(Three) Seasons’ Greetings

About ten days ago the normally reliable Highlands and Islands Weather forecast on Facebook gave me to believe the weather this week would be really good: and it was, further south. Given my expectations, I inveigled Dave Smith into a day on the hills.

I had earmarked some hills in Glenshee: Glas Maol, Cairn of Clais and Tolmount, with the options of adding either or both of Tom Buidhe and Carn Bannoch.

Core route in red, options in blue. Flags mark Munros I’d already “done”.

Tuesday morning I loaded up the Bongo, checked the tyres, water etc. and in the afternoon met Dave off the bus from Tain. After a brief stop in Morrison’s we drove down to Glenshee. The Bongo performed faultlessly and after over two hours’ journey we set up camp – van and tent – in the car park south of the Devil’s Elbow. Within minutes a second van arrived, temporary home to two German tourists. After a few minutes parked a decent distance away, they moved right next to us and spent some time toing and froing until the driver was happy with his exact location. I made some polite comment about his finding it difficult to get the right spot and he commented “I am trying to get even”. I hadn’t even mentioned the war.

With some difficulty, we got our barbecue lit and I burned chicken and sausages whilst Dave fried onions. It was quite chilly with a snell breeze whilst we sank a beer, ate our meal, consulted the map and shared sips from Dave’s hip flask.

The ground under my tent seemed to have developed bumps and hollows between my putting it up and going to sleep, but I had not too bad a night: I think Dave did about as well inside the Bongo.

We wanted an early start, so I was up the back of six. Life was made a bit more difficult than was strictly necessary by the overnight dropping of the wind and the consequent arrival of the midges. I don’t know how many times I tried to eat a spoonful of breakfast cereal through the mesh of my head net.

I don’t imagine the Germans got a long lie as Dave and I loaded the van, generated lots of electronic beeping as we lowered the roof and warmed the engine. Talk about getting even!

The short distance from there to the car park where we started our walk involved a large difference in weather: what had been inert muggy air, heavily populated with midges had started moving about in a disagreeably active manner, but at least we’d seen the last of the bugaran beagan.

It’s less than 400m ascent from the ski station to the top of Glas Maol, but it starts off pretty steep and seems particularly so at 7:30am. I had in fact “done” Glas Maol before, but it was on our way to the other targets and was a new summit for Dave. By the time we reached Meall Odhar, we were in occasional cloud. From time to time a watery sun showed itself coyly through seven veils of cumulus. Despite a good dyke shelter, we didn’t hang around long at the top of Glas Maol, but headed for Cairn of Clais.

Our route now followed the old county boundary line, marked with occasional rusting iron fence posts or sections of drystane dyke. The combination of lots of unmapped paths, the relative featurelessness of the landscape, the paucity of boundary posts and the increasingly poor visibility made navigation difficult at times, even with the GPS. It was round about now that we realised we had left the map in the van after the previous evening’s consultation: the GPS is great for knowing exactly where you are and following a route, but the small screen means it’s almost impossible to get an overview of the area. This wasn’t reassuring, but we knew that GPS and compass would have to suffice.

At Cairn of Clais we made the decision to forget about Cairn Bannoch but head for Tom Buidhe, which we did without any great problem. As with the previous hills, there was no view of any distance or interest and by now the drizzle that had been threatening for much of the day had turned up the dial and developed into rain. From now on it was waterproof trousers as well as the  Goretex top.

After Tom Buidhe we tried to skirt the top of Cairn of Clais, to save some more rather unwarranted ascent. However we ended up back more or less at the top anyway as the lie of the land made it difficult to contour round lower down. From here there should have been no problem as we were effectively following our footsteps back to the road. But that’s not the way life is and we wasted quite a lot of time in low visibility, gusty wind and increasing rain whilst we went round in circles on the northern slopes of Glas Maol and I swore a lot.

There was considerable disagreement amongst Dave’s real compass, his virtual one and my GPS – or, I suspect, my reading of it. We eventually did the sensible thing, trusted the real compass and determined that a north-westerly direction would see us right and it did when we again met some of the unsightly ski infrastructure. Once we were again making reasonable progress, we were subjected to a violent hail shower followed up by thunder.

