Life on Board Draken Harald Hårfagre

Every ship has a rhythm, or several, that shape the way we live on board. The basic beat of any ship, Draken included, is simple: eat, sleep, work, repeat. It drives the crew, marks the passing of time. Times of day are different for parts of the crew, as we’re divided into three watches to work round the clock, but the beat is the same. It weaves into other patterns of activity to shape the rhythm of life on board.

draken figure head 2As a member of port watch, I’m on duty from noon until 4pm, when we hand over to midship watch, and again from midnight until 4am, after relieving starboard watch. We take turns on the helm, pushing and pulling the tiller to keep the ship on course, and on the lookout. We’ll trim the sail; change the tack; add or take off the bonnet on the foot of the sail. And there’s always little jobs to be done: stitching, whipping, splicing, knotting.

There’s always a lot of activity as we leave port. Mooring lines are coiled, fenders deflated and stowed, stores and personal belongings arranged and rearranged. Preparations for setting sail.  Then the arduous, cooperative effort of raising the yard, kaiing the aft end under the shrouds, dropping the sail, bracing the yard, setting the tack, tightening the sheet. All reversed as we stow the sail. The longwave rhythm marking the ends of a voyage.

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Rocking and rolling in the North Atlantic swell. Photo: Draken Harald Hårfagre, drakenexpeditionamerica.com

The most important pattern on the ship comes out of the galley, the tiny space at the end of the sleeping tent. Here the cook and his assistant prepare three hot meals a day for the 33 members of the crew, plus fika (coffee and cake) in the morning and afternoon. And there’s always a night watch box filled with snacks. We eat well, although the calories are needed to keep warm on north Atlantic nights.

For some, myself included, there’s a different rhythm that marks time on board; the swells and rollers that rock the ship and the sea sickness they bring. I find the first waves of nausea start to roll in 3 or 4 hours after leaving port. The only way of escaping the feeling is to lie flat, preferably face down, with my eyes tightly closed. (But that’s never really an option; it usually coincides with the beginning of the noon to 4pm watch).

Seasickness seems to have different stages. Once the feeling takes root, it’s a battle to keep awake. My eyes are so heavy, I sleep where I am: curled on deck against a knee; propped against the windlass; standing upright in the galley one night, waiting for a kettle to boil. I can’t track the passing of time. Did I sleep for the last hour? Or was I absent for a minute or two?

Suddenly, the sleepiness passes. There’s only one place I have to be now; downwind. Pulling scarves and storm hoods away from my face, I gulp the fresh air, but its not enough. Afterwards, it feels like all the warmth is drained from my body. I shiver, despite layers of wool clothes, until its time to go to bed.

Iceberg1My favourite thing is to be lookout, standing up in the bow watching out over the ocean. I scribble myself notes sometimes: numbers of fulmars, shearwaters and skuas; shapes of clouds bubbling up on the horizon; colour changes in the water. Other times, sea spray and squalls sting your eyes, making it hard to see, or it’s so cold the only way for the watch to keep warm is to “shake it off” with Taylor Swift for fifteen minutes.

The times I love most are the dark, still nights, when I stand by myself at the bow. I forget about the rest of the crew behind me for a few moments and look out at the sea and stars; I am alone on a wide, wild ocean.

And the thoughts running through my head? If a large enough wave breaks into the ship, that’s it. If the lookout doesn’t spot a growler, or a submerged shipping container, we’re done for. That this is for real. And that is a thrilling way to live, on the very edge of danger. Any rational person dwelling on the “what ifs” for too long would pack their kit bag and get off in the next port. So you get on, and pack those thoughts down into the bilges of your mind. You calmly accept this state of affairs.

PelayoRather, we occupy ourselves with the little details. Mundane, inconsequential things: where we sleep in the tent (and which is the best place); the type of chocolate available at fika; planning best times to visit the heads, especially if we’re wearing survival suits. Habits are founded, some even becoming rituals of great significance. It would be impossible to think about starting a night watch without a freshly-frothed vegan-friendly latte, or to end at 4am it without sharing a tin or two of “plane crash” with the rest of Mackerel Club.

What’s hard to explain to people hoping for tales of derring-do on the high seas, is that this ship is our home (albeit with less of the usual home comforts) and the rest of the crew is as close as our family (with all the usual quirks and oddities of every other family). And that means that life at sea is just as grand and electrifying, as silly and strange, and as normal and boring, as life everywhere else.

Draken Harald Hårfagre: A Beginner’s Guide to the World’s Largest Viking Ship

I was a crew member on Draken Harald Hårfagre as the ship made a historic crossing of the North Atlantic ocean, from Norway to Canada, in the late spring and early summer of this year. This is the first in a series of several posts with my thoughts and observations from the voyage.

