9-11 October: North Scotland

Author: Mr A

Location: Kinlochbervie, Durness and Helmsdale, Highlands, Scotland

Wednesday: We continued our jaunt up the west coast of Scotland, on yet another wild, wet and windy day. Its actually hard to imagine seeing these hills with blue skies, I just don’t think it would it would look right.

Our first treat of the day was having sight of our first large wild mammals in the UK. A trio of deer ran across the road and sloshed their way over the moor, but not before giving us an inquisitive look as if to say “What on earth are you doing voluntarily out in this weather? We have no choice!”.

A beautiful hind crossed in front of us and stopped on top of the hill for a good look
A couple of stags crossing the highlands in hot pursuit
They dashed in front of us and easily leaped this fence

One of the absolute joys of motorhoming is the ability to stop on any levelish piece of ground and produce an amazing lunch in the middle of nowhere. Today was another feast with perfectly poached eggs (you know when the yolk just flows over your toast in an ooze rather than a flood ….or even worse, horror of horrors, won’t flow at all) and locally caught and honey smoked salmon. A freshly brewed Pukka fennel tea rounded it off.

We decided we really should don the rain gear and head out to stretch the legs. Driving around Loch Assynt, we spy a “Catherine-size” dinky castle alongside. We just make it to the ruined pile of rocks as yet another rain squall belts sideways at us. We retreat to Truffy and continue on our way up the west coast.

An old ruin of an 18th century house across Loch Assynt
On Loch Assynt, Ardvreck Castle sits proud, Built 1590 by the Clan MacLeod it has witnessed many battles and important moments in history
The heavy rain transforms the cliffs into dozens of thundering waterfalls
And view after view opens up in front of us as we drive

My co-pilot has identified a stop over at the small fishing village of Kinlochbervie, where the community has put in some motorhome services right on the edge of the harbour. Check out our view for the night!

A million dollar view for the equivalent of $30
Spot Truffy across the bay

It’s interesting how some communities see the potential for bringing a bit more cash into town, and others just put up “no overnight parking” signs. There really isn’t a lot to spend your money on in town though. A Spar corner shop and a pub. It will do us nicely.

The community differentiates their home town as being the most northerly port in Scotland, and apparently was shortlisted by the Oxford Dictionary as a definition of remote. Well by UK standards I would agree, but by Australian standards, it’s practically next door to everything, with a good mobile signal, shop, pub, fishing port, 240 power, sewerage system, surfaced roads…and only 60 miles to the nearest decent supermarket. Call that remote?

A busy fishing port sending their catch all over the UK

Thursday: Kinlochbervie to Durness

We had another wild weather night of howling wind and lashing rain, but were tucked up tight, and in the grey light of morning we were off along the top of Scotland.

Amazing light as the sun breaks through the clouds…
Couldn’t decide which image worked best….! So included both
Truffy showing his mean and moody side
First glimpse of the North Atlantic Ocean in the distance

We needed to get out for a stomp as the forecast was only “light showers and moderate winds” (a good one for Scotland!). We parked up at Durness Golf club, who’s claim to fame is being the most northerly golf course on the UK mainland, and also the furthest north we would be going on our trip this time.

It was a fabulous walk, one of the best so far, along the towering cliffs of this wild and (relatively!) remote coastline. Now I’m colour blind, but could even recognise that we were somewhere quite special. Check out these shots from my camera wielding maestro of the lens.

We were the only hikers on this 12km circuit
Tea break in the dunes
Beautiful colours and patterns in the rocks which are among the oldest in the UK
The crashing surf and white sand beaches contrast with the dark rock
Mrs A setting off along the coast
Some bits of the path were narrow and quite steep
Fabulous beach worthy of Western Australia with some rare sunshine glimmers
Continuing our track around
Ruins of an old school – in its heyday it had 45 pupils but lost most of those during the Highland Clearances (a period between 1750 and 1860 when people were moved off the land when it was deemed more profitable for sheep grazing)
The sun breaks through towards the end of our walk
Ruins of an old church…
Spot Truffy in the distance? 11km (7 miles) is the longest we’ve walked before breakfast in a while! We’re relieved to be back, a bacon and egg sandwich is calling our names…

In the distance we heard a huge boom, and I had remembered reading that there’s an island off shore that has the misfortune to be around the same size as an aircraft carrier, so becomes target practice for our and our Allies’ armed forces. It’s quite funny reading that there’s a “conservation society” formed to “protect” the island’s flora and fauna. Nothing the odd massive bomb can’t put right I hope!

Back at Truffy we (I use that term loosely) knocked up the usual cracking lunch from on board supplies, and headed off to find a park for the night. We thought it was going to be the cutely named Smoo Cave Hotel, but the landlord was having a bad day when I asked if it was OK to park overnight and come and have dinner (or I looked a bit rough round the edges after a few days off the grid) and so we made other plans. The pub cat, meanwhile, was far more welcoming and our first Scottish feline to come and say hi.

This little tortoiseshell girl cannot get enough cuddles

Before we moved on, we checked out the cave the pub was named after. Smoo Cave was a haunt of Vikings, smugglers, murderers, and general nefarious carrying on, it was quite a geological as well as cultural marvel.

The picturesque way down to Smoo Cave
At 50ft (15.24 metres) high, this cave boasts one of the highest sea cave entrances in the UK
Entrance is free, but there are often tours – not on this occasion – cancelled due to heavy rain (ha ha)
A river thunders down through the roof of the cave in a roaring waterfall

Interest assuaged, we left Durness and found another car park with a view. The rain lashed down, a familiar pattern, thank goodness we have a motorhome that doesn’t leak, unlike some we read about on our forums.

Our fabulous view of Ceannabeinne Beach

Friday: Durness to Helmsdale

We had a longish day of driving ahead, as we planned to point Truffy’s nose south and head down for east coast though a wonder-world of massive peat bogs, apparently the thickness of a double decker bus! Now that will keep a few home fires burning for a while.

