Crossing the Ocean on a Tall Ship: What’s in Store for Me?

I’m about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, joining the crew of a tall ship to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. I’m in Bermuda right now, and in a few days time I’ll meet my ship, the Lord Nelson, and set off on a 31-day transatlantic voyage back to the UK. Although I’ve sailed before, the thought of crossing an ocean under sail leaves me feeling rather nervous (fantastically excited, but still quite nervous!).

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Lord Nelson under sail. Photo from Jubilee Sailing Trust.

When I visited the Adventure Travel and Outdoor Show in London at the start of February, I met adventure traveller Tori Howse, founder of Another World Adventures, who made a similar trip in 2011. So, I asked her a few questions to get an insight into what will be in store for me on board Lord Nelson, and what it will be like to sail across the ocean.

Tell me about your trip.

I sailed on the Bark Europa in October 2011, making a 27-day Atlantic crossing from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. I then spent 3 days in Salvador, but decided that I wasn’t finished with tall ship life, so I go back on board for another 18 days down to Uruguay.

 

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Bark Europa under sail. Photo Credit: Another World Adventures

Why did you decide to do it?

Sailing across the ocean had been on my ‘bucket list’ for a while. I’d done a little sailing before and loved being on the water, but it was a travel piece by a journalist who had sailed on the Europa before that really inspired me to do the transatlantic crossing. I just thought it sounded so romantic and exciting, and as a passionate environmentalist, I liked the idea of getting to South America without flying. I cut out the article and had it pinned on my wall at home for a couple of years before I decided to make it the starting point for my sabbatical in 2011.

What did you expect beforehand? Did it live up to expectations?

I was hoping to learn some new skills, meet interesting people and just disconnect from the world for a bit. I knew it would push me out of my comfort zone and I was interested to see how I would react.

The reality was it surpassed all expectations and remains without doubt one of the best travel experiences of my life.

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Don’t look down! The view from the rigging. Photo Credit: Another World Adventures

From the moment I stepped on board I was surrounded by a wonderful bunch of people from all walks of life, some of whom would become close friends and one my future business partner! The ship is beautiful, with traditional rigging, comfortable cabins, delicious food and space to relax. The professional crew of Europa are mainly Dutch, and are an incredible bunch; helpful, relaxed, and loads of fun, so you quickly gel as a team.

Before I joined the ship, I had been worried that I might get bored – but there was never a chance! Working a 24hr watch system meant I got to experience sailing the ship at all times of the day and night. From helming the ship to steer a correct course through a storm at night, to climbing up the mast to help set or strike the sails with amazing 360 views of the ocean, everyday was different. From the deck we saw the constantly changing sea and sky, watched wildlife including whales, dolphins and albatrosses, and at night experienced the sky lit up with millions of stars. We had a film night on board one night, and watched a film set at sea, sitting on the deck… at sea! It was surreal, and brilliant. My highlight was the day we turned the ship into the wind to slow her right down, and jumped overboard to swim with 3km of ocean beneath us!

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Sheets, lines and shadows on the sail. Photo Credit: Another World Adventures

Apart from the experiences and memories, the crossing also gave me some precious time to reflect and take stock. The lack of internet and phone signal was a wonderful chance to switch off and truly be present in the moment, with no ‘to do’ list. My world shrank to the boundaries of the ship, with no outside news or distractions. It was something that I had rarely experienced before and was very liberating.

Do you have any advice for people thinking about doing a trip like this?

My advice would be don’t put it off – just go! You won’t regret it. Go with an open mind, a willingness to learn and make new friends, and you’ll have an incredible time.

Packing: what did you take that was indispensable, and what do you wish you’d brought?

My main tip would be to remember that you’re going to encounter all kinds of weather, so take layers. Even if it’s hot and sunny in the day, it might get cold when you’re on watch at night. Other things I found indispensable were:

  • a sun hat and sun glasses
  • books to read, then swap with others
  • cards or a small board game (perfect to keep you awake on a late night watch break)
  • small torch (for finding your way back to your bunk after a night watch
  • a journal to write down all your amazing experiences
  • iPod and headphones (because nothing is better than watching the sun go down or rise over the ocean whilst listening to your favourite track)
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Europa at sunset. Photo Credit: Another World Adventures

Finally, what did the experience mean for you?