Draken leaving the Greenland coast for the Labrador Sea. Photo: Draken Harald Hårfagre, drakenexpeditionamerica.com

I’m going to start off by thinking about the end of that journey (or more specifically, the end of my part of the ship’s journey), and how the crew has gone through something of a transition over the last month. From being explorers in the more remote reaches of the North Atlantic, seeing only each other for days on end, we turned into storytellers and presenters, meeting hundreds, if not thousands, of people a day at events in various ports in Canada and the US.

If you do visit the ship, (or already have) I hope you’ll forgive us. It’s not an easy task to distill the experiences we had during the expedition into short soundbites that fit into a whistle-stop tour of the ship. Nor the years of construction work, project management and planning that led up to the voyage. At best all we can do is give you some of the most interesting facts and figures, and just the briefest hint of what life on board an open ship was like.

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Draken moored by Hvalsey Kirk, which dates from the Norse settlement of Greenland.

So, to start my expedition journal, here are a few things that you really need to know about Draken Harald Hårfagre, the world’s largest viking ship built in modern times

The Name.

I always try to introduce Draken by her full name, Draken Harald Hårfagre, with my best attempt at the Norwegian pronounciation. It’s that Scandinavian letter å, sounding a bit like –owh-, that doesn’t exist in English, that makes it a bit of a mouthful for many of the crew. Not Arild though, this is how it should sound.

The translation is much easier; Draken means dragon, referring to the dragon’s head mounted on the bow, showing the world that this ship that would have belonged to a powerful and important chieftain or king. Having looked at the figurehead mainly from the back for months, it’s crossed my mind that our dragon might look a little giraffe-like (it’s the ears, I think). I don’t think I’m the only one in the crew that’s had that thought.

And the second part of the name, Harald Hårfagre (who is referred to as Harald fair-hair or fine-hair in English, depending on the translation), is to honour of the first king of a united Norway, who hailed from the area around Haugesund – Draken’s home port.

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The dragon figurehead breathing smoke into the clouds.

Not a Replica.

Describing Draken is tricky. The ship has often been called a “replica” in the media, but this has a very precise meaning in maritime archaeology, referring to vessels built from scratch as an exact copy of another known vessel. Within that definition there are several different categories: true replicas, hull replicas, operational replicas; none of which really describe our ship. Calling it a “reconstruction” can also be a bit problematic; this term is used to describe historic ships that have been repaired or rebuilt with new material to return to a known earlier condition.

Draken was built in Haugesund between 2010 and 2012 from entirely new materials, drawing inspiration from a number of sources, to create a representation of what an ocean-going ship from around 1000CE may have looked like. Accounts from the Norse sagas, archaeological findings, and the living tradition of wooden boat building in Norway informed the design and construction process. Many of the lines reference the Gokstad ship, one of the best-preserved examples of Viking-age shipbuilding, on display in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. A best-fit way of describing Draken is as an “operational hypothesis”, but that loses a bit of the romance and sense of adventure around her.

Did you row?

Probably the most asked question when we meet people. And I’m sorry to spoil the perception, but the answer is very little. And then only for showing off whilst lots of people are watching. It’s really hard work to shift a ship weighing around 90 tonnes, y’know?

Draken was built to be rowed with 25 pairs of oars, with two oarsmen on each oar. That’s 100 people! We just haven’t got the space for them all while we sail, or for the 50 oars they would need. We’re only able to carry between 12 and 14 oars with all the changes that were needed for sailing, and have one oarsman on each, so it would be a much harder, slower job than it was before.  And it can be dangerous in anything more than flat water: “catching a crab” could pin you to the deck and cause an injury. 

Sailing is far faster and a more efficient way of travelling long distances, and well, I’m sure if you asked most of the crew, we’d say it was much more fun too. We’ve got a great big, beautiful, silk sail, and it’s a shame not to use it as much as we can.

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Catching the sunset in the silk sail.

The Crew.

A full crew on Draken is 33 people, give or take, although we were a smaller crew heading up the St. Lawrence, and will probably be again at the end of the summer. During the ocean crossing, 13 of us were women, and the proportions have evened out even more during the last few weeks in the Great Lakes. If you’ve been on board, you can probably imagine the amount of space each person has to themselves.

Not everyone in the crew is Norwegian, or even Scandinavian. I’m from Scotland, and there has been at least 14 different nationalities making up the crew at various points in the journey. Countries as different as Russia and the US, Spain and Sweden, and even Switzerland have been represented. Add to that a wide range of ages, from the youngest at 18 to somewhere in the mid-60s. We’re a bit of a mixed bunch really.