Weaving around yet another stunning loch, and past some old lime works
Our daily sighting of a stag…

We needed to find a service point to dump waste water, take on fresh, and empty the loo. Unfortunately whilst carrying said toilet cassette, I didn’t notice the gravel slope, my ankle rolled and I fell down in an ungainly heap, but at least with the presence of mind to batt away the rather full toilet which was bouncing around near my head!

We called in to a doctor’s surgery in the village. The doctor had just gone home for the day, but drove back in to see me – it’s not a big village, but even so, pretty good service. He assessed and said there was no need for an x-ray, just tendon damage, strapped me up and off I went, limping like an old crock!

Before long we turned right and off the North Coast 500, heading south-east. I think our windscreen wipers are going to be worn out by the time we leave Scotland, although it sounds like its not much better in England. It was a wet drive, and although we stopped briefly to check out the Forsinard Flows, an RSPB wetland area. I stayed indoors with my foot up, while Catherine headed out. She returned after 20 minutes looking cold and wet having seen no birds, and we pressed on.

Pulling away from Forsinard
A spectacular drive through the River Helmsdale Valley, there was rain, sun and rainbows…

We had an overnight destination in mind, the Bannockburn Inn, featured on one of our apps as being “motorhome friendly” and encouraging free overnight parking in exchange for buying dinner. Well this one actually was friendly, from the moment Catherine walked in and was treated by the landlady like a long lost friend. She was from Brighton mind…and the evening just got better with the best fish and chip supper we’ve had on the trip…and curry sauce and mushy peas, washed down with some local gins. Apparently gin is very good for repairing tendons…

The Bannockburn Inn – recommended for delicious food and a wide selection of Scottish gin

4-6 October: A jaunt around the Outer Hebrides

Author: Mr A

Location: The Isles of Harris and Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, UK

The Outer Hebrides…I just like saying the name as it conjures up in my mind images of being really “out there”. Actually the reality is a bit different, but still very appealing.

We watched from the top deck of the ferry as the island of Harris appeared and our tiny debarkation point of Tarbert. Now, firstly lets clear something up. The island of Harris is joined to the island of Lewis. They aren’t seperate islands but are referred to as seperate. Make sense? No, didn’t to us either. There are various explanations given, like different clans distinguishing their own territory, or the geography in that a range of mountains makes access between the two difficult, or at least used to. We quite happily pottered from one to the other. So with that muddy water stirred up let me just add that the Outer Hebrides is sometimes called the Western Isles, and the main reason you might have heard of Harris (Harris Tweed) is mostly made in Lewis. All clear now?

So Harris is split geographically into the quite bumpy North Harris and the flatter South Harris. We were sort of in the middle when we landed at the dinky ferry port of Tarbert. So how do people in Tarbert explain where they live? “Well I’m in the middle of North and South Harris, in the Harris end of Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides come Western Isles”? Perplexing…

Harris in red to the south, and Lewis to the north

I had called ahead to book us dinner at the Harris Hotel, using my usual gambit to secure a free night’s accomodation of “So we’d like to book dinner, but as we are travelling in a motorhome I wonder if you could advise of anywhere to stay within walking distance. We intend to order a decent bottle of red and are not keen to drive”. I know Tarbert doesn’t have a campsite. I got the response I was hoping for. “Well we have a large car park, feel free to use that if you would like”. Sorted…and £25 saved towards that bottle of red.

But our first stop was metres from the ferry point, the Harris Distillery. This imposing looking building was made possible through the combination of EU grants and the backing of a Scots born ex CEO of Monsanto. His US$77 million payout might have helped. You would assume a distillery in Scotland produces whiskey…nope..its gin. Gin has made them profitable in these gin fuelled times. They are distilling whiskey, but its not available for sale yet. We loved the gin. Apparently its differentiator is the sugar kelp (yup, seaweed) infused in their copper gin still, and gathered by a virgin diver (poetic license) from the pristine waters around the island. Great to see a business like this doing well in such a geographically remote corner of the UK.

One bottle of Harris Gin thank you very much…in fact we ended up buying two!
A modern tasting room inside a building that used to be a church
One of the distillers – clearly a cat lover so he deserves to be included here!

Well our dinner at the Harris Hotel was absolutely gorgeous, everything that had been missing on Skye. A friendly barmaid welcomed us, the atmosphere was cosy, and the food….scrumptious. After a quick perusal of the menu, with no conferring, we both as usual made exactly the same choices. Too much time together harmonising our tastes? Locally caught herring for entree, followed by the plumpest scallops I’ve ever seen, with locally grown veg that tasted like it had been dug up that afternoon. What a feast. Our first meal out since Edinburgh. We tried hard to eat out in Skye but nothing tempted.

Look at the size of those scallops! Delicious!

The one time we went out in Skye intending to eat, the barmaid (we later learned also licensee) was so rude we had one beer and left. Disappointing…but Harris delivered in spades. I wonder why Skye was so poor? Other friends who visited had said the same. Too many visitors and not enough incentive to try hard? Who knows…

The next morning we headed off to explore South Harris, known for its spectacular sandy beaches. Apparently an advert for a Thailand holiday destination was caught using a shot of one of them. They were beautiful, but we only had to step out from behind the glass of our windscreen into the biting wind to be very clear we were not anywhere that either of us was going to be going for a paddle.

Incredible colours, you can see the inspiration for the Harris Tweed
There are more wooly residents on these islands than people
One of the many magical views
Just birds on these untouched beaches, perfection

We stopped to buy some home made mustard from a roadside stall, then paused in amazement when we saw the price. £6.50 (AU$12)for 200ml jar! I’m all for supporting local businesses but hard to feel that was value for money, so sorry mustard maker, we will make do with the beautiful small batch seeded mustard we brought in France for a quarter of that price.

