At the end of March I packed up my stuff to move house again, after a winter in Aberdeen, to relocate to Ballater, in the heart of the area I cover as part of my job as a seasonal ranger for the Cairngorms National Park. I’m glad to be back on Deeside, and have some fantastic locations to visit available right from my doorstep.
The weather early in spring was stunning; bright warm afternoons following crisp mornings where the temperatured dropped below freezing overnight. Perfect conditions to get out on some of the walks around Ballater, like the Seven Bridges route along the side of the River Dee.
If you’re serious about spending any length of time outdoors, then it’s essential to be prepared for wet weather. Even in the height of the summer season showers and persistent rain can be forecast (there’s a reason our countryside is so green and lush in the UK), and quickly turn a fine day out in the hills into a miserable slog if you haven’t packed your waterproofs.
While a waterproof jacket is probably the most important piece of your kit, you’ll be thankful for a good pair of waterproof trousers to give additional protection from the elements and keep you comfortable for longer.
So what do I want from a pair of waterproof trousers? Obviously, they need to keep the wind and rain out, but in most cases, they’d stay tucked up in my pack in hopes of fine weather, so need to be lightweight and packable. Once the heavens open, they need to be simple and quick to pull on, so long zips are important, and other features I’d look for in my waterproof trousers would be POCKETS! and vents or two-way zips.
How I tested the Rab Firewall Pants
I think I gave Rab’s Firewall Pants extremely thorough testing, well beyond the usual realms of outdoor equipment testing. I rocked a pair of these waterproof trousers during the 19/20 season at Port Lockroy, Antarctica, and thoroughly put them through their paces, wearing them daily for around 12 hours at a time over the four months of our season.
In general, the conditions I experienced were relatively mild, given our extreme location; temperatures ranged between -7°C and + 15°C, though winds reached in excess of 40 knots on occasion, and we experienced days of persistent heavy rain and occasional blizzard conditions.
Well, like most of us, the answer for this season is nowhere much.
I returned to the UK from Antarctica in mid-March, via Ushuaia and Buenos Aires, before spending a week in Cambridge to wrap up the season for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. We reached the UK just as international travel restrictions came into place, and followed the difficulties that our friends on ships faced from afar.
It was a challenging couple of weeks as we reconnected to the rest of the world and remembered how to do all the little everyday things that had been absent from our lives over those 110 days. On top of that was the added strangeness of adjusting to our new normal in the time of corona, and it now feels like it was just a lucid dream.
I headed up north to my parent’s place in Aberdeenshire, where I could live in the caravan at the end of the garden and be useful while they shielded my elderly granny in the house. Reuniting with family wasn’t the hugs and long conversations I’d imagined, but waving through the window as I stood outside in the garden, and chatted through WhatsApp.
The COVID-19 lockdown in the UK was put in place the day I arrived home, and I’ve been here ever since.
What I’ve done
Over the Easter weekend, I took to the garden for a few nights of camping out. As well as being up to watch the sunrise and listen to the dawn chorus, it also prompted me to finally get round to fixing the slow puncture in my air mat.
I’ve been really fortunate in that I live in a rural area, and have plenty of opportunities to get outdoors for exercise and to explore the nature on my doorstep. I’ve got a blog post in the works about that, which should go live at the end of June to include notes about #30DaysWild.
I used my time to volunteer for the Slow Ways project, an initiative to create a network of walking routes connecting settlements. Walking has immense benefits for health and wellbeing, for individuals and for communities, and integrating it into everyday life is a positive solution towards tackling the climate and ecological emergencies. I mapped around 50 routes in northern and northeast Scotland to contribute towards a total greater than 100,000km.
In mid-May, I should have been taking part in the 41st TGO Challenge, to cross Scotland from west to east. I’d decided on a more challenging route than last year, starting in Morar and taking in more hills on the way to Montrose. Instead, I joined with other would-be challengers in the first-ever #virtualTGOC, sharing stories and pictures from the last 40 years of the event and gathering inspiration for future years in the hills.
I was rather late to the sourdough party, but I was given a starter at the end of May and started to experiment. My first loaf could have done with a hatchet to break through the crust, but my cinnamon buns (Norsk kanelboller) were pretty good, and my rosemary and garlic focaccia was next level.
Around the same time, I was able to find work locally, starting as a fruit picker on a nearby farm. It’s not what I would choose to do, but at the moment it’s something, and will help to tide me over until my next opportunity for working or travelling is realised.
My Spring love list
Book: With the extra time available, I’ve finally read several of the books that were lingering in my “to be read” pile for some time, including most of these. My favourite read so far this year has been Horizon by Barry Lopez.
Magazines: I’ve recently discovered Sidetracked magazine, which combines incredible adventure and outdoor photography with inspired long-form storytelling. Dipping in for a read is pure escapism.
Film: Like everyone else, I’ve watched quite a few films during the lockdown. The one I’d most like to recommend was the incredible Climbing Blind, a documentary about Jesse Dufton as he aims to be the first blind person to lead a climb of the Old Man of Hoy, a sea-stack in Orkney. If you’re in the UK, you may still be able to catch it in the iPlayer.