How do you sleep/ eat/ wash/ do other things on board?

The simple answer is that you just do it. The things that you need to do, you find a way to get on and do them. Or you decide that they can’t be done on the ship, and wait until you get ashore. There’s a lot of challenges when it comes to the business of living on an open ship: being so tired, but finding it difficult to sleep with the noise, stuffiness and movement; feeling terribly seasick but knowing that you need to eat and drink; looking after personal hygiene with no washing facilities; finding an escape from the rest of your watch for five minutes. There’s no quick way I can sum up all my thoughts about all that, so I’ll try to cover it in other posts.

What was the voyage like?

The hardest question of all. How do you sum up two months of an expedition into areas little travelled by others; challenging weather conditions and nerve-racking sea states; close encounters with icebergs, into a short conversation with someone you’ve just met? How do you explain to people that haven’t been part of a sailing crew about living in each other’s pockets; how day-to-day things happens in expedition conditions; silly in-jokes; about blowing off steam when you get into port? That now you’re back in civilisation, with a comfortable bed, good coffee, and a reliable internet connection, you really miss it all?

I usually say the words “cold” and “wet”, which at least are true. And now, as I’m able to make more sense of everything that happened, I can also add “one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done”.

Leaving the Faroe Islands at dusk. Photo: Draken Harald Hårfagre, drakenexpeditionamerica.com

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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2014: A Vagabond Year in Review

2014ReviewTitleIt’s that time of year again: time to look back at what the last 12 months have brought, and start to think about the year ahead too. My 2014 travels have made for an interesting year, with loads of exciting opportunities, unusual adventures, and new destinations across Europe and the UK to explore. Add to that mix a few return trips to favourite places, the odd unexpected detour, and plenty of time the BEST COUNTRY in the WORLD!*

My first trip of the year was a short Hogmanay holiday in the Scottish Highlands, based near Aviemore. After Christmas on the Aberdeenshire coast with my family, my boyfriend (the Bear) and I headed for the hills in the hope of snow. Unfortunately, a mild spell meant that only the tops of the Cairngorms got a dusting of the white stuff, then hurricane-force winds closed the ski centre and funicular railway, forcing us off the hills.

Rothiemurchus Forest near Aviemore is remnant of the ancient Caledonian wildwood.
Rothiemurchus Forest near Aviemore is remnant of the ancient Caledonian wildwood.

I worked full-time during the first half of the year, so my travels were limited to long weekends and day-trips, including a visit to the Bear’s family in Yorkshire, a few day-trips to London and a couple of nights camping in Northumberland.

I squeezed in a two-week road trip and camping holiday to the far north of Scotland at the end of April, introducing my boyfriend to some of my favourite places in the world. My childhood holidays would usually start with a visit to my Grandparents in Thurso, on the north coast, followed by a few weeks in our caravan touring remote beaches and tiny villages.

On April 13th I ran the Virgin Money London Marathon, a 26mile long street party, and have an awesome medal to prove it.  I didn’t see Mo Farah.

Eilean Donan Castle, on the Road to the Isles
Eilean Donan Castle, on the Road to the Isles

At the end of June I said goodbye to my colleagues and boarded a flight to Norway. I headed to Haugesund, to meet up with the crew of the Viking longship Draken Harald Hårfagre for an eventful summer of sailing. Three days into our crossing of the North Sea, our mast broke, and we made straight for the safety of Lerwick, Shetland, to assess the condition of the ship. We were able to take advantage of the unexpected shore leave to explore a little of Shetland, whilst we waited to find out if our expedition could continue.

 

With a green light from the owner, we were thrilled to get back out to sea again, even though we were motoring rather than sailing. Our skipper took us down the Moray Firth and through the Caledonian Canal, to avoid the challenging conditions around Cape Wrath, on our route to the west coast.

Calling into the whisky-lover’s paradise of Islay, we bumped in to a fabulous band called The Blueswater, and invited them to stage what must surely be the greatest ever blues gig held on a Viking ship. If that wasn’t enough, the following evening on Rathlin Island we were invited to a ceilidh with traditional Irish music from members of the famous Black family.

Our next destination was Peel, on the Isle of Man, before we headed to Liverpool and the Wirral, where the ship underwent repairs.

With a fortnight’s shore leave, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore. Estonian shipmate Kessu and I took the overnight ferry to Belfast, and road-tripped our way along the Antrim coast, before heading south to Dublin to meet up with Marie, Draken’s French cook, to tour the city.