Down at the most southerly point of Harris – we wondered what life is like for the residents of this little house with a fine view
Peat bogs are plentiful and there is much evidence of it being dug for fuel…here on an estuary it looks like little islands
As the rain and wind sets in for the afternoon and we head north, the scenery changes
More atmospheric scenery as we head in to Lewis

The edge of the bad weather that has been drenching the UK caught us, the rain came down and so we spent longer than usual in the car driving up through the island (islands?) to Lewis. I was keen to visit the standing stones at Calanais, or is it Callanish Standing Stones? They are variously named and spelled differently just to keep us visitors on our toes, even after we have worked out the whole Harris and Lewis thing. Anyway, another one of those mysteries I love, with archeologists mystified about the significance of the location and function of these other circles in the area. In fact this one isn’t even really a circle, but flat on one side. So for 5,000 years the people who have lived here have been trying to mislead and confuse…I like it.

Trying to read the messages of the stones
There is certainly a particular atmosphere here
Are they meant to be seen as giants from the sea, here to scare off the Vikings? Or are they a ceremonial meeting place?
We marvel ant the centuries of stories these stones could tell, if they could only speak

We dutifully watched the video in information centre and left no wiser understanding what the people who once put so much effort into dragging around these stones were trying to do. Its a bleak old place today, and we weren’t outside that long before hot chocolates back at the visitor centre seemed the wise choice.

The site we had been trying to call to confirm a place for the night had not been answering the phone, so we just rocked up to see a closed sign on the signpost! We had checked their web site and Google page – nothing left to warn people. OK we were pissed. How long does it take to record a message on your phone saying “we are closed for the season”, or change your Google Maps entry? Clearly too much effort for these folk. However, there was a free spot marked on one of our apps just down the road, and check out this view!

Our own private car park and beach
The view from our window

We had it all to ourselves while the rain lashed down and the wind howled. Our LPG run heating system got a workout, and a Thai jungle curry from Mrs A warmed us from the inside out and a Harris gin went down a treat.

Our local beach on a morning stroll, Truffy in the background

So another £20 in camp fees saved. We are warm, dry and have enough power from our 12v system to run all we need and can have a lovely hot shower in the morning without venturing across a campground in the cold and wet. I just have the job of emptying our toilet somewhere tomorrow. Not a bad trade for a lovely view and a few extra pounds to spend. In places that don’t have “No overnight camping” signs on every piece of flat land, it is quite lovely.

Our final day in the island of….well lets call it Lewis, although when we arrived in Stornaway this morning, the castle was called Lews Castle. the mystery continues. We have a mooch around the harbour in the drizzle, all rugged up and wondering where all the people are going as there’s not a single place open in town…except the church. Well its been a long time since I’ve witnessed this, people are dressed up in their Sunday best, three piece suits, ties – the lot, and going to a service of some kind. Ah well, each to their own. We make our way down to the ferry wharf and trundle Truffy on. He’s getting to be quite an experienced ferry traveller now!

Stornaway harbour looking colourful on this gloomy Sunday morning
Wrapped up warm against the drizzle but still smiling
We stood and watched a seal fishing in the bay in front of us

Goodbye Outer Hebrides, welcome Western Isles, its been an experience we will always remember, even if they like to keep you guessing out here 🙂

Lewis Castle front and centre as we pull away from the island of Lewis
Our first sight of the mainland of Scotland
We are first vehicle off into port – welcome to Ullapool, Scotland….

30 September – 2 October: Walking in my parents’ footsteps

Author: Mr A

Location: Broadford and Dunvegan, Isle of Skye, Scotland, UK

Scotland…the part of the British Isles that my parents fell in love with and retuned to for so many years of wonderful holidays, bird spotting, walking the hills when they could. To visit here and see some of the same places they must have gazed at in wonderment, as we are, is quite special.

Being stuck behind this truck carrying wood for several miles gave us a chance to admire the scenery

I’m an only child, no brothers or sisters to help keep memories alive, my daughters help me in that regard, but I’d love to just have one more conversation with my parents and ask all the questions I never asked when I thought they’d be here forever.

On the road over from the central highlands to the west coast we rounded a corner and there was this stunning sight to feast our eyes on.

A view that has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years
Incredible reflections
Skye is certainly showing us her best side with this incredible clear weather

Did my mum and dad see the same? Sadly I will likely never know, although I will be poring though my mum’s diaries when I go back to Australia. It’s a an evocative moment. Eilean Donan Castle is one of the more photogenic places we have set eyes on, almost rivalling the vista across Lake Bled in Slovenia for having all the ingredients that make us go “oooh”. Dating back to the 13th century, it was built to fight off the Viking invaders, then as a superb defensive position for warring Scottish clans. It even saw a group of Spanish soldiers assisting in the Jacobite rebellions use it as a base. It has been lovingly restored after being left in ruins for several hundred years, and now features in selfies from the coach loads of tourists pulling up to admire its beauty.

We arrived on the Isle of Skye via the road bridge that was opened in ‘95, and I could just hear my dad saying “Look Jill, look at that!”, as he nudged her in the ribs, seeing the soaring peaks of the island’s Cuillin range dropping down into the deep blue waters of the surrounding sea.

Our first view of the bridge and the Isle of Skye in the distance
Crossing over the bridge, wondering whether dad drove this exact same path…

We had identified a campsite on the edge of the small town of Broadford, which straddles along a wide bay and river mouth. It was time to pull on the walking shoes and head for the hills. But first of course the flask needed to be filled. I am clearly walking in my father’s footsteps in this regard as well. At one point he was a 15 cups of tea a day man, a little too much caffeine me thinks…we stick to the caffeine-free herbal variety.

