December 11th is International Mountains Day (IMD); a day established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in 2003 and celebrated annually since.
Mountains loom large in some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes. But it’s not just about sharing gorgeous, inspirational mountain images on my social media (though I’m sure that won’t hurt). It’s about raising awareness of the importance of mountains, inspiring understanding and respect, and encouraging responsible access in mountain environments.
Five Facts for International Mountain Day
So, what do you know about the mountains?
Around 27% of the land surface of the earth is covered in mountains (that’s approximately 39 million km²).
Mountains are home to 15% of the global population (around 1.1 billion people), but it’s estimated billions more benefit indirectly from ecosystem services and mountain agriculture.
Of the 34 documented terrestrial biodiversity hotspots, 25 are in mountain areas (half of the world’s total), and they support around 25% of terrestrial biological diversity.
Over half of the world’s population rely on mountains as a source of freshwater, which provides drinking water, water for irrigation, water for sanitation, and is used in energy production.
Mountain settings support between 15 to 20% of the global tourism industry, from providing spectacular views, cultural tourism, and soft adventure trips right through to serious expedition travel.
Mountains matter as mountain ecosystems provide us with essential food and water, are vital in regulating the climate of the planet, and are key to the global water cycle. They provide a way of life for millions of people around the world.
Mountains Matter for Biodiversity
IMD 2020 is a day to celebrate the biodiversity of mountains and to address the threats it faces. Biodiversity embraces the profusion of ecosystems and species of flora and fauna, and the unique topography, compressed climatic zones, and geographical isolation of mountain environments have created the conditions for a rich variety of life, including many endemic species.
Think of rare and increasingly threatened species like the snow leopards of Central Asia, the mountain gorillas of Africa’s Virunga Massif, or the vicuña of the high Andes. And the incredible monarch butterfly, which relies on the mountain forests in Mexico for their winter habitat. And closer to home, the Cairngorms are the home of a quarter of the UK’s rare and endangered spacies, including capercaillie, pine martens, and elusive Scottish wildcats.
Mountains at Risk
There’s a range of factors that have led to the degradation of mountain habitats over time, from glacial retreat as a result of climate breakdown to changes in traditional land management practices. Wildlife and plant species are at risk of extinction, and loss of ecosystem services can have extraordinary consequences, for example, unsustainable forest extraction can increase the risk of flooding and landslides. This, in turn, reduces the capacity for water storage which sustains river flow to lowland ecosystems through dry seasons.
Why are the mountains important to me?
Although I grew up on the coast, studied marine biology, and work in sailing, the mountains are where I’ve always spent a large part of my free time. I’ve been heading up into the hills almost all of my life, from walks as a child up Clachnaben and Mount Battock, onto the eastern Munros of Mount Keen, Mayar, Driesh, and Lochnagar as a young teenager.
Hiking in the mountains, either alone, or enjoying the company of friends, makes me feel alive. It gives me a sense of achievement and quite literally, a new perspective on life. Having struggled with my mental health at times, the mountains are where I’m drawn when I need to de-stress and breathe fresh air again; to fade out my troubles with the focus on physical exertion, navigation and route finding, or just revelling in the awesome surroundings.
I’m most familiar with the mountains of Scotland, but have also spent time in the mountains in other parts of the UK, and elsewhere around the world. I’ve hiked in the mountains of New Zealand, Norway, and the Alps, I’ve skied and scrambled in the mountains, and there are so many more places I long to go.
How can you support our mountains?
I’ve compiled a few suggestions for ways to lend your support, and make sure your time in the mountains is sustainable. If you have any additional tips, share them in the comments below.
Leave no trace: I can’t believe that this actually needs to be said, but I’ve seen the evidence on the hills for myself. Don’t leave any of your waste behind on the mountains. Everything you take in, be sure to take it back out again. Anything left behind can fundamentally alter the ecosystem and cause harm to the wildlife it supports.
Follow the trails: On popular mountains trails (think Snowdon on a sunny bank holiday weekend), routes can get extremely busy and you might be tempted to head off the beaten track. This has the potential to exacerbate damage to the trail, increase erosion on the mountainside, and lead to the trampling of fragile vegetation. Contribute to the environmental management of the area by donating to mountain charities, paying tolls or parking fees, or lending your time to conservation initiatives.