For me it was life-changing. On board I made a life-long friend, and together we set up a travel company, Another World Adventures, to help more people find epic adventures. I often think that the best experiences in life start with an active decision to do something out of your comfort zone, and for me it was one of the best ones I ever made.

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A Vagabond February

Where I’ve Been

My February was pretty quiet in travel terms, as I prepared myself for an epic trip I’m taking in March and April (more on that later). I spent several days working with the Ocean Youth Trust based in Southampton, as part of the refit team on their sail training vessel, John Laing, a 22metre-long custom-built sailing ketch.

After spending much of January preparing the boat, we were able to paint the keel, hull, deck and coach house. Layers and layers of paint, mixed and applied with precision, and she’s looking rather smart sitting in her cradle. A few more jobs, and she’ll be going back into the water at the start of March, ready to be rigged.

The Bear and I managed to get away for a few days to Staffordshire, staying close to the edge of the Peak District. We managed to rack up a couple of 20km plus walks, carrying our new backpack training for our TGO Challenge attempt in May, taking in parts of the Gritstone Trail and Staffordshire Moorland Way, joined by the Bear’s brother, Woo. We did consider camping, to add to the #30NightsOut total, but only very briefly; freezing temperatures overnight were up against Woo’s cosy house nearby and the chance to catch up with his family, Mummy J and Baby Sully.

 

Highlights

IMG_4142v2Getting towards the end of our walk on the Staffordshire Moorland Way, we arrived at a half-frozen Knypersley Reservoir just as the sun was setting. The temperature dropped as we walked through the woodland around the lake, just enough to catch your breath. Or maybe it was just that pretty.

 

News

The Telegraph Outdoor Adventure and Travel Show in London in the middle of the month was a great opportunity to listen to inspiring talks from explorers, and bask in the loveliness of Levison Wood of Walking the Nile fame. Although it feels that the main way into that type of career is serving in the Parachute Regiment or Royal Marines, my travel buddy Rach helpfully pointed out I do share the characteristic with them of “not really having a proper job”.

 

I’ve Been Reading/ Watching

Guy Martin. Crackin’.  Picture from Wikipedia.

This month I discovered Compass Cultura, an online travel magazine published monthly. Each issue has three long-form articles, of around 3,000 words each, that explore an idea, place or person in depth. There’s no advertising or sponsored pieces, and no Buzzfeed-style round-up lists. It’s quite refreshing to be immersed in a piece of well-written, compelling journalism. You can read one story for free each month, or subscribe for the full magazine, plus back-issues, and I urge you to check it out.

I’ve also been drawn in by Channel 4’s Our Guy in India, following motorcycle racer and all-round speed freak Guy Martin on a tour through India, from mountains and tea plantations in the north to the beaches of Goa. I’m a little bit in love with Guy, but it’s hard not to fall for his down-to-earth, cheeky-chappie personality, then be awed by his adventurous streak as he enters one of the craziest motorbike races you’ll ever see.

 

Best of the Blogs

Earlier in February I wrote about why I’m not a food blogger. Simply put, it’s because I like to eat and I don’t like to share, and am too lazy to cook and clean up after myself. But I do enjoy occasionally dipping into other travel blogs that write about food, just to see what they’ve got cooking, like Vanessa’s awesome pomegranate and mango salsa on Turnipseed Travel, or Niamh’s gluten-free buckwheat pancakes with plums and almonds on Eat Like a Girl.  I made a little bit of an effort for Pancake Day, with some basic pancakes spread thickly with Nutella.  They were gone before I could get my phone out of my bag to take a snap.

I’ve also really enjoyed reading about Emma’s exploration of the Oxford food scene on Gotta Keep Movin’. It’s a place I know well, but she’s given me a new side of the city to discover on my next visit.