Beautiful views out to sea at every turn
The delicate pink of the ever present heather adds a splash of colour to the green
More lovely views as we reach the next bay
Heading inland through a million shades of green
The next bay around is equally unspoilt
With every cloud the scene changes constantly
Local lady Isabel needed a hand with 15 year old Lucy who decided she wasn’t up for walking any more

The views were out to the mainland and across some small outlying islands, with tiny cottages on them, for fisherfolk I assume. It’s wild and wooly country and we love it. We didn’t strike as lucky though going into town to try and find that stereotype of the welcoming Scottish pub, complete with fiddle player. Instead we found a horrible place with slot machines and widescreen TV showing the football. Ah well…perhaps the next town?

The next day also dawned clear in the morning, apparently its been a very wet late summer, so the locals are finding this showery autumnal weather “quite nice”, wandering round in shirt sleeves when its 10 degrees. Being unused to what feels to us like sub-arctic temperatures we are all rugged up I can tell you. Catherine was busy writing up her notes from the conference she attended, so I grabbed the opportunity to head out on the bike for a ride. And what a ride it was, through scenery that made it one of the more memorable I have ever done.

My little Tinker and the cool but stunning scenery
Love where this little bike can take me

My iPhone and lack of skill with its camera just dont do it justice, and when returning back to Catherine I was so enthusiastic about what I’d seen we agreed to drive it the following morning. Later in the afternoon we took a stroll around the shore of Broadford, apparently the site of a Neolithic settlement (12,000 – 6,500 years ago) and many burial mounds, several dismantled over the years to use the rocks for houses and walls.

Looking out towards a fishing trawler in the bay
I wonder how many people over the past 12,000 years have admired this view
The clouds provide an ever changing scenery

Tuesday morning we retraced my stunning cycling path along the road from Broadford to the isolated road’s end at Glasnakille, a collection of a few houses, tiny primary school and a boat shed offering tours up the coast.

The blue skies belying the freshness of the morning
The Church of Christ (Cille Chriosd) – built in the early 1500s – it was superseded in 1840 and has since fallen to ruin
The single track road with a passing point ahead
The sheep are grateful for their wooly coats, at 10 degrees, it’s quite a brisk autumn day
A lovely spot for a tea break
The wind whistled across the water as we stood and admired the Cuillin Hills
Looking out to Cuillin Sound as we drive down the hill towards Glasnakille
A lovely Robin followed us on our walk through the tiny village
The little white building on the right is the tiny little school – we saw around 6 students chasing around the playground
Mrs A loving the scenery from behind glass!
The sun peeps out from behind a cloud, highlighting the hills for mere seconds before moving on to another location
There’s a bit of slow moving traffic on the road, you cannot be in a rush here

These end-of-the-world places have a magic feel to them. The road was single track, windy with a few unprotected drops into an icy looking ocean, but I’m a lot more confident driving Truffy knowing what he and I can tackle together.

We wandered up the coast, and ended up at the Talisker distillery. Now I’m a fan of bourbon, but have never managed to acquire a liking for that smoky single malt flavour of whiskey, but I keep persevering.

The oldest distillery on the Isle of Skye, Talisker has been here since 1830
Medicinal purposes only, at £55 a bottle we didn’t purchase

We tried a couple, I’m still not convinced, Catherine was pretty neutral as well, so no purchases made.

It was another drive round the coast until we found a campsite in Dunvegan with a lovely view across a loch. A little amble round the village revealed a few places to eat but nothing that really grabbed us, a pattern that’s emerging in Skye.

The walk into Dunvegan from our campground

Well, I hope my parents did see this part of Skye, it really is quite stunning. I’m going to tell myself they did and picture them sharing the pleasure we feel in seeing nature at its most scenic.

Truffy’s home for the night in Dunvegan
Sunset across Loch Dunvegan

25-27 September: Mrs A – making a difference

Author: The very lucky Mr A

Location: Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

As I write this blog the lovely Mrs A is standing in front of a room full of super smart top surgeons and other health professionals from around the world at the “Cutting Edge Laryngology” conference in Edinburgh this week, presenting on how the rare disease she suffers from (idiopathic subglottic stenosis) has impacted her life, and how she has fought back.

Catherine attended at the invite of Gemma Clunie, Clinical Specialist in Speech and Language Therapy at Charing Cross Hospital where Catherine is treated in London (Photo by Dr Justin Roe at the event)
Using metaphor to communicate what it is like to live with idiopathic subglottic stenosis (photo by Dr Camilla Dawson at the event)
Concluding with the power of nature to communicate how it feels to have your own body slowly suffocate you (Photo by ENT & Audiology News at the event)
A snippet of some of the incredible messages onTwitter for Gemma and Catherine’s presentation from medical professionals attending the session (Mrs A’s alter ego is @SparkySparkler)

For those unfamiliar with her story, she was diagnosed 15 years ago with this disease, and that was after several years of misdiagnosis. Being a researcher (a geek she bashfully says with that lovely smile) she turned to the internet for answers on how the disease is triggered (what had she done “wrong” to deserve it?), what treatment works and how to access it, and how to manage your life in the interim. There was almost nothing out there at the time, so in October 2009 she created a Facebook support group to see if she could connect with other people struggling with the same dearth of information.

Well after a slow burn, almost a decade later the group is now approaching 3,700 strong, thanks to endless hours of her nurturing and managing it and providing 24×7 support to fellow suffers around the world. Those who want and need to reach out and chat with others who are equally mystified, scared and often depressed about the lifestyle and health implications of having this life threatening and lifestyle inhibiting disease. In addition the group helps enable research into causes and treatments sponsored by medical universities, again something Catherine has driven and managed.