Support mountain communities: When you visit the mountains, give thought to the local community and supporting their livelihoods. Use local businesses and buy from local shops, but be aware of the additional challenge of bringing resources into remote areas. Make a donation to the local Mountain Rescue service; you’d hope to never need their help, but if you do, you’ll want them well-trained and fully equipped.
As someone with a deep love for the mountains, and who regularly spends time in mountain settings, I feel the responsibility to share these messages and encourage others to do so too. Mountains are beautiful, inspiring, and, as International Mountain Day aims to show, vital.
Are you doing something to mark International Mountains Day?
Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.
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Autumn in the Cairngorms is absolutely sensational. The honey-scented, purple heather-clad hills of August fade to rust-brown as slowly the trees become the main attraction. Birch and bracken glow gold against the dark of the pines, and the woodlands blaze with reds and oranges.
I had a little holiday around the area with friends that came to visit, staying in a holiday cabin on the other side of Braemar from where I live, and taking a campervan tour of the eastern Cairngorms and Aberdeenshire. I also arranged a couple of wildlife watching trips, going on a beaver watching trip in Perthshire (great success), and visiting Spey Bay to search for dolphins (no luck, though there was some great birdwatching at the river mouth).
My 40th birthday in September was a small family affair, the only opportunity for us to get together this year before Scotland’s COVID guidelines limited the size of groups we were able gather in. It was a joint celebration with my Dad and nephew Joe who had their birthdays in August, when the City of Aberdeen was in local lockdown and they were unable to have any visitors themselves. We had a BBQ in my parent’s garden to give enough space for physical distance between households, and fortunately the sun shone, and the windbreak I spent most of the morning constructing held up.
The final day of September was a golden respite from the first of the autumn storms, which left the signs of winter etched on the mountains. I made the long stomp up to Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird from the Linn of Quoich on a frosty morning, arriving early enough to find a skin of verglas over the granite tor of Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuide and tiny pockets of snow behind tussucks on the plateau, sheltering from the low autumn sun.
My seasonal job with the Cairngorms National Park Authority came to an end at the beginning of November, which left me with some free time of my hands. I’ve been out exploring more of the areas that lie on the periphery of my usual patrol routes, making the most of the fair weather and trying to keep up with the amount of walking I was doing during the summer, usually between 10 and 15km per day. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge with the lure of the indoors in wet and wild weather.
I’ve always found it a bit harder to do things at this time of year, with the combination of short daylengths and wilder weather making me feel like curling up in bed and hibernating for the rest of the season. I’ve got a natural daylight lamp for the time I spend indoors on the computer, and I’ve been making the effort to spend at least some time outdoors every day this month, as I know how much benefit it brings me. I’m aiming keep it up all through the winter.
My other interesting reads from this season can be seen here.
Podcast: January this year marked the 200th anniversary of the first sightings of Antarctica, and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust had planned a programme of events to celebrate the occasion. Due to the pandemic, those which could go ahead were shifted online and a new podcast, A Voyage to Antarctica, was created, with contributions from filmmaker Ruth Peacey, writer Sara Wheeler, and UKAHT’s CEO Camilla Nicol.
Clothing: In anticipation of winter, I’ve splashed out on a pair of the toastiest wool slippers from Glerups. After a day out walking in the hills, they’re a delight to slip my feet into to pad around the house in the evenings.
Self-care: I’ve picked up a lipsalve from Burt’s Bees to last through into the winter. It’s a lovely, tingly peppermint flavour.
Equipment: I started using a natural daylight lamp, the Lumie Vitamin L lightbox, in early October to help with seasonal affective disorder. I put it on for half an hour or so after my alarm sounds in the morning, and read a few pages of my book soaking in the light before getting up. And now I’m not going out to work everyday, I’ll put it on for an hour or so in the afternoon while I work on the computer.
