Day 3 – Driving to Odessa

17 Sep

Kateryna loaded us safely on the bus at 8am following a full breakfast, with only a few extras being added to the overflowing food provision bag.  We were destined for a long drive to Odessa.  We were all on time.

Leaving Kiev behind, for now, we first travelled through the outskirts, where our guide gave more background information – including that most people hope to inherit their property from their parents, as they’ve no chance of being able to afford it otherwise!  Lots of signs of building work to add to the low skyscrapers and shopping malls.  Probably a few more McDonalds as well!  IKEA only managed a small shop here – probably no meatballs available.  Lots of tree lined boulevards in the 5 or 6 storey “sleeping areas”, otherwise known as the suburbs.  Managed to overtake the Woman’s Institute bus by pretending to be a back seat driver, much to the bemusement of the bus occupants.

The choices for optional trips from Odessa were presented – either a boat trip in the national park, a winery tour, visiting the coastal defence or a visit to some more catacombs.  Once the votes were tallied, the price was presented, and …

11 for the park, 9 for the costal defence and 6 for the catacombs, but as soon as this was announced, a flood of more booking resulted in the price dropping even further to 875 hyrvna for all three – less than a third of the previously quoted price.  And still some time for cycling on the Tuesday afternoon.  Possibly.

We drove on through some very flat land that would rival the Netherlands, passing a signpost of 384km to Odessa.  Unfortunately, the roads aren’t as flat as the countryside.  It’s going to be a long trip.

Just when we thought the optional trip palaver had subsided, the choices for Moldova were also presented.  Winery or scenic tour followed by dinner.  Yes please!  The outcome was far from certain.  What will be, will be.

Bad news came in from the Coastal Defence visit – it is closed for a week due to some children dying there.  A fire was mentioned.  Diplomatically vague.

Yet another option was discussed – a trip on day 13 to the Mezhyhirya Residence Museum, which is the lavish property where Ukraine’s controversial former president Yanukovych resided before the 2014 uprising.  All hands went up again!  More voting options than Scotland on this trip! 760 hyrvna for the 4 hour trip.

Only one stop to examine some of the crops – beans!  Nae sass though.  Lots of sunflowers, buckwheat and other crops in this area.

As we drove into Uman, the commentary restarted, but thankfully, only really to announce a stop at a petrol station for elevenses – complete with Wog Café and Wog Market.  It sold Wog air freshners and beer from the fridge.  Mike was keen to partake, the rest went for the sweet and savoury options.  I delved into my supermarket bag for the swiss roll, purchased yesterday.

The flag got a mention – blue for the sky and yellow for the produce – such as yellow raspberries?  The coat of arms, includes a trident, but also the word “Freedom” in Cyrillic.  A lot of background information was given.  I managed to successfully tune out the tinny sound from the loudspeakers.  I’m sure I’ll ask all the same questions later on.

As the diatribe continued, I did pick up a few things – the Russian language is trying to be phased out.  They have succeeded in education – all classes are now in Ukrainian. They hate Putin.  Submarines can’t possibly fit into the ports in the Crimea, and the Black Sea fleet is all rotten anyway.  They hate Putin.  Oh, and – they hate Putin.  But not enough for war – let them have the eastern regions, and as long as they stop there, it should be OK.  Here’s hoping!

Just as I thought the war was going to break out immediately, we arrived at the secret nuclear missile base, just 25km north of Pervomaysk, home of the “rocket army”.  It was so well hidden that the bus driver had initially driven straight past the turnoff for it.  Set in amongst fields of sunflowers and wheat, almost everything was underground – 12 storeys in the case of the silos and the separate command centres.

We started with a tour of the displays above ground, including a motorcycle and sidecar with machine gun mounted on top.  Seamus and Cliff manage the deranged look quite well as we were encouraged to sit on and pose for photos.  The Russians had tried to get rid of the missile silos, but they were so well built, that they couldn’t do much with them.  Originally there were 86 missiles here, mostly pointed at the USA, but also the UK, France and Germany as well.  The operators weren’t told where they were pointed, so that they didn’t think about the destruction they would cause.  Our museum guide did tell of the close encounter of world wide annihilation when a Soviet satellite detected an explosion in the US – the instruction was to launch immediately, but the general thought it was unusual that the US would attack Russia with only one missile and so didn’t give the order.  As it turned out, it was a solar reflection on the satellite which caused this, and not a rocket launch at all.  However, as he had disobeyed orders, he was dismissed from the army.

Outside we saw an array of different sized rockets, including the biggest of all – the SS-18 aka “Satan”. The Russians still use the exact same rockets – but the live ones are now all in Russian territory.  They also used them to launch some satellites into space.