Idiopathic subglottic stenosis restricts the airway through scarring that builds up in the trachea (with no known cause) and creates difficulty in breathing. Sufferers just cant get enough air through their airway to function. The severity of their symptoms is dependent on how narrow the airway becomes, ranging from an irritating shortage of breath, to a blockage resulting in death. The rare disease affects 98% women – two in a million.

www.facebook.com/groups/IdiopathicSubglotticStenosis

What I want to underline though is the how the glass is always half full for some people, and Catherine is the perfect example of that. She could have sat back and accepted she was a “victim” of this disease, given up exercising, given up trying to find out what causes it. But she didn’t, and I think it’s an inspiring story for others.

When we are out and about on our wanderings around the world she seeks to connect face to face with the people she has got to know online. I’ve been at a number of these meetings over the years, and I can tell you I have heard them say thank you for everything from saving their lives, to saving their sanity. We’ve had some amazing experiences as a result of connecting with these people, and I guess that’s one big reinforcement for me that if you give of yourself, as Catherine has, you are rewarded in so many unpredictable ways. I think the most valuable for her is the sense of contribution that she is making. Most studies on happiness will point to a key driver for people who describe themselves as experiencing that elusive state of happiness as having a network of relationships in a community (work family or other) that value that contribution. That’s what she has created though her voluntary work, and its a credit to her.

Some of the lovely people Mrs A has met over the past decade through iSGS

The upsides of creating this group just keep rolling in, none of them looked for at the beginning, and none drive her now. For instance, we have met so many members of her group now in different countries. In Australia, New Zealand, the UK, in the US, Netherlands, Germany and Austria, all who have been so welcoming of us and help make our travel time in their country so much more enriched with local knowledge. We’ve made new friends and had an insight into lives across the world we never would have had otherwise.

Also the medical community that she has got to know have also been truly inspiring for her. They work so hard to help their patients, with often little feedback on when they succeed. She’s met some fantastic people this way as well, and all the emotionally richer for it.

I attended one of the social functions of the conference earlier in the week and watched Catherine working the room, talking to these medical experts, building her network, and ensuring that she is in the best possible position to continue to get their support when she needs it, to help out one or all of her group. She was awesome.

Mingling with a glass of bubbles

Illness rarely has an upside (or does it?), but she has made one in this case. I’ve watched her develop new skills, and leverage, deepen and broaden her existing ones.

So that’s really want I want to say, that Catherine is a model for me of the potential “up side” of being unfortunate enough to suffer from an illness and I am constantly learning from her how to be more positive when life sends its little curve balls. Also that social media is a tool, to be used like any tool – to help or hurt.

Thank you to everyone who supports her in this voluntary work, whether by words of encouragement on the Facebook group, or friends who give her a nod to the time, dedication and perseverance it has taken. Give her a big round please.

15-18 September: Spending time with family

Author: Mr A

Location: Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UK

We never get lessons on how to be a father. Some people just seem pre-programmed and naturally adopt the role, bringing their very best self to the challenge. Other people, like me, have found it a bumpy road, with many a stumble on the way.

This trip back to the UK has given me the opportunity to spend time with my daughters, my grandchildren, and my wife’s and friends families. It’s been precious time, where some of the most poignant memories of our whole trip have been formed. To see both my daughters turn into such incredible mums has been an absolute joy. To see how they have faced every challenge (and there have been many) head on and powered through. I’m so very proud of them.

Luke and James on the school run with Granddad

Parenting in this digital age seems have some unique opportunities and risks. There is never a shortage of on on tap entertainment for the “witching hour” when fractious little ones can be offered a screen to calm them down. But how much screen time do you give them? Are any taps being tuned off? The imagination required to entertain themselves? I’m certainly not qualified to answer that question, but it’s one I see many parents posing themselves.

As we supplement our face to face networks with digital ones, I think that also provides new opportunities and risks for parents with young children. Is the screen time an opportunity cost for building face to face friendships out in the street, or do the multi-player game platforms replace that? How do parents ensure there’s a balance between sitting and moving around? I watched my four grandchildren spending time together racing around screaming with joy and I know where I would put my bet.

There are some difficult choices for parents to make, with so much conflicting information about the risks and benefits to children of enabling their access to information and entertainment. How do parents equip them to filter what they see? Through censorship or education and guidance?

Granddad being pushed around by the youngest grandson James

I watch my daughters having to make decisions on these topics, with, from what I can read, very little good quality balanced content to help them.

Not much beats some real play time

Family relationships are rarely easy to navigate smoothly, ours being no exception, but I can only thank the much smarter than me Mrs A for her support and positive modelling as to how I can be a better father, grandparent and uncle. Always in her debt it seems!

12-15 September: Three old mates on bikes

Author: Mr A

Location: The Ridgeway – from Goring…heading west, Oxfordshire

Friendship – where would Homo Sapiens have been without it? There’s an argument to be made that the ability to form friendships is one of the most critical skills that has enabled the development of our species. Being able to co-operate across large groups has been fundamental to so much of what humans have achieved, and learning who you can trust and who will not let you down, is at the core of pretty much every big achievement. Humans didn’t build the pyramids, reach the moon, or invent Vegemite (Marmite?!) on their own. Friendships enabled groups of people who didn’t start off knowing each other to work together for a common goal without dissolving into a chaotic mob.

Making and keeping friendships has been central to my life. As an only child with two busy parents, I learnt at an early age I would need to find people who I liked to spend time with. At twelve years of age I made some friends at school who, over half a century later, are people who I love to hang out with, or in the case of this last weekend…ride a bike with.

Meet Andrew and John…

We gathered at one of their houses deep in the Hampshire countryside, embodying all that is good about rural England. Rolling hills, quiet byways, and pubs with great beer!

Our host Andrew had done a great job of organising our ride, trying out the route, getting his car to the end of the route so we could just do a one way trip, and most importantly, identify where the best spots were for a spot of lunching.

Andrew certainly found a great lunch spot

We were so fortunate with the weather, a crisp autumnal morning with blue skies greeted us. We set off in high spirits climbing up onto one of England’s famous old roads, The Ridgeway. It runs for over 140km though some surprisingly remote country in the heart of England.

