Archive for September 2014
The furious pace of our first week in Queensland continued. After our fish and chips on the sea front we were off to River Heads to check in, dump the car and head over on the ferry to Fraser Island, the worlds largest sand island and World Heritage Site.
We stayed at the Kingfisher Resort, a vast sprawling but sensitively developed complex (as much as these things can be) amongst the dense forest. You can read my review of the resort here. We had a rather splendid timber villa up in the trees but it was dark by the time we checked in. The jet-lag was leaving us tired quite early in the evenings but this suited us as we’re not party animals. Also as it’s winter in Queensland it gets dark around 6pm and light at 6am so early to bed, early to rise was a good plan that we stuck to for most of the holiday
We woke the next morning to a pretty impressive dawn chorus from the local bird life. Bird song in eastern Australia is a real joy, every location offering a different loud tune usually accompanied by the laughing rant of a kookaburra. I heard a few people grumbling about it. I loved it. There were clearly showers in the air but the early morning view from the balcony across the forest was mighty fine.
For our first day we were taking the luxury option of a private tour in a 4WD. Just after eight we met our guide for the day, Gary. In typically Queensland style he was knowledgeable charming and good-humoured and he really made the day with his good company. They have recently sealed the resort roads (all of the roads on the island are sand) but as you crest the hill behind the resort you suddenly plunge into the real Fraser Island. A rollercoaster of a sandy track, rutted and quite daunting even as a passenger. I had thought of hiring my own 4WD and taking us around but I bailed on that idea after reading too many stories of getting stuck and worse. A hundred yards down the track and I was so glad I did. It clearly needed a good deal of skill that I don’t have so I settled down for a day of being chauffeured around.
The island doesn’t look that big on the map but of course like all things Australian, its enormous. It’s not only the worlds largest sand island but the largest island on the east coast where large islands are in abundance. 75 miles long and 15 miles wide its size takes some getting used to especially when driving along its bouncy sand tracks. The west coast where the resort is, faces the calm waters of Platypus Bay (where we’d seen the whales the day before), characterised by white sand and mangroves. We were off to the east coast that faces the open Pacific Ocean. Only 15 miles by sand track it took over an hour from the resort
The forest is incredibly dense which is amazing when you consider the island has no topsoil. Everything grows in sand. Every so often a huge expanse of sand is visible called a blow which gives you an idea of what the island would look like if it had no trees. The one below is called the Stone Tool Sand Blow as they found Aboriginal Stone Tools buried there.
You can glimpse the ocean in the distance and we were soon down to one of the islands crowning glories, 75-mile beach
Here we picked up speed as when the tide is out the beach becomes the highway and the whole stretch has numerous 4WDs bouncing along. Driving on the beach is great fun and it’s a really novel experience to be driving at 40mph just a few feet from the crashing waves (if you check out the slideshow at the bottom there are some videos within).
Inland are cliffs of sand, a myriad of hues and colours and all along people camped out right by the beach. What I wouldn’t have given to be staying here right on the beach rather than a resort hotel
For most of Northern Queensland the coast is protected by the Great Barrier Reef but it doesn’t stretch this far south. As a result this is proper ocean, booming, crashing waves and foamy surf with fishermen plying their trade every few hundred yards. It looks pretty good for a swim but that’s not a good idea. Apart from the powerful rips that will drag you away to a watery grave, sharks and rays patrol in near the shore ready to add you to the menu or impale you like the poor unfortunate Steve Irwin
Fortunately Gary was taking us on a long drive up the beach to one of the few places on the Island where you can swim in the sea, the Champagne Pools.
Even though you pick up speed on the beach it’s a long drive. It had been grey and showery most of the morning but just as we arrived at the pools the sky cleared and the sun burst through. Marvellous
The Champagne Pools are huge sandy pools with a rock wall separating them from the booming waves. The waves crash over the walls filling the pools with foaming surf every minute or so, hence the champagne moniker. Time for a swim
The water was pleasantly warm for our first dip in the ocean but the strong breeze made it a chilly swim. However it was a truly fantastic swim and sitting on the rock wall with the surf washing over you and into the pool before jumping into its calm depths was fantastic. We were only in the water for about 15 minutes but it was still a stand out moment. The kids loved it although TBF felt it was perhaps a little too chilly to be swimming in the ocean. I hadn’t travelled halfway around the world to look, I was keen to take everything on and loved every second.
Only downside was that TJS cut his foot and bled quite lavishly and I managed to bruise my heel which migrated from a minor inconvenience to severely painful within a few strides. I hoped it would wear off but it plagued me for the rest of the trip.
After a swift change we headed back down to Indian Head, one of the few rocky outcrops on the island. It’s an impressive spot, named by Captain Cook after the Aborigines he saw watching him from the headland as he sailed by. In those days anyone not white was deemed “Indian” hence the name. It was a short brisk hike to the top and the view up and down the beach were breathtaking
It was time for lunch and Gary unpacked the picnic. I’m not sure how many people they thought would be in the car but there was enough food to feed ten people not 5!! We made a brave stab, ate about a quarter of it and took the rest home (we never did eat it all). As we ate the sun came out again and the views were again stunning
Due to the time it takes to head this far up the beach (around 30 miles I guessed) we had to head back. The tide was coming in fast making the driving much trickier. Rather than the hard-packed wet sand nearer the low tide, we were on the soft stuff near the cliffs. The creeks that drain the forest also create small edges a few centimetres high that give you quite jolt when you don’t see them coming. Hard work for the driver but great fun for his passengers
We passed the famous landmark of the Maheno Shipwreck (more of that in a later post) on our way to one of the eastern coast resorts at Eurong for an ice cream (TBF enjoyed the delights of the superbly named “Golden Gaytime” ice cream)
One of Fraser Islands most intriguing residents are it’s Dingos, Australian wild dogs. They are the purest strain in the country and here roam wild amongst the tourists and campers. All the resorts are surrounded by dingo fences and everywhere you go are warning signs to “Be Dingo Safe”. You get the impression they are everywhere but after most of the day we hadn’t seen one and were giving up hope. Just before we turned inland we saw our first one!