 

My Most Popular Instagram

IMG_4190v2It was this one, of the interior of Litchfield Cathedral. An impromptu lunch stop on our route home from North Staffordshire.  The cathedral is famous for having three spires, and seeing intense fighting during the English Civil War.  Holes from musket fire are still visible in the outer walls, which look a little like this:

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Coming Up Next Month

As you read this, I’ll be on the verge of taking part in my biggest trip for a long time. At the very start of March, I’m flying across the Atlantic to the heavenly holiday hotspot of Bermuda, famed for its coral reefs, pink sand beaches and rum cocktails. How lovely does that sound? Mark Twain is claimed to have said, “You go to heaven if you want – I’ll stay here in Bermuda.”

Unfortunately I can’t stay there forever, but I will be leaving the islands in style, on board TS Lord Nelson, a three-masted barque owned by the Jubilee Sailing Trust. “Nellie” as she’s affectionately known, is unique in the world of tall ships (along with her sister-ship Tenacious), in having been designed with accessibility in mind, allowing people with different physical abilities to sail together on equal terms.

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Lord Nelson. Photo from the Jubilee Sailing Trust.

I’ll be part of Nellie’s crew for an Atlantic crossing, taking her from Bermuda back to Britain, arriving into Southampton in mid-April, after 30 days or so at sea. It might be a little quiet on the blog and social media over that period, but keep a look out for updates and for a full-account of the adventure once I get back.

Thanks for following These Vagabond Shoes. For real-time updates (when I have connection with the outside world!) you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

5 Classics of Travel Writing

readinginbedI’m much more a fan of reading non-fiction than fiction, and my favourite genre is travel writing. A well-crafted piece of travel writing, whether it takes the form of a journal, essay or more literary piece, transports you to a different place and time, revealing things previously unknown to the reader or capturing the beauty of the everyday that we often miss in our busy lives. Here are five of my favourites:

 

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

This is most certainly a travelogue, but not one in any ordinary sense. Rather, In Patagonia is a collection of snapshots and sketches from Chatwin’s wanderings, readings and imaginings of the region. Meetings with descendants of Welsh immigrants fill pages next to an account of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s retirement, which sit alongside thoughts on Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and the mythological giants imagined by Magellan. Dispensing with a narrative or plot, the reader is instead privileged to dip in a vast and curious pool of information. The stark Patagonian landscape serves as a cipher for the end of the road, for lands remote and imagined, and the array of characters Chatwin encounters (both historical and present), for those drawn to the ends of the earth for exploration, escape and enterprise.

Buy it here.

Monte FitzRoy in Patagonia. Photo from Wikipedia

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Thesiger is often described as an anachronism, his education at Eton and then Oxford, and his dogged determination to discover what lay within the blank spaces on a map, harking back to the gentlemen explorers of the Victorian Era, obsessed with colonisation and Empire. However, he distinguishes himself by immersing in the culture of the people he encounters, travelling for the sake of the experience, and his lyrical and articulate writing. Arabian Sands is his account of five years spent crossing and recrossing Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Arabia in the mid-1940s, accompanied by nomadic Bedu camel herders. Thesiger was also a talented photographer, and the images in the book capture a way of life on the brink of extreme change.

Buy it here.

Thesiger in Abu Dhabi in 1948. He donated over 5000 photographs of his travels in the Middle East to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Photo from Pitt-Rivers Museum.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Nobel laureate Steinbeck’s novels capture the voices of early 20th Century America, reflecting on his broad range of interests, from history to politics to ecology. In 1960, Steinbeck set out on a road trip in a fitted-out pick-up truck with Charley, his standard French poodle, to document the changes that had occurred across the States throughout that period, and connect with the identity of a new America. Much has been made of the truth of the account, with Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine, having been present for most of the journey yet largely absent from the book. Studies have since revealed that a number of events and encounters were fictionalised, but I feel Steinbeck deals with the issue, meditating on how personal experience shapes a person’s reality. The writing is as good as you would expect from such a renowned author, and there’s Charley, the travelling companion we all dream of.

Buy it here.

John Steinbeck and Charley on the road in 1950. Photo from The Guardian.

