

Golden-Ringed Dragonfly

A beautiful and large dragonfly, I spotted this one whilst out hiking in Cairngorm National Park, although they are more widespread in western Scotland.

Dragonfly

 

Snails

Slugs and snails are a gardener’s pest but I like snails, and think the ground-dwelling creatures of the world are under-appreciated. This group of snails were hanging out on a post in Barra, in the Outer Hebrides.

Group of snails hanging out

 

Black Slug

The ugly slug of the slug world.

Black Slug

 

Brown Slug

The not-so-ugly slug of the slug world.

Mr Slug

 

Frog

The famously wet climate means amphibians can find plenty of habitat to choose from in Scotland. Unfortunately several species are on the decline due to predation, disease and habitat destruction. This frog came into a mountain bothy I was staying in whilst out hiking in the Cairngorm National Park.

frog

 

Blue Crab

One of many crabs that can be spotted on Scottish beaches. This one was at Faraid Head in Sutherland.

Blue crab

 

Sunfish

Also known as the mola, this is the heaviest boned fish in the world. It is really rare to spot these in Scottish waters, but they occasionally pop up due to the ocean currents. I was exceedingly lucky to spot this impressive fish off the coast near Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, many years ago.

Sunfish

 

Moon Jellyfish

One of the more common jellyfish in Scottish waters.

Moon jellyfish

 

Jellyfish

Another jellyfish in Scottish waters. To some people, jellyfish are horrible creatures, something to fear. Whilst I don’t want to swim amongst them, I certainly like looking at them move around the water.

Jellyfish

West Highland Way: Kinlochleven to Fort William

It was a joy to wake up to sunshine on day 6 of the West Highland Way (WHW), but having seen the forecast the night before I knew it was to be short-lived. I’d hiked mainly under a grey sky the whole walk so far so I was determined to get up and get going before the predicted rain moved in. Unlike the previous 5 days, there would be no civilisation between Kinlochleven and the end of the WHW 16 miles (25.5km) onwards, so with a grocery store in town, I made sure I had enough supplies to keep me happy for the day. I clearly wasn’t the only WHW hiker with the same idea, as there were several others setting off as I left my little cabin behind.

Kinlochleven

Although the sky was blue above, there was some low cloud over the mountain tops as I passed through the main street of Kinlochleven. Just as the buildings are coming close to ending at the head of the loch, the path heads into the trees near the school, and a short distance later begins to zig-zag up the hillside. The attained height is similar to the Devil’s Staircase on day 5, but yet strangely isn’t talked about by hikers in quite the same way. The view as it picked its way up the hillside was stunning, as Loch Leven came more into sight, and the buildings of Kinlochleven grew smaller and smaller. I regularly caught up with and overtook the same hikers time and time again on this section as we all stopped regularly to admire the view.

Clouds behind Kinlochleven

Statue in Kinlochleven

Heading out of Kinlochleven

The Lairig

Green hillside as Loch Leven creeps into view

Loch Leven panorama

Kinlochleven

Stunning view over Loch Leven

This route is known as the Lairig, and once the upper reach is attained, the view west showed the distinctive Pap of Glencoe as well as a sky full of clouds that were an omen for the coming change in weather. As the gradient flattened out, the other hikers and myself started to spread out across the landscape, and I ended up leaving them all behind. I knew the rain was coming, and wanted as much of the hike out the way as I could before the inevitable drenching. It was a beautiful section to hike, surrounded by green mountains and the loch sparkling below. As the loch disappears out of view, the track continued into a broad valley, and so it continued for a few miles. It was far from monotonous though on such a sunny day, and there were a couple of old ruined farming cottages to spike some interest. The first was relatively intact minus its roof, and there were the rusty remains of farming equipment scattered around in the nearby field. The second was rather worse for wear, with the walls crumbled into stony heaps. A little stream bubbled past nearby, and another walking route headed off up the nearby mountains.

Rain clouds to the west

Looking west to the Pap of Glencoe

Hiking below the green slopes

Panorama across the Loch Leven valley

Tigh-na-sleubhaich farmhouse

Tigh-na-sleubhaich farmhouse

Lairigmor farmhouse

After crossing a few streams, it became clear that the valley took a sharp turn and it was a near 90 degree shift in direction from heading west to heading north. The blue sky was behind me now, and I was back to the familiar grey skies that had been my company for the previous 5 days. At least it was still dry, but there was still a lot of ground to cover. The stubby remains of woods were visible and beyond that a sign denoted where the victorious MacDonalds chased the defeated Campbells of Argyll following the battle of Inverlochy. A stone cairn lay next to the sign, and the instructions were to either add a stone or to remove one depending on your allegiance. Through my mother’s side of the family, I am of the clan Campbell of Argyll so I dutifully removed a stone and tossed it away.

Ford in the WHW

Changing view as the valley curves

The pursuit of the Campbells

From this point onwards, the theme of the day was woodlands, whether felled or still standing. But the path by now was broad, and there was not another person in sight. After a while though, the track came to a junction where the broad track dipped down to become an actual road leading to Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra to the west and Glen Nevis to the north. The lochan is visible from here as the WHW turns off the broad track and starts to climb once more. There were a lot of bees here and despite seeing the looming clouds getting nearer and nearer, the view was still very open, and before I knew it Ben Nevis, Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest mountain came into view. It had been a few weeks since I had summited the munro in the cloud, and I could see a little more of the mountain on this day than I had on the day that I hiked it. Still though, the summit was shrouded again.

Track through a woodland

Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra

Looking back at the road already travelled

Ben Nevis finally comes into view

As I approached the main section of woodland, I was overtaken by a runner, and once in the woods, I crossed a large stream, and then was surrounded by tall conifers. This would be my last chance to spot red squirrels and I looked upwards ever hopeful only to be disappointed. The track was rough and undulating under foot, and I could feel the temperature dropping. In a brief gap in the trees I saw that Ben Nevis was disappearing under a veil of clouds, and as I continued to march through the woodland, the rain started to fall and as it grew heavier, I was forced to kit up in my waterproofs. I was glad that there was plenty of trees to offer some light coverage, as the morning’s section of the hike had been so exposed. I was overtaken by another hiker in the middle of the woods, and as the path took a bend I was struck by an immense feeling of deja vu. I discovered later that I’d never been there before so I don’t know where the feeling came from but a small section of walk that dipped and curved round a hillock had felt so strongly familiar as to be almost unsettling.

Waterfall in the woods

Ben Nevis visible in a clearing

Walking through the forest

A fence denoted the boundary of the Nevis forest which covers the hillside of Glen Nevis. Here a track lead up a hill to an old iron age fort. Dated between 500 BC and 100 AD, I had argued in my head whether I wanted to make the detour or not. By now my legs were getting very sick of walking, and the thought of going uphill again was really putting me off, but in the end it was the ongoing rainfall that sealed the decision for me. A group of cyclists had come up the hill from Glen Nevis to visit the fort and I left them to it, deciding to skip it on this occasion. I eagerly stuck to the WHW which finally began the long and slow descent into Fort William. In the rain, I hated this section. Whilst I love forest walking in New Zealand, I’ve always hated forest walking in Scotland, where the diversity is much more limited and the fauna less apparent also. It felt like this track would never end, and my legs were working on auto-pilot as I dreamed about the hot coffee that would greet me in Fort William.

I knew that there would be a path to the Glen Nevis youth hostel before I would cut down to the road, and even this felt like it would never appear. When it did, I did a silent cry of jubilation and got a second wind to speed up a little. Finally the WHW cut off the forest track and picked its way down to the road that leads from Glen Nevis to Fort William. For 2 miles (3km) the WHW becomes the pavement next to the road and the rain continued to fall as I trudged alongside passing traffic, counting down until finally the first houses appeared. At the Nevis Bridge roundabout, a large thistle sign denotes that this was the original end of the WHW. The nearby Ben Nevis Woollen Mill (effectively a tourist shop) provides free certificates to hikers so I popped inside for a respite out the rain to collect mine.

The first houses of Fort William

The original end of the WHW

Now, the WHW ends in the main street of Fort William, another mile away. It is still signposted, although they appear more subtle amongst the road signs and buildings, but the way continues along Belford Road before cutting across the green space of the Parade and heading down Fort William’s semi-pedestrianised main street. I’ve visited Fort William many times before, and it felt so familiar to be here with the same old shops lining the high street. There was barely a soul outside when I reached Gordon Square with the statue and sign marking the end of my 96 mile (154.5km) hike, and after sitting in the rain briefly to acknowledge my achievement, I had to dawdle for a while to grab a passing stranger to take my photo. It seemed fitting to end it geared up in waterproofs, just as I had started it in Milngavie, but once the photos were taken, I was quick to head to the nearby Costa Coffee for a well deserved and much needed hot drink.

No explanation needed...

Posing with the statue at the end of the WHW

I had a few hours to kill before my train back to Glasgow, and I took my time perusing my favourite local stores, and doing a bit of shopping. The rain never let up for the rest of the day, and eventually it was time to make my way to the train station. The train was packed and I felt sorry for the two girls who had to sit opposite me, as I was pretty confident that I had acquired a delightful post-hiking aroma. I was initially confused when the train headed north but as it turned out it took a sweeping arc north then east before curling south, and this in fact took in some of the most stunning portion of the Rannoch Moor. I had been a little disappointed with my passage through the moor on day 5, having felt that the moor from the roadside was more stunning. Now though, the moor took on a wilder and more expansive sweep as the train hurtled through, and having seen none on the hike, we passed multiple red deer. The low cloud and mist added to the romance of the place and I fell in love with Rannoch Moor once more.