They look remarkably like very ordinary dogs, albeit slightly scruffy and lean. They look like the kind of dog you would wander over to and rub his head and tickle him behind the ears. This one in particular seemed especially chilled and just sat calmly as we drove past. Make no mistake they are not puppy-dogs. As a rule they will keep to themselves but they will come into camps and steal food and there have been injuries and deaths from dumb tourists doing all the things the signs tell you not to do, namely approach them and try to pet them (or even feed them!) or run away screaming when you see them (that’s an invitation to a Dingo to chase and hunt you down). Apparently (!) you just hold your hands out to show you have nothing of interest, maintain eye contact, back away (never turn your back) and they will likely ignore you. I found looking at them from inside a car to be much safer
Still it was amazing to be up this close to a proper wild animal, even if he did look uncannily like my nans old dog, Sandy.
After a short drive we saw another couple, this time digging for and finding some gutted fish carcasses carelessly left in the sand by a fisherman.
Satisfied with a long day of beach and forest driving, swimming and dingo spotting we headed back to the resort on another long, bouncy and stunning drive through the endless forest that is Fraser Island.
Just time for a swim in the very chilly unheated pools at the resort and to wander down to the beach on the other side to watch the sunset.
My foot was now excruciatingly painful and I could barely walk. I was seriously worried I’d done some major damage that was going to spoil the trip. Walking back up to the villa after the meal nearly had me in tears such was the pain and frustration. The nice people at reception kindly lent me some crutches in the hope that taking the weight off it would help. It certainly made the very painful hobble back up the villa much easier.
Another magnificent day but Fraser Island is as I said, huge and there was much more to see. Off to bed early, there was another big day ahead tomorrow
At last after what seemed like years of anticipation and days of traveling we were off on our first proper adventure.
Up early at just after 6am to finish packing and be ready for our pick up. Gave me a chance to look out on a sunrise fringed with dark, stormy clouds and wet roofs of the hotel below
Whale Watching in Hervey Bay is big business between late July and October and the number of tours and excursions is dazzling. The majority of trips are half day on large fast moving boats with lots of people. We wanted something a little more personal and after some research we came up with Blue Dolphin Marine Tours.
Run by the friendly Peter and Jodie it proved to be a superb choice. Their trip is on a smaller catamaran with only about 15-20 people. It’s a slower voyage but an all day trip with lunch which suited us better. What set them apart was not only their friendly and accommodating approach but their sheer knowledge and passion which was evident from the moment we stepped on board. You can find my TripAdvisor review here
We settled in and had a hot cuppa as the boat headed out into the bay.
It was a cool and windy morning with the promise of showers and a bouncy ride but we all enjoyed the voyage as we crossed the bay and headed up the west coast of Fraser Island towards Platypus Bay where the whales hang out. It takes an hour or so to get there and we were overtaken by a couple of the faster boats and their crowds of people but the views of the coast, dolphins and rainbows over the bay more than made up that and it was great to be out on the ocean with the anticipation building.
We saw a boat ahead us that was clearly stationery and then we saw the first splashes – there be whales!
These were distant views and this pod seemed a little reclusive. We waited and gently followed their movements but they always seemed to be moving away. Perhaps this was as close as were going to get?
Peter assured us that patience was the key and that the other boat had been a little too pushy in trying to get them to put on a show. “There are whales and there are good whales” he said and we looked elsewhere. Perhaps a kilometere away was another small boat that had also been sitting in the same spot for a while. The splashes told us that they had some whales of their own and we headed over to take a look.
And here was the thing. As we approached you could see, and sense, that they were heading our way. They were coming over to take a look at US!
And then the show began. For the next 2-3 hours this pod of 4 whales rolled, spouted, tail-slapped, breached and cruised around the boat.
They are the most extraordinary creatures, huge in bulk yet with a sense of calm gentleness completely out of step with their size. There seems to be absolutely no reason for why they do this for us tourists in our boats than they enjoy it. These were no longer distant glimpses but close encounters.
They would cruise right by the side of the boat and pop out of the water closer enough that you almost touch them. Often they would blow water through their spout and you get soaked by the spray. Magical. I believe the local term for this is “mugging”. I’ve heard this phrase before and it seems completely apt but you do wonder who is watching who!
It’s hard to describe in words just what an experience it is to watch such a large, rare and intelligent creature up close. It’s difficult to imagine that these behemoths of the ocean live exclusively on tiny shrimps called krill.
As the whales appeared and disappeared we all ran from one side to another, front to back watching their graceful movements (including one dash to the top of the boat when the waves rolled that almost caused me to fall in!). Even with choppy waves the water is so clear that you can seen them swimming several meters beneath the surface.