We walked to the guard post, and saw the gateway security – if the beam was broken, the machine gun opened fire on anyone who approached.  If that didn’t get them, the very thin electric fence would – up to 800V on a normal day or 3 times that if they were on a war footing.  Of course, before that they had the minefield to negotiate.  The locals didn’t know what was going on, but the Americans probably did.   The vehicles that transported the missiles were lined up outside –  one with 48 wheels.  These are big beasts!  The top of the missile silo was open and we could peer in.  The wireless receivers were still in place.  The silos were spread all over the nearby countryside, each with their own command centre not too far away.

We then all filed into the top of one of these command centres, by descending a flight of stairs, having turned on the very noisy air pumping system.  A narrow corridor filled with pipes led to a yellow door with a red handle on it.  Despite cries of “don’t touch the red handle” from the back, it somehow managed to be used, and ended up stranding those (from a different group) in the lift.  After rescuing the occupants, we were ushered THROUGH the very small lift into the top level of the command centre and told not to touch anything as it all still worked.  It had an emergency escape hatch and a lot of machinery.  Floors 2-10 were sealed off by the Russians, but we took the lift in groups of 3 or 4 to the 12th floor (down).  Peter, Alison, Anne and I ended up together in the lift, with the operator.  It was a very tight squeeze.  Very.  We just about managed to reach the buttons and the handle to open the door on the other side.

Exiting on the 12th floor, there were 3 very hard beds, a samovar and a fridge, together with some cupboards and a separate toilet.  A hatch above allowed Peter and I to climb to the 11th floor, which contained the command centre desks and the “nuclear button”.  We got some snaps before pressing it for real.  Worryingly, as everything else worked!  The simulation lights came on and the US got blitzed 62 seconds later after we fired all 10 missiles.  It would take a further 25 minutes for them to reach their target, by which time I could blame someone else!  In the event of a retaliatory strike, they had 45 days food to survive on, and then they would have had to climb out to die a slow painful death above the surface.  I don’t know why they bothered really.  It had been proved that it was difficult to live there for 2 days, so they probably wouldn’t have lasted 45 anyway.

Alison and Anne hadn’t managed to climb the ladder, so the nice army man took them up one flight in the lift.  This resulted in a bottleneck, and Peter and I being locked in the lift together.  Alone.  It was a scary moment that felt like a lifetime.  It was much better when another 3 people crushed into us and I felt the circulation going as we sped upwards at 30cm a second. (Normal lifts are 70cm/sec).  I feel that my personal space issues are over for good.

Back on the surface, it had turned hot, and we boarded the bus reflecting on how having such a complex was a completely stupid idea for everyone involved.  It is a magnificent piece of engineering though.  The silos were reusable as they had a gunpowder explosive to get them out of the silo, before the main rocket fired.  (Unlike the USA who had to rebuild their silos whenever they fired one.)

By this time it was 3:30pm, and well past second lunch.  I manage to find a few more pickings in my bag from the supermarket – a melted jelly, cheese crisps, a cheese pastry and a swiss roll (yes, all of it.)

Back on the road, Seamus told me about his current volunteering role in Argentina and how he helps those who have a disability, been abandoned and are unloved.  Suspiciously, the bus then rolled to a stop on the hard shoulder and the bus driver got out to examine the engine at the back.  I say “hard shoulder”, but it was really only wide enough for broken down motorbikes.

We then stopped at another “Wog” petrol station for an ice cream, which the pack of disabled dogs didn’t seem interested in.  They just craved attention.  Only another 2 hours until Odessa.

With the batteries running out of all devices, and the light beginning to disappear, I was beginning to think that Odessa was a feature of a cartographers imagination, when it appeared – red traffic light after red traffic light.

The driver eventually found the hotel, and dropping our bags in the 4 star hotel (3 nights, wahoo!) we headed to the main pedestrian street, to be met with a horse dressed as a unicorn, and another as a giraffe.  A third was sporting a Nike saddle, but was otherwise unadorned.

Our guide showed us to a local Ukrainian restaurant which had unfortunately closed sometime in the 20 years since she was last here. It was very good though.  Luckily the street was littered with places to eat, so we picked the nearest one at random, and was pleasantly surprised by the herring I ordered, although the chicken with hot sauce was a bit plain.  More than made up for by the plum sour, the first of which was a bit suspect, so I tried a second to make sure that it was really good.  And the unisex toilets had a wonderful washbasin with shared soap in the middle and a charcoal drain.

Walking back to the hotel, we passed the unicorn and giraffe dressed horses.  Honestly not due to  too many plum sours!

We supported the bar profits, although they don’t seem to be selling any Ukrainian drinks.  Had to settle for a Cubanito … but they have free sweets and good WiFi.

Will sleep well tonight…


Day 2 – Tour of Kiev

16 Sep

Negotiating the hotel lifts, I managed to sniff out the breakfast table.  Peter still didn’t have his bag yet, but on the plus side, I found some “milk porridge” – more milk than porridge.  Certainly looked better than the egg porridge – basically cubes of omelette. Loading up on toast and cakes, we all mostly made it to the 8am introductory meeting, where our guide for the whole trip, Kateryna, welcomed us along before talking through the important parts of the trip (to her!)