Eventually though, around 9.30pm, the train crawled into Glasgow’s Queen Street station and my adventure was over. My partner had arrived from New Zealand and he met me in the city ahead of the last few days of much needed family time before my long transit back home to Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island. I was ecstatic to have completed the hike, having desired to do it for many years. Although I am a seasoned hiker, the WHW is perfectly achievable for people of average fitness, but due to the locality to many settlements, it can easily be divided up and walked in isolated sections. With the exception of the section within Loch Lomond’s boundaries, camping is allowed anywhere along the route, meaning those who want to sleep under the stars have the luxury of walking the route in as little or as long as they like. Otherwise, there is plenty of accommodation to choose from along the route, and in the summer months, you can pay for luggage to be transported between your night’s accommodations. In other words, the WHW is truly a walk for everyone.

West Highland Way: Inveroran to Kinlochleven

The wild expanse of Rannoch Moor spans 50 square miles (130 square kilometres) in the Highlands of Scotland, and accounting for the most exposed section of the West Highland Way (WHW), I had been fervently monitoring the weather forecast and keeping my fingers crossed. This was not a day for rain. I’d studied the map of my route, and looked at mile after mile of totally exposed moorland.

I awoke on day 5, and looked out my window at the Inveroran hotel to see that not only was it dry, but there were vague patches of blue sky. I struggled to eat my breakfast, by now sick of the amount of food I’d been trying to consume over the past few days, and pulled on my hiking boots along with all the other guests of the hotel, and set off on what turned out to be the most stunning section of the whole hike. Curling round the river at the head of Loch Tulla, a sign at a forest lodge, denoted the history of the old military road that ran through the area, and then through a little gate, and past some trees, I found myself at the start of the moor.

Inveroran Hotel

Looking back towards Loch Tulla

Information board by the old military road

The clouds were not far away and I silently hoped they stayed where they were. It was an easy and well trodden route to follow, and there were plenty of other hikers both ahead and behind me. With hills in every direction, and the flowers and birds of the peat-filled bogs beside me, there was plenty to keep my attention. I watched a little chaffinch for a while near a small plantation whilst sitting on an old arched bridge. A collection of lochans reflected the clouds above on their surface, and they grew dark as the surrounding skies grew dark.

Chaffinch on the WHW

Rannoch moor

Lochans on Rannoch Moor

Hikers walking the WHW

Lochan near the WHW

Another lochan in Rannoch moor

Boggy Rannoch Moor

Peat bog in Rannoch Moor

I found myself at Ba Bridge rather quickly, and passed the groups of people that had stopped there for a rest. One of the larger rivers of the moor ran through here, but beyond it, the marshland, streams and mini-waterfalls next to the path were calling me, as was the solitude that I craved away from this busiest of sections of the WHW. The route of the day’s hike really skirts the edge of the moor, with the bulk of it spreading off to the east, intersected by the A82 road, and the West Highland railway line to the far east. On paper, this section of the route looked immense, and I found it to be staggeringly beautiful in its wildness. However, I had been looking forward to traversing this section due to what I’d seen of Rannoch Moor from the drive south from Fort William, and I was disappointed to discover that I wasn’t getting to see the vast lochs and heather-clad peat bogs that I’d spied from there. This truly was the edge of the moor, and in no time at all, I reached a small peak, and rounded a corner to find myself in sight of the Glencoe ski-field and the Kingshouse hotel, a 10 mile (16km) walk from the Inveroran hotel that I’d left that morning. As beautiful as it had been, the road gives a better view of this stunning moor, and as I later discovered, the train ride gives the best opportunity to admire it in all its glory.

River running across Rannoch moor

waterfall next to the WHW

Rugged beauty of Rannoch moor

Rannoch Moor rolls east into the distance

Now, I was looking up Glencoe, and the clouds ahead looked foreboding. Sneaking into view was the distinctive peak of Buachaille Etive Mor, one of Scotland’s most famous and photographed peaks. I picked my way down the hillside, and left the WHW briefly to head up the track to the Glencoe Mountain resort where the cafe at the base of the ski lifts served me a gigantic mug of hot chocolate piled high with marshmallows. It was just what I needed. There was a surprising amount of people at the ski resort considering both the time of year and the weather. As I crossed the large car park to head down the track to rejoin the WHW, a kindly soul stopped to offer me a lift. But there would be no cheating on this hike, and I thanked her then declined.

Rannoch Moor meets Glencoe

Buachaille Etive Mor comes into view

Buachaille Etive Mor

To my left, Buachaille Etive Mor dominated the skyline, looking dramatic as ever with the looming dark clouds that hovered over head. Crossing a river, the track greets the A82 by a large sign and a trio of flags that billowed crazily in the wind. This is the busiest road crossing of the whole hike, this section of open road having a speed limit of 60 miles per hour. This is not a crossing to do whilst distracted. Once on the far side, it was an easy walk to the Kingshouse hotel. This historic hotel is a popular stopping point both for drivers on the road and hikers in Glencoe. The WHW skirts round the side of it, and over a bridge before turning left onto yet another old military road.

Buachaille Etive Mor at the head of Glencoe

Mountains flanking Glencoe

River running through Glencoe

Glencoe Resort

Scottish flags framing Buachaille Etive Mor

Crossing the A82

Glencoe

Buachaille Etive Mor near Kingshouse

Kingshouse Hotel

Information board at Kingshouse

Buachaille Etive More behind the Kingshouse hotel

From here onwards, Buachaille Etive Mor shows its famous pyramidal outline, and ignoring the traffic that thunders past its base, it is a beautiful accompaniment to the hike. I’d spent the whole day on the look out for red deer, thinking this was my best chance of spotting them, but now so close to the A82, it seemed that my chances were waning. Passing more lochans and peat bogs, the path climbed a little, withdrawing itself from the busy road below, before sadly descending back to its side, where the WHW hugs the road side for a while. There were plenty of cars parked near a copse where the A82 curves up another valley. By now Buachaille Etive Mor looks very different, and a walking track up the munro leaves from here. There was a flurry of activity here as tourists paused for photos, and I was keen to get back to the wilderness and solitude again.

Glencoe past Kingshouse hotel

Glencoe's famous road bridge

The pyramid of Buachaille Etive Mor

The changing face of Buachaille Etive Mor

The WHW through Glencoe

Buachaille Etive Mor from the roadside

The A82 snaking from one glen to the other

The WHW leaves Glencoe behind by traversing the hillside and winding its way up an altitude gain of 259 metres, on a section known as the Devil’s Staircase. Depending on who you speak to, or where you read, this has a reputation as being one of the most gruelling sections of the WHW. As a regular mountain hiker in New Zealand, I really didn’t think this section was as bad as it had been made out. Certainly after a long day of hiking, I could see it could be tiring. My brother walked all 96 miles of the WHW for charity in just 48 hours, and I could see how this would have been a gruelling climb for him and his friends at this stage of the walk. As it was, it zig-zagged up the hillside, the biggest annoyance being the mountain bikers who were attempting to negotiate the rocky path at the same time.

Leaving Glencoe behind

Mountain biker sharing the path

Nearing the top of the Devil's Staircase

On reaching the summit, I paused to take in the view and have a bite to eat, but just as I turned to bid Glencoe goodbye, the heavens finally opened and I was forced to kit up in my waterproofs for the long descent into Kinlochleven. Supposedly from this summit, Ben Nevis should be visible, but between the low clouds and the falling rain, I had no idea where it was supposed to be. Like Rannoch Moor, this section was fully exposed to the elements with not a whiff of shelter in sight. I had been lucky to avoid the rain as long as I had, and thankful that whilst the shower was heavy enough to be a nuisance, it was relatively short-lived, wearing itself out after just 15 minutes. A light drizzle remained for a little longer, but the clouds on the mountains across this new valley looked dramatic as they hugged the summits.

Final view of Glencoe

Final view of Buachaille Etive Mor

The long descent ahead

Wispy rain clouds

Picking its way down the hillside, a pretty little footbridge across a river is reached, and then the track curves round the contour of a hillside. It felt like Kinlochleven was within reach, but still it remained deceptively out of sight. The odd building here and there could be spotted, and some pipelines scarred the landscape below. There was the sense that civilisation was about to be reached, but growing tired towards the end of a 19 mile (30.5 km) hiking day, this final section felt like it would never end. Passing a dam, it then curled in a large arc within a woodland, and through the trees, there were glimpses of green in every direction. Occasionally I could spot signs of quarrying and digging on the nearby hillside. Finally though, the path joined the route of the large pipes of what used to be an aluminium smeltering plant, and headed directly towards the buildings of Kinlochleven.

Footbridge in the moor

River under the footbridge

Mountains on route to Kinlochleven

The long road to Kinlochleven

Dam outside Kinlochleven

Green as far as the eye can see

Reaching Kinlochleven

Ignoring the turn-off to my accommodation, I opted to stick with the WHW until reaching the village itself. The track crossed the river Leven and quickly I found myself walking along a residential street past people’s houses. It then cut through a little woodland nestled on the river bank, and in a matter of minutes I found myself at the bridge in the middle of the village. Whilst the WHW turned right, I crossed back across the river to the left, and snaked round the road past the Ice Climbing centre to the Blackwater Hostel, my stay for the night. I’d booked the cutest little pod for the night which consisted of a mattress, a microwave, a fridge and tv, all packed tightly into a cosy wooden log-shaped cabin. It was compact but it was all that I needed, although I had to hire a sleeping bag as I’d not carried any bedding with me.

River Leven

Kinlochleven

Industrial remnants in Kinlochleven

Blackwater pod

Inside the pod

Putting my feet up

I had a brief wander around the village, stocking up on breakfast supplies at the nearest grocery store, and then joyously found a local takeaway serving delicious pizza that I took back to my cabin. Finally resting my feet, I snuggled up in my pod with the tv for company, and felt at ease, if not a little saddened that I had just one day of adventure left. There was just the last night of sleep between me and my final destination.