A word here for Peter and Jodie who run the tour. I mentioned above that their enthusiasm and knowledge is amazing. Peter controls the boat and knows his stuff, a fascinating guy to talk to full of information bounded by that dry Aussie wit that characterises everyone we met in Queensland. Jodie acts as the host and what a job she does. Aside from catering to our every need with a regular supply of drinks and a cracking buffet lunch she joins us up on deck to watch the show with her guests. Watching her leap and run about the deck with excitement it’s hard to realise that they do this every day. It really does feel that this is their first time out as well as yours. The feeling is that this is not a commercial enterprise but a private outing that they have asked you to come along to. Seeing the whales with any excursion would have been amazing but the atmosphere created here transformed it into something special and very much more. Thank you both.
The show continued, broken only by a violent and heavy shower. And again while we sheltered, the whales stayed, as if waiting for us to come back out. Even at points where you thought perhaps they’d moved on, if you shouted and waved, back they came. This was not whale watching, this was whale interacting!
In amongst all the excitement, Peter shared with me a thought that has stuck in my head and probably will for ever more. We have pursued, hunted, barbarically slayed and generally persecuted these gentle giants of the oceans to the point of extinction for hundreds of years. Yet when we come out on our tourist boats to see them they still come over to take a look and enjoy the experience. I find that heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure.
Why do they like Hervey Bay so much – here’s an extract to explain all about them:
Humpback Whales belong to the group of whales known as rorquals, a group that includes the Blue Whale, Fin Whale, Bryde’s Whale, Sei Whale, and Minke Whale. Rorquals have two characteristics in common: dorsal fins on their backs, and ventral pleats running for the tip of the lower jaw to the navel area. They are characterized by the possession of baleen plates for sieving the krill upon which they feed. Humpback Whales are regular visitors to the coastal waters off southern Queensland. Each year, during winter, humpback whales migrate from Antarctic waters, pass through South Island New Zealand, to the warm waters of the tropics for calving.
Many humpback whales arrive in Hervey Bay from late July and remain until November when they begin their return to the southern ocean. Whale watching in Hervey Bay has become an important attraction for tourists and naturalists. In recent years visitors to Hervey Bay, from mid-July to early November, have discovered the awe inspiring experience of watching the majestic humpback whale, and their encounters with the whales on the waters of Hervey Bay have been unforgettable. These majestic creatures have made Hervey Bay a regular stop on their annual migration to Antarctica after giving others and calves are now relaxed and at home with the whale watching boats which carefully approach their playground, and the guaranteed sightings are counted as “an experience of a lifetime”. The humpbacks have made Hervey Bay their own, and as one of the most active and acrobatic of species they provide an awesome sight with their antics, including spectacular displays of breaching, tail flapping
Finally it was time to head home. Such was the bond between us and the whales they actually started following us for a few minutes – they didn’t want us to go!
I’d been a little concerned about taking a whole day trip but it simply flew by, over all too soon in fact. The cruise back to the Harbour was quiet as everyone was tired out, reflecting on a truly stunning day.
I chatted to Peter about his life and history and before I knew it we were back and shaking hands and exchanging heartfelt words of thanks and appreciation and one we will all never forget. On the rest of our trip we did some amazing things (as you’ll see!) and I often ask the family what was their favourite. The stock answer is of course “all of it” but when pushed, really pushed to name just one day, this is the one. I can’t give higher praise than that. The YouTube slideshow at the top also has some pretty good video shots of the whales. I don’t normally plug my slideshows (I create them for own benefit really and put them on You Tube and the blog as its easy and free) but in this case I really recommend you take a look as the video adds so much to memories. Hope you enjoy
We finished off the day in style with fish and chips eaten on the seafront watching the sun set.
What a truly amazing day and yet there was more, a lot more to come. Next stop Fraser Island
For the past few years since the kids had been really small we’ve been taking our holidays in the UK and France. We’ve had some amazing times and fantastic adventures but they aren’t weren’t exactly exotic. I’d been thinking for a few years to take the family on a “special” holiday, a once in a lifetime trip to use the popular term. Somewhere a long way from the UK that the kids would hopefully remember for the rest of their lives. Somewhere we could see places and have experiences we couldn’t get in our European backyard. Most importantly a trip that would please everyone. For me, and most probably TBF and TJS that would involve the outdoors and mountains or trekking. That’s not TJF’s bag though so I needed something else.
We thought of the Western US, (California, Utah, Arizona) but that would have involved a lot of travel and still a little too much in the way of walking for TJF. Hawaii was a popular idea with its beaches and volcanoes but I wasn’t sure about the many inter-island flights we’d need. We all love beaches and swimming and in particular snorkelling and as me and TJS had been to the Maldives we thought that would be ideal. Trouble is the best time to go is in the Winter and we’d have to take the kids out of school for a week – not ideal. What we needed was somewhere with a similar exotic feel that we could visit in the Summer and still get decent weather.
I’d not considered Australia due the simple and rather dimly incorrect idea that in their winter the weather was cool and wet. When my thoughts drifted away from the Maldives to somewhere else we could go snorkelling on a coral reef the obvious place is the Great Barrier Reef. Imagine my surprise when a little research revealed that winter is the ideal time to visit Queensland. The summer is hot and oppressively humid with lots of rain and tropical storms. The winter is warm, clear and much drier. A little more research showed that the Great Barrier Reef is but one part of the huge array of natural wonders that coastal Queensland offers. I did have a foolish idea that we could see several parts of Australia in one trip but one look at the image below reminds that Australia is HUGE – I had no idea until I saw this graphic on a postcard while we were there just how huge and how much it dwarfs France for example.
