Category Archives: Wanderings

Babble about walks, rambles, treks, perambulations and such.

(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.

Going home

Last night’s meal was great again: a large canellono (?) stuffed with mushrooms and bathed in a Bechamel sauce. Not a wolf fart in sight. This was followed by veal: perhaps, as calves are vegetarian the Spanish think you get your vegetables by the back door, so to speak. In order to give Ben – developer of G&T ice cream – some ideas, I went off-menu and chose balsamic vinegar ice cream served with ‘iogort’ and various trimmings. It was excellent, but I’ll probably have to give Ben a more perceptive description.

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Dateline 1410 Barcelona Airport, Gates M.
Easyjet would like to inform passengers the scheduled 1510 flight to London Gatwick is running about 35 minutes late: we apologise for any inconvenience.
OK, I’m as well waiting here as I am in LGW snow (or whatever the weather is) and there’s plenty of slack.

The journey through Barcelona went much more smoothly than it did a week ago: it helped not throwing myself onto trains going the wrong direction. I must remember that useful tip.

Reflections
(Not the old TV Religious Thought for the Day stuff, nor the Rikki Fulton take-off!)
I’ve enjoyed this trip. The weather has been great, the villages picturesque and charming, the hotels at least adequate and generally much better than that. You’ll have gathered I liked the food. I always find it surprising – and I shouldn’t by now – to be twice the height of the run-of-the-mill Scottish Munro and meet cattle, farmers and even villages. This high-altitude farming and the forestry gives the mounatins a rather tame appearance – obviously an illusion, especially in the winter. On that level, I prefer the Scottish hills which are wilder, less inhabited and treeless at altitude. But the Pyrenees have a number of attraction – weather, culture and food amongst them.
Macs Adventures have delivered another good trip, though I have to give the credit for all the local groundwork to Catalan Adventures. Now for a few minor complaints: I’m not au fait with the restrictions that Catalan Adventures are working within, but I’m not completely convinced that the trip merited two un-allocated days, nor that the return to Camprodon was a good idea. The local authority make much in their advertising and tourist information about the huge network of paths, but I wonder whether the area I was walking in had the capacity to sustain a week’s trekking: on the other hand, it was billed as Catalan Villages and as such we saw several cracking little villages, so maybe my emphasis is a little out of kilter with the aims of the holiday. Whatever, my overall rating for the experience would be high.

For completeness: we got on board the LGW-INV flight to be warned by the pilot of a lengthy wait on the tarmac and possible diversion to another airport, but the dire predictions resolved themselves in about 15mins delay and no diversion, so is good.

Splish Splash

When I first started learning Spanish in 1968, my Collins ‘Gem’ dictionary included the useful phrase ‘hacer ciaboga: to make a quick turn round (in a rowing boat)’. Surprisingly, I’ve never had occasion to use it and I missed my big moment today. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Last night’s meal was probably the cheapest of the trip (bar the cuckoo sandwich):it was definitely the best. I ate with the Ozzies and we all agreed. I had Gazpacho with strawberries, lamb (I like lamb!) and giant profiterols (I like them too), but plan to vary things tonight. The son (about 40) of the family is a really nice guy with a clear love of the food he and his father cook in this stylish hotel and he talked well in English, going into lots of detail about each option on the menu. I’ll plug the hotel here: Els Caçadors in Ribes de Freser https://www.hotelsderibes.com/ though I should mention two of the Oz folk apparently have an inferior room.

The rack railway up to Núria was interesting, affording some good views. Núria was once a monastery and there is still a religious presence in the form of a sanctuary. It is now an all year round resort with a posh-looking hotel: skitows, gondolas, pistes etc. for the winter months and lake, walks, gondola, play areas, horse-riding, camping etc. for the summer. The lake was attractive and I circumnavigated it on foot: if only I’d hired one of their rowing boats…

I took the gondola up to the next level and wandered around, admiring the views, and strolled along the paths, but didn’t walk far and later on returned by the same route.