The Bongo is a sort of silvery-grey colour and, though by now we knew exactly where we and it were, it only loomed out of the mist at 5:30pm, when we were about 10 metres away and 10 hours from when we left it. In summary (note spelling), we reckoned that we had had three of the four seasons in one day: I will leave it to you to decide which was missing.

The journey back to Inverness was uneventful: the weather – particularly the visibility – improved as we distanced ourselves from Glenshee and by the time we were back in the Highland Capital the sun was out and I was being told it had been a nice day. I dropped Dave off at the bus station and I assume he got back to Tain without incident.

Despite the poorer than expected weather, I think we both enjoyed the day. Dave and I go a long way back and we have very much the same sense of humour, based heavily on word-play. The only real difference is that Dave’s wit is both quicker and more honed than mine, so I’m left to do most of the laughing. No great hardship.

Bouncing Back

The Bongo is home again!

On Friday the 12th Sonia and I drove up to Dave and Kay’s in Tain, complete with bottle of Radweld. I didn’t know whether to hope it would work as I didn’t fancy the 30 odd miles back even with Sonia tagging along in the Altea. There aren’t many handy places to pull off the A9 at a moment’s notice with steam coming out of every vent.

So I wasn’t altogether disappointed that the Radweld didn’t seem to be doing the trick and the leak continued unabated: it was obvious that driving back to Inverness was not a practical option. Kay had already told me there are two garages in Tain and I plumped for the one she uses. A phone call and a few minutes later, the Bongo was parked at A.K.E. Links Motors and Zak – the boss – was agreeing to tackle the problem, but not until the start of the next week. No problem: I wasn’t in a rush and it was about 5pm on a Friday!

Tuesday I was walking a section of the Moray Coastal Trail with Peter Dunford when my mobile rang and it was Zak telling me that he had a replacement radiator which he’d fit on Wednesday!

On Friday, I took the bus back to Tain and collected the van. A.K.E. had done what seems to be a great job: a new radiator – not second-hand – fitted, topped up with antifreeze and tested all for £210. If you ever break down in Tain or are looking for an MOT or garage services, then I recommend them. Zak has warned me he thinks the water pump may be on its way out, so I’ll need to get that seen to.

The other thing we discovered is that we do have breakdown insurance: it comes with our Nationwide account, so next time the van breaks down up some remote glen, I’ll know whom to call. Assuming I get a mobile signal, that is.

The Loyal Bongo?

Having been up north a week or so back with Mrs M (I’m sorry, I didn’t tell you about that…) , I fancied returning to “conquer” Ben Loyal – a dramatic looking just-a-Corbett (764m). Dave Smith agreed to accompany me and I loaded up the Bongo for a Sunday departure. The plan was to tootle up to Tongue, turn south and camp near the base of the hill using a combination of van and tent: the weather for the previous few days had been excellent and, despite a colder snap being upon us, I was looking forward to our projected Monday outing.

You may already have detected from the phrasing of the previous paragraph that not all went according to plan. In fact, little did.

I drove off on Sunday afternoon, had coffee chez Dave in Tain and we left in good spirits. Dave is always cheery and full of witticisms, so the journey looked to be fun and it was. As far as almost into Bonar Bridge – a distance of about 12 miles from Tain – when Dave commented on a burning smell. It almost instantly became noticeable not just olfactorily but visually as the Bongo’s ventilation system started pumping clouds of smelly steam and smoke into the van.  One “feature” of the Bongo is that it can overheat – not a problem we’ve suffered from – so I always keep an eye on the temperature gauge which had been fine a minute or two earlier but as we coasted the hundred yards or so required to reach a handy layby, the needle started bouncing off the “H” end of the dial.

Ignition off, we leapt out and fingers metaphorically crossed I gingerly opened the bonnet, wary of a potential fire. However it was just steam, though more than strictly necessary from the bonnet of a roadworthy vehicle. We poked around a bit and removed the odd bit of plastic ducting until it became clear there was a crack or broken seam at the top of the radiator. “Buggar” I thought.