Once that idea was ditched, we settled on a trip from Brisbane to Cairns.
As a Contractor I have the major disadvantage that I don’t get paid when I’m on holiday. Consequently when costing up a trip I have to factor in my lost earnings while I’m away. The main advantage is of course that I can take as much time off as I like between contracts, something you can never do as a permanent employee, restricted as you are to an annual leave entitlements. May as well take a whole month off and be damned. With that in mind I took the obvious (possibly foolhardy decision) that life is too short and you only get one shot at it. Enjoy the world while you can. No point working hard if you can’t enjoy the rewards. Etc etc. This was the mantra I repeated to myself as my finger hovered over the “buy” button on the airline website when the flights came out. TBF looked pensive as I asked her “shall we do this”. While she paused and considered I clicked. We were going to Australia, no turning back now! 🙂
The next realisation was that even in 4 weeks we could not fit in everything that Queensland had to offer. I didn’t want to spend the whole holiday dashing from place to place without ever having chance to savour each place at least to some small degree. We pondered over the options and made some good and some tough choices. Being the Project Manager that I am, I took on the whole trip myself and over the following 12 months researched and booked all the hotels and trips that – I hoped – would make it something really special
I’ve always wanted to use my blog not only as my personal life diary but also as a resource tool for anyone else who might find the details helpful. The posts that will follow will therefore have some practical details within and links to the various places we stayed and visited. I’ll stop short of a “review” style post as I’ll be putting that stuff up on Trip Advisor (that’s what its for!) and linking back to those if anyone is interested. Hopefully the collection of posts will both inspire someone to follow in our footsteps and help them plan it if they do. I’ll also put up a post at the end with my overall thoughts on the trip and Queensland as a family holiday destination (although I think that will become obvious!), practicalities of how I organised things and how everything turned out – what a 4 week road trip in Australia is like.
So after 18 months of planning, research bookings and anticipation we were ready for the off. A Friday evening drive to Heathrow and an overnight at the satisfactory – that’s the best I can manage – Sheraton Skyline Hotel (review here). Nice enough hotel but considering how much it cost it was far from ideal. I chose it as it had onsite parking but that was full so I had to move the car to a deserted and frankly seedy looking car park down the road. I spent the next 4 weeks hoping it would still be there, in one piece when I got back (it was). Their definition of a “family room” was also interesting. Two double beds is not what I call a family room. Still, it was a nice room and we were only in it for 10 hours so we put up with it. I wouldn’t go back though.
I remember when I was young, taking a flight and going to the airport was an adventure. It was as much a part of the holiday as the holiday itself. Nowadays the whole thought of an airport visit especially a large one fills me with deep depression. Slowly but surely they have surgically extracted every last ounce of fun and excitement and turned into one long dreary round of queues, frustrations and commercial exploitation. Heathrow is by far the worst and it has some stiff competition (Brisbane gave it a good go as you’ll find out later). It starts at Heathrow when you realise that the once free hotel shuttle bus now costs a whopping £15 return for a family of four for the 5 minute journey to the terminal. Having been dutiful and checked in online, printing off all my boarding passes at home I was then told I had to use the check in kiosks and do it all over again. Another few trees lost forever. Finally I was fleeced to the tune of another £15 for a chocolate brownie, a cup of tea and a few bottles of water. God I hate airports.
Still, we were on holiday and we are all determined not to let Heathrow spoil the mood. Our flight was with Singapore Airlines and very good they were too in an economy long haul flight sort of way. I was rather excited (in a childish, airplane geek sort of way) to be flying on a new Airbus A380 (the double decker one) on the first leg. Not as long or wide as you’d imagine but it’s the wingspan that catches the eye. We settled into our seats for the journey
As I’m sure you already know Australia is a long way – a very long way – from the UK. The flight to Singapore alone is a bum-numbing 13 hours (an extra hour tagged on to avoid missiles fired by those cheeky chappies in Ukraine). I’d warned the kids of the boredom and to be fair they coped pretty well. I was happy as Larry (who was Larry anyway) as I caught up on about 10 films through the outbound and return journeys, ate lots of noodles and drank a few beers.
We changed planes at Singapore (a very nice and relaxed airport – Heathrow take note) which broke up the journey quite nicely. Then a final 7 hour stint to Brisbane punctuated by one little bout of air-sickness from TJF (big thanks to the steward who produced a tupperware container from nowhere at a very opportune moment).
I’d been worried about how the kids – and quite frankly the adults would cope with a 20+ hour flight(s). We all took it in our stride despite the fact that you have no idea what time of day it really is or what time of day your head says it is, complicated by a lack of sleep. TJS is not allowed to use this excuse as he slept like a log on all flights and had to be physically jabbed awake to be fed his noodles and curry
Flights over, bags retrieved, customs negotiated, car collected and a short 15 minute drive and we finally arrived at our hotel in Brisbane, the very pleasant Colonial Village Inn (review here) at Taigum. We’d set off from home at 6pm on the Friday night and it was now 9pm on Sunday. I think we’d earned some sleep although we were all holding up well. As we settled down a familiar sound could be heard outside – rain! And we’d only been in the country an hour!
