Cairngorms Walks: The Seven Bridges Walk in Ballater, Aberdeenshire

Ballater, in Aberdeenshire, is a gateway to the Cairngorms National Park and a popular base for visitors looking to explore the Eastern Cairngorms and Royal Deeside areas. The picturesque town arranged in a grid around a large green on the banks of the impressive River Dee, has longstanding royal connections, a rich and interesting history, and good access to the more wilder parts of the countryside.

The view along the River Dee to the west of Ballater.

The River Dee rises high on the Cairngorm Plateau, tumbling around 137km (85 miles) down to the sea in Aberdeen. It has the reputation as one of the finest salmon fishing rivers anywhere in the world, and is a protected area for wildlife, like the salmon, otters, and freshwater pearl mussels found in its waters. The area on the south side of the river is also protected in recognition of its importance for golden eagles.

This walk shows off some of the most beautiful landscapes of the middle reaches of the River Dee, and had some excellent opportunities for spotting wildlife.

Continue reading “Cairngorms Walks: The Seven Bridges Walk in Ballater, Aberdeenshire”

The Best Birdwatching Spots in Scotland

My selection of ten of the best birdwatching locations in Scotland.

As I’ve previously admitted on this blog, I’m an avid birdwatcher, and while I’m no expert at identifying different species and interpreting their behaviour, I think there’s something about the curiosity to look, listen and learn a little more about them that builds a deeper connection with your surroundings when you visit a new place.

Thousands of gannets swirling around the seabird city of Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. Image by Ingi Finnsson from Pixabay.

Across Scotland there are some incredible opportunities to get close to nature, whether you’re an experienced birder, an enthusiastic amateur, or a complete beginner. From sprawling sea bird cities stacked onto coastal cliffs, and wide estuaries and wave-washed shorelines, through native forests and sparkling lochsides, to heather-clad hillsides and wild mountain plateau. I hope this list sparks some inspiration for including birdwatching on your next trip to Scotland, or to try something different next time you explore the outdoors.

So here’s my recommendations for the best places to go birdwatching in Scotland.
Continue reading “The Best Birdwatching Spots in Scotland”

What I’ve been reading this season | Winter 20/21

A collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found or were shared with me over the past few months. This season, it’s mostly been pieces that examine the balance between different forms of recreation and conservation, and the perceptions we hold of certain activities versus their realities, that I want to pass on to you.

Mountain Matters

Is the first winter ascent of K2 a turning point for Sherpa mountaineering?

Reporting on the historic winter first ascent of K2, Mark Horell examines the collaborative summiting by a team of Nepalese climbers, and reflects on the often overlooked presence of Sherpas in the history of high-altitude mountaineering.

Can we see past the myth of the Himalaya?

Akash Kapur explores the notion that our romantic perceptions of the high Himalaya obscure the realities of the people who make the region home, and how histories, geographies, and ecologies or mountain areas are often shaped by expectations.

Is it time to stop climbing mountains? Obsession with reaching the summit is a modern invention

An interesting piece by Dawn Hollis that dives into mountain history, mountaineering, and managing mountain environments against the backdrop of the global climate crisis. Are we prepared to ask ourselves hard questions about factors that drive us to stand on summits, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to do so?

Hard Knocks on Ben Nevis

The remarkable Gwen Moffat shares a valuable lesson on walking the fine line between difficult and deadly.

Killing in the Name of

The Deer Cull Dilemma

A longform essay from 2018 by Cal Flynn on the culling of deer in the Scottish Highlands, that dives deeply into the local and national politics of killing for conservation, slaughter tourism, the culture and tradition of sporting estates, and the long-standing inequalities of land ownership and community participation.

How the Shooting Industry is Exploiting the Legacy of the Clearances

Reducing the number of red deer in the Scottish Highlands is a necessary step in the ecological restoration of the landscape, but can be seen as an unpalatable activity. David Lintern reports on the thought-provoking film The Cull for TGO Magazine.

Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant?

A masterful longform piece by Wells Tower, exploring the mindset of those participating in trophy hunting, and the ethics of commercial hunting for charismatic species as a tool for wildlife management in conservation. It includes a powerful description of the death of an elephant.

Staying with a Hunter Showed Me Greenland Beyond the Tourist Brochures

Nancy Campbell writes about living with subsistence hunters in western Greenland as a rapidly-changing world reshapes their traditional knowledge and experiences.

A Dark Miracle in the Forest of Dean

In most of the UK the likelihood of encountering large animals with the potential to cause us harm is very limited. Chantal Lyons explores where potential wildlife encounters are shaped by fear rather than wonder, and the rewilding of our senses.

Remembering Barry Lopez

Best known for the seminal Arctic Dreams, a natural history of northern lives and landscapes, and how these shaped and have been shaped by human experience. Lopez died from cancer in December 2020.

Why the World Needs Barry Lopez

A deeply thoughtful profile of the writer and his last book by Kate Harris. Horizon explores the almost unbearable beauty of our planet through moments gleaned from Lopez’s lifetime, and contemplates the point where true places meet myth and speculation, where earth, sky, sea, ice and sunlight merge.

My goal that day was intimacy—the tactile, olfactory, visual, and sonic details of what, to most people in my culture, would appear to be a wasteland.

Barry Lopez

Love in a Time of Terror: On Natural Landscapes, Metaphorical Living, Warlpiri Identity

Powerful words from Barry Lopez about turning ecological grief into fierce passion, and passion into advocacy for the natural world on our besieged planet.