West Highland Way: Crianlarich to Inveroran

It was a rude awakening as the hordes of schoolkids rose from their rooms and started thundering down the hallway. I lay in bed for as long as I could before finally getting up myself for a shower. I’d booked breakfast with my room, and had to queue for the buffet with all the hungry teenage boys that had stayed there that night. I often use hiking as a good excuse to eat lots of food, and now on day 4 of the West Highland Way (WHW), my stomach was starting to protest a little. I forced the cooked breakfast down, but slightly regretted it, opting to hang around the hostel till checkout time, feeling a little nauseous. With all the school kids off an a local hike, it was eerily quiet with everyone gone. Whilst day 3 had been the longest day of the whole hike, I still had a solid 16 miles (25.5km) to hike that day, so eventually I had to kick myself into gear and get going.

Rather than retrace my steps back to where I’d left the WHW, I opted to use the other part of the Drovers Loop from Crianlarich which meant following the A85 under the railway line and out of the village slightly onto the A82 before entering the same woodland I’d passed through the evening before. This route turned out to be quite muddy and not as distinct a path. It was also steeper, but before long I found myself at the marker back at the WHW junction. Turning right, I was destined for Tyndrum where I planned on having lunch. A large sign indicated that the path was entering Forestry Commission land and immediately the rocky path began to climb. It was another overcast day but despite this, the visibility was still very good with the cloud level high, so on reaching a slight lookout, it was still possible to see the hills rolling away for quite some distance.

Drover's Loop into Crianlarich

Walker's crossroads at Crianlarich

Ewich forest

Stirlingshire countryside

On route to Tyndrum

Somewhere within this undulating forested section was the halfway point of the hike. With no marker, there was no way of knowing it at the time, and apart from pausing wherever there was a break in the trees to admire the view, I kept up a reasonable pace. There were a scattering of other walkers who I passed as I went, and eventually, after what felt like quite a protracted amount of time, the path turned to head down the side of a burn and pass under the arch of the Caledonian Railway line. Sandwiched between the railway line and the A82, it isn’t far before the route actually crosses this main trunk road, and soon after this a bridge spans the expansive River Fillan. Now I was back in farming country, with sheep filling the paddocks by the path.

Railway arch

Caledonian Railway line to Oban

Road crossing ahead

River Fillan

River Fillan

Pasture land by Kirkton farm

Lambs at Kirkton farm

Next door to Kirkton farm was the remains of St Fillan’s church and cemetery. There is little left of the church itself, with the crumbling wall shaded in green, but the cemetery still carries many tombstones as well as some uniquely marked stones. There were a few walkers milling about here, some of which I’d see repeatedly across the morning, catching up with them or being caught up by them, depending on where we chose to take a break. Moving on from here the farm track led through a series of gates and fields till it came out at Auchertyre farm where there was a toilet block, shop and wigwam-style accommodation. The farm track led onto an access road where a steady stream of traffic regularly pushed me into the vegetation, before I found myself back at the A82, crossing it once more.

Information board at St Fillans

The remains of St Fillan's church

St Fillan's cemetery

Special gravestone at St Fillan's cemetery

Following the river again, the vegetation was quite open, and I found myself at a sign denoting a battle site from the 14th century. The Battle of Dalrigh involved Robert the Bruce and his men who suffered a heavy defeat, sending the man himself into hiding. A little further down the track, a lochan is reached which is purported to hide Robert the Bruce’s sword, having been thrown in here following the battle. The water was still, reflecting the trees that swarmed the far bank, and giving away no hint of what treasure might lie below.

Battle of Dalrigh information board

West Highland Way sign

Lochan of the lost sword information board

Lifesize depiction of the lost sword

Reflective waters of the lochan

Lochan

It was an easy meander through the young trees until it was time to hit the forest again just south of Tyndrum. Historically, this area was mined for lead, and I remember visiting here on a school excursion when I was in high school, but nothing within the trees looked familiar. Passing through the gate in the deer fence, it was then a well graded path again, following the river once more passing the local caravan park, then skirting round the back of Tyndrum, passing the train station for the Caledonian line, and curling behind some houses before crossing the stream bed and up past a row of cottages. Once more back at the A82, the WHW crosses this heading north, but I, like several other of the hikers, walked into Tyndrum.

South of Tyndrum

Lead Mining Information board

Caravan park at Tyndrum

This is a popular service village to stop at on the road from either Oban or Fort William, with a handful of eateries, tourist shops, accommodation and a petrol station. It is popular with truck drivers as well as bikers, and I remember many a childhood holiday stopping here to stretch the legs. The Green Welly Stop is particularly well known here. I’d driven through here on my way back from Ben Nevis a few weeks prior and had noticed a new and intriguing cafe of the edge of town. I’d decided then and there that that would be my lunch stop for this day of the WHW, but I was immensely disappointed to find that not only was it crammed, but when I actually was able to see a menu, it was simply glorified fast food. So I back tracked to the cafe next to the petrol station and sat outside eating lunch at a picnic table surrounded by bikers. By now into the school summer holidays, as well as being the height of the tourist season, it was a busy little place to be.

Leaving Tyndrum behind, the WHW entered a very long exposed section for mile after mile. I was grateful that the rain had kept away as from now onwards, there was going to be little in the way of shelter. Passing some wood carvings on the edge of the village, civilisation was left behind once more, although the A82 was never far away. As the main trunk road to Fort William from Glasgow, there was always traffic in sight. Despite this, it felt wild and barren. Following an old military road, it was a reasonable quality track to hike, nestled within a valley, and before long a light drizzle had started. Initially between the West Highland railway line and the A82, the WHW crosses under the railway line after a while to keep them both to the left. Thankfully the drizzle was short-lived, and passing under the shadow of a cloud-draped Beinn Odhar, I caught up with a mother and daughter hiking the WHW at a waterfall gushing down the mountainside.

Squirrel tree carving

Fox tree carving

Owl tree carving

Beinn Odhar in the cloud

West Highland Way north of Tyndrum

Passing under the West Highland railway line

Beautiful West Highland Way scenery

Waterfall down the cliff

By now, the road and railway line had separated far apart, and the valley opened up once more. The peak of the dominating Beinn Dorain wore wisps of clouds, and the path underfoot was wet in places. Crossing the Allt Kinglass river on a little stony bridge, I found myself on the far bank of the river to a herd of Highland cattle. These are one of Scotland’s most distinctive and recognisable animals with their long coats, fringe and large horns. They are a hardy breed, capable of weathering the harsh and wild Scottish winters, and are bred for their meat, which is lower in cholesterol than standard beef breeds. With the first known mention of their existence being in the 6th century, they have been around for a very long time.

Highland cow

Highland cow

After a while, the path crossed over the West Highland railway line and this was the section of the day’s walk which was almost silent. The road was far enough away now to be ignored, and the railway line was quiet. Dark clouds gathered along the neighbouring mountain tops as I crept ever closer to Bridge of Orchy. Passing the train station and cutting down into the little village, it was rather deserted. Little more than a collection of homes and a hotel, there was nobody around until I reached the hotel itself which sat proudly on the A82. Crossing this main road once more, I popped into the hotel for a less than welcoming conversation with the receptionist that saw me walk straight back out again.

West Highland line south

West Highland line north

Approaching Bridge of Orchy

Behind the hotel, the road went downhill to the bridge over the River Orchy and then the WHW left the road behind to quickly pick its way up the hillside. It felt like a decent uphill slog through the trees after miles and miles of easy track on a relatively level gradient, and now, as I reached the crest of the hill, the rain that I had seen threatening in the distance, was finally overhead and it was time to don the waterproofs again. The expanse of Loch Tulla filled a lot of the view as I made my way from the crest down the hillside. There were several groups of hikers ahead of me – the most I’d seen on any section of the WHW until now. As the rain continued, my stop for the night was visible the whole way down the hillside and I focused on this as I zig-zagged down the path.

River Orchy

Looking back towards Bridge of Orchy

Loch Tulla

Rain heading up the valley

Rain over Loch Tulla

Inveroran and Loch Tulla

Loch Tulla

The Inveroran hotel can be reached by road from Bridge of Orchy, but there were plenty of hikers both staying there and visiting the bar that night. Although it was so busy that I had to wait a while to check in, I was grateful to get shown to a lovely cosy room on the top floor. With nowhere else around, I headed downstairs for dinner after resting my feet for a while, and was seated in the little dining room with a handful of other guests. Due to space, all the guests had to book a sitting for dinner at a set time, but after several days of overindulging in large meals, I found myself finally defeated here.

The welcome sight of the Inveroran hotel

I’d pre-ordered a 3-course meal when I checked in, and was disappointed to find myself full after just the starter. The beautiful warm soup had filled me up, and I was sad to see my salmon main course go to waste as I forced as much of it down as I could before giving up halfway through. I hate seeing food get wasted, and felt embarrassed about leaving so much, but feeling bloated, I cancelled my dessert order and waddled up to my bed for a much needed lie down. By this stage in the hike, my feet were beginning to ache and blister having traversed over 62 miles (nearly 100km) on some rather rocky and stony terrain, and every time I lay down, my legs throbbed incessantly. But the room was so cosy, and the bed so inviting, that it wasn’t long before I had drifted off to sleep.

West Highland Way: Rowardennan to Crianlarich

Inevitably on a multi-day hike, there will be a day that is either longer or more strenuous (or both) than the others, and for me, day 3 of the West Highland Way (WHW) was it. For 33km (20.5 miles), there was quite a bit of ground to cover that day, leaving Rowardennan behind on route to reach Crianlarich to the north, and I was only halfway along the length of Loch Lomond at the start of the day. Thankfully, I’d had a restful night’s sleep at the Rowardennan Hotel, and breakfast was included in the room rate, so I made the most of the cooked buffet to fill myself up in preparation for the long day ahead. I kept a sideways glance out for Kevin Bridges in case he was still around, but then it became time to push onwards.