The First Day
I was awake at around 5am as jet lag – or possibly boyish excitement – kicked in. While everyone else slept, I popped out for a walk around the hotel and the local streets. It was only suburban Brisbane but I was thrilled. I was in Australia for the first time! There were birds of every kind everywhere. The bird life here was amazing. Everywhere we went we saw a myriad of colourful birds all with their own song. The dawn chorus everywhere was always a delight. Here I saw Rainbow Lorikeets, Galahs, and Corellas. It felt almost surreal to be on the other side of world at 6am, walking the deserted streets and seeing parrots in peoples gardens!
Eventually I was joined in the waking world by the rest of the family. The hotel had a very fine cafe for a hearty breakfast at the Espresso 351 cafe next door (review here), very welcome after 2 days of airline food. The birds came down to the table to feed giving the kids their first up close view of some proper Australian wildlife.
The hotel owners came around for a chat and told us that we should have been here last week as the weather was glorious – not what you want to hear on your first day 🙂
Time to start the road trip. We had a 3 hour drive north to Hervey Bay where our adventures would begin proper. Hervey Bay has a huge sprawl of retail and industrial parks as you drive in, not hugely impressive. On a whim I turned off the main drag and managed to find the sea at at place called Torquay and a fine place it was. A wide grassy parkland overlooking the beach with an array of cafes and shops to feed us, again welcome after airline catering. We sat and ate our lunch on one of the many fishing piers, watching the heavy showers tracking over the bay, Australian Ibis picking about among the leaves.
The clouds looked heavy with rain so we headed off to our hotel, The Oceans Resort (review here), very fine in a posh and corporate sort of way. We had a huge apartment with a fine view over the bay and the pools, shame we were only in it for one night!
Despite the cool and wet weather we were determined to enjoy the facilities and took a swim in the pools, one warm and one startlingly cold. It was great to be out and about and moving around after days spent in cars, airports and planes.
And that was our first day, uneventful but we embraced the fact that we were in Australia.
After a mammoth packing session for our trips to the islands (more to come) we headed to bed. We had to get up early the next day to start our holiday for real. We were going to see the Whales!
July and the end of the school summer term always means a trip to Towyn Farm campsite and its glorious beach.
This year me an TJS were the advance party, setting up camp on the Friday night. The Funsters were up in Blackpool for a cheerleading event that TJS was taking part in. They joined us very late on the Saturday night and they didn’t miss much. It was possibly the dullest, dampest, dreariest day of the whole summer. We took a coastal walk and climbed a 100m hill that was in the cloud. I made several attempts to create some photographic record of the day but this is best one I could manage
I had to head home to work for a couple of days on the Sunday evening but at least the weather improved markedly with an early fog clearing into a glorious afternoon on the beach and evening BBQ by the tent.
The sunset (a real theme for this trip and blog post) was magnificent
By the time I returned on the Tuesday evening we were in the grip of a summer heatwave!
Everyone else in our little troupe arrived through the week and the the heat and wall to wall sunshine was such that we didn’t go any further afield. Just long lazy days messing about on the beach, playing sports and swimming in the sea. It was hot enough to need the sea swims to keep cool, not often you can say that in the UK. The photos tell the story better than words
The kids got TJS to stand in the pile of rubber rings and he then got pushed over by Z – it was hilarious so we asked them to do it again and to TJS credit he did.
We did take a stroll up Carn Fadryn for DB Juniors Birthday. He calls it Birthday Hill as his Birthday is always while we are here and we pretty much always climb it (as anyone knows this is one of my favourite hills). He wanted to climb it on this Birthday this year and it go no arguments from me.
It was a little grey and dreary while we up there but the kids still had a great time playing on the summit rocks and eating birthday cake with an alarming swiftness such that the kindly old fella who made all the adults a cup of tea never got a piece – bah!
I took out my newest tech purchase – a 500mm telephoto lens – and tried to snap a photo of our collection of tents in the campsite some 5 miles away
As we finished the day it rained – shock, horror – for about 2 minutes. The air cleared and we were treated to a fabulous light show by the setting sun.
A few of us took a very late evening stroll on the cliffs to enjoy the performance and watch the late revellers in the sea. Up on the cliffs it was tranquility itself and it was gone 10:30 when we returned to the campsite
As if to finish the week off in style the last day dawned clear and sunny with a brisk wind.
This fetched up some decent waves for some body-boarding to compliment the calm clear waters of earlier in the week. We had an epic game of frisbee with multiple discs flying unpredictably in the wind in all directions causing much laughter. It was a fitting and fun way to end the festivities and as always it was with a sad and heavy heart that we packed up and headed home.
Well having spent the best part of a whole year hopelessly behind with my blog I’ve nearly caught up. The good news – I’m only one trip behind. The bad news – it was a 4 week trip with a whole host of amazing adventures that’s likely to take me several weeks to write up leaving me – well several weeks behind again. The pressures of writing a blog – do they never end
Oh wow! An award! My first! I should have prepared a speech. I’d just like to thank my family, my agent, my rucksack, my socks………
Actually thanks to Chrissie for nominating me – even though it was a couple of months ago I’ve been wanting to answer the questions as something a little more than the usual collection of photos and “I walked along that path and up that hill” sort of writing.