After giving the engine a chance to cool a bit, I found the 5 litre plastic jerrycan that had been going to supply us with water for coffee etc. and started to top up the cooling system. There was still a lot of steam and topping up took about half the supply. It was clear Ben Loyal would have to wait for another day.

After a bit of a debate and a phone call to Mrs M to confirm we didn’t have any form of roadside assistance, I gently turned the van and we limped back towards Tain. The 12 miles or so took several refills of the cooling system: we managed about three and a half miles per refill and had to beg water from local residents.

Dave and I go a long way back: after graduating and failing as a computer salesman, I lived in an Aberdeenshire cottage next door to him and during the return to Tain I reminisced about how a few of us used to drive at some god-forsaken hour to Longside airstrip where I had a job as a welder’s mate: on these trips it was brake fluid we leaked and topping up before the journey gave us a couple of good stops and three gently decelerating coasts before more fluid had to be poured in. Somehow, that didn’t – even then – seem as much of a drag as this was.

We got back to Tain and the van is still there, at Dave’s house. Next weekend, Mrs M and I are going in the car to collect it: I have a memory of something called “Holt’s Radweld”, which they still make, and I plan on buying an industrial-sized pack for the 46 mile journey from Tain to Inverness. If yesterday is anything to go by, Holts are going to see a sudden rise in their annual profits. Once home, it’s mostly downhill to F&R Macdonald at Holm Mills. Ian, the current boss, is a great guy (I mention this in case he’s reading my blog!) but doesn’t much like Bongos. I’m beginning to empathise with him.

Old codgers – like me – may be familiar with tips about using porridge oats, egg white etc. to block radiator leaks, so don’t bother recommending these homespun solutions. I recall friends of my father touring Ireland by car in the sixties in a Jaguar and having a game bird meet an untimely and untidy end when it made sudden contact with their radiator, leaving a pheasant sized hole in the grille. They limped into a garage just after the back of beyond and the callow youth manning the forecourt went to get the remaining half bottle of “RadWeld”, before accepting there was little chance of success.

Keep your fingers crossed for me.

On the right track…

Some folk have shown an interest in what I’m doing with my model railway, so here’s a bit of information.

Last year, probably in November, I must have reminisced to Sonia about having a clockwork train set as a kid: fast forward to Christmas and I was given two Hornby electric starter kits, a selection of carriages and a few other bits and bobs. I enjoyed playing with it on the living room floor, but my knees were less than happy and it did rather take over the whole room. I suppose running the trains appealed to my inner megalomaniac.

On this basis, and with daughter number one safely married off, I decided to create a permanent layout in her bedroom upstairs and to make a platform or table for it. Note: although I have dismantled her bed to give space during construction, it will be reinstated and both she and Ben are always welcome and I’ve no plans to hijack Sarah’s room: at least, not so far!

As this was going to be a long-term project, I researched model railway layouts at http://www.freetrackplans.com/ and settled on a 6ft by 6ft design apparently based on Ayr station: to my mind the similarity is faint and irrelevant but it suited my purpose.

In the diagram, the shaded areas relate to phase 2 and are not currently being implemented: they may well be varied in the meantime. The left hand of the board will house the “town” and its station whilst on the right, but not shown in the diagram, will be a small rural station. I’m currently thinking of setting the whole thing in Scotland in the latter part of the 20th century. More specifically, I think it’ll be spring, with Highlands type scenery, particularly in the top right quadrant. The access hole, necessary during construction and for rescuing derailments etc. may well have its cover re-inserted as a removable item.

Phase 1 layout nailed down – I forgot to include the level crossing Sonia gave me. Phase 2 perhaps?

The base is made of three sheets of 9mm ply, reinforced underneath with battens. My original plan to make legs seemed like too much trouble, so the whole thing is supported by two pairs of trestles / sawhorses from B&Q.

The track – based on what was in the two starter kits, but significantly augmented – was carefully loose-laid to check the position of the access hole and then nailed down.