Immediately outside of the hotel, there was a sign requesting people kindly pick up their litter, something I had been frustrated by the mess of on route to Rowardennan the previous day. But shortly after leaving the hotel behind, the road peters out at a car park where the hike to Ben Lomond begins from, and from here northwards, it is hiker’s country, and this made a big difference to the litter level which was much more pleasing. It was another cloudy day, but with the path hugging the bank of the loch, this did not detract from the ongoing scenery as it was passed. I passed the end of the Ptarmigan route that my brother and I had descended Ben Lomond from just a few weeks prior, and beyond here, the path is quite easy going.

Sign outside Rowardennan Hotel

Rowardennan Hotel

Waterfall at the end of the Ptarmigan route

For the length of the path up Loch Lomond, there were reams of little waterfalls spilling over the rock face to the side of the path. It was a nice distraction from the occasional monotonous section where the trees hid the loch from view. Deep within the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, the path meandered for mile after mile. A lower track that divides and goes down to the shoreline past Rob Roy’s prison was closed at the time of doing the hike, but this did not stop some hikers ahead of me going down this route. I didn’t see them again after that, so have no idea if they had to turn back or made it through, but the route had been deemed as dangerous, hence the closure. The forest was thick in places so I found this part of the track rather uninteresting. I kept a good lookout for red squirrels but saw none, and was eager for every break in the foliage to give me an uninterrupted view of the loch. At one such spot, a bench had been provided to soak up the view of the Cobbler on the far side of the loch.

Waterfall by the WHW

Break in the trees

Waterfall next to the WHW

Another waterfall by the WHW

Looking across to the Cobbler

Where the two paths rejoin, the path quality is quick to reduce, and continuing through the forest, it was rougher and narrower under foot although still an obvious and easy path to follow. When at last the forest opened up a little, and curved up past a very isolated house, I was intrigued to see a little stall by the fence line and wandered over for a look. The home owners had very lovingly provided home made edible treats and juice with an honesty box for hungry walkers to fill their stomachs with. It was a lovely idea, and had I not been full from breakfast, I would have purchased something, but I had more than enough edibles to carry already. Thankfully the route past here was more interesting than it had been for the previous few miles, with some large rocky outcrops and a change in vegetation.

Loch Lomond beach panorama

Local snack stop

Large rocky outcrop by the WHW

After 7 miles, I had crossed the river to reach the Inversnaid hotel where the ferry to Inveruglas on the far shore of Loch Lomond leaves from, and a few walks can be accessed from here too, including a route that leads to Loch Katrine to the east. I’d foolishly thought I was close to the end of the loch, but in reality I still had a third of it’s length to go, although it gets narrower and narrower the further north you walk. My brother, who had walked the WHW in 48hrs for charity, had warned me not to eat at the Inversnaid hotel, having had a bad experience there himself. I had no intentions of doing so, having another place in mind for lunch, but I did stop to rest my feet briefly, and there were a few other people enjoying some food and drink outside whilst I was there. The hotel does have road access, but it cuts down from Loch Katrine, rather than following the route of the loch or the WHW.

Way marker near Inversnaid

Waterfall at Inversnaid

Inversnaid hotel coming into view

Inversnaid jetty on Loch Lomond

Inversnaid hotel

The sky was threatening to rain, but leaving the hotel and the road behind, the path plunged back into the trees again which provided relative shelter. There were a few other people on this section of the walk out for a local stroll, as this section of the path also leads to an RSPB reserve. After the RSPB path splits off, the WHW became quite rough, and this was the section I had been warned about, where it undulates up and down, negotiating boulders, tree routes and rocky crags. At least it wasn’t monotonous, and when I stumbled upon a cave that was purported to be a hide-out for Rob Roy, a famous Scottish outlaw in the early 18th century, I took the opportunity to have a snack stop on the large rock balancing above it. Unfortunately, just as I was finishing, the rain finally decided to arrive and it was time to kit up in waterproofs before heading on. The trees at least provided some shelter as I continued to navigate through the rocky terrain, and at one point the path passed through a gap between a tree and a large boulder that was just big enough for a hiker and pack to get through.

Rocky terrain

Rob Roy's 'cave'

Squeezing between a boulder and a tree

When the trees opened up to a patch of fern, the far side of the loch looked exceptionally close as a small island was passed by. Not only could I see the traffic winding its way down, but I could hear it also. Not far from here, a ladder had been provided to navigate a jump in level of the hike, and as the route continued, the surrounding vegetation became more and more open, with close access to the loch side for a while, before cutting behind a headland, and then rejoining the loch past a cluster of buildings which included a public bothy. Bothies are the Scottish version of a mountain hut, usually an old cottage or building that retains its watertightness but is usually bare inside apart from a deck to sleep on, and an area to cook. As basic and dark as they are, these bothies, scattered across the Scottish countryside, can be a lifesaver or an overnight haven to hikers out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve slept in a couple in the past on hiking adventures, and I popped inside for a nosy.

Walking through tall ferns

Looking north up Loch Lomond

Looking across Loch Lomond

Ladder on the WHW

Waterfall

Looking south down Loch Lomond

A Scottish bothy

Fireplace inside the bothy

Sleeping area of the bothy

Beyond here, it was like walking through a meadow, the fern at chest height for the most part, and I became consciously aware of the fact that I was in tick country. When I used to live in Scotland, I always carried a tick hook, a small device to remove ticks, when I went hiking, but having lived in New Zealand for several years now, a country which doesn’t really have ticks, I’ve become complacent. It hadn’t even entered my head to get a tick hook to take with me, but suddenly it was all I could think about. No doubt I was being rather melodramatic, but I did my best to avoid touching the ferns as best as I could.

Panorama through ferns

Beach panorama

North Loch Lomond panorama

Passing a small jetty where a ferry crosses to Ardlui on the far shore, the route finally started to leave Loch Lomond’s shore behind, and suddenly I found myself feeling sad that this section of the walk was over. Despite the cloudy sky, the intermittent drizzles and the occasional monotony of the hike in this section, I’d actually really enjoyed having the loch as a constant companion, and I realised that leaving the loch behind was the beginning of the change in scenery, whereby I was heading more into the wilderness, and more into the mountains. As the path began to creep uphill, I turned back regularly to catch a glimpse of the loch disappearing into the distance, but finally, it slipped out of view, and a valley of green opened up ahead of me in the form of Glen Falloch.

Passing under a fallen tree

Nearing the tip of Loch Lomond

Heading away from Loch Lomond

The last sight of Loch Lomond

Glen Falloch

Hiking through Glen Falloch

By now mid-afternoon I was tired and starving. I had planned on going to the Drovers Inn, across the river Falloch from the WHW, and on the side of the A82, for lunch, but as I got nearer and nearer, I realised this was quite a diversion off the path, and I was in two minds whether my tired legs were going to win over my hungry stomach or vice versa. My dad had told me that a campsite near the WHW had a cafe, so I held out hope for this instead, and as the WHW drew nearer to the Beinglass Farm campsite, I was overjoyed to see a sign advertising hot food. The rain was beginning again as I stepped inside what was effectively a very busy little pub, and I settled in to dry off and fill up with a much-needed meal. My feet were aching, and the ongoing rain made me reluctant to get going, but my bed for the night was still 6 miles (9.5 kms) away so I had little choice but to wrap up and get going again.

Following the course of the river Falloch, the road and railway line are not far away on the other side of the river, so the regular noise of traffic down this busy road intruded slightly. But there was plenty to look at with some impressive waterfalls, and then finally hitting stock as farmland was reached, with sheep ambling about the pathway, and then cattle as a little farm was reached. A large bull watched me pass as he chewed the cud, and there were cows littered all over the place, a group of which got a fright as I approached the bridge that crossed the river, threatening to scatter in all directions. Having worked on a farm when I was younger, I knew how frustrating scattered stock could be, so I didn’t want to get in their way. In the end I had to hide in the bushes, just so that they would come across the bridge without scattering, before I was able to get past myself. Now I was immediately below both the road and the railway line following the broad, bubbling river upstream.

Scottish blackface sheep

Bull chewing the cud

Glen Falloch

Cutting under the railway line through a tunnel meant for stock, meant having to crouch down to get through, then along what used to be the road, another tunnel directs the WHW below the A82, the main trunk road. Now, I was in prime farming country, walking along what used to be an old military road, a really uncomfortable rocky path under the watchful eye of some sheep. In sections it was incredibly churned up and muddy, especially as the farmhouse itself was reached. In the distance, a woodland grew closer and closer, and I passed through the gate into a large conifer plantation to see the sign I’d been longing for: the turn-off for Crianlarich. It was then a long descent through the woods to reach the A82, crossing it and cutting down to the Crianlarich train station. Nestled behind here was the YHA hostel where I was booked for the night. On arrival, the person at the front desk was almost apologetic about the fact that a large school group were also staying at the hostel, and there were teenagers draped over every available surface of the building and grounds.

Sheep tunnel under the railway line

Tunnel under the A82

Scottish Blackface sheep

Farm in Glen Falloch

Glen Falloch

Walker's crossroads at Crianlarich

Drover's Loop into Crianlarich

There’s not a lot of choice for eating out in Crianlarich, but down on the main street, I found myself at the Rod & Reel where I was served the most enormous portion of chilli con carne I’ve ever seen. Like the previous nights, the UEFA EURO football was playing at the bar, and I was excited to see it was Iceland playing. Having watched them beat England whilst I was in Iceland, I was happy to watch them again, until the goals started rolling in for the opposition. After filling myself full with a well-deserved meal and cider, the game soon became embarrassing, and I didn’t bother staying till the end. Waddling back to the hostel with sore feet and a full belly, I crept into my bunk bed, trying not to disturb my roommates, and fell into a broken sleep.