News from Tartary by Peter Fleming

In 1935, Fleming, then an editor for the Times, set off on an overland trip from Peking (now Beijing) in China to Kashmir, then in British India, by horse, camel and on foot. Tartary, an area corresponding to a vast swathe of Central Asia, had long been subject to influences from China, Russia and the British Empire in a period referred to as “The Great Game”, yet at the same time was a black hole in terms of most Westerner’s knowledge. With the Soviet Union supporting a communist uprising in Xinjiang, no news had been gathered from the region for several months before Fleming’s journey. The writing is crisp, with a wry humour, although readers should be aware some passages are very evocative of their era.

Buy it here.

Photograph of a Madrasa in Samarkand taken c. 1912. Photo from Wikipedia

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry is best known as the author of The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), a set text for many students of French, but he was also a pioneer of aviation, flying the airmail routes between Europe, North Africa and South America in the 1920s and 30s. In 1935, whilst attempting to beat the record for a flight from Paris to Saigon, he and his navigator crashed into the Sahara. Surviving the crash and lost in a sea of sand, they face a drawn-out death from dehydration. This experience is recounted in Wind, Sand and Stars, part memoir of early aviation and part meditation on the human condition. This is powerful, lyrical storytelling, rich with observations on love, beauty, adventure, life and death. In my opinion, this slim volume is as near perfect as a piece of travel writing can be.

Buy it here.

Saint-Ex and his aircraft. Photo from The Guardian.

 

Which classic travel books have inspired you?

 

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you follow them to buy a book I recommend, I get a small payment from the company, at no charge to you whatsoever. It helps keep my book habit going.

Why I’m Not A Food Blogger

1. I rarely take photographs of food, because by the time I think about getting my camera out, I’ve already eaten it. But on the upside, my food is always hot (unless it’s not supposed to be).  Such as this lovely Lebanese meal I had recently in London.  Grilled chicken, flatbreads, halloumi cheese, and baba ghanouj for dipping.  I think it’s baba ghanouj, but that might have been the name of a band I saw in Greece.  Or maybe that was imam baildi?

 

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2. I can cook pretty well, but the things I cook rarely look pretty enough to bother taking pictures of them. However if the food tastes good, I don’t really care. So, here’s a rare photo of some haggis, neeps, and tatties from the Burns supper I had last month. I’m sorry that you only get to see the cold leftovers in a tupperware tub.  But it was YUMMY.

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3. I maintain a healthy mistrust of most vegetables. Growing up in the north of Scotland, choice was pretty limited; cabbage, kale, parsnips and carrots. Oh, and neeps*. Christmas dinner had potatoes served TWO different ways – roasties and mash. Perhaps cauliflower cheese for a special meal. I don’t think I’d heard of celeriac until I was in my 20s, let alone eaten it.

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Tomatoes. Made of genuine evil. kton25 on creative commons

4. I’m pretty happy to eat what I’m given, and not really know what’s in it or how it made. I really don’t mind. I once ate a mystery meat kebab that someone passed through the bus window to me in Ghana. It was LUSH. And that’s baba ghanouj? Hmmm, mushy. That’s ok. And is it baba ghanouj or baba ghanoush? Does it matter so much?  Let’s all enjoy our hummous/ hummus/ hoummos together.

 

5. I don’t think I’ve eaten anything that couldn’t be improved with the addition of a massive dollop of horseradish sauce. ANYTHING. Plus, I hate washing up far more than I love cooking.

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*In North America, neeps go by the more exotic name of rutabaga. It makes me feel very cosmopolitan to say “rutabaga”, despite the rutabaga being one of the least cosmopolitan of vegetables.

Extinct is Forever: Why We Need to Save #JustOneRhino

I saw a rhino the other week. Out on training walk for the TGO Challenge, I took a footpath that led me along the edge of the nearby safari park, letting me look through the heavy security fence, and watch as it trundled over the plains of Bedfordshire.