Treat: It’s got to be mince pies. As they appear in the shops in late September, usually the week after my birthday, I try to get a selection of the different supermarket varieties for a taste test, to work out my preferred brand for the rest of the season. Currently in the lead position are the ones from the Co-op, although the proximity of the shop has also had a big influence. The ideal accompaniment, for a wintery weekend afternoon, is an amaretto-laced coffee, with my favourite Bird & Wild blend.
My plans to visit the New Forest and the Isle of Wight in November, then catch up with friends around the south of England have been put on hold again with the COVID lockdown in England. I’ll keep my fingers crossed things might improve by the New Year to allow me to reschedule.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for a bit of work in January, joining the refit of one of the boats I’ve worked on previously. And hopefully that will also bring the opportunity for a short holiday afterwards, though again that all depends on open travel corridors from the UK to Portugal.
In the meantime, I’ve thrown myself into planning a few long walks in my local area and further afield, completing a few online courses, and appreciating winter comforts close to home.
What have you been up to over the last season? How are you affected by the current COVID guidelines where you are?
Remember I’m always here if you need a friendly ear to listen; I’d really love to hear from you.
This post contains some affiliate links. If you purchase through my link, I’ll make a small commission* on the sale at no additional cost to you. These help me continue to run the site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures. Thank you for supporting me.
*Maybe enough for a coffee. Not enough for a yacht.
Autumn in the Cairngorms is sensational. Autumn is the season of transition, when days are honeygold and light, and nights are inky-dark, afternoons are sun-warmed, while mornings are crisp with frost. Autumn is when weather plays across the landscape, changing through the months and through the course of any one day.
The honey-scented, purple heather-clad hills of August fade to rust-brown as slowly the trees become the main attraction. Rowans extravagant with red berries. Birch and bracken glowing acid green and yellow against the dark of the pines, and the oak and beech woodlands blaze with a fire of reds, golds, and oranges.
“October is the coloured month here, far more brilliant than June, blazing more sharply than August. From the gold of the birches and bracken on the low slopes, the colour spurts upwards through all the creeping and inconspicuous growths that live among the heather roots – mosses that are lush green or oak-brown, or scarlet and the berried plants, blaeberry, cranberry, crowberry and the rest. “
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
The final day of September was a golden respite from the first of the autumn storms, which left the signs of winter etched on the mountains. I made the long stomp up to Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird from the Quoich on a frosty morning, arriving early enough to find a skin of verglas over the granite tor of Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuide and tiny pockets of snow tucked behind tussucks, sheltering from the low autumn sun.
The first snows of winter dust the high plateau from early October, replenishing snow that lies year round in dark hollows on northern slopes, and draping a silver cloak across dark hills beneath bleached out skies. In this transitional time, overnight snowfalls cover mountain trails and reveal tracks, deer, ptarmigan, hares, melting away just as quick.
In the gloaming, as the dark draws in earlier every day, and on days that are dull and overcast, the colours glow on the hills. The radiant magic of the trees in fall. A last brief blaze of sunlight as they retreat before the winds of winter that whip the leaves from their branches. Cool, wet south-westerly winds that sweep in from the Atlantic, that lay damp orange carpets of larch needles on the forest floor.
Night falls after short days, wood smoke-scented and velvet-textured, filled with a full moon and a scattering of stars.
Have you visited the Cairngorms in autumn? Share your tips for things to see and places to go with me in the comments below.
The Caledonian Forest once covered much of the highlands of Scotland, spreading over the land as the last glaciers retreated and eventually disappeared. But over many thousands of years of human activity that manipulated the wildland, only around 1% of the original temperate rainforest coverage remains in Scotland.
Remnants of the Caledonian Forest are unique habitats, home to some of the rarest species in the British Isles, like the endemic Scottish crossbill, secretive pine martens and wildcats, and the majestic capercaillie. In fact, around 5,000 species have been recorded in areas of old-growth forest, ranging from the towering Scots pines to the tiny beetles living under the bark of the trees, with plants, lichens, fungi, and other wee beasties in-between.
Abernethy Forest National Nature Reserve on Speyside protects a huge area of Caledonian Forest, as well as rivers, lochs, moorland, and montane plateau. The nature reserve in Cairngorms National Park extends all the way to the summit of Ben Macdui, at 1,309m (4,295′), the second-highest summit in the British Isles.