West Highland Way: Drymen to Rowardennan

As much as I like my own company when I’m hiking, I was looking forward to my brothers joining me for day 2 of the West Highland Way (WHW). I’d had a restful sleep at the Kip in the Kirk, and had a good chat with my American roommates over breakfast in the kitchen. With my brothers driving separately from Glasgow then meeting up to strategically place their cars to get themselves home, I had a bit of time to kill whilst waiting for them. I hung around in the town square of Drymen watching the world go by until finally they appeared rather later than anticipated. But under the grey sky, once everyone was kitted up for the hike, we set off on route to Rowardennan, 15miles (24km) away  on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, Scotland’s largest inland body of water.

The Clachan in Drymen

Drymen Square

There are two routes out of Drymen to rejoin the West Highland Way: the more direct Rob Roy Way which is a short cut, or to retrace my steps from the evening before back to the A811 which is what we did. There was only a short distance along this road till the path took a 90 degree turn towards the woods of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. It was an easy meander with good company as we caught up with each others’ lives. As much as I love living in New Zealand, the distance from my family back in Scotland and the sense of feeling like I’m missing out on family gatherings is a hard sacrifice that I can accept sometimes better than others. It had been 3.5 years since I’d last seen my family, and time was running out before I was to head back to the Southern Hemisphere.

This section of the walk may be changeable depending on how the tree growth is going, but we were able to see down to Loch Lomond which grew larger and larger as we approached it. Nearing the end of the wooded section the path splits in two: a woodland track that cuts down to the B837 with the road then being followed into Balmaha; or the more scenic track that summits Conic Hill. This latter track is closed during lambing season, but in July we were good to go, and there was no way I was skipping this section of the track. Considering how few WHW walkers I’d come across the day before, there were plenty of people trudging up Conic Hill that day, and for the first time on the hike, I was reminded how much over-indulging I had done on my holiday, as I lagged a little behind my brothers as we trudged our way up the 361m (1184ft) hill.

Queen Elizabeth Forest Park

Loch Lomond behind Queen Elizabeth Forest Park

Conic Hill by Loch Lomond

The West Highland Way snakes up Conic Hill

Loch Lomond visible on the climb up Conic Hill

We got a cracking view of Loch Lomond from the summit which is just a slight side trip from the WHW itself, but it was very windy, and the clouds were quick to close in on us. We could see a sheet of rain moving in from further up the loch and as we started our descent to try and beat it, our luck ran out and we got wet. Stubborn to the last minute, I was left trying to put my waterproofs on with the wind whipping them around me, in a repeat of what had happened on our ascent to Ben Lomond a couple of weeks prior. Picking our way down the track, then some steps, we found ourselves back in another section of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park before emerging out in Balmaha, a small settlement on the shore of Loch Lomond, and a popular spot for day trippers from the city. We headed to the Oak Tree Inn, a beautiful and popular inn filled with locals, walkers and visitors. We were lucky to get a table with the crowds there, and enjoyed a tasty meal as we dried off a little.

Conic Hill summit panorama

Looking back at the road already travelled

Loch Lomond panorama

Descending from Conic Hill

Queen Elizabeth Forest ParkThe Oak Tree Inn at Balmaha

Unfortunately, my eldest brother had received a call that meant he had to leave us there, so after he caught the local bus to get back to Drymen where he’d left his car, my other brother and I continued on the WHW. Passing a statue of Tom Weir, nicknamed the Mountain Man, the track skirted the shoreline, passing boats moored at a little marina and round to a jetty where some local ferry services ran from. Heading up the hill to Craigie Fort, the sun was starting to push through the clouds and from the lookout we could see along the length of Loch Lomond and the mountains that flanked its sides. Soon joining the bank of the loch itself, we chatted away, taking photos often as the view of the loch changed constantly as we followed its shore.

Tom Weir MBE

Balmaha marina

Balmaha jetty panorama

Inchcailloch island on Loch Lomond

Looking up the length of Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond panorama from Craigie Fort

Inchcallioch island

In sections, the path skirts the road before separating from it, dipping back into the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park briefly before returning to the roadside again. Being a Saturday, there was a regular stream of cars driving along. Whilst the road on this side of the loch is a dead end, there are plenty of camp sites, holiday homes, and a few eateries to tempt visitors to travel along it. Although the path was separate to the tarmac, the noise was a little distracting having come on this hike to get away from it all. Even on the loch itself, there was boat activity ploughing along the water too, and there were plenty of people at various spots along the track. Frustratingly, this popularity led to a major problem with littering. In the past, the local council banned freedom camping in this area, limiting it to designated campsites in an effort to reduce the desecration that has taken place, but with every little beach or inlet we came across, we found garbage stuffed amongst tree branches and dumped on the grass. Such a beautiful part of the country has fallen foul to the ingrates who come to play there.

Bonnie banks of Loch Lomond

Banks of Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond shoreline panorama

Rubbish - the scar on the Loch Lomond landscape

A longer hike than day 1, I was getting tired as we continued the long walk along the loch, but there were so many little beaches to look at. On one such beach I stumbled across a rather rusty set of 9 keys with what looked like a mixture of car, boat and household keys. Clearly it had been there for a while, but somebody somewhere would have spent a lot of money replacing a lot of locks! I carried them with me anyway, and handed them in when finally we reached Rowardennan. Despite booking my accommodation 6 months ahead, I had been unable to secure a bed at the local youth hostel and was forced to splash out for a room at the Rowardennan Hotel. Whilst I could have done without the expense, I was grateful for the large luxurious bed and posh bathroom, as well as the welcoming snacks and tv that came with my room. My brother continued the short distance along the road to the public car park where he had left his car, and from there he headed home to Glasgow.

Keys on a beach

Pebbly beach at Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond shore

Loch Lomond's rocky shore

Sun shining on Loch Lomond

Bonnie banks of Loch Lomond near Rowardennan

At the far end of the Rowardennan Hotel was the pub where I was lucky to get the last table, squished right in the middle of the very packed bar. Saturday nights anywhere in Scotland are busy, but it was peak holiday season, the schools were finished for the year, and both locals and tourists filled every square inch of the place. One of the down sides of dining alone meant that I had to leave the table to order my meal at the bar, and this led to a rather heated exchange when I returned to find a couple had sat themselves at my table. Tired and hungry I wasn’t giving in, and despite them being evidently annoyed, they relinquished it begrudgingly and I settled in to wait for my food whilst indulging in a well earned cider.

A commotion drew my attention to an alcove across the bar where a familiar face sat amongst a group of friends watching the football. Kevin Bridges, one of Scotland’s best comedians was enjoying a few drinks, and I wasn’t the only one who had spotted the celebrity. I was highly amused eavesdropping on a neighbouring table who kept whispering about him, and were evidently trying to find an excuse to go and talk to him. I was neither presentable, nor extroverted enough to consider going anywhere near him, and respected his down time also. After filling my stomach with a tasty meal, I retreated to my cosy room to vegetate on my bed watching tv before another thoroughly good sleep in preparation for the longest day of the whole hike.

Rowardennan Hotel room

Rowardennan Hotel bathroom

West Highland Way: Glasgow to Drymen

For 96 meandering miles (154.5km), the West Highland Way (WHW) traverses a range of landscapes leaving the suburbs of Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow behind for open pastures, rolling hills, lochs, and then mountains before reaching Fort William in the north. Repeatedly lauded as Britain’s best long distance walk, and certainly Scotland’s most well known, and most popular, it was a walk that had eluded me for quite some time. The usual recommendation is to walk it in 7 days, but depending on drive and fitness, it can be walked in as long or as little time as you like. My brother had even completed the mammoth task of walking it in less than 48hrs for charity, but for me, with a slightly tight schedule at the end of my 6-wk long trip, I had 6 days to complete it. I was beyond excited, having waited many years to reach this point.

I had had immensely good luck with the weather for the initial few weeks of my trip round Scotland, and then the rain and cloud appeared before I hopped over to Iceland for 10 days. On my return, just the next day, I was packed and ready to head off, but outside the clouds were crying over Glasgow. It was a little disheartening to have to start the walk in full waterproofs but I was grateful to my brother for driving me to Milngavie, a northern suburb of the city, where the WHW officially begins. After grabbing a hot snack from the nearby Greggs, and posing for some obligatory photos at the obelisk in the town centre, I could not wait out the rain much longer and with my brother in tow, I set off in the early afternoon of day 1.

West Highland Way obelisk in Milngavie

In full waterproofs at the start of the West Highland Way

Underneath a signed archway, the track immediately leaves the city life behind, to follow the river, Allander Water, as it snakes its way through the emerging countryside. It doesn’t take long to reach Mugdock Woods, an area known to me from many a school visit here when I was younger, but a place that I had not been to for a very long time. Here, there were a myriad of local walks, and it was one of these that my brother left me for before heading home, whilst I continued to follow the distinctive sign of the WHW: a thistle. Thankfully the showers were already clearing and it wasn’t long before the layers could start to come off. I shared this section of the walk with a lot of locals out walking their dogs or out for a stroll, and it wasn’t until reaching the far end of Mugdock Woods after 2 miles (3.2km) did I start to feel like I was getting away from it all.

WHW in Mugdock Woods

Signage near Mugdock Woods

My destination for the night was Drymen, which the sign at the end of the woods told me was 10 miles (16km) away. With the sun now shining, it quickly became a very beautiful walk through grassland surrounded by trees, and then along the bank of Craigallian Loch. This was the first time I came across fellow WHW hikers in the form of two friends who appeared laden down with camping gear. Due to chronic back issues, I had long ago made the decision that I would stay in accommodation during the hike, meaning I only needed to carry about 6-8kg weight as opposed to the weight of a tent and camping gear. The weight difference meant it only took the length of the loch to catch up with them and then overtake them.