Clothing: I really haven’t been wearing a great variety of things over the last couple of months. I’ve mainly been alternating between my fancy Seasalt pyjamas and Port Lockroy hoodie, and my running gear. It’s pretty strange wearing proper clothes again. And shoes, woah!
Equipment: Spending so much time on my own has been strange, after sharing the close living conditions of Port Lockroy and the even closer conditions on Irene of Bridgwater. I think its the quietness I find the hardest, so I love having the radio on in the background. I treated myself to a Roberts Play DAB digital radio, to make sure I can get BBC6Music as I read or write.
Before leaving for Antarctica I ordered a new case for my laptop but didn’t factor enough time for delivery. So on my return, I had a fabulous parcel waiting from Makers Unite, an inspiring Dutch social enterprise working with people from refugee backgrounds, teaching skills in product design and manufacture. My laptop case is made from recycled lifevests that were used in migrant travel.
Treats: It’s been hard avoiding the temptation of endless snacking during lockdown, so I’ve been making a conscious effort to be aware of the cookies, cakes, and chocolate I’ve been consuming. I’ve been setting a target of no sweet snacks until mid-afternoon, then stopping whatever I’m doing to make a pot of my favourite Russian Caravan tea to go with the treat.
What have you been up to over the last season? How has being in lockdown affected you?
I’m always here if you want to chat or leave a message in the comments below;
I’d love to hear from you.
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*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
I finished working on Irene in early September, after a beautiful few days sailing around Falmouth, visiting Charlestown, St. Mawes and the Helford River, and headed up to Cambridge for a week of training with theUK Antarctic Heritage Trust. It was an intense week, with a lot of information to take in, but an exhilarating experience as we covered a lot of the practical and theoretical stuff necessary for living and working in Antarctica.
The training week was followed up by a lot of online courses and independent research. I’ll write more about the training and preparation I’ve undertaken for my role at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy soon, but I think nothing will actually come close to the experience of arriving and setting foot on the island for the first time.
At the end of September I headed to the Brecon Beacons, to meet a group of fantastic women and do something a bit unusual; hike up Pen y Fan wearing a corset, bloomers and full tweed skirts. You can read more about our Great Corset Caper here, and the good cause that inspired us, My Great Escape here.
Freelance work kept me busy through March, but I was able to spend a week away in the South Downs National Park leading a walking holiday. Wild, windy weather made some of the routes quite challenging, but I was excited to explore a new area. My favourite walks were on the downs around Arundel, and along the Cuckmere valley to the famous Seven Sisters viewpoint.
At the beginning of April, I moved south to Devon, to start work as part of the crew of the traditional sailing ketch Irene of Bridgwater. We spent the first part of the season based out of Dartmouth, visiting the nearby ports of Brixham and Salcombe regularly, with a one-off trip to Weymouth, where we disappeared into the fog. Taking the lookout on the bow with only around 20 metres visibility, in a 38 metre (124′) ship, is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done.
If you ever plan to visit Dartmouth, be aware that it’s much easier to reach with a boat than on public transport or even by car. As soon as my leave began in May, it was a rush to head north. I had to pick up my backpacking kit and make my way to Oban, the starting point I’d chosen for the TGO Challenge.
Unlike the last couple of seasons, I’ve not travelled particularly far and wide in the last few months. Since returning from the Algarve at the beginning of November, I’ve been based in the UK, and making the most of the opportunity to get out and about while I look for work.
Over Christmas and New Year I headed north to Aberdeenshire to spend time with my family. The crisp, and clear weather was perfect for long walks along the coast, with the odd dip in the icy North Sea, and into the hills of the Angus glens. And short winter days quickly gave out to long dark nights, filled with stars and the arc of the Milky Way (although unfortunately no glimpse of an aurora), and a driftwood bonfire on the beach.
A few items to keep you comfortable on outdoor adventures with the changing season.
As a wildlife ranger I’d spend the vast majority of my working time outside, all year-round, whatever the weather. As autumn heads into winter, there are a few additional things I rely on to make it easier to get out and do my job, and to make the most of adventures on beautifully crisp winter days.
A round-up of everything I’ve been up to and the things I’ve enjoyed over the last season.
Where I’ve been:
I’ve just returned to the UK after several weeks at sea on Blue Clipper, crossing from Norway to England, and on to Portugal, followed up by a few weeks of maintenance work based on the Algarve coast.
Norway is my favourite country and I loved visiting new places on this trip, starting with Bodø, and crossing the Arctic circle as we headed south to Ålesund. I also revisited familiar ground around Haugesund and Karmøy, when we ended up storm-bound in Skudeneshavnfor a week longer than expected.
Tips on how to pack for a once-in-a-lifetime sailing voyage on a traditional sailing ship.
You’ve booked a once-in-a-lifetime voyage on a beautiful sailing ship, and started dreaming about life during the golden age of sail or even rounding the Horn in a force nine. But as your date of departure cruises closer, what do you actually need to pack?
I’ve sailed on a few tall ships; short voyages around western Europe, island hopping in the Pacific, on long ocean crossing passages, and in the Tall Ships races, so from my experience, here are some recommendations to add to your packing list.