So here we go…
1. Favourite outdoor place ?
I left this one till last as it’s the hardest one to answer. I’ve been lucky to have been to some fantastic outdoor places from Scotland, to Arizona, to a recent trip to Australia. More recent memories come to the fore so it’s tough not to exclude the early days. Electing one place as a favourite almost seems unfair. Factoring in that time effect I would have to say that nothing beats an alpine sunset or sunrise from a bivvy site high in the mountains before a big day on the high summits. An alpine bivvy is an amazing experience. It’s cold, uncomfortable and depending on the weather and what you planned, exciting and a little scary. You rarely sleep well but lying there looking at the stars is worth the lost sleep. You can’t see the constellations, there are just too many stars. It’s absolutely still and silent and very hard to describe. I urge you to head out there and try it. You don’t need to be “on a route”, just walk as high as the paths will take you, choose a spot with a view across a glacier to snow capped peaks, roll out a sleeping mat and just watch the whole scene from dusk till dawn. Watching the mountains transform not once but twice will transform you.
Of all the bivvy sites I’ve been to one stands out. Below Diavolezza in the Bernina Alps in Eastern Switzerland. Perfect flat site with a view across a range of dramatic soaring snow and ice ridges, one of which we climbed the day after in one of my best days of alpine climbing on Piz Palu. Perfection (note that this also has a very embarrassing moment for me which I’ll recount another time – it’s not for the faint-hearted!)
2. Favourite piece of technology to use whilst outdoors ?
I’m not a big user of technology on the hill. I don’t own a GPS and my phone rarely makes an appearance. I prefer paper maps so I can spread them out and check routes and what I’m looking at. If you’re talking “gear” then without doubt its my Jetboil Sol Titanium Stove. It goes everywhere with me so I can have a fresh cuppa whenever I’m out walking (much to the distraction of my friends in winter as I brew up while they are shivering and drinking from a lukewarm flask). It’s revolutionised my day walks in particular. If its is true technology then that would be my camera and all its accompanying bits. Canon EOS 60D with either a Sigma 18-250 or 150-500 lens, remote shutter and Manfrotto carbon fibre tripod. I love my photos and always have a camera with me. Since I went DSLR I’m really loving learning then craft and being more creative (and getting fitter – its heavy!) For wetter conditions my Panasonic Lumix FT3 all-weather compact does a grand job. For action it would be my Go Pro HD Hero Head Cam for when I’m kayaking and skiing. For me, watching and reviewing the key moments from a great day is part of the fun and I find reliving those memories priceless. I can’t imagine have no images to look back on
3. Favourite outdoor food ?
On a day walk it would have to be a homemade sandwich with a least 4 types of filling in it – my sandwiches are a work of art I’m pleased to say, although more Andy Warhol than Renoir after I’ve sat on them which is often. Backpacking? Well I’ve been through some tough times over the years. A beanfeast phase – nasty. A packet cheese sauce and noodles attempt – very underwhelming. Savoury rice and peanuts – malnutrition. These days I prefer to bear the weight of food I can enjoy and avoid the disappointment of facing a bag of dried nastiness after a tough day. With that in mind it has to be Anchovy Carbonara with fresh onion and pepper. Anchovies give you bags more bang for your buck when it comes to the taste/weight ratio. It looks a bit grey but trust me it’s tasty
4. Outdoors ambition ?
To be hiking the hills or enjoying the outdoors to my very last day. Doesn’t matter where or what activity. I just hope I enjoy it as much at 81 as I did at 18
5. Favourite place to stay.. wild camp, YHA or hotel/B&B ?
Unquestionably a wild camp. Watching the sunset or taking a meal in the outdoors with what feels like the whole world to yourself is the best feeling bar none. Total immersion in the outdoor world that gives a true appreciation of its many a varied wonders. From the light cast on a mountain, to the motion of the grass at your feet or the blanket of stars on clear night. Even down to a wild night with rain lashing the tent while you doze snug and dry inside.
6. Piece of music, book or film that you associate with getting out ?
Nothing that I associate with getting out but the book (and film) that sprang to mind is “Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson. A truly inspiring tale of determination, endurance and sheer, raw courage in the face of extreme adversity
7. Best comedy moment in the outdoors ?
As you can imagine 30+ years has delivered the usual mix of falling in rivers, bogs and of drunken antics in campsites that should be left there. I’m sure all of my friends will now remind of much funnier moments that I’ve forgotten but here’s one that still brings me a smile. We were ski-touring in the Cairngorms, me, Mad Malcs and Uncle Fester. at lunch me and MM decided it would be fun to sneak a couple of rocks into UF’s rucksack. We were so successful that we continued placing more and larger, some unfeasibly large rocks in there. He proceeded to carry this rucksack all day on a pretty tough route without saying a word while me and MM exchanged smiles. Childish but funny. The next morning as he collected his sack from the car, he looked puzzled and with a sigh exclaimed with complete innocence of the facts “this rucksack feels heavy, it’s almost like someone has put rocks in it”. As the last of those words left his mouth he looked at us as if to say “Oh for f***s sake”. The look on his face was priceless. I’m afraid to say I had a previous conviction. I once spent a long and very tedious mini-bus journey, where me and the Eternal Weather Optimist put all manner of rubbish (sweet wrappers mainly) from the floor of bus into UFs coat pocket while he was still wearing it. He only noticed when I put a potato in there. You can get an idea of my childish sense of humour from these stories