Well our ride started a little slower than planned with some on trail mechanics being needed for some recalcitrant gears. I provided distant moral support, given my inability to wield a spanner without causing more damage than I solved.

Chief photographer at work

We needed to make up time, and cracked on across some spectacular scenery with nearly 360 degree views across the downs. A tea break was called for, in the time honoured fashion of English country gentlemen out on a jaunt. I had packed a little surprise (well quite a large one actually) to keep the wolf from the door.

Tea and chocolate…all is right with the world (thank you Jenny!)

We finally dropped down off The Ridgeway into a small village, where of course, there was a pub, and lunch was served. And then the old maxim of what goes down….must go back up…hit my two riding companions hard. They were on manual bikes, I did feel for them, it would have had to have hurt.

Beer and crisps!

The best thing about the ride, other than the beer, was the chatting to each other as we rode, often interspersed with some animated verbal sparring, in what passes for affection amongst Englishmen of a certain vintage.

Anyone resenting the ebiker at this point?

We made it to our planned end point having covered 40 miles (65km) of track that was fairly rough in places, so quite smugly hit the pub in the evening. It was a weary trio, well two of us especially so, and you wouldn’t have called it a rollicking night. Age showing its signs?

The next day was another big blue skies cracker, but due to some family commitments we only rode for half a day, again through some stunning countryside. Despite the late kick off we still managed to fit in two pub visits, so yes this was a pub crawl interspersed with some riding, the cynics would say.

Fabulous English countryside at its very best

We all left on Sunday all the richer for the memories of the time spent together. Friendships need nurturing, and digital time only goes so far. I feel privileged to have these people in my life, and all the other friends we have.

I lost a friend last year to depression, and I just didn’t understand it. Despite all the friends he had, that wasn’t enough to make life worth living. For me friendships are what gives life so much of its purpose. To see the smile of a shared joke, that’s really only funny because of the years you’ve had together. To feel the support when you’re in a tight spot, or the gratitude when you can return a favour. This is what makes us human.

Laughter really is the best medicine

Nourish your friendships, they are the family you chose…

5-6 September: And so back to the UK!

Author: Mr (and Mrs) A

Location: Dieppe to Newhaven ferry, English Channel, Europe

And so after just over 4 months touring Europe (we find ourselves already distinguishing that from the UK!) and we are on our way back to the UK. A time to reflect on our experiences.

We started Europe on a high, with a few days with friends (new and old) Champagne tasting
We feasted in a farmhouse in Provence

110 of those nights were spent camping, in all sorts of places from car parks in the middle of towns, ‘fancy’ (often not) campsites charging more than a hotel, vineyards, oyster farms, beside crumbling castle ruins…and so the list goes on. What those places had in common was a respect for other campers. Even when crowded together a metre apart, not once were we were disturbed by thoughtless noise from our fellow campers or passers by. In Australia, as our camping friends know, you’re lucky to go a couple of nights without some booze ot drug fuelled hoons running your serenity. A very different culture here, both on campsites and on the roads. We’ve loved that.

A vineyard with a view in Barga, Italy
Magical sight of Assisi complete with friendly cats
Seafront views complete with oysters in Brittany
A little bit of history in Normandy

What we’ve missed is the ability to just chat to people easily because we share a language. This morning my trip to the boulangerie went particularly smoothly, even ending up with what I thought I ordered, a rarity I have to say. There was a real sense of achievement in that, given my very sad state of linguistic ability. I spent French lessons at school being mostly slapped with a ruler by a very uninspiring educator. I will though miss being challenged to learn at least the basics to show courtesy to our local country hosts. But our UK friends and family beware, we are incoming with A LOT TO SAY!

Plenty of English spoken with friends in La Marche, Italy
New friends made in Austria
Old connections reestablished in Germany…

We have loved the variety of scenery and culture that Europe offers. You drive a few miles down the road and everything you see changes so fast. The landscape, the architecture, the farming, the signs (despite the EU’s best efforts), it’s a constant assault on the senses and we have loved it. The variety in the food as well, stacked up in supermarkets groaning with options. And please explain why you travel 20km down the road and go from one “country” to another and the food is completely different. How did that come to pass? Well I’m glad it did anyway. For us, Italy was an absolute standout winner on the dining-out front, quality, price, service, ambience…all just brilliantly executed. And on dining in, well we found great fresh produce everywhere, and the very talented Mrs A turned that into awesome lunch and dinners in our little Truffy.

From Italian hilltop villages…
….to fields of poppies….
To Lake Bohinj in Slovenia….
…and Slovenia’s Lake Bled…..
Alpine lakes in northern Italy
Incredible scenic cycleways in Austria

In the driving department (there’s only me working in that one), it was a little stressful to start with getting used to the dimensions of our Fiat truck, with its the manual gear box changed with the right hand (it is left hand drive), plus everything happening on the other side of the road. But…OK…settled into it. A few hairy moments, like driving into a tunnel in Italy having roadworks performed, which clearly didn’t involve fixing the tunnel lights, and seeing massive lorries thundering towards me in the other lane, usually reserved for traffic going the same way!! But I have to say while on the subject of Italy, the drivers there were some of the most courteous we encountered, overtaking in places I wouldn’t, but understanding of my constraints in Truffy. We had one horn honked at us in 4 months, I was a little cautious after the tunnel nightmare of every dark yawning hole that I approached…a little too carefully it would seem.

Finding somewhere to park for the night, even in the middle of the high season, never presented a problem. We didn’t always like the prices or the facilities, but there was always somewhere. France the clear winner here. Their network of places to pull up, refill with water, empty your grey and black water, is just fantastic, and many of these are free. We always tried to make sure we went into the town though wherever they were and spent some money, only fair. Many of these places were no more than scruffy car parks with a bit of kit in the corner that allowed for the emptying and filling, with various degrees of success and cleanliness. Mrs A was also an absolute wiz at researching all of these stopovers, allowing me to focus on getting us there in one piece. What a team!