Shortly after, we left on foot to walk the short distance to the Palats Sportu – Sports Square.  Not exactly my natural home.  Small yellow buses and lots of people, small coffee shacks and advertising billboards.

We followed the green M to the metro station, pushing through stiff metal doors that made it impossible to see if anyone was trying to come the other way.  As it turns out they were designed to withstand a nuclear attack, which probably explains a lot.  The round blue tokens were purchased for travel – one was valid on any of the three lines for as long as you stayed underground.  Two tokens were available for 30p.  The tickets barriers weren’t all operational, so you didn’t really need one anyway.  We descended the escalators, deep into the ground, and were given strict instructions to get off after one stop.  Surprisingly, we all managed this, although close personal contact with a suited and booted local wasn’t so pleasant (for him or for me).  Following several large major events, the stations are now all numbered, to aid those of us whose Cyrillic alphabet is a little rusty.  Or non-existent.  Changing from the green to the red line, we caught another train to Arsenalna (two stops).  Most stations were quite plain, but the occasional chandelier and decorative motive was apparent here.  It was also the deepest metro station in the world, at 105m. Two escalators took us back to the surface, with some great acoustics on the way up.

Skipping the old arsenal, which the Soviets had doubled in size, we boarded a local yellow bus – with seats for a lot less than 17 (of us), not to mention the locals that also got on.  With the doors closing, two more local woman, somehow managed to also wedge themselves in.

Walking past a Prius police car, we arrived at the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra.  “Lavra” meaning important abbey / monastery.  It was a big site, which a local guide, Anatolia hurtled us around.  We’d paid £6 for a photo pass, but were constantly told not to take photos.  Anatolia told us how to ignore them.

The place was full of small chapels with fantastically decorated iconostasis, all layered up with gold paint, or real gold.  The Orthodox church is still strong here, although as it’s currently part of the Russian branch of the church, there are moves to separate control.  I learned that God is represented by a triangular halo, rather than a round one, and that nearly everything has been restored.

The main dormition cathedral suffered during WWII, but no-one is owning up to who did it.  The records were taken back to Moscow following recent “issues”, and the Ukrainians don’t believe the official Russian account that the Nazis blew the place up.  It appears that the Russians blew up the cathedral to stop the Nazis stealing everything.  Some flawed logic there, if you ask me.  It was reconstructed in 2000, and looks brand new.  We had an opportunity to observe a service taking place – lots of burning wax, chanting by the priest and bowing by head scarf wearing woman.

Returning to the bright sunshine, we also had time to view an exhibition of microminatures by Mykola Syadrystyy.  These were fascinating, if extremely small.  Roses inside a hair, highly detailed ships on the heads of pins.  I hope you get the idea.  Luckily, they provided microscopes to actually see them.  It would never have been possible to take photos, but there was a sign forbidding it anyway.  I did ask for permission to take a general photo of the room, which was readily granted, as long as I also took a picture of Lenin, which was made using the words from ALL of his writings.

We headed back to the refectory church – a very impressive dining hall, I must say, and then out on to a terrace overlooking the lower part of the site and also the Motherland Monument, sporting a Soviet emblem (which they want to remove).  Also some nice views from here to the left bank of the the Dneiper river.  The left bank is confusing on the east side, and therefore the right of most maps.  I coped.  Just.

Leaving our guide behind, we entered the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine, surrendering our bags, but not our dignity or freedom.  Another guide sped us round the 9 rooms full of very well preserved gold and silver, from ancient times – 4th Century BC and the Scythian people.  Of note, included a helmet, that was also used as a bowl to contain the scalps that were removed from the losing side.  They didn’t like the Mongols.  Let’s leave it at that.  There were also metal bars (ingots) that were originally used as money, and now feature on the current paper notes.

We wandered to the lower part, and entered the caves / catacombs.  The ladies, with long trousers, still had to don a natty green wrap around skirt, whilst the men like me, in shorts, were able to pass security without an issue.  Dark narrow tunnels full of flickering candles and lots of people trying to walk both directions.  We squeezed past to witness the glass coffins with draped mummified remains, where they had uncovered the hands to show how well preserved the bodies were.  Over 200 bodies are displayed like this, but we only managed to see a handful inbetween the queues before heading for the exit.  There are lots more buried deeper.

Heading uphill, we were accosted by a pirate captain who started a war of words with our tour guide.  She was embarrassed, but this is apparently not usual.  Tensions are high, and any conversation can turn to political discussion quickly.

Exiting the complex, we headed for lunch in  local restaurant, where Dave and I shared a table, and a taste for the same foods.  Borsch (beetroot soup), washed down with a stewed fruit juice (and a coke for safety).  The juice was decidedly smoked.  Coke was required.  The borsch was served with rolls with garlic butter melted on top.  All good for less than £5 each.