10 miles to Drymen

Walking the WHW

Craigallian Loch

The whole walk follows a mixture of old drovers roads, military roads or coaching roads, but especially on this first day, there was a regular need to cross or follow modern day roads. For the most part these are not main roads so traffic was light, and after a brief foray along a section of tarmac, I was soon back in pastureland, walking amongst cattle and heading towards the distinctive hump of Dumgoyach. Following the farm track, I was surprised to come over a ridge and be accosted by a man looking for money. Purported to be raising money for the local mountain rescue service, I was in two minds how to approach his request. With the walk itself being free, he was particularly targeting hikers on the WHW, and I wasn’t convinced he was genuine. But being as he was in the middle of nowhere, he had at least made some effort to be there, so even if he was scamming, I decided to give him some money anyway to justify his effort.

Entering farmland

Crossing pastureland

Cows next to the WHW

The WHW snaking through the lowlands

Soon though, I was back on my own, at least for a while before I was joined by some sheep as I skirted Dumgoyach. Then having by now walked 5.5 miles (nearly 9km), the WHW turned to join an old railway line which it followed for a good while, passing a turn-off to the Glengoyne Distillery. I was tempted to pop in for a wee dram, but with the afternoon wearing on, and the sky once again becoming overcast, I opted to push on. When eventually a break in the old railway line was reached, a welcoming sign for the Beech Tree, a local business, greeted me on my brief return to habitation.

Typical WHW signage

Dumgoyach

Scottish blackface sheep

Lamb walking the WHW

Distance marker

Glengoyne whisky distillery

WHW at Glengoyne

Beech Tree signage

WHW History information board at the Beech Tree

Crossing the road, the path again denoted the old railway track but this time was narrow, and as it meandered northwards, I met the odd person out walking their dog from the nearby villages. With houses peeking out of the trees at regular intervals it felt like a long time before I was leaving civilisation behind again, and even then it was only a brief respite before the path met head on with the A81 road. I could hear it before seeing it, and this was the first of a few main road crossings on the walk. Once safely across, it was only a short meander till the path petered out, and I found myself at a quiet tarmac road.

Following the old railway line

Mr Slug

Old railway line

Crossing the road

Following this road left, it crossed a weir at the hamlet of Gartness, and then it was a long tarmac trudge as a drizzle began. This quiet road links a few farms and small-holdings with Drymen to the north-west. In case I was feeling homesick for New Zealand, there were some random signs referencing Hobbits and the Shire which I found quietly amusing. Then, just as my feet were getting sick of the tarmac, Loch Lomond, the largest inland body of water in the country, popped into view for the first time. This spurred me on a little as I hate walking on roads, and only when Drymen is vaguely in sight, does the route finally veer off the tarmac.

Weir at Gartness

The never-ending tarmac trudge

Hobbit country

This way to the Shire

First sighting of Loch Lomond

In a small but muddy field, a worn path led through a herd of cattle. One of the cows was using a WHW sign to scratch an itch and I watched it, smiling as I passed by. Soon after, I found myself at the A811 road where I left the WHW behind to follow the pavement into Drymen. I was staying at Kip in the Kirk, an old church on Stirling Road that had been converted into a bunkhouse and B&B. I was welcomed with a mug of tea and a freshly baked scone which was a lovely touch, and I was very happy to get my hiking boots off my feet.

Cow with an itch

The Ten Commandments at Kip in the Kirk

After a brief respite, and on the recommendation of one of my hosts, it wasn’t far to reach the Winnock in Drymen’s square, where I parked myself up for the night. The UEFA EURO 2016 football tournament was still in full swing so with this on the television in the bar and being a Friday night, there was a decent crowd there. I got a table easily though and it was warm and cosy. I requested a dram of the most local whisky (which turned out to be Glengoyne, the distillery I had passed on the hike), and happily tore in to a steak pie. As the evening wore on, and the other drinkers grew merry, I found myself talking to a very drunk local who used to live in Glasgow. His banter brought back so many memories of nights out in the city of my birth, and he was good company whilst the match played on in the background. But tired from the fresh air, and with another day of hiking ahead of me, my bed was soon calling me, so shortly after the full-time whistle was blown, I retreated to the bunkhouse for an immensely comfortable night’s sleep.

Winnock in Drymen

A dram of Glengoyne whisky

Steak pie at Winnoch in Drymen

Iceland’s Street Art

Whilst it wasn’t something I expected to see on my trip to Iceland, I was pleased to stumble upon a lot of street art murals, especially in the capital Reykjavik. I’ve become a fan of these since my home city of Christchurch has embraced this form of art during its post-earthquake rebuild. Potentially there are more to discover in the parts of the city that I didn’t visit, but there were plenty to see on a wander round.

Seyðisfjörður

Street art in Seyðisfjörður

Akureyri

Street Art in Akureyri

Borgarnes

Mural in Borgarnes

Reykjavik

Mural in Reykjavik

Fisherman mural in Reykjavik

Reykjavik street art

Stamp mural in Reykjavik

House facade in Reykjavik

Mural in Reykjavik

Vampire mural in Reykjavik

Eagle mural in Reykjavik

Crow art in Reykjavik

Art in Reykjavik

Roving Round Reykjavik

After 9 days in Iceland, I’d seen a lot of the country’s natural beauty, but I felt I knew little of its history or its culture. It really is a country deserving of more time, but I had been so determined to pack as much in to my 10 day whirlwind circumnavigation as possible, that I was really just touching the surface. It took reaching the little town of Borgarnes, 60km north of Reykjavik, to delve a little into the history of the place. Despite its small size, it is home to the Settlement Centre, a really interesting museum detailing the settlement of Iceland as well as the tale of Egils Saga based on a transcript from the 13th century. The location of Borgarnes is pretty, being out on a peninsula, and parking up at the Settlement Centre I was greeted by a local friendly cat who was eager for some attention.

The museum is divided into two separate sections: one upstairs and one downstairs, and for each you are provided with a head set to narrate you through the numbered displays. It was a bit crowded in places with the displays in a relatively small space, but for me, it was a good introduction and overview to the surrounding area as well as the country as a whole. Nearby there were some cairns erected to remember a couple of the people depicted in Egils Saga, and behind the museum there was a beautiful sculpture on the hill overlooking the mountains across the water. At the end of the road, a little island sits across a bridge, and round from here, a short walk led round the tip of the peninsula and up behind the local school. It was another overcast day but with just me and a couple of locals around it was a very peaceful place to be. I’ve found Iceland’s churches to be very pretty so I wound my way round the streets and up the hill to the town’s kirk for a wander around the grounds. As with many of them, it was up a slight hill giving a rooftop view of the area.

Cairn for a missing lady

Sculpture at Borgarnes

Borgarnes sculpture

Bridge at Borgarnes

Borgarnes panorama

Borgarnes church

Borgarnes church

I drove across the bridge to leave Borgarnes behind and wanting to avoid the Toll tunnel, I left Route 1 and took the more scenic drive round route 47 up yet another fjord, before doubling back on the far side to rejoin the Ring Road to head south to Reykjavik. As with the day I first arrived, despite it being a relatively small city, I was grateful for the GPS on my phone to guide me to my night’s accommodation. But once in the heart of the city, I realised it was actually quite straightforward to navigate around. My first night in Iceland I stayed in the outskirts of Reykjavik but this time I was staying amidst all the action. Unfortunately this meant the reality of city life as a car driver: trying to find a place to park near my hostel and then having to pay for the privilege when I eventually found one. It was strange being back amongst hustle and bustle when I’d had peace and tranquility in rural Iceland for the past week.

I started exploring the capital city by heading down to the harbour and wandering around the port looking at the mixture of tour boats, fishing vessels, cargo ships and passenger ferries. Amongst it all there was even a dry dock, and there was movement and buzz everywhere, being in the middle of the working week as it was. I followed a painted line on the ground west past businesses and round to an area of museums and shops. I joined the crowd of people at a popular ice cream shop before retracing my steps to where I’d started then continuing east along the waterfront towards the city centre. Some statues lined this walk as I made my way to the Harpa, the city’s music and conference hall. Opened in 2011, it has a distinctive facade with a multitude of different coloured glass panels.

Ferry in Reykjavik harbour

Boat in dry dock

Sign at Reykjavik harbour

Fishermen statue

Statue outside Harpa

Harpa

Next I worked my way to Skólavörðustígur, the street that leads up to Iceland’s most iconic building Hallgrímskirkja. Completed in 1986, the 73metre tall church not only is distinctive in design but can be seen from many angles around the city, acting as a handy locator beacon. Designed by the same person who designed Akureyrarkirkja in Akureyri, it is one of the city’s top attractions. On a sunny day this building looks stunning, but even on a grey day, whilst it blended slightly into the cloudy background, it was still a distinctive sight to behold. Outside, the statue of explorer Leif Eriksson stands proudly on the forecourt and through the front doors, the long body of the church stretched forward, with the massive organ suspended above the front door.

Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja

Explorer Leif Eriksson

Inside Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja's organ

Statue in Hallgrímskirkja

After wandering around downstairs, I purchased my ticket and queued for the lift up to the observation deck within the tower. Up here, through a series of pane-less windows, there was a 360 degree view overlooking the city. There is a smattering of coloured roofs and walls amongst the mainly pale-coloured buildings, and the mountains to the north as well as the surrounding sea surround the fringes of the city. The city’s domestic airport is close by, and it is a handy spot to get some bearings before exploring the city further.

Reykjavik panorama west

Reykjavik panorama north

Reykjavik panorama east

Reykjavik Panorama south

Back outside, I walked round the church to appreciate it from all angles before wandering down to the foreshore to head back to Harpa in the hope of grabbing tickets for a show. Along this promenade was one of my favourite sculptures in Iceland, that of a Viking-style ship depicted in metal. Behind it on the water, some sail boats lazily moved along nearby. Unfortunately when I checked the schedule inside Harpa, there was nothing at a suitable time for me to attend so I decided to spend my evening wandering the streets, given that daylight would continue past midnight. Passing old and colourful buildings, I found myself at a large lake behind the city centre.