Diverse scenery in Austria…
Our bikes that took us for literally hundreds of kilometres
Our packrafts allowed us to get away from the crowds and see some wildlife

So what would we have done differently? I asked Catherine this yesterday and we both agreed…very little. Splashed out on an awning for Truffy to keep us cooler, that’s about it. We also knew we had a great team in our dealer’s workshop to talk to if something went wrong with Truffy, which it rarely did. We loved the layout of the van, but more of that in a separate post. Having almost constant internet thanks to our 4G signal booster on the roof and a super plan from Vodafail…connectivity and therefore information was almost always on hand…well except in Germany where they seem to be strangely lagging in the internet department given their usual level of efficiency! Even the amount of time on the road felt right, if we hadn’t have had our stopovers “drive surfing” through France and Italy we think it would have been more challenging. As it was we got to stretch ourselves out every so often and move our elbows while having a shower…luxury.

A bit of drive surfing to celebrate a big birthday in Italy
And another big birthday celebrated in Croatia, island hopping by boat and cycling

So…friends-and-family time next and we are both really excited to be doing that. One thing we have noticed about writing this blog, our friends don’t feel they need to check in and share what they’re up to (or maybe it’s the excuse they’ve been looking for all along!?).) We have so much catching up to do.

Red legged bees in Slovenia

Then at the end October its back to Australia, our fur child and Aussie based friends. That also is something to look forward to. Retirement…the holiday that never ends. Or sorry I should say “career break” for Catherine. She gets a bit touchy if I say “we’re retired”. She’s clearly too young for that, and spends a chunk of her time volunteer-working on her role as admin for the health support group she runs along with research with doctors across the world. Much to admire in my wife…

4 September: Feeling reflective in Normandy…

Author: Mr A

Location: Longues-sur-mer & Rouen, Normandy, France

This is the first time I’ve seen the area that was the scene of the D day landings in 1944. I found it overwhelmingly sad, and could not understand the smiling selfies that people were taking next to the remnants of the carnage in which so many lost their lives. As was Germany’s leader said last year:

“…when the generation that survived the war is no longer here, we’ll find out whether we have learned from history”.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, 2018

Wise words indeed.

German weapons trained on the English Channel. Their purpose quite clear
These were designed to sink ships and kill soldiers

I saw that quote in this article published last year in The Guardian written by a 93 year old Polish survivor of the war. I keep re-reading it and finding new depth in the insights he has, both reflecting on his life, and providing some salutary observations on where our world may be headed.

To summarise, and not do his prose justice, Aronson is afraid the “armchair patriots” of today tap into the fears our baser nature has under the screen of firing up “national dignity”. There are clearly many people around the world receptive to their messages that somehow things would be better for them if their country took more care of its borders, and “preserved” their independence and grew their power as a nation.

I have never been close to experiencing any small scale conflict, let alone a war between nations, but I know how I was affected today seeing these relics and reading the information boards describing the horrific events that unfolded on those Normandy beaches. Of course by then there was no choice, the Third Reich had to be stopped. the world would have been ruled by a regime with a hatred for all that was not “Aryan”. I have nothing but admiration for those who stepped up and stopped them.

As Arinson says “Do not underestimate the destructive power of lies”. The world was almost destroyed by them and up to 85 million people lost their lives, and countless more their homes, family and friends. Lies are being spread even more efficiently today using platforms like the one I’m using for this blog. Lying, providing alternative truths, seems to have been socialised now as a “normal” way to communicate, when some leaders on the world stage don’t even bat an eyelid when doing so. They seek to fuel hatred of other groups who don’t share their views on culture, religion, or golf resorts. Yes, those of us who live in democracies get to have our say once every so often, but day to day we can also speak against these people and their lies.

The city of Rouen, suffered greatly while occupied by Nazi Germans in World War II
Rouen Cathedral, dating back to the 4th century, has been extensively restored
Detailed stonework on all the walls
Rouen was liberated from the Nazis in August 1944, a flag flown from the cathedral showing the extensive bomb damage to the city from Allied forces
The interior of the cathedral has also been restored
Wise men look over us, many still showing damage from shrapnel and the fires during WWII, a stark reminder of the longevity of scars
The streets of old town Rouen are also well restored
Claude Monet painted the city of Rouen extensively during the 1890s
Monet painted the cathedral in different lights…oh for simpler times…

2 September: Normandy – a wander up the coast

Author: Mr A

Location: Chateau de Regnéville, Regnéville-sur-Mer, Normandy France

I’ll say one thing about writing a blog, it does focus you to read a bit about where you’re passing through. It would be easy to just drift on through these places. Drive-by tourism I think its called.

Does this remind us a bit of an English coastal resort…except with sand not stones….
Straining to see across the English Channel
Clifftop walks rule
Carolles Plage – great rock pools

Take today for instance. We have been continuing to make our way up the north Normandy coast, and stopped for a bit of wander along the cliffs, looking north over the town of Carolles, before parking up for the night next to a castle ruins. Now if i hadn’t been writing this blog, I reckon I could have easily pulled away in the morning learning nothing more than what was on the info board at the castle. All it said really was that it was built in the 12th century, and for the next few centuries was a fighting base for either the French or the English, depending on who was on top at the time.

Google wasn’t much more helpful, on this particular pile of stones, but it did get me down various rabbit holes learning (or perhaps re-learning because I would have been taught this stuff at some stage!) about this little corner of the world that has had such a huge impact on my English heritage.

Truffy’s evening location
Chateau de Regnéville

I didn’t even know (remember from my…yawn…school history) that the word Normandy is derived from the description “Northmen” (or Vikings) who raided down this part of the coast, and eventually settled and inter-married (presumably after the raping and pillaging phase?), then were awarded lands by the French in return for bashing the English a bit.