From our Merseyside base, I visited the sights of Liverpool and was joined by the Bear for a weekend. And after a few days of work, a few shipmates and I escaped for a couple of days hiking in Snowdonia, Wales, to celebrate crewmember Jemima’s birthday.

Back on Draken we returned to the Isle of Man, this time under sail. Heading north, we called into Oban, the Isle of Rum (where we visited quirky Kinloch Castle), and Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, before rounding Cape Wrath to reach Stromness in Orkney. We raced north to beat stormy weather, ziping past Fair Isle to make port in Lerwick, where we spent a week waiting on the weather for our return crossing to Norway.

After signing-off from the ship, I set out to explore Oslo, but somehow got sidetracked into a road-trip adventure that ended in Marie and I gatecrashing a Viking-themed wedding on a mountain top at midnight. I never managed to see Kon Tiki.

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The UNESCO biosphere reserve of Beinn Eighe in the north-west highlands of Scotland.

There was only one place in the world to be in September, as Scotland faced a referendum on independence from the UK. The atmosphere was buzzing with excitement and trepidation, and people were determined to celebrate regardless of the outcome. Wha’s like us?

In October the Bear and I headed to Greece, spending several days exploring Rhodes, before taking the ferry to Santorini. Well-known as a luxury destination, I wanted to see if it was possible to have an awesome experience on a shoestring budget. Mission accomplished!

I spent several days in Athens, taking in the TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) conference, my first experience of the travel blogging community. I met loads of awesome bloggers, made some good friends, and got the opportunity to take a day trip to Delphi.

After all that travel, it was time to return to the UK to work to pay off some of my adventures and build a bit of a fund for next year. It wasn’t all work and no play however, and I managed to squeeze in a couple of day trips to London and Oxford before Christmas.

 

It’s been a great year. What was your most memorable moment in 2014?

 

*That’s Scotland, by the way, if you didn’t get the subtle subtext through the post.

5 Books Set in Cold Places to Curl Up With This Winter

IMG_3884Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.  And what makes a cold winter evening even better is a good book to curl up with (and perhaps also a glass or two of amaretto and ice). When the wind is howling and sleet lashing the window, snuggle into your favourite tartan jammies, and read all about the ice and snow from the warmth and comfort of your armchair.  With the radio playing softly in the background, lights sparkling on the Christmas tree, and someone bringing warm mince pies occasionally, I can’t think of a more perfect way to enjoy the books below.

 

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

In the introduction to this book, Cherry-Garrard notes: Polar Exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has been devised. As the youngest member of the team accompanying Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole, Cherry-Garrard was one of only three survivors, and part of the rescue mission that discovered the frozen bodies of his colleagues. His account pieces together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen south.

Buy it here.

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich

Long fascinated by the icy landscapes and exotic culture, Ehrlich travels extensively in Greenland, meeting people walking the line between a traditional way of life and modern development. She draws heavily on the journals of Danish-Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen from the 1920s and 30s, retracing expeditions by kayak and dogsled. The book combines travel diary with biography, ethnographic study and geography. 

Buy it here.

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A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

Finnish author Jansson is best known for the Moomin stories, and although this collection of short pieces is for adults, it captures the same feeling of childlike wonder her famous creations have for nature, landscape and life. The beautifully observed stories have a lightness of touch and at the same time a deep truth, making them a joy to read. For a bonus recommendation, seek out her short novel The True Deceiver as a follow up. 

Buy it here.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

This book is difficult to summarise in just a short paragraph. It details Lopez’s travels in the High Arctic, meditating on the landscapes and wildlife, how we explain and interact with them, drawing on historical, cultural, philosophical and scientific significances. This is not an easy book to digest, but the sparklingly beautiful prose and interesting, informative subjects make you want to take your time, and enjoy the brilliance. Best dipped into over a series of winter afternoons. 

Buy it here.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver 

A bone-chilling ghost story set in an abandoned whaling camp in the Spitzbergen archipelago, high in the Arctic, in the late 1930s. With thoughts of impending war not far from the collective consciousness, a British scientific expedition establish themselves in a remote corner, against the advice of the Norwegian administration. As the dazzling brightness of 24-hour daylight gives way to the creeping polar night, a growing unease builds in the team, but is the horror a presence in the darkness or the madness of isolation in a challenging environment?  Buy it here.

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Have you got any icy and snowy suggestions for a wintry reading list?

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.

Help me win a place in the Fjällräven Polar

The best adventures often aren’t the “Bucket List” ideas that you dream about for years and years. Sometimes they are the things that happen just when you’re in the right place at the right time, things that you stumble across as you browse websites, flick through magazines or get chatting to people that you meet.