If you had a model electric railway as a kid, you’ll know the power to the engines is transmitted via the rails. With “permanent” layouts it’s normal not to rely on the metal “fish plates” (which link the rails) to make a good connection, but to solder each rail of each piece of track to a circuit underneath the table. Thus – even with not linking in some of the shortest pieces – I had about a hundred joints to solder and connect to “chocolate blocks” linked in to the main circuit. It is this stage I am finishing now.

Note the soldered joints: these should more or less disappear once the ballast is laid.

A small section with ballast and a few trees etc. Just for fun!

Linking the rails to a “ring main” (only low voltage!) with “chocolate blocks”

Once this job, which involves a lot of lying on the floor and working above my head, is finished and tested, all engines on the track will either be powered or not, all at the same time. In other words, it will not be possible to start one engine whilst another is stopped.

This is an obviously serious flaw which I may get round by temporarily disconnecting one or two of the chocolate blocks or by adding a non-wired siding. However, it will disappear once I make the leap to a digital system. In this brave new non-analogue world, each engine – plus points – can be controlled individually with commands which in effect say things like “engine number 3 move forward at half speed”. The commands are sent to the various engines as a digital signal “on top” of the power transmitted through the track / wiring circuit: hence my current task. As indicated above, points can be switched remotely in a similar way. If I get sufficiently carried away, I will also be able to control lights on engines, carriages, stations etc., as well as all the sound effects of a railway engine on the move.

I have been looking at ways of making scenery: whilst it is possible to buy almost anything recreated to OO scale (1:76) there will be plenty to create from scratch, the only restriction being my limited creative talents.

I’m not planning on including a nudist beach, nor these interchangeable toilet users, but you can buy almost anything to add life and detail!

So far it’s fun, despite a lot of lying on the laminate floor.





Loose Ends

I owe you guys an apology, just suddenly wandering off like that without even saying goodbye. I’ll try to make amends.

I left you just after the Bundala trip, about three weeks ago, though it seems longer. I don’t think a lot of exciting things happened after Bundala, but I must mention my farewell to Thomas Gall School. In order to check up on details, I looked in on TGS on Thursday and Fathima wa pleased to see me, though disappointed I’d not turned up on Wednesday as I’d said I might: she had taken in cakes or biscuits and I’d not been there. She also gave me a lovely card decorated with little paper flowers and “Dear Teacher, you are so…” type doggerel.

The actual official farewell was at Friday Assembly: a special one because Nadeshani was also leaving so there was lots of cake. Barbie (!) Gall told us all how much we had to be thankful for, some of the classes performed stuff and some of my IT kids put on a rather under-rehearsed demonstration of the programs they’d been working on. It was an occasion for mixed emotions: I’m pretty sure that this will turn out to be my last visit to TGS and Sri Lanka, though you never can tell. In some ways I was glad to be leaving the periods of tedium, the noise and the smells: but in others I was sad to be saying goodbye to some great people and all that good weather!

As for the ants: I squished every single one I could see near the laptop and the flight seems to have done for the rest.

My prearranged car to the airport arrived to pick me up at exactly the same moment as the Richdmondites (current and former pupils of Richmond College) took their parade past Sera’s place. This consisted of hundreds of cars, motor bikes etc. all horns blaring, flags waving, engines revving, music playing, water pistols squirting, crawling slowly across both sides of the road towards us. We stood our ground but constantly edged forwards until we were clear after about a quarter of an hour.

The car was very smart: a last year’s model Toyota with a rear view camera for reversing and a whole host of other goodies. We headed towards Colombo on the “Expressway”, the first time I’ve really used that road and it’s much faster and more comfortable than the other roads. We sped along an almost empty dual carriageway in considerable style and comfort.

The rain started. Initially just short sharp showers as we made our way northward, it soon became the heaviest downpour I have ever experienced. We crawled along the dual carriageway, floods of water sweeping gravel and earth across the tarmac. The route changed to urban streets and sandy orange water was often over the hub caps. Even when the water was only a couple of inches deep, we moved at snail’s pace as the driver was concerned about hidden potholes. I wasn’t worried about time as I had factored in quite a safety margin and I suspect the driver had too.