A long abandoned fishing boat
La Sienne – the tide goes out a long way here
Sandbanks on La Sienne
Fabulous shadows

I guess the most famous bit of English clobbering from this part of the world happening on October 14th 1066 at..yes…the Battle of Hastings. The lovely Mrs A having gone to school there, would have heard our version of that little fisticuffs. Yup…French rule for poor old Blighty, the Norman Conquest as we called it. You’d think we’d have ended up with better food and nicer accents?

Here’s an exam question..if the French speaking nobility who lorded it over the English peasants for the next few hundred years, had forced them to learn their lovely language, what would have been the changes to history we would have seen? Frogs legs and a glass of wine as a Friday night supper, not prawn vindaloo and ten pints of lager? I admit to going down another rabbit hole and reading a whole series of answers to that question. The more you read, the more you realise the less you know. This trip has sure made me realise how woefully ignorant I am!

Is that the real purpose of travel?

And the sun sets on another day on the road

29 August: Puzzling over the mysteries of the Neolithic Carnac alignments…and eating oysters

Author: Mr A

Location: Locmariaquer and Carnac, Brittany, France

I went to a secondary school in England that was run by a headmaster who went on to make a better curator of Oxford museum than, in reflection, he did a headmaster of a boys school. I left school with very little passion ignited for learning. However, he did take us a on dig at a Roman villa near my home town, and that did stir an interest in ancient (rather than modern) history.

So when the opportunity presented itself to go and see the earliest known examples of megalithic architecture in Western Europe, I was excited! If you’re not really into that..I’d skip this post!

I’d spent some time over the last couple of days reading up about what the French call “The Carnac alignments”, a collection of megaliths (large stones that have been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or with other stones) that’s spread over the ancient Breton landscape. Oh the joys of retirement!

Let me attempt to summarise what’s known and what’s not about these structures. There are over 3,000 of these stone megaliths scattered around north-western Brittany. Before radiocarbon dating was introduced in the mid 1970s. archaeologists thought they were raised by the Celts, but they were around 6,000 years out. We now know the structures were cut and moved into place around 7,000 years ago! This makes them the oldest megaliths in Western Europe. As an aside, the oldest in the world are currently understood to be at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey at 11,000 years old. Not heard of it? You wouldn’t be alone there…and yet the relative youngster of Stonehenge (5,019 years) has such strong brand recognition. Cultural politics in archaeology maybe?

So we paid our few euros of an admission fee and had a wander around one of the main sites at Locmariaquer. It was one of those spine tingling moments when you see something that just defies your understanding of the world.

Drawings showing the reconstructed carvings on the stones, now heavily weathered. All carvings were in relief (ie the stone around the images chipped away, a HUGE amount of work, demonstrating the importance of the stones)
The large grave measures 30 metres long, for just one person…who were they?
The cairn/grave now containing the ‘Table de Marchand’ (Merchant’s table) was reconstructed in the 1990s – prior to this the stones were used as a parking lot and the ancient ‘table’ used for picnics for hundreds of years!
Entering the cairn
Inside the ‘table’ and stone slabs are protected from the elements once again. Carvings can be seen on the back wall and ceiling, dating back 7,000 years

For instance, there sits four large chunks of rock that have been proven from the carvings on each to have once belonged to a single megalith. It weighs over 300 tonnes, and was somehow transported over ten kilometres of rolling hills and across rivers.

Various experiments have been carried out over the years to try and replicate moving large stones to prove it can be done using logs and levers. In one such proof of concept a bunch of students and willing tourists were able to move a 30 tonne stone. But 300 tonnes…not that I can find. Logs just dont work apparently with that weight. And of course there must have been a solution, or it wouldn’t be there. But I think perhaps its as much a mystery as to how a Neolithic society had developed such a complex social structure to engage the huge amount of labour it would have taken, and kept them fed, motivated and organised.

Catherine stands beside the pieces of the toppled rock – estimated to have fallen 6,000 years ago during an earthquake

A piece of research published in February this year has at least shed some light on the spread of megalithic structures in Western Europe. The study analysed over 2,400 radio carbon ratings of megalithic structures across Europe and demonstrated that they spread up and down the then coasts of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, presumably from the initiative of a single seafaring culture.

We have still much to understand about how this “cognitive revolution” (as Yuval Harari calls it in his book “Sapiens”) took place. What prompted such a huge acceleration of social and technical competence in a relative short period of time? Homo Sapiens had been pottering around with basic stone tools for nearly 2 million years, then all of a sudden everything changes dramatically. Why? What was the impetus to this rapid development? Intrigued? Well I am…

Locmariaquer is a pretty seaside village, giving our first sight of the ocean since Croatia
Cobbled streets and blue and white accompany the fresh sea air
We feel Locmariaquer would be a great place to stop a while…but sadly there are no good sounding campsites
The clear waters and sea air is lovely

So we headed off to find a camp for the night and drove along the coast to an oyster farm in the village of Carnac we had seen listed on the France Passion scheme we belong to. Basically you can park up for free in return for tasting their produce.

We call in at the Alignments de Carnac on the way to our France Passion…there are literally thousands of these stones lined up in fields. What do they mean?

So we roll up and park up in front of this fabulous view across the bay, and go and buy ourselves two dozen of the local oysters, for the very good price of under €10. Now they were pretty nice, but I have to say Sydney Rock oysters take some beating! Perhaps we just been trained over the years to appreciate that creamy flavour. These were a little saltier, and went well with a crisp Italian white from Le Marche. We’re feeling particularly fortunate tonight to have this new view out of Truffy’s window.

How’s this for a free camp?
A beautiful little harbour metres in front of us
Wine and oysters…what more does one need?
Sunset is pretty awesome too
This is the definition of serenity….and breathe…..