Hallgrímskirkja

Walking round Hallgrímskirkja

Walking around Hallgrímskirkja

Ship sculpture

Ship sculpture on the promenade

Sailing at Reykjavik

Building in Reykjavik's Old Town

Building in Reykjavik's Old Town

Tjörnin was pretty deserted by this time, and I almost had it to myself, wandering along side the water. There were more interesting sculptures along the path and crossing a road to reach its far end, there was a water fountain and a statue in the lake itself which bore a striking resemblance to Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid. I visited Copenhagen when I was a young girl but if I close my eyes I can still picture the Little Mermaid, and it felt strange looking at a similar statue in another city. Beyond the lake and across a main road was Vatnsmýri, a wetland where there were loads of Greylag geese wandering about. I was completely alone here, and it was a nice part of the city to get some peace and quiet.

Sculpture at Tjornin

Church at Tjornin

Statues by Tjornin

Reykjavik's Little Mermaid

Reykjavik wetlands

Greylag goose

I awoke to sunshine on my last morning in Iceland. Ever wary of the ticket metre kicking in on the street outside, I took my car out of the city early and headed to Perlan, a domed building atop a hill which offers a differing view over the city. The building itself had seen better days and was rather drab looking inside and out, but the outdoor viewing platform upstairs gave a 360 degree view of the city from a different perspective than had been on offer at Hallgrímskirkja, and from here in the sunshine, the famous church looked beautiful. It was also possible to see more of the southern suburbs disappearing into the distance, than had been evident elsewhere.

Hallgrímskirkja in the sunshine

Reykjavik from Perlan

South Reykjavik from Perlan

Band statue at Perlan

After driving to Laugardalur near where I’d stayed the first night, I visited the large park and the small Botanical Gardens within them. It was a popular place with joggers, and children on visits from school, but there wasn’t much to look at, and the gardens themselves proved rather underwhelming. I returned to the city centre, and parked my car up for the rest of the day, ensuring my parking ticket was correct. Now the city centre was mine to explore, and with the shops and eateries open, I made the most of city life. I was pleased to discover lots of street art around the city, something which I’ve grown to love as it has taken over my home city of Christchurch. I’ve had the joy of exploring other worldwide cities’ mural works such as Melbourne in Australia and my native Glasgow in Scotland, so I went out my way to explore side alleys to see as much of it as I could find. In between this I enjoyed not just the tourist shops, but some quirky local shops as well, and despite being a weekday, the city centre was full of people. Outside a handful of restaurants there were various signs offering both Minke whale and puffin to eat, and they seemed particularly targeted towards tourists. I’ll usually try local cuisine when I’m abroad, but not when it involves killing endangered creatures.

Building in Reykjavik

Reykjavik street art

Whale on the menu

Tourist menu

But as the afternoon came round, it was soon time for one of the highlights of my trip. I probably wouldn’t have known about it, had it not been for reading a fellow blogger’s post, and despite initially being put off by the price of it, I soon came round to the idea of it. Unfortunately there was a slight mix up with the bus pick up service that was included in the price I paid, and this led to a slightly stressful time where I was worried that I wouldn’t get there. In hindsight, I could have just driven myself, but I had somehow convinced myself it involved an unsealed road which in fact it didn’t. In the end though, all was well, and I made it with everyone else to the building up in the hills outside of Reykjavik to join my tour group to go Inside the Volcano, and we all kitted up in a waterproof jacket to make the long trek there.

Þríhnúkagígur is a dormant volcano that last erupted over 4000 years ago. Quite unique in that the magma chamber has not been filled up, it contains a large chamber that can be descended into for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see what a volcano looks like from the inside. There is a 50 minute walk across the nearby lava field to get there, a relatively barren and desolate land from which some cones stand out in various directions in the distance. Eventually we reached a small hut where we were split into groups and given our harnesses and helmets. To a lot of people’s delight there was an arctic fox pup running around, having become orphaned and being looked after by the staff there. I was excited to be put into the first group to descend, so there was little time to wait before we were marched up the side of the cone to the crater rim where the rigging and ‘elevator’ awaited us. Despite being June, there were patches of snow visible from here, and we had a nice view across the mainly black landscape towards the edge of Reykjavik which was visible in the distance.

Crossing the lava field near Þríhnúkagígur

Arctic fox cub

Crater rim of Þríhnúkagígur

Top of the crater descent

Snow amongst the lava

The descent into the volcano was incredible, harnessed into what looks like a window-cleaner’s lift bucket. It was slow and steady and as the entrance is narrow, we got very close to the colourful rock on the way down. Then as the chamber widens, we were all blown away by the glorious yellow that was the dominant colour of the rock. I really wish I had better camera skills because despite having 3 separate devices that could take photographs, I struggled to get anything that came close to the immense beauty that lay under the ground. After 120metres of descent, we were let loose to explore the nearby rocks whilst the lift returned to the surface to collect the next group. I wandered around in a bit of a daze, my excitement blurring my vision a little, as I tried desperately to absorb what I was seeing. There was just yellow everywhere, and interspersed with this were reds and blacks, and with this view there was an ever present audio of dripping water and echoing voices. I love caves, and this felt no different, and whilst I paid no attention to myself at the time, I’m pretty sure I had a giant grin on my face the whole time.

Descent into the volcano

Colours inside Þríhnúkagígur

Bright yellow wall of the magma chamber

Roof of the magma chamber

Brilliant yellow rocks

Lift descending into the chamber from above

By the time the remaining groups had descended, it was then my turn to go back up. I tried hard to take mental snapshots of the view with my eyes in a desperate attempt to burn the memory in my head. Back at the surface, there was warm soup waiting for us at the cabin, and as there was then some waiting to do, I wandered around the nearby paths before the arrival of rain sent me back to the cabin. The walk back to the waiting bus took nearly as long as the hike there had been, and then it was time to head back to Reykjavik. The bus driver forgot about me on the way back meaning I had to circle the city twice to be released near my hostel. I was too tired to eat out, so grabbed a take-away before heading back to my dorm to pack.

Þríhnúkagígur cone

Info board at the cabin

Hiking back across the lava field

I had an early rise to head to the airport, and in an attempt to be quiet and not wake my roommates, I accidentally dropped my laptop which not only broke it, but made a very loud noise. I cursed out loud before hastily exiting from the room. I reached the airport at Keflavik in good time and dropped my rental car off before reaching the terminal and being greeted by utter chaos. Clearly several flights were leaving at a similar time, and the staff there seemed unable to clearly direct people or deal with the increasingly grumbly travellers who were forced to wait in lines that seemed never to move. It was another reminder that the country’s popularity is rising faster than it can cope with, but despite getting there to discover that my flight was an hour later than my ticket said, I brushed both annoyances out of my mind to enjoy a last breakfast in the country that I had easily fallen in love with.

Northern Limits

On the shore of the beautifully serene Lake Mývatn, there is something to explore at every turn. I was disappointed to have run out of time to include a hike up the distinctive cone of Hverfjall volcano thanks to my misdemeanour with the tyre on route to Dettifoss but as much as the hours were marching on, the fact that the sun wasn’t setting till after midnight meant that there was still lots of time to explore the area before my bed called me. DimmuborgurNot far from Hverfjall was the mysterious world of Dimmuborgur, an area where a lava flow has hardened, cracked and peaked in a manner as to produce tall, spiky turrets and pillars of all sorts of shapes and sizes. Lava rocks at DimmuborgurThere are a selection of trails to follow and I chose the one that looked like it gave the best overview of the place. Lava cave at DimmuborgurUnlike the sites I’d previously visited in this area, the vegetation here was thick and widespread. Lake Myvatn from DimmuborgurThere was a cave that could be walked through on one section of the trail and on route back to the car park, a raised portion of the trail provided a good vantage point to look across to the lake and its far shore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After collecting some takeaway pizza from a popular local eatery, I headed to the south shore, to the little settlement of Skútustaðir to enjoy it whilst looking out across the lake. Lake within a lakeFrom here, a walk leads round a small lake within the main lake that is surrounded by pseudo-craters, as well as up onto and around a few of the larger craters. Waterfowl at Lake MyvatnThe lake had quite a few water birds floating around with their young in tow, learning how to dive and feed below the surface. Panorama of the lake within a lakeIt was a lovely place to spend the evening but the flies threatened to drive me a little insane. Pseudo-craterIt was a strange landscape with circular mounds sprouting up from the ground in many directions, and from the crater rim of the taller ones I could see across to the steaming vents of the power station to the east of Reykjahlíð. Pseudo-crater behind the lake within a lakeIt was incredibly peaceful, just a slight ripple on the water, and for the most part, I had the place to myself. Ducklings at Lake MyvatnOn the northern edge of the lake within the lake, some Icelandic ponies chewed on the grass which was plentiful here, before the path skirted some wetlands on its way back to the car park.Icelandic ponies near Skútustaðir

Wetlands near Skútustaðir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I drove round the circumference of the lake past the large wetland zones to the west that are perfect for bird watching. With more time here, I would have explored this region too, but now it was after 8pm and I had only one thing on my mind: the Mývatn Nature Baths. Myvatn Nature BathLike the Blue Lagoon to the south of Reykjavik, this is a popular tourist attraction in the area, but with the tourist numbers round this part of the country much less than in the overly popular Golden Circle, the experience here was a little different. Myvatn Nature BathsAs is commonplace at Icelandic geothermal pools, it is required to shower naked before entering. Myvatn Nature BathsUnlike at the larger Blue Lagoons, there was no privacy at these nature baths with just an open shower area before leaving the building. The pools themselves were also a mere fraction of the size, and having forgotten my GoPro camera last time, I took it out with me, only to quickly regret it, standing out from everyone else, with not a single other person having one. Once I rid myself of it, I was then able to relax and enjoy the warm water. There was a group of adolescents who were playing the fool and being told off by the guards regularly which marred the experience slightly, but otherwise it was an enjoyable experience, although I personally preferred the set-up at the Blue Lagoon.