8. Who has inspired you to get out and enjoy the outdoors ?
Have to say myself really. I went on a school trip to Edale, we walked over Kinder, Everyone hated it, I loved it, I was hooked, I’ve been going ever since (this was 36 years ago)
9. Favourite beverage after a hard day spent outside ?
If its hot, a cold bottle of Becks. If its cold, a hot sweet cup of tea them a cold bottle of Becks
10. Being outdoors.. how does it make you feel ?
Alive, de-stressed, inspired, humble, excited, invigorated, challenged, frustrated, hopeful, peaceful
11. Where will your next adventure take you ?
The Welsh Mountains this weekend. Maybe Plynlimon with the family, possibly something bigger with TJS and GM. Whatever I will be on a summit somewhere over the weekend
So there you have it. In the spirit of the Leibster Award I believe I’m supposed to nominate others who have yet to take up this challenge (apologies if you have and I haven’t noticed!) and who would make a much better work of it than me so please take note:
Beating the Bounds
Writes of Way
Marks Walking Blog
Are you blog enough to take on the challenge
Amongst a growing list of regular calendar trips is our July Backpacking trip. Last year in the Moelwyns was a classic but this year we wanted somewhere different. The weather was mixed so we decided on somewhere closer to home. I have a real fondness for the hills to the south of the Elan Valley so the plan was made. TJF was dumped with the grandparents to go birthday shopping. It was just me and Funster/Sherpa trio
After a late and leisurely bit of packing we headed past the reservoirs, parked up and were on our way
The weather was mixed, sunshine with some dark clouds that seemed to be saying rain was coming. Despite some dark clouds from time to time we stayed dry all weekend.
The Rhiwnant Valley has become a firm favourite of mine and even with the heavy packs it was a delightful amble into it’s deserted inner reaches.
The pool at the bottom of the falls of Nany y Carew is an obvious and stunning spot for a lengthy lunch break although the pool was a little murkier than the previous visits. It was too blustery and cool for a swim anyway
We pressed on and I had in mind to camp by the upper reaches of the stream. When I’d walked this way with TJS in the winter I recalled several spots to camp. In the height of the summer however, bracken is king and everything that was once grass was now ferns. Time for plan B and I reckoned we could probably find a flattish spot up on Carreg Yr Ast or Dygarn Fawr although we’d have to walk to get water.
The summit of Carreg Yr Ast is a very fine one and seemed to fit my personal requirement for lofty and extensive views from a summer wild camp. After a bit of wandering I found the perfect spot just to the east of the summit, dry spongy grass with ample rocks for sitting. TBF went off to get water while me and TJS – well me mainly – put the tent up.
It was a great site, one of the best I’ve found. The weather had been steadily improving and the views were sensational. A few midges were about but in nothing too troublesome. We brewed up and soaked it all in, pleased that the lack of sites down by the river had forced our hand into a far better spot.
Either before or after dinner (I really don’t remember which) we went off for a stroll to Drygarn Fawr and it’s beehive stone cairns. You can see the tent in the centre of the photos below
The clouds on the horizon still looked threatening but I was sure they would pass us by as they did.
After returning to the tent and having a brew and cake (and possibly our evening meal – who knows) we chilled in the summer mountain air
I took off down the hill to get some more water figuring the Nant Yr Ych was closer than the Nant Yr Ast. It was, but it had been very cleverly protected with massed ranks of waist high tussocks. I found the stream when I fell into it after a battle with a particularly large and menacing tussock
We settled down to watch the sunset which was magnificent. A grandstand finale to the day and a fitting send off for a long nights sleep.
We woke the next morning to a stunner of day. Pretty much cloudless but with enough wind to keep things cools and the midges at bay.
Bacon sandwiches were made and consumed with relish (well ketchup actually – see what I did there) and we broke camp – very slowly for it was a fine day – ready for some real wilderness walking.
I’d had idea we could walk all around the watershed, dropping into the Afon Arban and on to the Claerwen Dam to make a really good circuit. I had no idea how rough the terrain would be but I hoped that the faint path that follows the boundary marker stones would persist all the way leaving us with a short walk across to the river valley. An excellent plan that very nearly paid off.
We retraced our steps to Drygarn Fawr in sunshine and a keen wind. It was clear from the summit that the faint path was there and we followed it through the grass, tussocks and dried peat hags with ease.
We praised our good fortune for the dry summer. As we turned north along Drum Yr Eira the going became a little more tricky with constant weaving about to keep to the best line. When in doubt and just when an easy route seemed out, the marker stones would appear along with another faint path and we linked these together to make a splendid, long traverse across this stunning wilderness to Cerrig Llwyd Yr Rhestr were took a break for some sustenance.
I checked the map and all we had top do was to cross to Drum Dagwylltion and then descend a few hundred metres to the valley of the Nant Yr Lau where the river would deliver us an easy descent. The Wilderness fought back. The marker stones disappeared as did any traces of path and the grass and tussocks got deeper. We tried to traverse around the head of the valley but the tussocks were immense – or so we thought. We decided to head directly down to the stream figuring that would be the easiest route. It was torture. It was a few hundred meters but these were man sized tussocks – I’m not kidding. They were at least 5 feet high and several times I completely lost sight of my feet and pitched forward onto my face. As you can tell, photos were not a priority!