Finally we arrived at the airport in good time. The flight to Abu Dhabi was nothing special and we arrived more or less bang on midnight their time.

My flight to Heathrow didn’t leave until 9am the next morning, so I was destined to have a long wait. By about two am I was almost the sole passenger in the airport but there were squads of Asian cleaners washing the corridor floors, emptying the bins and scrubbing in the toilets. I say “Asian”: to an undifferentiating eye they looked Indian, Pakistani maybe. Time dragged a bit but all in all the time from midnight to eight am, when boarding began, passed better than it might.

Similarly, the flight to Heathrow was the usual mix of movies, dozing, food and reading. Until we arrived over Heathrow, that is.

The in-flight information system showed us about ten minutes away from Heathrow when the pilot announced there would be a delay landing and we would be circling for a bit: a pain, but not unusual. After about twenty minutes of circling the pilot announced we didn’t have enough fuel for all this circling about stuff so we were going to Gatwick instead. A fair amount of muttering could be heard but I thought this might save me having to do the bus transfer from Heathrow to Gatwick.

No such luck. We sat in the plane on the tarmac for two and a half hours whilst arrangements were made to refuel our plane. I could see my five hour window between arrival at LHR and departure from LGW being eroded by the minute. Tantalisingly, throughout our wait on the ground I kept getting updates from EasyJet warning me my flight to Inverness would be delayed – perhaps the two delays would cancel each other out?

Suddenly we were screaming hell for leather down the runway at Gatwick and almost as suddenly screaming to a stop at Heathrow. Etihad staff apologised for the delay and handed out letters saying how sorry they were. I was advised that, even though it was unlikely I’d get the next flight, I should try for it and then arrangements would be made.

I missed a coach by minutes and had a long time in the cold and wet of England waiting for the next one. The journey to Gatwick was enlivened by a Scottish hen party of a certain age, all rouge and fishnet tights.

Needless to say, I missed the flight North. I went to the EasyJet information desk where the staff were very helpful. I was even too late to get on the last flight that night, Thursday. The next flight to Inverness with a vacant seat would be Saturday! Eventually we located a seat to Edinburgh on Friday afternoon and the staff at the desk did a great job of minimising the cost of this. They referred to it as a “rescue flight”, a not inappropriate

The next couple of hours almost brought me to tears. I shuttled back and forth between the two terminals trying to find accommodation. Bloc? Full. Yotel: Full. The Holiday Inn Express rumoured to be within the grounds? Taxi £12. Sofitel?: £200 a night. Finally Premier Inn: £80 and a barely passable evening meal. I slept like a log. Breakfast was better: lots of greasy eggs, bacon, potato scones and sausages all sandwiched between a healthy first course of cereal and fruit and a final round of toast and marmalade.

The flight to Edinburgh went smoothly, as did my meeting with Mrs M who had braved snowy conditions on the A9 to collect me. The cat skirted round me as usual.

A day or two after I got home, I used the email address supplied by Etihad to claim for my expenses. To cut a longish story down a bit, Etihad’s final verdict was “That’s a shame, sorry we were late but our contract was to get you to London and we did. Here’s 10,000 air miles.”

I contacted Nationwide Flex Account Plus Travel Insurance and another very helpful woman took me through the details of my claim: uncharacteristically, I had kept paper evidence of each transaction for scanning to Etihad – but that’s another story – and she was so convinced by my ability to provide details that they apparently don’t even want me to send in the paperwork. I’m told the cheque’s in the post. If so, well done Nationwide.

So, I think that’s you up to date. Sorry about the gap.

“Bundala” Pictures (geddit?)

Back in Galle and glad to get air conditioning again as I forgot to specify it when I booked the Lagoon Inn and by the time I realised I was already installed and it wasn’t. A good trip, all in all, though the preponderance of rice and curry, along with the heat, made for three rather sleep-deprived nights.

My laptop – opened to write this, upload photos etc. – is infected with ants which appear from the bowels of the machine as fast as I can squish them. If all else fails, being in the hold of an aircraft should sort them out.