Our tour bus turned up to take us to several more places around Kiev.  First was to a candle monument to those who died in 1932-1933.  Presumable a revolution of some sort – they seem to like these a lot.  Further on, we saw some wedding photos being taken overlooking the river.  The wedding car had two large rings and a large ribbon.  Also featured was a monument to the founders of Kiev – Ky, his two brothers and sister.  “Kiev” literally means “city of Ky”.  A bit of the Titanic theme tune crossed my mind with this one.

Moving on, the bus passed the Dynamo Kiev football stadium shrowded behind trees, before stopping at the Rainbow Arch, otherwise known as the arch of friendship – built as friendship between Russia and Ukraine.  They are thinking of changing that somehow …

Overlooking the lower part of the city, the views stretched as far as “The Meadows” – a suburb now consisting of skyscraper after skyscraper of flats.  No-one remembers why it is called that anymore.  I attracted the local drunk – Igor, who was very keen for me to take his photo, and pointed me at the best location to take the local ground graffiti as well as the arch.  Despite his breath smelling like The Glens on a Friday night at chucking out time, and him clutching two, litre bottles of alcohol, he wasn’t drunk.  To prove it, he threw both bottles in a skip.  I think he will regret that. I avoided paying him anything and disinfected my hands thoroughly afterwards.  Nice chap though.  The rest of the group tried to avoid him, but I introduced him to as many as possible.  Hand gels at the ready.  He waved us off as the bus moved on.

We drove around in circles, passing the university area, the funicular (or was it a cable car?), horse rides for kids in the street, an overwhelming number of CCTV cameras, some fancy brickwork, a sign boasting “Beer Online” and a lot of construction projects.

Eventually we stopped at the “Golden Gates” and walked around the outside, admiring the bronze cat statue and the cat in a tree made from plastic forks.  Vladimir (still to find out who is was) held what looked like a cake (that’s what the kids call it), but was actually a model of St Sophia’s Cathderal, built to model the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople at the time).  The reconstructed fort was originally a part of the city walls, but had been rebuilt very recently, and looked very strange without the walls to give it context.  There was apparently a chapel on top, but we didn’t have time to visit.

We drove past the opera house, which had been extended by two storeys from the original design to accommodate the scenery.  How nice of them.  Three churches form a triangle of the upper part of the city – St. Sophia, St Michael and St. Andrew.  We stopped at the latter, and paid 10 hyrvna to be allowed to walk around the outside.  It did have a terrace with views, but there was no access to the inside.  I bought a guide book instead.  The first of the Hard Rock Café – Chernobyl t-shirts were spotted, as well as toilet roll featuring the face of Russian President Putin.

Back on the bus, we were dropped at Maidan Square (Independence Square) where we had the choice to walk back to the hotel.   This was the scene of one of the most recent revolutions (3 in the last 25 years), where the students ran for the shelter of the monastery as the special police chased them up the street kicked and beating them to death.  The president left in his helicopter and the military didn’t know what to do, so stopped beating everyone to death.  There are memorials to those that died all around.

Nine of us ended up at fast food restaurant looking for Ukranian dumplings, but only finding Chicken Kiev.  A full meal including drinks for only £2 though.  As we were sat next to the Italian ice cream stall, it would be rude not to, so I doubled the bill with a couple of scoops – banana and orange! Yum!

After leaving the restaurant, I left the group to take some photos of the Eurovision sign and a student raising funds by being dressed as a minion.  Some more serious money collectors with official ID were next to the photos of the fallen, wanting a contribution for military veterans.

The main street had been cordoned off by the police Prius’ and the whole place was alive with music and young people enjoying themselves.  I caught a drummer with a full drum kit in the middle of the street, a man playing an upright piano to the accompaniment of a iPad and a female poi juggler (that’s fire balls) trying not to set her skimpy top alight.  There was also some Ukranian music to which 2 drunk people seemed to be dancing.  I’m guessing.

Big stages were being set up for further events (stage crew were milling about waiting for someone with a clipboard), and the GUM department store was lit up in every colour.  I ventured in to the very modern store and headed for the 7th floor terrace.  A little bit disappointed that the suicide prevention barriers prevented any view whatsoever, but there was a bar, indoor grass and a hammock.  On the plus side the toilets were excellent.

Still being 22C at 8pm, I headed back to the hotel.  Trying to cross the road, underground, I ended up in another shopping mall – all gleaming white and spotless – but managed to follow the breadcrumbs to the “Palats Sportu” and from there to the 24 hour supermarket to stock up on food for the long drive tomorrow.  I tried not to get sidetracked with the alcohol and sweets, but ended up with a large bag that should keep me going through 2nd breakfast, elevenses, lunch and mid afternoon snack.  The man behind me in the queue helped with my “what is …” questions – for his own benefit really.