We reached the stream with a sigh of relief, took a drink of clear cold water and pressed on, relieved that the worst was over. It was a cruel deception
The valley was stunning with the stream twisting and turning amongst the rocks. Trouble was the bed was narrow and filled with passages of loose scree, bracken and worst of all, huge waterfalls of more boggy tussocks cascading down to the stream with no way around them. It was more torture and I could see that my feigned and forced enthusiasm for how grand the valley was to look at, if not walk through, was not rubbing off on the others. They were grim faced and had clearly had enough. In a stroke of inspiration I crossed the stream, bashed up through a bit of dense and steep bracken and found a path. It took us easily and swiftly down to the Afon Arban (past some rather good looking wild campsites for future reference)
We stopped by a stunning piece of river estate and took a long rest, bathed our tired feet in the cool water and scoffed most of the food we had left. We’d really earned that!
From there it was glorious stroll down this rather stunning valley on a path! We passed several spots in the small gorge at the bottom that would be ideal for a summer picnic and swim.
The Clarewen Dam looked stunning in the afternoon sun
The walk along the old road above the Afon Claerwen was excellent although much longer than I thought. After a hard day on tough terrain we are all feeling the strain and we reached the car with something of a sigh of relief.
It had been a superb outing. These hills lack drama, crags and pinnacled summits but they are lonely, austere, full of small hidden charms and delights, some truly wild and expansive scenery and really tough and challenging walking terrain. I love them and hope that the tale and the photos inspire you make the effort to go out and explore them. You won’t be disappointed and you will most likely have them largely to yourselves. I’ve been up here four times now and other than the car parks and the environs rarely seen a soul.
You don’t get a day’s walk in Shropshire for ages and two come along at once.
Me and TBF were minus our kids, TJS was in Iceland and TJF was, well, I honestly can’t remember. Enthused by the excellent day we had around Church Stretton a few weeks before I decided to go back to the walk I’d proposed in the first place.
Being a long ridge surrounded by rural farmland, Stiperstones doesn’t lend itself to a circular walk very easily. After a lengthy period browsing the web and poring over maps I settled on a route from Bridges
We parked up at the pub with a faithful promise to fulfill the free car park bargain in return for spending some money with them
The first couple of miles was over uncut fields and wet grass. I’m not a huge fan of walking through these sorts of areas. Paths are often poorly signed, overgrown and hard to find. Walking can become a chore. We had a few such moments as we passed by Kinnerton Farm and Birchope on our way to Linley Hill. The views across to the tors of the ridge were great but the walking was pleasant without being anything special.
Linley Hill itself was a rather thistle clad mess of old dead trees and sheep sh1t. It looks good on the map and the views were fine but it’s not really worth the walk to be honest.
Once we started to descend the steep slopes towards the main part of the walk things picked up. The grassy slopes on the way down were charming and as we climbed onto the ridge we entered the heathland and its broad grassy paths. The views across towards Heath Mynd and Corndon Hill were excellent.
We’d been walking for a while so lunch was called for. We scrambled through deep heather and rocks to the top of the Rock House hoping for a flat grassy spot. Alas the all we found was more deep heather and rocks. We found a decent perch on the rocks with an expansive view and settled in for a lengthy pause. My mind was tracing routes on Corndon Hill and looks a real cracker. Another one for my book.
Moving on we found the ridge to be as wild as the Rhinogs. I wanted to stick to the high ridge assuming there would be a path but it was just deep heather, very deep heather and yes, more rocks. A few hundred yards of that was enough and we were back on the lower path.
The walk along to Nipstone and then through the charming Nipstone Wood was grand. The wood was dappled with sunlight and the meadow beyond a profusion of wild flowers in the wafting grass.
Climbing up onto the main ridge we began the exploration of all the tors that litter and mark the ridge. It feels oddly out-of-place to see large outcrops of rock on a wild heather moorland and then look across arable fields to the chimneys of the power stations in the Severn Valley. Squint your eyes and it could be somewhere much higher and much more remote. I loved it.
What I didn’t love was the path, or at least my knees didn’t. It’s like a cobbled street without the mortar. Really difficult to keep a steady pace with constant twisting of ankles and knees. The views of the surrounding countryside and the tors more than made up for that. Past Cranberry and Manstone Rocks, each very impressive in their own right we reached the Devils Chair, supposedly the hardest summit in England.
I took it direct from the south and it’s a pretty impressive knife-edge of rock with some exposed positions and delicate moves. Probably a grade 2 Scramble and it was a delightful little route. Somewhat disappointingly you can pretty much walk up from the northern end to the highest point so in terms of a summit I think the “hardest” claim might be stretching it but thinking again I couldn’t come up with any English summits that are anything more than a walk to the top as it’s hardest route. I’m sure someone will tell me different. Still, it’s a marvellous little spot and we had it to ourselves.
We turned off before the Shepherds Rock and headed down over the pleasant fields and past the Hollies Farm to pick up the long road back to Bridges.
My knees don’t like road walking and after the cobbles on the ridge it was a tortuous walk. A shame as most of the lane was a lovely and deserted. More surgery on the horizon I fear
Back at the pub and it was gloriously sunny. We made good on our promise and enjoyed a beer and scampi meal outside the pub by the river.
Had I not had other commitments I’d have been there now. It was stunning. Nothing finer than a pint and some pub grub after a long walk