I had an early rise to set off north and awoke to a light drizzle that got heavier the further north I went. I followed route 1 to the north west before splitting off to take route 85 north to Húsavík, the most northerly place I’d visit in Iceland, but indeed the most northern I’d ever been on the entire planet. Previously I’d only been as far as the most northern Scottish Islands, the Shetlands, so I was excited to be exploring this northern land, having previously done plenty of exploring in the lower reaches of the Southern Hemisphere. The constant drizzle made for a very overcast view of the town, and the clouds were low across the surrounding landscape. One of the main tourist draws here is whale watching, an activity that I will happily pay to do anywhere in the world. Aside from travelling, cetacean spotting is a massive love of mine. I have been immensely lucky to see many species in many seas around the globe, and this was my best chance yet of spotting a species of whale I’d never seen before such as a fin whale or blue whale.

On board, waiting to leave HusavikMy carriage for the day was a lovely old wooden frigate which could travel either under sail or with the power of an engine. Lundey islandThere are a few choices for whale watching trips here, and with a love of puffins too, I opted for the trip that combined a visit to a nearby island which was a prime puffin breeding site. PuffinSkjálfandi bay is expansive, and despite the gloomy skies, the seas were very calm. PuffinsWe sailed north to the island of Lundey and I revelled in the knowledge that with every passing moment I was going more north than I’d ever been in my life. Puffin about to take offEven before we reached Lundey, puffins began to be spotted in the air and on the surface of the water. First it was ones and twos but as we got closer to the island there were hundreds of them flying around us, and whilst it was hard to see many of them close up, it was certainly the highest concentration of puffins that I have ever seen in my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We sat for a while watching them before heading west in search of whales. There is always great anticipation on these trips not just for what might be seen, but also whether this will be that trip where we see nothing. I’ve been lucky to see whales or dolphins on every whale watching trip I’ve ever done, but each time I worry that it will be the first time I see nothing. Humpback whale in front of our boatBut eventually that call came out that a whale had been spotted, and in the end we ended up in view of around 3 humpback whales. Humpback whale, IcelandI love humpback whales, they are my favourite species of whale, and this was the fifth country that I had seen them from. Humpback whale fluking as it divesThere was a part of me that was disappointed it wasn’t a species I’d never seen before, but these whales still put on a good show for us, coming very close to the boat on several occasions, including swimming right underneath us at one point. One of them had a very unusual fluke colouration which I’ve never seen before, and I still felt highly satisfied at the end of the trip. As we headed back to Húsavík, the clouds on the far side of the bay began to lift revealing the glorious snow-peaked mountain tops of the far shore. It was incredible to think these behemoths had been hidden the whole time, and it was spectacular to see them poke through the wisps of cloud.

 

Husavik from the harbourHúsavík itself felt like a fishing village. Church in HusavikThe harbour sat below the main street which was nestled below a lupin-covered hillside. Bird sculpture by Husavik main streetThe rain threatened to drop for the rest of Husavik kirkmy time there. After a wander around past the iconic church, I stopped for lunch overlooking the comings and goings of the boats in the harbour. Killer whale skeletonAs a cetacean enthusiast, I was keen to explore the whale museum in town which has an impressive collection of whale skeletons. Iceland is much more famous for its whaling activities than it is for its whale watching, and there was information within about the various species that have been sighted in Icelandic waters, as well as displays on the hunting of whales. Whilst a lot of information in tourism centres discusses whaling as a thing of the past, it is still very much a thing of the present too, and I had been warned in advance to expect to see whale meat on the menu in some eateries. Despite this, I had yet to see any physical evidence of present-day whaling since I’d arrived in the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Female duck at the parkDespite the drizzle, I took a wander around a local park towards the back of town before leaving. House by the river in HusavikThere was a reasonable sized pond where some duck families were hanging out, and some statues and pretty houses lining the paths by the river bank. Statue in Husavik parkBut there’s not a lot more to see in Húsavík so before long, I was driving back south in the rain. GodafossOn reaching the ring road, Route 1, it was just a brief back-track to visit yet another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls, Góðafoss. The various falls of GodafossIt was raining constantly now, and I toyed with coming back the next day, but there was a good few people in rain jackets there too, and I joined them to follow the path from the car park up river to the viewing point for the falls. Mists of GodafossGetting close to the falls meant a bit of rock hopping towards the end of the path, and with the rocks wet under foot, everyone was taking extra care. Top of GodafossThis was not a place to fall over with nothing to stop you tumbling over the cliff edge. Arc of GodafossThe reward though was getting very close to the main body of the falls where the extent of the force of water could be heard and felt. Downstream from GodafossLike Dettifoss the day before, you could feel the immense power of water thundering over the lip of rock to the river below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cloud and rain kept me company as I followed Route 1 on its convoluted route west. Eventually the path swung over to a long fjord and followed the eastern bank south before descending down to the water level and crossing a causeway across to the city of Akureyri. This is the biggest settlement outside of Reykjavik, and it was strange being in a city again after days of small towns and villages. Akureyri panoramaA viewpoint across the fjord looks out over Akureyri which had a couple of large cruise ships in dock at the time. Cruise ship in AkureyriDown by the waterfront, a promenade provides a nice waterside walk, starting from the ferry terminal and heading south past a beautiful ship statue and beyond. Scultpure by the seaThe place was bustling with bus loads of people clambering about the steps up to the Akureyrarkirkja which dominates the city skyline. Akureyri skyline from the promenadeIt was strange wandering down a pedestrian street filled with tourist shops and packed full of tourists. Ship sculpture at the promenadeI shouldn’t have been surprised what with the cruise ships in port but it was a slight shock to the system after having felt away from it all for the last few days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Akureyri ogressHaving spent the night in the city, I had a lovely breakfast in a quirky little cafe surrounded by locals and tourists alike. Climbing the steps to AkureyrarkirkjaAfter perusing round the shops and ogling at some large ogres in the middle of the street, I headed up the steps to Akureyrarkirkja, the church which was built by the same architect that built Reykjavik‘s famous Hallgrímskirkja. Akureyri from outside AkureyrarkirkjaThe style is recognisable as being the same, although the size of Akureyrarkirkja is much smaller in comparison. AngelInside there is a beautiful organ which was expertly played by an organist whilst I was there, and as often churches are, it was adorned with some beautiful and striking stained glass windows. Bull stained glass windowOutside it has a distinctive look, and from nearby there is a view down over the roofs of the town and the cruise ships below.Lion stained glass window

Organs inside Akureyrarkirkja

Akureyrarkirkja from behind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Floral display near botanical gardensA few streets back was the city’s botanical gardens. Building near Akureyri botanical gardensThere appeared to be some sort of pilgrimage here with a steady stream of people walking from Akureyrarkirkja through the streets to the gardens. Ship sculpture viewed from near the botanical gardensThey certainly weren’t the biggest of botanical gardens, nor would I class them as particularly pretty but they were still nice enough to wander around and by the time I was leaving, the sun had started to burst through the clouds. AkureyrarkirkjaFrom the nearby road junction I could look down on the ship statue below on the promenade walk and the Akureyrarkirkja looked even better with the sun shining on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whilst Akureyri certainly had more to offer than a few other places I had been, I wasn’t particularly fussed about staying much longer. My stop for the night was at a hostel in the middle of nowhere, and I had to carry all food supplies with me. Every other night I had eaten out at a local restaurant but this would be the first night I’d have to prepare a self-catering meal. I stocked up on supplies in one of the many supermarkets in the city, but then, having spotted something to the west to do on a whim, I decided to leave the city behind and bolt west across the landscape. I’d spotted a boat trip to do in Hvammstangi to a nearby seal colony, and decided I’d chance my luck by turning up without a booking. I was exceptionally tight on time to make the last trip of the day, and the landscape went by in a blur as I whizzed through it, past a few settlements on route. When I got to Hvammstangi, I arrived with just 5 mins to spare and then couldn’t find the turn-off to the harbour. When I got there, I was sure I would have missed the sailing but in the end it was all good.

The wind was whipping along the fjord making for a choppy sailing and a lot of spray. We got kitted out in head to foot waterproof jackets, and despite the weather, there was quite a few of us on board. Seal at HvammstangiUnfortunately the weather conditions also meant that there weren’t a lot of seals hauled out of the water, but we still managed to see a few. Sea eagle near HvammstangiWe were even lucky enough to see a sea eagle as well, and it was so far away and so blended in to the hillside that I was as much impressed with the skipper spotting it as I was with actually seeing it. SealBack in Hvammstangi, near the pier was a pillar of wood used to hang the day’s catch out. Fish carcases dryingThis was the image I had in my head of arctic village life, having seen photos of Inuit villages to the north with their fish and seal pelts hanging out to dry. Seal pelt dryingThe ticket for the seal watching trip also included entry to the attached seal museum. Fish skeletonsLike whaling, there is a lot of regional history to do with hunting the seals and the effect this has had on populations. It was a compact museum, but there was enough to occupy me until closing time, and I was glad I’d made the effort to get there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the south was my hostel for the night. I arrived just as the UEFA EURO 2016 match of England vs Iceland was starting and everyone at the hostel was glued to the television to watch the match. We were a mix of nationalities, none of us Icelandic and none of us English, but every single one of us were routing for Iceland to win. Iceland as a whole is not a football nation. In fact the team’s manager is a part-time dentist, and when speaking to the locals, they joked that all the Icelanders who liked football had gone to France to watch the games live. But because Iceland started off surprisingly well, the rest of the country began to get behind their team. It was a great atmosphere at the hostel that night as Iceland won the match, and I went to bed just a sleep away from completing my circumnavigation of the island, with Reykjavik in my sights that next day.

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