Loch Garten and Loch Mallachie are beautiful forest lochs, fringed by granny pine trees on three sides, with views of Bynack More and the Cairngorm plateau in the southeast reflected in the dark water. In spring and summer, the lochs are excellent for watching ospreys fishing.
Abernethy Forest Two Lochs Walk from Boat of Garten
Route length: 10km (6 miles) circular route
Ascent: 118 metres (387′)
Approximate hiking time: 2.5 – 3 hours
A walk to Loch Mallachie and Loch Garten from Boat of Garten. You can find more details about the route, including a map, on my ViewRanger.
From the steam railway station in Boat of Garten follow signage for the Speyside Way trail towards Nethy Bridge, crossing Garten Bridge over the River Spey on the way out of the village. Across the junction of the road is a small carpark with interpretation panels and maps of waymarked routes into the forest.
Follow the red route for approximately 1km, then take the right-hand track at the fork, heading south for a further kilometre. At the next junction, take the narrow left-hand fork, and head in an easterly direction. The path undulates and sweeps round to the southeast through the trees, towards Loch Mallachie. Ignore the myriad paths along the lochside, turning sharply north when you reach the last one, to lead to Loch Garten, the bigger of the two lochs.
From the carpark alongside Loch Garten, it’s possible to make a diversion along the road at the top of the loch for around 700m to the RSPB Osprey Centre. It’s a must-do in spring, while the birds are sitting on their nest. Otherwise, follow the blue waymarking northwest alongside the road for a couple of kilometres to meet up with the Speyside Way.
Cross the road to follow a wooden walkway for just over 150m. This was constructed on the edge of a small forest lochan, to give a closer view of the habitat. Look out for spawning frogs and tadpoles in the spring and darting dragon and damselflies in summer.
From here you have two options: continue to follow the Speyside Way alongside the road back to the forest carpark, or pick up the forest trail with red waymarking just as you reach the first cottage on the road. The red route is just under 2km through the trees, and returns to the carpark where you entered the forest.
Retrace your route back over Garten Bridge and into Boat of Garten. There are a few cafes and coffee shops in the village where you can find refreshments, such as the Gashouse Café and Cairngorm Leaf & Bean, though some will close for the winter. There’s also the Boat Country Inn if you need something stronger after your walk.
Getting to Boat of Garten:
The village of Boat of Garten is connected by a scenic stream railway to Aviemore (nearest mainline railway station) and Grantown on Spey. Trains run between the Easter and October school holidays.
The bus service between Aviemore and Grantown on Spey will stop in the village, and on the roadside approximately 2.5km (1.5 miles) from the RSPB Osprey Centre.
Route 7 of the National Cycle Network connects Boat of Garten to Aviemore or Carrbridge, with options for on-road or largely off-road cycling.
What to look out for in Abernethy Forest:
Spring: Red squirrels; crested tits, siskins and endemic Scottish crossbills; frogs and frogspawn in pools and puddles; and the arrival of the first ospreys in mid-March.
Summer: Ospreys fishing on the lochs; great spotted woodpeckers, tree pipits, and redstarts; tree-nesting goldeneye ducks; woodland wildflowers; and dazzling dragonflies and damselflies.
Autumn: The roar of rutting red and roe deer; wild greylag and pink-footed geese coming in to roost at dusk; wildfowl like teal, wigeon, and whooper swans; and incredible fungi formations.
Winter: Gnarled, lichen-encrusted ancient pine forest, with views of the sub-Arctic tundra plateau of the Cairngorm Mountains across the iced-over lochs.
Tips for Responsible Watching Wildlife in Abernethy Forest:
The Two Lochs walk is a popular route in Abernethy Forest, especially during the osprey season, so to help protect the forest and wildlife you should follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the advice of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and RSPB on any signs.
If you’re hoping to see capercaillie, the best way is to walk on the forest trails in the early morning as they will often come to the paths to gather grit. Bear in mind that for this part of Scotland that will be between 4am and 5am in May, June and July. Avoid leaving the paths in the forest as you could be disturbing ground-nesting birds.
