Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Fort William, an Otter and Friday the 13th!

Thur 12th

I check my calendar to realise how long I have been away. How the hell do you change the spell checker to English, this blinkin American one is driving me nuts. Realise is not spelt with a Z…garrgh!

Anyhoo, nearly four weeks in and I have to think about a contingency plan as Cara informs me that she has pregnancy diabetes and I may have to return earlier than planned. With that in mind I set off to Fort William and Neptune’s staircase, via the beautiful Glen Coe. I have always loved it and I cannot wait to see it again and oh boy, I am not disappointed. I have to share it with someone and phone Cara to share the oohs and aahs. Having come through the Welsh and Cumbrian mountains to get here and I truly believe that this is the most awesome view in the UK. From entering south to north the most majestic and dramatic views unfold. I always think with Rob Roy and Braveheart in mind when I am here. It’s been at least a decade since I have seen this and it never fails to take my breath away. I am so deeply honoured to be able to see this and I tell Fin he is also as he has the best seat in the house. I cannot imagine the hardiness of the folk who used to live in these places at those times, when all you had was a peat fire and cows to keep you warm at night. I am reminded that as well as rain, it also that it snows here and is probably bleak in winter, by the post that mark the side of the road, I know I am in the Highlands. All the colours of tweed are mixed up with a good portion of rain, did I mention the rain?, to remind me of where I am. I am continually breathless, so much I start to turn blue…. I drive slowly to take it all in.

I arrive at Fort William and park in the large car park by Neptune’s Staircase. I see they have put up signs of no overnight parking to deter folk like me. Hmmm, there is a man in a large purple converted security van, a la money collector style. IT STANDS OUT!! Nothing subtle about that. He reckons I will be safe there, but I am not sure. I go for a walk along midge alley next to the canal and have a look at the boats and see Ben Nevis standing majestic in the background. I wonder if I shall ever in my life time see the top from the bottom…naah, reckon not. Still It can be seen in Google so there you go.

I go to the Moorings Hotel and ask who has jurisdiction over the car park and am told it’s the council. I don’t want to tangle with a job’s worth and decide that a parking fine would totally negate what I have saved wild camping and head off to a road sign posted Nevis Range to see what I can find. Most of the way up, I see a lorry parked in the most humungous gravel car park with what looks like a massive cow shed and I park up. I make a fabee meal of Quorn bolognaise sauce and rice and settle down to eat. I have heard music and assume it’s from whatever facilities are further up the road. No it’s the cow shed and the lights inside come on…. Oh!

I favour being positive so decide that I will be ignored by whomever comes out and all will be groovy. One car passes me and I am onto a winner. Two to go and I can get my head down for an early start and a cycle of the Great Glen Canal. Two more come out and natter away for ten minutes. What could possibly have not been said until goodbye came up. People do this a lot, leaning on car doors. I decide that if I watch, my vibe will be picked up, so pretend they are not there and I am the elephant in the room. They both leave and I sleep, well almost, it is the quietest quiet and so noisy, deafening quiet I think they call it.

I wonder what treasures lie in store for me tomorrow.

Fri 13th –uh oh!!

Many years ago, in fact, a decade and the last time I was here, with my last ex husband, I cycled the canal. I was traveling the UK investigating American motorhomes as at the time I thought that I would own one. Well we cycled the canal for the whole day and on the way home stopped at Neptune’s Staircase. It is a fall of 7 locks gradually descending from the canal down to the where it meets Loch Linnhe. It is awesome and on this particular episode, the road had been moved across and so had the steam rail line. A dozen or so boats and craft were slowly moving from one lock to the next, gently and peacefully manoeuvred by the skippers and watched by us. Something caught my eye. It was bright blue and full of sheep. We got speaking to the skipper of the vessel. It turned out to have been one of the landing craft used in Saving Private Ryan. The guy had bought it, stuck a cab on it and painted it blue. He used it to move his sheep from Inverness to market. As he moved down each lock I went with him, fascinated to the end. He was the last vessel and as he went on his way with a wave, the road went back and after it the rail line. A minute or two later, the steam train to Mallaig went past with a pershticough and all was well in the world. It was a unique special moment in time. I shall always remember it.

Something else to share. I found a map of the UK with all the counties and thought it would be great to use for this trip, so put it with all my other stuff on board. I decided that I would mark the roads used and could display it to my family when I get back. I found markers on it, stared at it for a while and realised that I used on the trip I just described. Now how about that for a spooky coincidence- if there were ever such a thing?

I awake with a start at 0530 and decide to drive back down to the car park by Neptune’s Staircase. On doing so I go back to bed, sleep like a top and wake refreshed. I get straight onto my cycling kit and get on the path via the locks. One is cascading water over the top, like a large waterfall in an attempt to even out the steps I suppose. Nature’s way of equalizing. I walk up to the top and climb on the bike. I have forgotten to put on Fins baby carries so wonder how far we shall go.