Not a very inspiring blog today, I regret. And sorry about lack of photos: transferring from phone to Kindle (I seem to have to do it via Dropbox) and then finding them to upload to WordPress is just too much time wasted. I’d be better off peeling grapes.

I decided to have a go with the whirlpool spa bath: it wasn’t an unqualified success. The bath took both a lot of water and a lot of time to reach the nozzles and i should really have waited until the water level was even higher. There seemed to be some sort of light show at the feet end, but the force of the jets sent water everywhere, one jet seeming a bit loose in its mountings and behaving like a cartoon hose-cum-snake. I had to press buttons wildy to make it stop. I think I know where the slight damp smell comes from, though.

Tomorrow I start home: train from here at 0944, get off at Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya, catch shuttle bus to airport, display bus ticket on mobile phone (!), hang around for a few hours, fly to Gatwick, cool my heels for some hours, catch flight to Inverness, arriving at 2205. Like clockwork, with any luck. Might manage an update at LGW.

Why am I getting nuisance phone calls apparently from Mid Yell? It certainly didn’t sound like a typical Mid Yell accent! There must, at the very least, be some way of stopping this spoofing of phone numbers.

Anyway, must go and join Bruce & Sheila and Bruce & Sheila for the evening meal. Casual racism’s OK when it’s Australians isn’t it?  (For the sake of  veeracity, I should say that one of the Ozzies was actually born in France and is called ‘Bertrand’.)

Cuckoo!

I’ll start by issuing a clarication: all 4 Ozzies are still here: one couple booked the way I did with Macs Adventures, the others just did their own thing when they heard their friends were coming. I’m glad I sorted that out…

My four cobbers and I went in search of somewhere to eat, but virtually everywhere was closed – even places that had been doing a roaring trade mid afternoon. We ended up at Le CouCout (The Cuckoo), an unpretentious – verging on seedy and uninspiring – bar opposite the Camprodon Hotel who, despite being only a third full, turned us away as they only serve residents. The Cuckoo was OK, though basic: I had a sort of panino thing with anchovies but kept making envious glances at someone else’ s plate of cold meats and goats cheese. The 5 of us ordered a bottle of red and one of rose: the wine came in already open unlabelled bottles – obviously ‘tap wine’ – and the red one was only three quarters full. We tend not to drink our reds chilled in the UK, so that was a pleasant change!

Today’s walk was a long one and fairly demanding, so the option of being dropped off a bit along the way was offered, which both shortened the walk by about an hour and avoided having to return the way I did yesterday: the hotel move luggage on and were geared up to this option.

The two Aussie ladies and I availed ourselves of this option, whilst the men did it the hard way. Once dropped off, I left the ladies behind and strode out. Today’s route was just updated by Catalan Adventures last week, so the notes weren’t perhaps quite as comprehensive as usual. We also had to leave the normal yellow markers today and follow a different route.

About 6km out of the village of Pardines – an intermediate stop on the walk – the yellow markers reappeared after several kilometres of absence, due to the change in route, and I had the option of following them across some fields or going past the yellow ‘wrong way’ crosses: I chose to follow the yellow brick road, but 20 minutes later was getting bogged down in electric fences without gates, deep in the woods and with no indication these yellow markers were going anywhere particular, let alone Pardines. I retraced my steps to the turning and was just deciding to take the other route when the 4 Ozzies hove into view. We all agreed on the route and I stepped out again: I don’t suppose they specifically requested a grumpy old misanthropic Scot to accompany them when they booked.

Pardines was a beautiful little village: very quiet, possibly because I suspect there are a lot of holiday homes. I stopped at a cafe for a cold drink, headed off congratulating myself on having a Coke when I turned a corner and there was another bar, so I felt obliged to have a beer. It was a lovely spot: all old buildings with flowery window boxes, ancient twisty streets, an audible collection of church bells and an endearingly small Plaza Mayor.