In drier areas of the forest, you’ll see big mounds of pine needles, which are the nests of wood ants. These can grow up to a metre high, and can be home to well over 100,000 individual ants. Standing deadwood is as valuable to wildlife as living trees, especially the invertebrate life of the forest, and a good indication of the quality of the habitat.
Wildlife refuge areas should be given a wide berth if you choose to go wild swimming in either of the lochs; these are the sheltered bays, particularly at the southern and eastern sides of the lochs, especially in the autumn when the lochs are important roosts for migratory birds.
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At first glance, Jougla Point is low rocky peninsula indented with small coves on the southern edge of the natural harbour at Port Lockroy, on the edge of Weinke Island. A colony of gentoo penguins occupy the peninsula during the breeding season, sharing space with blue-eyed shags and their prehistoric looking offspring, and on the ridge behind, rising steeply to the blue ice of Harbour Glacier, nest Antarctic skuas and kelp gulls.
Most visitors spend some time at Jougla Point in conjunction with their visit to Goudier Island, site of historic Base A, the first permanent British base on the Antarctic Peninsula, and home to the world-famous Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy. And just like it’s near neighbour, a visit to Jougla Point reveals an insight into the history of human activity in Antarctica, though a glimpse of a darker, more industrial past.
As the tourist season progresses, snowmelt reveals a jumbled collection of weathered old whale bones among the granite stones. Rusted chains and shackles that once moored a large ship. A vast skeleton, a composite mainly constructed from the bones of fin whales is laid out in a cove. Further from the water’s edge, the rocks are covered with the scattered staves of old wooden barrels, and crumbling concrete footings show where buildings once stood.
The Antarctic Whaling Industry
From the early 1900s, the majority of ships operating in Antarctic waters were part of the whaling fleet, or scientific survey vessels associated with the industry. Most had sailed from western Norway and eastern Scotland, signing crews from Dundee, Bergen, Leith, Sandefjord, Tórshavn, Larvik, and Lerwick.
The unknown qualities of Antarctica and the notoriously challenging conditions of the Southern Ocean were considered worth exploring, as traditional whaling grounds in the northern hemisphere had been exhausted. Bases were established on South Georgia and in the Falkland Islands to take advantage of the untapped resources of the South, though the human costs were high.
Floating factory ships soon ousted the need to transport whales to shore for processing, working alongside a small fleet of fast, agile whale catcher boats, which would chase down whales and harpoon them for factory ships to collect. The harpoons were explosive, lodging in the whale’s body before detonating a few seconds later, guaranteeing a kill.
The whalers charted large sections of the Antarctic Peninsula and the coast of Queen Maud Land (Dronning Maud Land), making their contribution to the knowledge of the continent, and often provided a safety net for expedition vessels on voyages of exploration early in the Heroic Age of Antarctica. But the intensity of their activity left an indelible impact on the ecosystem they exploited.
The Antarctic summer of 1930-31 was unprecedented, with the greatest number of whaling vessels operating in the Southern Ocean concurrently; 232 whale catcher ships taking their catches to 32 pelagic factory ships, nine floating factories moored in harbours like Port Lockroy, and six shore-based whaling stations. These were serviced by a fleet of supply ships, regularly bringing in food and fuel for the crews, and taking away processed whale oil for the global market.
In that season alone, records show that 29,410 blue whales were killed in the Antarctic, setting an all-time record for the exploitation of the species. Just over 30 years later, in the 1964-65 season, only 20 blue whales were killed, all that the hunters had observed.
The End of the Whaling Industry in Antarctica
More than 1.5 million whales were slaughtered in Antarctic waters before the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling was enforced in 1986.
By this time the industry was already in terminal decline, the result of over-exploitation of the whale stocks and increased regulation by the IWC reducing profitability. Companies faced the paradox that further hunting at existing levels would hasten the end of their industry, but there was no reward for showing restraint, and many of the key players diverted their interests into shipping freight or pelagic fishing.
The end of the whaling industry did not come from a position of nature conservation or animal welfare, but rather the loss of economic profitability from the sector.