Back at the hotel, some of the others were anxiously waiting for me – whilst consuming some rather bad red wine.  I joined them for some Ukranian bleach – vodka – and regretted it instantly.

Blogging can wait.  Time for bed after such an extensive trip …

Day 1 – Travel to Kiev

15 Sep

Why do I always book the flights that need an early start?  Was waved off just before 5am, having surprisingly awakened before my alarm rang at 4:15am.

An easy drive to my parking place with the only “highlight” being the lights on the Queensferry Crossing.  Not the fancy colour changing illuminations – I’m meaning the curious lights that are supposed to shine on the road, but actually stare you straight in the face.  Thankfully, they must have run out of money for the middle section.

Parking up outside a random house, I drop my spare key through a different random letter box and hope that it’s the one that has pre-agreed to look after the car! (Thanks Brian!) (If you need to move it – foot on brake to start the car and to put it in gear, don’t forget it has a manual foot brake (left foot) instead of a hand brake, and the “P” on the dash takes it out of gear.)

In my spare time the night before, I’d manage to investigate Uber, the internet taxi booking firm.  Give them their due, 4 minutes after keying in the details, Ilir, an Albanian café owner, turned up to whisk me off to the airport before I’d even got the bags on the pavement.  No money changed hands – it’s all magic.  Definitely the best way to do it, although I’ve no idea how expensive it would have been otherwise.  If only he’d combined his café business with his taxi services …

Second, or was it third? breakfast at the Sir Walter Scott in Edinburgh Airport – the traditional Wetherspoons departure grease up.  Once again I embraced technology, downloaded their app and the bacon roll arrived before I had even read the receipt.  The hot chocolate took a little longer – perhaps it was all those marshmallows!

I seem to be lucky with gates this trip.  Sat outside gate 12 waiting for the gate to be announced – gate 12, we have a winner!

Settling on to the first plane to Amsterdam, I noticed that I was surrounded by children.  8 of them to be precise.  Only three had forgotten to leave their vocal chords at home.  All from the same family, with the father wisely sitting several rows in front, leaving the mother to appease the other passengers.  She did a sterling job as she told the man in front that “children are like that – no need to be so grumpy”.  To be honest, all she had to do was learn not to shout herself!

An omelette on a sandwich – must be a Dutch thing – probably wasn’t the best thing to feed an entire plane, but thankfully the air circulation system meant it couldn’t be traced to me.

Data roaming in the EU meant that there was no need for a mad rush to turn phones back on as we landed, but addictions are hard to overcome.  It doesn’t help that Amsterdam has free WiFi, and plenty spaces to charge devices.

With luck, I landed at gate D18 and had to walk less than 100m to D28 for the next flight.  No chance of missing the flight or additional security gates to pass through.  Also thankful that it’s not Easter!  Every time.

Devices fully recharged and stomach refilled it was off to Kiev on Ukraine International Airlines … not at all like Aeroflot.  Except that the food was not free.  €2 for a juice – I think not.  I sat and starved as the couple next to me munched their pre-packaged sandwiches.  I was in the exit row, so had extended leg room – I’d asked at check in to swap from the middle seat, and expected to be pressed up against the window, so was pleasantly surprised.

In less than the allotted time, we had arrived in Kiev, and managed to swiftly deplane, before spending just as long waiting for our luggage to turn up.  I think it got a different plane.  In the arrival hall, I met our stand in tour guide for the day, and Dave – who we quickly established from passport stamps had been on a previous Explore tour with me to Cuba in 2015.  Some others from the London flight also joined us, but we waited for over an hour until Peter finally came through the doors.  His luggage hadn’t been so lucky, and he wasn’t best pleased about it.

We eventually found a minibus to take us to the hotel, and after passing the other half of the group dying from hunger in the foyer, we checked in, found our rooms, and were then led through town to as many cash machines and foreign exchange places as possible.  Like my fellow sensible passengers, I’d managed to use the hotel exchange booth (32 hryvnia to the pound), however we did find a suitable collection of options next to the Jewish Synagogue, to satisfy the others.

Cash in hand, we headed for food (PanTeLaPase), and being a sucker for the word “traditional”, tried the cheese soup, served IN a huge hunk of bread (messy to eat!) together with some chicken in a tomato sauce – unfortunately also served together and therefore cold by the time I got to it.  A quick chance to meet some of the others before they drifted off.

Wandering back to the hotel past the 24 hour supermarket and the teenage snogging, drinking and skateboarding area (sometimes all three at once), I collapsed in front of the BBC World News and weather predicting a stonking day tomorrow.