The 10 best walks in Royal Deeside, Scotland

The River Dee is one of the most impressive rivers in Scotland, rising high on the Cairngorm Plateau, before squeezing through the narrow cataract of Linn of Dee and carving a course for the coast through rolling hills backing on to high mountains, impressive pinewoods, colourful birch forest, and heather-clad moor.

This area of Aberdeenshire has attracted travellers long before association with Queen Victoria and Balmoral Castle earned it the epithet Royal Deeside, and a position firmly on the tourist trail to the Highlands. The corridor of the River Dee was a easy route between east and west, into the heart of the Cairngorms from the coast, and a safe refuge for drovers, riders, and raiders passing through the mountain passes and wilder lands to the north and south, around the majestic peak of Lochnagar.

The towns of Aboyne and Ballater, and the village of Braemar (one of the highest villages anywhere in the UK), Dinnet, and Crathie are the main settlements in the area, and any could be the ideal base for taking these walks. Braemar is only around one and a half hours drive from Aberdeen, so these walks are all easily possible as part of a day trip out from the city.

These are 10 of my favourite walks on and around Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire, in the eastern part of the Cairngorms National Park; opportunites to slow down your travel through the area and explore deeper into this stunning part of Scotland.

The 10 Best Walks in Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire

Continue reading “The 10 best walks in Royal Deeside, Scotland”

Why Mountains Matter on International Mountain Day

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.

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Heading for the unmistakeable outline of Buachaille Etive Mòr from Glencoe, Scotland.

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.

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Ascending through the mist on Mount Karioi, near Raglan in New Zealand.

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.

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The mountain landscape on the fringes of the Cairngorms in Scotland

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.

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On the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand.

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.

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Are you doing something to mark International Mountains Day?
Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.
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What I’ve loved this season | Autumn 2020

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

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. 

Autumn in the Cairngorms, on a woodland walk near Keiloch.

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).

Bow Fiddle Rock on the north Aberdeenshire coast.

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.

The Glas Allt Mór waterfall below Clach a’ Cleirich.
Granite tors on the Sneck, the narrow neck of land between the massifs of Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird.

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.

A few minutes on the beach at Benholm watching the surf at the turn of the tide.

My Autumn Love List

Books: This season, I’ve dived deep into history, reading up to improve my knowledge of things that happened locally, across the country, and how they interconnect with things happening further afield. My recent reads have been The Cairngorms: A Secret History by Patrick Baker, Scotland: A History from Earliest Times by Alastair Moffat, and Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga.

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.

A few of my favourite things from autumn 2020, preparing for a cosy winter.

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.

What’s Next?

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.

The Two Lochs Walk in Abernethy Forest

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.

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In the cool freshness under the pine canopy in Abernethy Forest.

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.

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Exploring the woodland on an autumn morning.

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.

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Gnarled pines and dark water in Loch Garten

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
  • Difficulty: moderate

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.

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Forested islands in Loch Mallachie, with the view to Bynack More behind.

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.

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Loch Garten, famous for its fishing ospreys in the summer months.

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.

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Woodland walks in Abernethy Forest

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.
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Even in late autumn, the forest is filled with interesting sights, sounds and scents to explore.

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.

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The edge of the Cairngorm plateau from Loch Garten.

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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Life in Antarctica: Looking back on a season at the Penguin Post Office

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The view from our doorstep. Looking from the accommodation building on Goudier Island to the historic Base A building at Port Lockroy in January 2020.

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.

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The sailing ship Bark Europa, moored up in the back bay under Jabet Peak, was one of the more unusual vessels visiting Port Lockroy during the season.

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.

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The ice-bound bay filled with brashy floes, making it impossible for zodiacs to land on the island and leaving us isolated.

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.

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The modern nissen hut that provided our home for four months, slowly revealed by thawing snow. On arrival, it was a high as the top of the door frame and we dug our way in.

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Collecting bergy ice for a freshwater supply early in the season. Most of our drinking water was provided by visiting ships, but when the ice closed in and ships couldn’t visit, we melted ice.

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.

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Don’t stand so close to me. A fine example of the projectile defecation of penguins. I believe there are even some papers written on why? and even how far?

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The colony surrounding the Stevenson screen at the highest point of the island.

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.

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The blatant thievery and cheating in the colony contributes to soap opera levels of drama.

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The chicks are in equal measures adorable and infuriating, especially if you’re trying to transport a 20kg cylinder of propane from sone side of the island to the other, and the priority is to create minimal disturbance to their activity (mainly napping).

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.

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At the creching stage, the chicks become bolder and venture away from nests to form small gangs and await a parent to arrive with a regurgitated krill meal.

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.

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Graffiti on the rocks of Goudier Island, left by the sailors and whalers of the Solstrief in 1912, one of the largest factory whaling ships to work Antarctic waters.

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.

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Base A, the first permanent British base established on the Antarctic Peninsula, and now home to the Penguin Post Office and museum.

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The incongruity of the galley view.

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.

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Postcards cancelled and packaged, ready to start their journeys around the world.

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.

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The awesome 19/20 season Port Lockroy team. Photo Credit: UKAHT

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An icy evening spotting arcs and sun pillars in nacreous skies and shimmering reflections by the landing site.

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.

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It wasn’t actually cold enough to justify all those clothes on that day. Taken as part of a photoshoot wearing our branded gear and items for sale in the shop.

Extracts from this piece were first published as posts on the UKAHT Port Lockroy blog.

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Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain

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.

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The view from the western end of Schiehallion, looking along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In clear conditions, it’s possible to pick out Ben Nevis.

Schiehallion

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 Alphabet of Adventures

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.

Here are my favourite memories, from A to Z: Continue reading “My Alphabet of Adventures”