The Return of the Whales
The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was established in 1994. Covering an area of 50 million km2, including waters below latitude 60° South governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, it protects waters that provide summer feeding for an estimated 85% of all the world’s whales. The aim of the sanctuary is to enable the recovery of whale populations, not just in terms of absolute numbers, but also in the balance of sexes, age structures, and genetic diversity.
In early 2020, the British Antarctic Survey reported on the results of several years of expedition studies in the waters around South Georgia, suggesting that the long, slow road to recovery was now starting to show results. The observers recorded 55 different blue whales over 36 sightings in 2020, up from just one confirmed sighting in 2018.
Visitors to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands can contribute photographs and details of any whale sightings they have on their voyage to the citizen science project Happy Whale and help be part of the efforts to monitor the return of the whales to Antarctic waters.
Have you visited Port Lockroy and Jougla Point?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And that is the only way forward.
I’m from a rural area in the northeast of Scotland, and I have spent my career working in conservation, environmental education, and countryside access across the UK, with the occasional diversion into nature tourism and outdoor recreation in the UK and Northern Europe. I write here about my interests in travel, the outdoors, expeditions at sea and on land, and connecting with nature.
I occupy space in this world that is exceedingly white. I do not have to fight for my place in these areas due to the colour of my skin.
While I like to think I am not racist, I’m a beneficiary of the structural racism that winds through our society like bindweed, and that through my silence in not it calling out when I see it, I am complicit. It is vital we, as white people, start to see what has long been evident to Black people, however uncomfortable it may feel in the process; it’s time to grasp the nettle.
To start, we must educate ourselves. By being better informed, we can find a way to see more of the landscape that surrounds us, and be better allies to people of colour. We can start to open outdoor spaces that were once and are still exclusionary, and amplify the voices of those that are underrepresented in our fields.
An old Guardian article which probed the slave-owning history of Britain, and the legacy of fortunes made from the labour of enslaved people and the compensation for their emancipation. It ties into a two-part BBC documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, which is still available to view on the iPlayer.
An informative blog post by Eulanda and Omo of Hey, Dip Your Toes In! laying out ways in which we can learn from, support, and advocate for the Black people in our lives, and ensure others aren’t excluded from opportunities arising from our white privilege.
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.
Leah Thomas introduces intersectional environmentalism and sparks a conversation on the need for anti-racism to be a cornerstone of climate and social justice.
This is just a beginning. I understand that it will not be quick or an easy process, and there will be times where I get it wrong, but it’s time to be idle no more. No lives matter until Black lives matter.
The last three months have been a strange time for all of us, and certainly not what I’d anticipated for my return from Port Lockroy. Reunions planned with friends and family were tempered by the COVID pandemic response, filtered through window glass and laptop screens, and those “what next” plans I’d made were left on ice. Potential opportunities for future work drifted away over the horizon or sank without trace, and other responsibilities have surfaced in their wake.
So despite an abundance of time that’s been available during the lockdown, it’s been exceptionally difficult to find the right mental space to reflect on my time in Antarctica at Port Lockroy.
Part of that is the challenge of finding the right language to articulate all the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and ideas I felt in Antarctica, and distil down to something palpable, unmasked by superlatives that a place of such outrageous beauty demands. Over the 110 days of our stay, I took thousands of photographs, made several short films and sound recordings, and filled my journal and sketchbook with observations. But still, it sometimes feels as if the whole thing wasn’t quite real.
It’d taken a long time for me to reach Antarctica. I’ve always been drawn to the region, at first through a fascination with the strange and unusual wildlife that make their home on (and under) the ice, then being captivated by stories of exploration and adventure. Growing up in northeast Scotland, the polar ship RRS Discovery, in drydock in Dundee, was practically on my doorstep, and the rough country of the nearby Angus Glens and Deeside served as a training ground for some of the first to venture South.
I studied marine biology at university, holding a vague and undefined idea that it had the potential to take me there as a research scientist or in a support role at a base, however, the events of my life conspired to take me elsewhere. The cost of visiting Antarctica as a tourist was way beyond my reach, so I forgot all about the possibility for a while.
Then, a few years ago, the idea popped up again. My job in environmental education had been made redundant following cutbacks, and after a summer sailing with Draken Harald Hårfagre in Norway, I needed a paying job. I started in the warehouse of a well-known online shopping company*, working 50 hour weeks stocking shelves as they approached their peak-sales period in November. I can honestly say I have never had a less enjoyable job, although my squat and stretch game was on fire.