Here are a few photos from Bundala: pretty dubious quality but like all bad workmen I’ll blame my little point and shoot camera.

An unfortunate brand name

Spooky water buffalo

It always surprises me to see peacocks in trees: somehow I feel they shouldn’t really be able to fly.

Painted Stork

Lesser Adjutant Stork

White Ibis: one of my favourites

Salt Pans

Google Earth view of the Salt pans

Hanging Parrot

Hanging Parrot hanging out of its nest in hollow tree trunk


Blue-tailed Bee Eater

Tusker approaching at moderate speed

Kingfisher (?) photobombed by monkey


I received what I, in my suspicious way, considered at least one more ‘expression of interest’ from the rather creepy staff member: he hung around me whilst I was sitting outside my room, took a seat unnecessarily close to me and at one point squeezed between my chair and a wall, stroking my head as he did so. I remained polite but increasingly curt until he went away. Call me a party-pooper or a paranoid old fart, but I did put the bolt on my door! Maybe it’s pay back time for smiling winningly at pretty women.

I didn’t sleep particularly well, but I don’t think that was due to worries about losing my honour so much as the increasing amount of rice and curry clogging up my system. Suffice it to say I was awake in plenty of time for my six o’clock start this morning.

The driver / guide was called Siri, the very guy so well rated on Trip Advisor and Booking.com and I was the only passenger.

I’ll admit to having wondered if Bundala would match up to last year’s Yala trip, but I needn’t have worried. It was different – a wetland landscape, rather than the more arid Yala – but teeming with birds. I don’t think of myself as a twitcher, but this was great: waders by the welly-load, Kingfishers, Ospreys, hundreds of wee chaps and their mates preparing for the journey to Northern Europe and some quirky little parrots that seem to nest upside down in hollow trees.

Elephants were a possibility today so when we turned a corner and saw a beast coming down the track towards us I picked my camera and the jeep came to a stop. Siri was just explaining this was the only “tusker” (“king elephant”) resident in the park when it broke into a leisurely jog rather than its erstwhile carefree amble. A large elephant trundling at you is an awesome, not to say alarming, sight and Siri threw the jeep into reverse and we covered a couple of hundred yards at quite a lick until we reached a fork in the path which would allow us an escape route. Apparently this beast is well known for being on the aggressive side of peaceable and later Siri showed me some mobile phone footage of it scaring a couple of girls in his jeep witless and another clip of it overturning a jeep it took a dislike to. Before I saw this, though, we ran cautiously back to a bend in the track to try to spot the beast and found it standing half on the path, half in the bushes ponderously pulling branches off a tree and eating them. We watched it – nervously on my part – for a while until it seemed to notice us; perhaps it heard my heart beating. When it came back out of the bushes and headed our way, Siri put his foot down and we drove off.

We saw another male later, but this one was apparently lower down the elephantine pecking order and had no tusks so we were quite safe. I also learned the local word for ‘elephant penis’, available on request if you think it might come on handy.

I’d booked a whole day trip, but had been pre-warned that there would be a break midday due to the heat. This interlude started on the beach where we both went for a swim. After that we drove into a dappled area of tree cover and had lunch – rice and curry, surprise, surprise. We both dozed for a while in the jeep before more safariing.

All in all, the day was great: oodles of birds, a couple of elephants, some crocs, tortoises, deery things, wild boar and various common-or-garden land monitors, a mongoose, monkeys by the score etc. It perhaps lacked the wow factor of Yala, but it was a very enjoyable day.

Just after we left the Park, we came across a troop of nigh on 100 monkeys moonlighting at the side of the road and we watched them for some time. It was an extended family group with several babies and mischievous young as wee as parents, grandparents and so on. Whilst they were clearly aware of ys as the sat on verge or scrambled in the shrubbery, they paid us scant attention: no hassling us for food, stealing from us or dancing on the jeep roof. Just the way it should be.

I got a few poor photos, mostly with my point-and-shoot camera, but some with my mobile phone. You’ll have to wait for the former.

Th edible fruit of the cactus you can see in the background