Through the gate and along the toe path of the canal. Using Fin’s natural rhythm of 7mph as a guide to how fast I cycle, we go on for about four miles. The canal is part of the Caledonian Canal and has another set of Locks at Fort Augustus, before it enters Loch Ness. I shall not see them on this trip, but if my memory serves me, they are not as spectacular as these. About two miles into the cycle I have been ripple spotting and see a large set of deeper ripples and do a double take…oh, Oh, OH! My heart flies as I see an otter. At first my stupid head told me it was a large snake as the markings on the mouth were just like that of a snake, but then I heard, ‘don’t be a dummy, it’s way to big for a British snake’ and then it hit me with the biggest grin imaginable. Weird how your head does stuff like that. Some German lads were walking towards me and were yabering away and for about ten seconds I had the divine joy of a rare beauty. It is only the second time in my life I have seen a wild otter, so rare are they. The first was a sea otter in the sea (of all places) just outside Plymouth Sound where I has my teens. It was lying with it’s belly uppermost, in amongst the weed, hitting a shell with a stone. Now I have seen this one. I shush the German’s but the shy wee thing has gone. They are interested enough and as always speak cracking English. We go our separate ways and I keep my eyes peeled for any more movements. The canal is about 60 feet wide and full of dark brackish water and presumably, fish.

A Canadian canoe gently passes me by and Fin and I stop for a rest at a sluice gate. I reckon 8 miles is enough for us both. I am grateful for buying my cycle shorts in Wales as my bottom bones usually start to ache by now. As I raise my bottle of water to my mouth, I realise with a start that Ben Nevis is cloud free and grapple with my phone to get a picture before it tricks me. I get something of one, but there is so much light I cannot see what I am taking and take a pot luck shot. Then out of no-where a Harrier jet passes right over my head and I am convinced it dipped sideways just for me. Is there no end to today’s pleasure? And it’s not even lunch time yet!

When I get back to the locks I chat to the lock keeper and ask if I can drive up and get fresh water as I reckon I need to keep a full tank from now on. He obliges with his fire hose and as I park up, I see that there are showers available lock side, presumably for the use by sailors, but as my sailing friend Bernie has already pointed out to me, I am a ship without sails so I suppose that makes me a skipper. I get a shower while I’m there and make a fabulous ‘Chez Hobby’ coffee and king prawn scotch roll and sit with my bare feet dangling over the lock wall with my loyal to the death, companionable pooch beside me.

Some boats are coming up through the locks so we watch them, Fin ever-so inquisitive sniffs the edge of the boat and I can just see by his demeanour that if the skipper of the boat said ‘come on then’ he would be on board in a flash. Finbar the Sailor. I have his life vest with me, in case we get out in a boat, as I want to go dolphin watching further up the coast.

So ‘fully loaded’ I go to leave Fort William my heart singing and head off towards Skye. Just as I am about to fire up the engine an unregistered number rings and due to the noise of the lock I cannot hear properly and a voice says ‘Whose was the nicest kiss you ever had?’

'Blimey, 'Ill need some time to ruminate, I’ll have to stop and make a coffee while I think’, I say. I don’t even know who it is!

My old mate Sonny laughs and asks me to put the kettle on as he is outside my house. ‘You’re out of date, mate, I went walkabout a month ago and Cara now lives in my apartment, I’m at Fort William!’ We natter on and catch up after not seeing each other in an age. In the gap he’s even proposed to his girlfriend on her 50th, on one knee and sober. I’m all teary at the thought of this great bear of a man, getting all squishy and romanced up. We’ve been bike buddies for about 15 years since I started in the bike trade and Fridays were our thing. We used to go to a rock club on the local strip with one of Deb’s ex ex’s and dance and basically, get drunk. We were the three musketeers. We laughed a lot, especially when Sonny, then a bombed out bomb disposal diver for the navy, in a full leg plaster danced on a bench in the club doing the can can. Halcyon days!

Anyhoo, while reminiscing, I drive away full of info that, the navy training centre just before the Kyle is run by Georgie and she will probably let me park up there. I drive onto the Invergarry road and am instantly overwhelmed by emotion.

God, this is amazing and I am suddenly and deeply made aware that this is the very route I was to do on my beloved Blackbird, in full leathers, on my 40th birthday and then go to Glasgow for dinner with Albert to celebrate our birthday. It was my dream and now part of my bucket list, except the have dinner bit of course! However, for the minute I am overtaken by missing my dad/ hero/mate. His hat stares at me from the dashboard. I have to stop the Hobby and get some rock music into the stereo. I choose the soundtrack to Armageddon and crank it up full belt. I sing my heart out and then music that Sonny and I headbanged to comes on and I am transported into another world. Aaah… good times. I get to the centre after 70 miles and for the whole journey I am envious of the bikers that I signal to pass safely, but to be honest, I am envious of me too. How many life times have I waited for this journey?

I’d planned to tell you all about Eileen Donan Castle which is just down the road from Skye, but as usual the car park had a height barrier and I was not welcome. The Scottish keep saving me money! I drove to a wee stop on the other side of the castle and get a cracking view. I am made aware at this point of the limitations of my phone camera and wish I’d boutgh a Dictaphone also. By the time I come to write these edits I have forgotten so much. Oh I just remembered that I saw a long horned goat on the side of the road as I rounded a bend. What a shock…phew!

I enter the centre by the long drive and there is not a soul in sight. That’s when I remembered it was Friday the 13th ……hahaha, oh well, I’m just going to play it that I had permission and if any of the occupiers of the cottages nearby ask I‘ll blag it, I am a wild camper!

A night literally next to the loch side is my kind of heaven. I park as if I am meant to be here and settle in.

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