*That big river in South America. Not the Orinoco.
Driving home one evening, shortly before the anticipated horror of Black Friday/Cyber Monday shopping, I heard a caller on the radio request a song for the team heading to Antarctica to work in the Penguin Post Office for the season. As soon as I was in the door, I’d searched out the UKAHT website and worked out how to apply for the role. This was my way to go South.
The goal had crystallised, but it wasn’t a straightforward route to get there. When applications opened the following February, I submitted from Bermuda, days before setting out on a transatlantic sailing voyage. When we arrived in the UK a month later I didn’t get the news I was hoping for, to be part of the 12 people invited to selection, but had an encouraging note from the Ops manager to tell me to keep applying for the role.
In between other opportunities, following selection on my second time around, I got the call to say I’d been successful. I’d just been ashore to chat about moorings in Loch Spelve on Mull, for Irene, and had hopped into my wee tender, untied and pushed off. My phone rang as I was about to start the outboard, so I let myself drift out into the loch to take the call, hoping I didn’t drift out of mobile reception before I got the official nod.
The thing about the opportunity that had appealed to me most was the prospect of spending an extended period in a location of which most people only get a snapshot glimpse. To be witness to the progression of time, the comings and goings of the wildlife, and the changing season in the far South.
And that was undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Antarctica. Paying heed to changes in my surroundings: noting snowmelt or the scouring effects of excoriating wind; the swirling movement of ice floes riding on the tide; and the march of increasing day length, followed by returning night and star-filled skies as we tilted over the equinox. A muffled boom reverberating through the landscape, felt as a pressure wave in the ears as much as heard, as ice calved and crumbled from the glacier. Sculpted chunks of bergy ice which glowed with a blue luminosity, as if lit from within. There’s an ethereal quality to the place.
Then the more subtle captivating things: the shape and movement of clouds; scintillating sundogs and solar arcs; the feel of the wind, from a gentle caress to a knife-sharp slash, the ever-changing play of light and shadow over the landscape. Moments that leave one consistently undone by the beauty of it all.
And of course, the wildlife. The ceaseless cacophony of life in the penguin colony. Watching penguins on the island, getting to know them by their nesting locations, and following the progress of a pair, it was hard not to anthropomorphise. Or to foist a unilateral emotional bond upon them. Their swaying, tottering gait, stumpy little legs and rounded tummy, and naïve inquisitiveness around us seem to recall human toddlers, and invoked a secret desire in me to name them all.
Even so, living amongst penguins for any time, happenings in the colony show us any human connections we suppose to these creatures are tenuous. At first glance they’re putting on a chaotic avian comedy show; curious chicks playing with our buckets and brooms, throwing back their wings and chasing adults for food, always demanding more. Taking to the water for the first time, with none of the natural grace one would expect of a sea creature.
In reality, we watched a wholly unsentimental and more elemental existence: newly hatched chicks huddle in nests constructed with bones from ill-fated siblings of previous years; adults voiding excrement on each other, from nests highest on the rock to those below, sheathbills swooping in to eat the debris; the lurking threat of predators from the skies and the depths. Witnessing the awesome and grotesque cycle of life and death on a daily basis, alternately heartwarming then heartbreaking, always fascinating, is part of the unique Antarctic experience.
Though they demand the most attention, penguins are not the only creatures that leave an indelible mark on the memory. Other birds, sleek Antarctic terns, the colour of low cloud on a soft day, and skuas, ever-observant to opportunities to pillage the penguin colonies. Sheathbills, our curious companions with their only-a-mother-could-love appearance, and monstrous giant petrels, their apparent cruelties to distressing to note here.
The uncanny song of Weddell seals, lounging on an ice floe in the back bay. The lurking menace of leopard seals, conducting secret surveillance of the shallows, waiting to surge ashore and snatch the unwary. A boulder, almost the size of a small island, that yawned deeply and transformed into a bull elephant seal.