It was a white rhino. Although it wasn’t remotely white; rather a dark grey. Not even the pale sort of grey, the grey that you might be able to call off-white in the wrong light. Just plain dark grey. Its name actually comes from a mistranslation of the Afrikaans for wide, referring to the animal’s mouth, which is wider than that of the black rhino. Incidentally, the black rhino is also dark grey in colour, although they just happen to be very slightly darker shades of grey than the white rhino. Continue reading

The Caldera Clifftop Hike on Santorini

Santorini1Santorini was once a single island, rising in the centre to a beautiful cone-shaped peak (like Fujiyama in Japan, or Taranaki/Mount Egmont in New Zealand). Along with Crete, it was at the heart of the Minoan civilisation; a culture that dominated the eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze age, until a cataclysmic volcanic eruption about 3,500 years ago.

SantoriniHike2The cone of the volcano burst open, spewing smoke and ash high into the atmosphere. The explosion would probably have been heard as far away as Scandinavia and Central Africa, Gibraltar and the Persian Gulf. The mass of rock thrown skyward formed a vast caldera, into which the sea flooded. Giant waves generated by the blast swept across the Mediterranean, as the fragments of the island were buried under a white-hot blanket of dust and debris.

Today, Thera, the largest island of the Santorini archipelago, is a remnant of that catastrophe. Sheer cliffs, banded with charcoal grey, rose pink and rust brown strata, rise from indigo water on the eastern side of the drowned crater, catching that famous sunset in their curves. A hiking trail snakes along the rim of the caldera between the island’s capital, Fira, and the picture-perfect village of Oia, on the northern tip of the island.

SantoriniHike1We started the hike early to beat the heat of the day (As a pale-skinned Scot, I wilt in midday sunshine). With dawn creeping up the sky, the sounds of the waking island filled the air. Crowing roosters, barking dogs, and the tolling of church bells more rhythmic than melodic. The sunrise washed over us as we made the short climb through the winding lanes of Fira, spilling down into the caldera as we reached the rim.

Far below, water taxis cast off from the harbour, heading out to meet the first cruise ship to arrive into the caldera. Donkeys mustered at the bottom of cliff, ready to transport passengers up the seemingly endless zig-zag trail. Cleaners and handymen buzzed around rooftop terraces and infinity pools, preparing for the day ahead, but heading away from the centre of Fira, things quietened down considerably.

SantoriniHike3We took a diversion in the village of Imerovigli to walk out to Skaros Rock, a fin of rock protruding out from the caldera rim, topped with a reddish rocky chunk that wouldn’t look out of place alongside the mesas of Monument Valley. It once boasted a fortified citadel, long destroyed by earthquakes that accompanied eruptions in the centre of the caldera. All that remains is the tiny chapel of Agios Ioannis Apokefalistheis, clinging to the side of the cliff a hundred metres or so below.

Rejoining the main trail, we passed a number of exclusive hotels and apartments heading out of the village, barely spotting any other people. The exception was an Asian woman in a gorgeous and elaborate bridal gown, choreographing her photoshoot against the backdrop of the view. I don’t think her groom/cameraman was going to be allowed to to feature in any of the shots.

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SantoriniHike6Leaving Imerovigli, we were joined by a dog taking himself for walkies, who we named “Sausages”. He seemed particularly nonchalant about that development, and eventually left us to pursue a female dog taking a walk in the other direction.

Once out of the villages, the trail snaked through the cinders along the caldera rim. Scrubby bushes lined the route, providing shelter for lizards that scarpered out of the way as we passed by, before returning to bask in the sunshine. It wasn’t until we reached the chapel above Oia that we met others on the trail; two birdwatchers engrossed in watching a merlin (a small hawk) search for prey on the hillside. They’d picked a great spot, with a panoramic view of the sugar-cube houses of Oia arranged haphazardly along the spine of the island, framed by the blue Aegean. The island of Therasia mirrored Oia, with a snowdrift of white buildings spilling across terraces of rock.