I think I’ve found my next adventure. The newsletter for my favourite outdoor magazine popped into my inbox on a quiet morning, topped with a picture of a person swaddled in Arctic gear, face hidden by ski goggles and a fur-trimmed hood, standing alongside a team of sled dogs waiting to be hitched up. I managed to read the words “Take part in…” before I’d followed the link to the event. I want this.

 

The Fjällräven Polar is an event that takes place in the Scandinavian Arctic, a 300km dogsled run through the mountains and over the tundra, from Signaldalen in northern Norway, to the forest around Jukkasjärvi in Sweden, finishing on the frozen lake. Participants camp out each night of the expedition, which takes place in April, when temperatures have been known to drop to minus 30°C and even lower, especially with biting wind sweeping across the treeless tundra.

Despite the extreme conditions, the event is for ordinary people, not survival experts or polar explorers, looking for the adventure of a lifetime. It aims to give people the chance to discover the harsh beauty of the Arctic, to test themselves in a challenging environment, and show how the right equipment and knowledge can open up new experiences.

Entry is limited to 20 people, two from each “country”identified by Fjällräven*. One of these will automatically win a place by receiving the most votes on their application on the website. The other person will be selected by Fjällräven to take part in the event.

I’ve got a long way to go to beat some of the other British entries, especially as they’ve had almost 3 weeks longer to garner votes than me (and may even have been planning their campaign since last year). So here is my appeal: please help me win a place in the Fjällräven Polar! Follow this link to my profile, and click on the button to vote. I promise to share my stories with you when I get back.

Thank you for your support.

All images in this post are from Fjällräven.co.uk or Fjällrävenpolar.com

*Participants in the event will come from each of the following countries or groups: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Germany, UK, USA, Hungary, Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) and other countries (the Rest of the World)!

Worse Things Happen at Sea

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Sunset over Shetland, as Draken Harald Hårfargre approaches Burray Sound.

Sometimes things just don’t go they way they’re planned. In my imagination, I see Draken bearing down toward Bressay lighthouse, flying before the wind, red sail glowing in the golden sunset, arriving in Shetland like the Viking ships of old. We make a tack to round South Ness and enter Bressay Sound. Approaching Lerwick we start to lower the sail and kai in the rå, drawing one end of the massive yard holding the top of the sail under the shrouds. As we come alongside the quay, we pack up the sail and coil sheets and lines, making ready to put up the foredeck tent. We step ashore in the simmer dim, the twilight of a northern summer.

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Nomads and Vikings

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The winners of the World Nomads Travel Scholarship competition were announced the other day; with three writers selected to take part in a writers workshop in Berlin, before each setting out on a 10-day roadtrip through part of Europe in August. Winning would have been an amazing opportunity, but I’m not too disappointed as I was one of 30 writers shortlisted from many that entered, and I’m rather proud of that achievement.

I’m looking forward to reading the other entries on the shortlist, especially the winners; Rachel Ecklund, Amanda Richardson and Jarryd Salem and keeping up with the winners journals over their trips. Hopefully I’ll glean some writing tips from them as they travel.

And the reason I’m not too disappointed about missing out on a European roadtrip is that I’ve made some plans for the summer too. I’m going to rejoin the crew of Draken Harald Hårfarge at the end of June, for a sailing voyage that will take us from Norway, across the North Sea to Shetland and Orkney, through the Hebrides and down the west coast of Scotland, to Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and finally into Liverpool, before returning.  So here’s to blue seas, fair winds and beautiful sunsets.

Any seasickness remedies you can recommend are much appreciated!

Night Sailing in the Norwegian Sea

Last month I entered a competition hosted by WorldNomads.com, aiming to win a travel writing workshop with an expert. The prize includes a 10-day road trip through Europe, and a commission to write a journal of the trip and follow-up articles. Results are announced later today, so keep your fingers crossed for me.

This is my entry:

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A Vagabond Year 2013

The Weekly Photo challenge theme this week is Joy.

For me, the things that bring me joy are the things that really make me feel alive, that keep me connected to the natural world around me; often the experiences you only get by getting outdoors and leaving the city behind, finding a wild place and all that it offers.

These are some of the things that I’ve captured on instagram over this year that have made me feel joyful.  If I have any resolutions for next year, it’s to get out and do more with my time, enjoy the little things, and make better connections with the people around me.natural world wordie

Have a happy Hogmanay, and I wish you all the best for 2014.  May your year be filled with travels, adventures and joy.

Vicky xx