Thoughts on the Outer Hebrides

13 Aug

Lewis & Harris are by far the most “civilised”, as in, have habitation.  I could probably have spent a lot more time there.  Uig was a particular highlight. North Uist did nothing for me.  Benbecula would potentially have been more interesting if the weather had been nicer.  South Uist had a fair few attractions and was certainly the nicest of the three.  Eriskay was small, the beach was cold, but otherwise very nice.  Barra was the star attraction – a lot more could have been done if time allowed.  Vatersay – I will be back to do that walk properly!  The scenery is varied, the roads are varied and the weather didn’t change at all really – it was always windy – which is a good way of avoiding the midgies!

Reading “The Black House” by Peter May certainly added to the trip – it helped bring alive the places mentioned and the people and their problems.  It may be fiction, but it’s certainly routed in fact.

An amazing trip – not at all what I had imagined on setting out.  Certainly, the internet is in its infancy here, and there are far more camping sites than advertised online.  Saying that, I’m sure that wild camping would be equally doable in some spots.  Kilbride Campsite in South Uist and Croft 2 on Barra would definitely be worth a look, as they are at very scenic spots.  The tent was ideal – not sure a cheaper version would have held up.

Also, a bit more expensive than I imagined – not a lot of cheap food outlets, unless you want to cook it yourself.  As the Trangia has remained untouched for the week, do Tiso do refunds on methylated spirit?

The people were friendly.  I think.  Unless they were swearing in Gaelic.  It’s like they use the language so that they can speak about the tourists, or is that just my mind going wild?

It’s pretty obvious here that the style of housing has changed – from the black houses to the white houses, to the more modern style – some with big windows and two storeys and everything!  Each croft or site probably has at least two of these – with the ruins of one, littering the garden of the next.  It’s a remarkable living history.

Driving was an experience.  From the single track roads, where every corner was an adventure, to being quite unsure about the speed limit until a local zooms past you at a passing place.  I’m pretty sure the police don’t have a lot of speeding fines to issue.  I was surprised that there weren’t more cars in lochs though.

If only those roads signs were in English …

Well worth a return visit!

Day 7 – Barra, Oban & Dundee

13 Aug

Surprisingly, I woke every couple of hours – to make sure that I didn’t miss the ferry.  But I shouldn’t have worried, as nearly everyone else on the campsite was leaving as well.  The Germans had set their alarm 15 minutes before mine.

I managed to strike camp as the sun rose from behind the hills and managed first breakfast (cunningly bought the night before from the Co-op – avoiding the crying children “playing” / thumping each other outside.)

The Germans and a motorbiker departed first, and I followed shortly after.  A few specks of rain had spoiled my plan of packing a dry tent – instead it was spread over the boot of the car, in the hope that it might dry before Sunday night.

Joining the ferry queue in the first line, a very disorganised system of working out if you had a ticket followed.  However, there were not a lot of passengers and the boarding went smoothly.

At second breakfast, Andy Morgan joined me in the queue, before I retreated to the café table.  There was some left, so Callum had obviously not been there yet.

Charging sockets were in the roof, so I finally had a use for the 4 way socket I’d been carrying for a week – as an extension cable.

With only the occasional announcement from the crew about “whales off the port bow”, and the subsequent rush of everyone to that side, the five hour crossing was otherwise uneventful.  I did manage to start the second of the Peter May trilogy – “The Lewis Man”.

Arriving in Oban was a complete contrast to the quiet Outer Hebrides.  There were people.  Lots of people.  And cars.  Driving in two lanes, or more!  It ws genuinely a complete culture shock.

Luckily Ann and Willie were able to meet me from the ferry for lunch, and after skipping the queue by ordering online, I dodged the crowds and headed home – stopping only briefly at St. Fillans to witness some sadistic parents using a jetski to tow their young children on an inflatable ring.

Day 6 – Barra

12 Aug

You can tell the ferry leaves early in the morning, as the campsite traffic started at 6am!

Later, just as I was about to get up, the rain started.  The forecast had been 1% chance of rain, which was a bit disappointing.  I rolled over.  However, it was brief.  A gentle start today meant catching up on the blog and some more Peter May before the owner, Donald, turned up for his money.  Could have been any random stranger, and no receipt!  Still hopefully he will replenish the paper in the gent’s toilets.  Thankfully there was a shower in the next cubicle!

Headed back to Castlebay for a late breakfast courtesy of the Co-op and then joined the very short queue for the boat ride to Kisimul Castle.  Strictly every half hour for the 5 minute ride to the castle in the bay.  Only 12 allowed in the boat.  We had a couple of Canadians, a local and 2 young kids, so that pretty much filled it.  Deboating (how I love that word), we climbed a few steps and crossed into a small courtyard with a tower and four doorways – one to a chapel, one to the great hall (closed for restoration), one to the kitchen and one to the heir’s house aka tickets & shops.  The Macneil’s of Barra are most closely associated with the castle, although it is now in trust to Historic Scotland.  The boatman said the next boat leaves in 25 minutes, but surprisingly, it took almost 35 minutes to view these, and the battlements.  Love a good flag fluttering in the wind!  The next 20 minutes was spent on the rocks outside the gate, listening to the lies the Canadians were telling the kids about having to eat seal blood when it was cold.  They didn’t look that desperate to me!