The remaining walk to Ribes de Freser continued to be hot and tiring, but very pleasant nevertheless. Hotel Els Caçadors (‘The Hunters’ in Catalan) is several notches up from Hotel Sant Roc and stylishly swanky, with sections of glass ceiling / floor in some of the public areas. Trip Advisor rates the restaurant highly, the rooms are very comfortable, the spa-bath and shower excellent and all is ticketty-boo. The top floor of the hotel is an open air jacuzzi with spectacular views into the first gorge I’ve seen here. Tomorrow is a rest day – the final day of the trip – but Catalan Adventures strongly recommend the rack railway etc., so that’s my plan.

I’ll try to append some pretty pictures, but it’s a slow process…

Room 101

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Callitxo

They’re a funny lot, foreigners: at breakfast in Mollo, I watched two guys rubbing tomatoes into their partly toasted bread prior to putting it back into the toaster. As well as this diversion, there was cereal, ham (and jam), cheese, cakes, biscuits etc. I almost opted for a delicious-looking decorative but totally artificial peach.

Today’s walk took me out of one valley and into another, so the first half was steeply up out Mollo with a bit of level at the top before the descent to Setcases. It was a bit longer and more demanding than yesterday, so that was good. There were more folk out and about today – as it’s Saturday? – and I got chatting to two different groups of mushroom hunters. I asked the name of one specimen someone had gathered and was told ‘pedo de lobo’ (wolf fart). At least I think they were telling me the name and not just issuing unwarranted insults. Anyway, everyone was complaining there weren’t many mushrooms due to the dry weather.

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Setcases apparently got its name name in mediaeval times because of the seven shelters a man and his benighted family built there. It has grown now, but is clearly a small village that’s hit on a good thing: tourism. There’s skiing in the winter and walkers in the summer , with lots of second homes / flats/ pieds a terre etc., so Setcases should be called Sethoteles or something nowadays. I’m in Hotel La Coma and very nice it is too. I’m typing this up in my room, sitting back on a Spanish Parker Knoll-type recliner. I have a picture window onto my balcony with views of the carpark and surrounding mountains. I’ll point out that I chose the trip, but not the specific hotels and so far I’d say I’ve been well served, despite tonight’s room being an Orwellian Number 101. There’s a security camera just outside my balcony and I think I’ll unplug the tv!

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Setcases

Initially I thought it was furniture, but no: it’s thunder. No rain or lightning that I can see, but lots of thunder.

I’m in Setcases for two nights – tomorrow is supposedly a rest day. I could make use of the hotel’s fitness suite, lounge by the indoor or outdoor pool, play games in the games room, even fork out for spa treatment… I think I’ll try to find a suitable walk unless they have a masseur who specialises in shoulders.

I didn’t set out to write a food blog, but the combination of light-weight Spanish breakfasts, the self-imposed lack of a significant lunch and days in the mountains gives food – and the evening meal in particular – an added importance.

At about 5:30 I went for a wander through the village and on the way out of the hotel I spotted a sign asking for residents to order before 5pm if they wanted dinner… The only version was in Catalan, so I may have missed any subtleties.

I wandered through the acceptably picturesque village and settled on a Trip Advisor-approved place for my evening meal, but it was far too early to darken their door. About 8:00pm as I headed out again, the father in my family-run hotel asked me if I wanted an evening meal. I apologised for not letting them know, wavered and assented. I ended up choosing from the set menu: Goat’s Cheese & Walnut Salad, followed by roasted Lambs’ ribs. Poodeen was a sort of cottage cheese – texturally tending to polystyrene, but taste-wise leaning to Camembert – with honey. They’re not great on their veg out here: it’s probably quicker to throttle a lamb than dig up a turnip. Now I’m not a strong ‘eat up your greens’ man, but the odd vegetable might be nice: I did enjoy the chips with my lamb though.

Forgive me if I’m repeating myself: it’s too much hassle to check back. (I’ll edit that out when Penguin buy the rights.) Sonia would be interested to know that this area is particularly proud of its potatoes. Mollo has an exhibition / fiesta / marketing opportunity in the next week or two for the ‘trumfa’, the local tattie, which is about to be harvested and I’m sure the locals are getting excited.