On still days, when fog lay like a felt blanket over the natural harbour obscuring views of peaks and pinnacles of Wiencke Island, immediate sounds were dampened, amplifying the roaring silence that lay behind. The raucous colonies of penguins and blue-eyed shags muffled long enough to pick out the saltwater signals of whales taking their breaths in the silky, quicksilver water of the bay; two, no three humpbacks scouting the deep water channel on the inside of Lecuyer Point, or a lone minke making its way between the improbably named islands of Boogie and Woogie.
Port Lockroy is a rare place in Antarctica, a tiny island where the human story of the continent is writ large. Around us was the evidence of the whalers that followed the ships of the Heroic Age of exploration South, through to Operation Tabarin and the construction of Bransfield House/Base A, at the time when international relations on the ice were strained, and politics pushed to the fore. Then the era of science, where the continent was transformed into a vast laboratory of measuring and monitoring, revealed by the artefacts and oral histories of the museum, to our current-day experiences of expedition tourism and bucket-list travel.
The wealth of stories continued with the people we met throughout the season, both face-to-face and through correspondence delivered to the Post Office. Previous Lockroy team members, experienced field guides and expedition leaders, research scientists, and former and current staff of both the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and British Antarctic Survey passed through Goudier Island during the season, enriching our understanding of the place and welcoming us to the Antarctic family like we already belonged, allowing us to become part of the ongoing history of the place.
Port Lockroy is reported to be one of the most visited sites in Antarctica, and while this season proved to be far from usual, we still welcomed thousands of people into our small world, and helped them pass on their share of wonder and awe written on the back of a postcard.
Finally, all that remains is to say what a privilege it was to share such a profound experience with an incredible team of people, who started the season as my work colleagues and after four months of living in each other’s pockets, are firmly life-long friends. Sitting together on a golden afternoon by the landing site, once the day’s guests had gone, watching for the blown spray and flashes of tail flukes across the Neumayer Channel, listening to the snapcracklepop of melting icebergs, and toasting our luck with gin gifted by the crew of a superyacht and tonic scrounged from our favourite hospitality manager. Or huddled together in a cuddlepuddle under blankets and duvets to watch a film as sleety rain-lashed windows and storm-force winds shook the very building around us. These are the moments I’ll cherish most.
Standing on the aft deck of the ship that would take us back to Ushuaia I could feel the undeniable magnetic pull from our island, tucked under the sheer rock and ice of Mount Luigi and the Seven Sisters, then a sudden snap as we rounded the headland and Port Lockroy was lost behind the rise of Doumer Island. I think a little piece of my heart was left behind.
By endurance we sauna.
Extracts from this piece were first published as posts on the UKAHTPort Lockroy blog.
At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.
In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion. Continue reading “Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain”
My favourite travel memories from A to Z shared with the #AlphabetAdventure hashtag on social media.
This year, travel has been on the backburner in a big way, with international flights shut down, and many countries, including my home in the UK, imposing a domestic lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 and ease pressure on health services over the peak of the pandemic.
Throughout April and early May many travel bloggers shared pictures of their travels on social media with the hashtag #AlphabetAdventures. It was a chance to remind ourselves of the wide, wild world out there, waiting for us to explore once the coronavirus pandemic passes, and relive some memories from our travels. It also gave us the chance to travel vicariously to new destinations while we stay safe at home under lockdown.
Five fun microadventures you can make from your own home, suitable for all ages.
Are you familiar with the idea of microadventures? Adventure isn’t all about faraway locations and uncharted territories. Or about being the highest, furthest, fastest at anything.
It’s about the spirit in which you undertake something. It’s being open to new experiences, approaching things with a curious and inquiring mind, and making your own fun and rewarding challenge. And a microadventure is just that, on a simple, local scale.
And while we’re restricted in the things we can do right now, a new activity in a familiar place can be exactly what you need to feel refreshed and excited, and keep your fire for the great outdoors well stoked.
The simplicity of these ideas also make them an ideal way to introduce adventures to your family, even with very young children, and nurture an appreciation for nature and the outdoors to last them a lifetime. And by keeping them close to home, there’s plenty of opportunities to bail out if things don’t go to plan, or to make a spontaneous change to an everyday routine.