Leaving the castle, the boatmen did a lap around it, allowing for plenty of photos from all sides.

I then headed north, along the eastern side of Barra.  The single track roads here were owned by the sheep and care had to be taken to avoid them, or end up causing a shortage of the local Barra lamb.  I could see me living at the picturesque Northbay.  Heading north and ignoring the turnoff to the ferry, I arrived at a long sandy beach, otherwise known as Barra Airport, with the red signs proclaiming that thou shalt not walk on the beach when the windsocks are flying.  Which they were.

I therefore turned in to the car park, and joined the masses to watch a Loganair plane come in to land.  It must have been a busy day at the airport, because within the next 20 minutes, another plane from Flybe arrived as well.  Apparently Barra has more runways that Heathrow, because they need to be able to adapt to the changing conditions.  The baggage reclaim area was an adapted bus shelter outside with a rusting metal roller conveyor.  Inside, at the café, come check-in, come gate, there were far more people than the planes could possibly accommodate.  It’s obviously a tourist attraction in its own right.  Some people apparently fly in and then out again on the next flight, just to say they’ve been there – no doubt picking up some of the souvenir t-shirts on the way.

Outside a horse, owner and dog, sporting matching fluorescent jackets were also proving popular.

After watching one of the planes depart, I moved further north to the spectacular scenery of Eoligarry and found two further campsites with views and access to the beach.  Climbing some rocks on the Atlantic side, I searched the rock pools and found many deep red aneanomies that were later indentified by the power of FaceBook.

Passing the airport once more, it would have been rude to not sample some of the now quieter café’s wares.  And their free WiFi!

Heading back down the east coast, I stopped at many of the scenic places for photos, but to be honest, I could have stopped every minute if I’d continued with that.  I was however hunting for the deserted village of Balnabodach.  Whilst there were some ruins obvious, they were in amongst some new housing.  It’s at times like these that a local guide would have been helpful!

I passed through Castlebay, stopping only briefly at the Barra Heritage & Cultural Centre (open 10am-3pm Monday-Friday only).  As this was Saturday, I abandoned all hope.

On the road south to Vatersay, I stopped at the top of the hill next to a very modern looking war memorial.  It also offered a panorama of Castlebay including Kisimul Castle.

Crossing the causeway to Vatersay, the single track roads managed to somehow become even narrower.  Thankfully the tourists were all going one way.  Mostly.  No accidents were had, although several close shaves were attempted.

The information sign at the Vatersay Community Hall had a 4 mile, 3 hour “moderate to demanding” route around the island shown, with “waymarked route markers” promised.  A walk along the eastermost beach proved an easy start, but no such markers existed after the first 40 minutes.  The sign had also indicated that it may be muddy – understatement of the year!  I ended up staring down cows, missing the south most beach and generally climbing the hill to see where on earth the waymarkers were supposed to be.  None could be found.  I headed cross country, with my peely white skin taking on a touch of the red.  A sudden confrontation with a bull caused a deviation, but I arrived relatively unscathed at Vatersay village.  A path to join the rest of the walk was not apparent, so I headed straight to the westernmost beach, which had a large group of nutters trying to surf.  They at least had wetsuits on.  However a solo (older) woman was valiantly battling the wave in a bathing suit.  I averted my eyes to the cuttlefish washed up on the beach. (Again identified by Facebook later on).

With the wind turning chilly, and the rescue helicopter hovering overhead, I headed back to the warmth of the car, double checking the sign for waymarked paths again, just to make sure I hadn’t dreamed it.

Driving back along the now deserted roads, I stopped at a memorial to the victims of a crashed Catalina plane (12th May 1944).  What was unusual about this was that the plane was still there.  The bomb loading platform still clearly labelled and this and other pieces lying in what is now a small stream.  A small bunch of artificial poppies were stuck in one of the wings.

Before arriving back at Borve Campsite, I stopped at the Isle of Barra Beach Hotel – 5 minutes walk from the campsite, in the hope that it might prove to be a dinner option.  With starters at £9 and mains up to £32, it was too posh for me.  “I’m nae payin’ fir that!”

After meeting my new (male) German biker tent neighbours, I headed for the shower – only to be chased out by a father and small child who had been “in the sea”.  Well, really, you would have thought they’d have thought that through a bit more!

Abandoning the Germans to a hoped for pizza delivery, I headed back to the Castlebay Hotel for a slap up meal.  Hot smoked salmon, followed by Hunters Chicken.  It was the last night after all.  I felt not at all guilty to return to the campsite and charge my phone, only to be surrounded by campers all wanting to wash their dishes.  They were a multilingual lot – I caught French, Swedish and of course German.  Although they had already put their washbags down on the only two seats and wandered off.