SantoriniHike7From this point, the trail drops steadily into Oia, where it runs into the main “street” and on through winding lanes to the remains of Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village. We stopped into a café for a long, leisurely brunch with a couple of frappés (the real Greek coffee!) before exploring the village, soaking up the gorgeous sea-views and people-watching, whilst trying to identify the easy listening covers of popular music of the café soundtrack. Amongst the constant flow of tourists (identifiable from their leisurely walking pace), we spotted another two Asian brides, marching purposefully between vantage points to capture shots with the best backdrop.

 

What to see in Oia

  • The most famous photographs of Oia seem to be taken from Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village, where you have a panoramic view across the village, including the famous windmills, and over to the island of Therasia.
  • The picturesque port of Amoudi, at the bottom of 300 steps below Oia, is the place to go for fresh fish, and even to take a dip in the clear water.
  • Atlantis Books. I know I find I hard to walk past a bookshop, but this is a real delight. It stocks books in Greek, English, German, Spanish, French, from fiction to philosophy.
  • Beautiful Asian women in wedding dresses. I don’t know if it’s a thing, or my visit coincided with a magazine photoshoot, but I spotted at least 6 different brides in places around the village.

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Important information

Depending on exact start and finish points, the trail is 10 to 12km in length, with the hike taking around 3 hours, depending on fitness, how relaxed you make your pace, and how often you stop to stare with amazement at the stunning panoramic view.

SantoriniHike5The trail is pretty obvious, so you don’t need a map, although if you don’t look ahead at some points it’s possible to make a wrong turn and end up on edge of a busy winding road. The ground underfoot is uneven, and the trail rises and falls as it winds along the clifftop, so suitable footwear is recommended (volcanic cinders and sandals don’t work well together). There is little escape from the sun on the route, so carry plenty of water and remember sunblock and all that sort of thing (as I try not to sound too much like your mum).

SantoriniHike8The hike can be done either direction, but if you’re hiking in the afternoon, consider walking from Fira to Oia, arriving in time for the sunset. Just bear in mind this is a popular destination and you may have to share your spot with a crowd. However, sunset views are just as impressive everywhere on the caldera edge.

Buses for the return journey depart regularly from the square in Oia, and are cheap (1.60euros).SantoriniHike11

A Vagabond January

To help meet my goal of being more focused on work, and in the rest of my life, I’ve been noting down little achievements in my journal. But without taking time to revisit what I’ve done and reflect on milestones I’ve passed, I’ll never maintain the momentum I had at the start of the year. So each month I’m aiming to publish a review of what I’ve been up to.

Where I’ve Been

I kicked off my #30NightsOut challenge to spend more time outdoors in 2015 with a Hogmanay camping trip with a few friends to White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire. Huddled round the campfire, we celebrated the New Year with a feast of ribs, corn on the cob and sweet potatoes roasted on the fire, and washed down with a few glasses of bubbly. We were able to watch several firework displays from our vantage point, until wind and drizzle forced us to bed in the wee hours. Grotty weather put paid to our plans to climb the hill in the morning, so we retreated home to the comfort of pyjamas, duvets and endless cups of tea.

I’ve entered the 2015 TGO Challenge, a demanding backpack across Scotland from coast-to-coast, that will take place in May. The Bear (my bf) and I are going to hike for approximately 14 days, so we’ve been out on several training walks in the countryside of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

I’m not really one for sitting about, as you might gather, so while I’m looking for work, I’ve got myself involved in a project with the Ocean Youth Trust based in Southampton. I’m working with a team over the winter to refit their sail training vessel, John Laing, a 22metre-long ketch custom-built to be able to sail anywhere in the world. So far, my jobs have been rather dusty as we strip back old paint, ready for a fresh coat.

Highlights

After a hard day of sanding on John Laing, I escaped out to the pretty village of Lymington in the heart of the New Forest for a walk across the wintry heathland. The pale silvery sunset looked like it might promise some snow, but all we got was a crisp hard frost that turned the heather crunchy.