With the sun setting and the wifi almost exhausted, I prepared for the early morning rise and finally managed to finish the Peter May book – always a twist at the end.  Hope that isn’t the same for me.

Day 5 – South Uist, Eriskay & Barra

11 Aug

Soooo.  The “Force 10” tent can certainly stand up in a gale.  That’s not to say that it doesn’t flap around a bit, and then some.  There was only some minor leakage when the two skins of the tent were forced together by the wind – so overall a dry night.  The other camper van tenants were in awe that I (and the tent) had survived.  Benbecula is being renamed as “Windy Benbecula”.

Dumping the soggy tent in the boot of the car, with no hope of it drying out at all, I moved on to the Co-op in Creagorry for Breakfast.  Must be the Co-op with the best views from the car park in Scotland!  If the wind would only die down!

Crossing a causeway to South Uist, and then another across Loch Bee, the first stop was to “Our Lady of the Isles”, sculpted by Sir Hew Lorimer.  What TripAdvisor had called a “trek up the hill”, turned out to be a road to a car park right next to it.  I’m taking as read that South Uist is Catholic.  No way would this be allowed in the Protestant North Uist.  Surprisingly, there was one other couple there already, bravely braving the elements.  Or rushing quickly back to the car.  As the rain was off, I did contemplate trying to dry the tent in the high wind, but in such an exposed place, I felt uncertain that my orange signal wouldn’t be misinterpreted as a cry for a rescue helicopter.

Once again detouring from the plan, I headed to Howmore Chapel and Burial Grounds.  These were ruins of 4 (or 5) chapels built over the years, now containing only graves, including Commonwealth War Graves.  A visit to the nearby current Church of Scotland building featured the only remaining communal communion table which ran the length of the church – straight down the middle.

Navigating slug alley, I snapped a few picturesque photos of thatched cottages before the owners turned up wanting to turn into their own driveways!

Moving on, I finally found Stoneybridge – after only 30 years of searching!  The mystical village does actually exist!

Omniclate castle however, was a shadow of its former self.  The ruins of this mansion house, now seemed perilously close to a new cottage.  Not a lot to see.  And dangerous to access.

Arriving then at Kildonan Museum, ahead of schedule, I took time to read some more of Peter May’s stories, before heading inside.  For £3, there were 4 rooms of exhibits, and access to an archive of old photos and records. The standard of museums here is really good, and I spent almost an hour here browsing through information on crofting, religion, Kilphedar Kate, the Kildonan Marriage Stone, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Flora MacDonald & Neil MacEachen, weaving (indigo dye involves human urine) and Caledonian MacBrayne.  That didn’t include Barbara’s coffee shop or the craft shop.  And the highlight of the visit – they were flying a South Uist flag!  Unfortunately not for sale.

Flora MacDonald’s first home was just a mile down the road, and although there is a cairns here to commemorate it, the ruins are otherwise as you might expect for a really old building.  (She was born in 1722.)

I detoured to Lochboisdale, the main ferry port on the island (Glasgow 236km).  Shouldn’t have.  Although the café, come post office, come everything shop did do a nice range of lunch options.  I think they had to slaughter my chicken though, if not wait for it to hatch.

The afternoon drive to Eriskay was short, and involved another causeway – with signs warning of otters crossing!  A quick detour into the village and the “AM Politician” pub was only to check for any remaining whisky!  I can see how easy it would be to hide whisky in the rocky shoreline of Eriskay.

The Eriskay ferry terminal had a fancier waiting room, and wifi, but otherwise there was nothing there.  The beach nearby managed 7 seasons in one hour, as I walked along it, wiping raindrops from the sunglasses and avoiding the jellyfish.

Joining the small queue for the ferry, I met up with and chatted to Andy Morgan and Callum Farquhar who were touring with a few Explorer Scouts.

The ferry ride was pleasant enough, with the sun drenched Eriskay giving way to the cloud covered Barra.  Bob, the local Co-Op Area Manager (and one of Callum’s leaders) showed the seals basking on the rocks, and the beach that doubles as Barra airport.

Barra only has about 12 miles of road – all single track, except briefly in Castlebay, which makes for an interesting drive.  Manage to avoid an accident until reaching the campsite at Borve.  The pictures on the website don’t do it justice – it’s not as small as first thought, with three areas and a very nice, if small, amenity block, featuring actually working wifi and a plug socket.

The tent found a sheltered spot, literally with my name on it. I left it to dry out a little before pitching and then headed into Castlebay for food.  The Café Kisimul had been highly recommended by others for their curries.  Which was just as well, as the only main course they had was Indian – a wide selection featuring local seafood though.  I went with the monkfish and cod in a tuna masala.  Was it me, or was it hot in there?  Very tasty though!

The mist shrouded hills were a bit ominous, but I made it back to the tent dry and collapsed exhausted from too much fresh air.  The waves crashing rhythmically against the rocks below my tent.  This doing nothing fair gets to you!