News

I visited the Adventure Travel Show in London on the 18th January. It was exciting to browse the stands and see travel options available, but the most inspiring part of the day was listening to talks from people like Benedict Allen and Ann Daniels. I was particularly inspired by a talk by Russ Malkin about filming his travels, and really want to try some of his tips for myself.  Just need to get a camera…

I’ve Been Reading

I’m a massive bookworm. Getting stuck into a good read is just one of life’s pleasures, and I particularly love books that explore a topic in exquisite detail. Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland is a spell-binding examination of the connection between forests and fairytales, and how both have shaped the culture and experience of Northern Europeans like myself. Each chapter ends with Maitland’s retelling of a familiar tale.

As a lighter diversion, I also read Sihpromatum: I Grew My Boobs in China by Savannah Grace, which I picked up as a Kindle freebie. A self-published memoir written for young-adults, this is a coming-of-age tale that charts Grace’s transition from a whiny, self-centred teen to a young adult with a wide-eyed wonder about the world.

I’ve also spent a lot of my usual reading time this month listening to the BBC podcast of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Quite frankly, big books feel a little daunting to me (perhaps from the time I dozed off and dropped the hardback copy of A Game of Thrones on my face, giving myself a black eye), but the hour long chunks of the story have been perfect, and I can lie back on the sofa and daydream of the drama and romance of Tsarist Russia without worrying about injury.

Best of the Blogs

This month I shared an account of the time I set out on a trip to explore Oslo, and only managed to spend time in the hotel before flying out again. Visiting Scandinavia at this time of year is likely to mean snow and freezing temperatures, but these tips for making the best out of winter travel curated by Turnipseed Travel will inspire you to get out into the cold. Closer to home, I enjoyed following the bloggers that took part in the #blogmanay experience, in particular these stunning pictures of Glencoe by Finding The Universe. But if getting knee-deep in snow really isn’t your thing the naughty guide to winter in London by Girl vs Globe might be more up your street.

My Most Popular Instagram

IMG_3651v1This shot of the Parthenon, at the top of the Acropolis, is a flashback to my time in Athens for the TBEX Conference in October last year.

Coming Up Next Month

I’ll be obsessing over maps in February, as I put together my route across Scotland for the TGO Challenge, and send it off for approval from the event co-ordinators on the 14th. I’ll also be out for some more long training walks and to test some of the equipment I’m planning on carrying.

I’ve got a short-break to the Peak District planned for the start of the month, which is bound to include more hiking. Depending on conditions, I might also be tempted to spend a night under canvas for my #30NightsOut challenge, although I’m keeping my fingers crossed for snow and the excuse to find a good pub with a roaring fire at the end of the day.

That’s it for this month. Thank you for following These Vagabond Shoes. For real-time updates from my adventures, you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

These Boots are Made for Walking

RoutePlan12015 will see me take on what will certainly my biggest challenge yet, as I aim to complete the The Great Outdoors (TGO) Challenge in mid-May. The TGO Challenge is a self-supported trek through the Highlands of Scotland, crossing from the west coast to the east coast within 15 days. It will be a test of stamina and endurance, not to mention my ability to pack light and the qualities of “suck it up” and “get on with it”.

Unlike many other long-distance treks, the TGO Challenge doesn’t follow a way-marked trail on its route from west to east. Participants start from any one of 13 sign-out points in towns and villages on the west coast, and finish anywhere along the east coast of Aberdeenshire or Angus, between the towns of Fraserburgh in the north and Arbroath in the south. The route between those two points is entirely down the the participant, and can be as demanding* and long as you choose to make it.

The 2015 event will be the 36th TGO Challenge, with around 300 participants taking part. Many not for the first time either; I’ve found a couple of names on the list that will be attempting the challenge for the 23rd or even the 26th time! Participants are travelling from all over the world to take part, including Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and even New Zealand. We’ll be in good company.

Gourdon Harbour in a winter storm.  If I stand at this point long enough the tide will come in, and I won't have to end my trip scrambling over seaweed covered rocks to reach the water.
Gourdon gutty harbour in a winter storm. Stand here long enough and the tide comes in, so there’s no need to end the trip scrambling over seaweed covered rocks to reach the water.

Since receiving confirmation of my place in the Challenge in November, I’ve been poring over maps and guidebooks to work out the route I want to take. The choice of an end point was an easy one as my parents live on the Aberdeenshire coast, in a little fishing village called Gourdon, right in the middle of the finishing area. Not only does it have a good pub, the Harbour Bar, with a chippy, Hornblower’s, just next door, I’ll also have good access to a bed, hot shower, comfy sofa, and WiFi; exactly what I’ll need after two weeks of trekking and camping in the wilds of the Scotland. (If I’m really lucky, someone might also do my laundry, but I better not push it at this stage of the plan).

To balance out my familiarity with the end of the route, I thought I’d start in a place I’ve never been to before. There’s a few options on the list, mainly the more remote and rural, but as we’ve got to travel up from the south of England to start the challenge we need somewhere fairly easy to get to using public transport. We’ll take the overnight sleeper train to Glasgow to start our journey north, then take the route to Fort William.

MuddyBoots1From there, I’ve opted for a TGO Challenge start in the fishing port of Mallaig, at the far end of the scenic West Highland Line. It’s a place I’ve visited several times before, but one thing I’ve never yet managed to do is take the small ferry to the village of Inverie, on the remote Knoydart peninsula. Although part of the mainland of the UK, the village of Inverie is not connected to the national road network, and getting to and from the nearest towns involves either a ferry trip to Mallaig, or a 25km (16 mile) hike through the “rough bounds” to Kinloch Hourn.  It’s also home to the Old Forge, the most remote pub on the British mainland.

Now I just need to join the dots between the two points**. It’ll only be approximately 290km (180miles) from one to the other.

What am I doing?

 

*Bear in mind, even without side-tracks and summits along the way, participants undertake a demanding hike for several days on end in remote backcountry, and contend with the notoriously fickle Scottish weather.  And most likely, the ferocious Scottish midge. 

** Plus some training hikes to break in my new boots.  And practicing my navigation skills.  Oh, and sorting out all the kit I’ll take.  Then throwing half of that out my rucksack when I find its too heavy to lift.  And testing some dehydrated hiking rations.  I’m sure there’s something else, but I just can’t remember right now…

5 Books to Celebrate Burns Night

AmReading1I’m thinking about all things Scottish this week, after a Hogmanay promise to host a real Burns supper for friends on the 25th. Although the food forms the centrepiece of celebrations, a Burns Night isn’t complete without performances of some of the poet’s best-loved works, classic poems and songs. So, inspired by these great works of literature, this month I’m giving you a selection of some of my favourite works of modern Scottish fiction to influence your visit to Scotland. Sorry, not a single time-travelling kilted warrior included.

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Thor Heyerdahl, 100 Goats and a Viking Wedding: Why I Didn’t Visit Oslo

It’s long been an ambition of mine to see Kon Tiki, the balsa raft that carried Thor Heyerdahl across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia, and captured my imagination as a child reading his account of the adventure. The original raft was wrecked on a reef in the remote Tuamotu archipelago, ending the 101-day voyage, but a replica is the centrepiece of a museum in Oslo dedicated to Heyerdahl and his expeditions. Nearby are other boats that I want to see, the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, in the Norwegian Viking Ship Museum, and Fram, the expedition ship that took Fritjof Nansen north, and Roald Amundsen south, on their quests for the poles. (I like boats, ok?)

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Oslo Waterfront from the Opera House. Photo Credit: ïCliff on creative commons

My plan was pretty straightforward. Sign off from Draken Harald Hårfagre at the end of the summer’s expedition, and catch the coastal ferry from Draken’s home port of Haugesund to Bergen. Train to Oslo, a seven and a half-hour journey considered to be the most scenic route in the world. Arrive in the evening, check into the hostel, stretch my legs walking in Viglandsparken Sculpture Park. Spend the following day at the museums, explore more of the city, then fly home the next morning. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I love it when a plan comes together.

And yet I was here. Midnight was long gone, and my sandals were attempting to follow. Cold mud oozed up between my toes as I stood in a dark field. Below on the hillside I could pick out the outline of a barn, lit by candle lanterns and flaming torches.
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