Part 8 Dundee, Fife and Glasgow east!

Dundee is the 4th largest city in Scotland, and was always known for the 3 J’s.. Jam, Jute and Journalism. It has recently undergone a huge regeneration of it’s waterfront, culminating in the building of the striking V&A Scotland museum which opened last year.

Our main reason for visiting was to see Captain Scott’s Antarctic exploration ship the Discovery, which was built here and is now on display in it’s home port.

There is a wonderful exhibition about the construction and equipping of the ship, and the expedition itself. The hull was built of 5 layers of different timbers, filled the void with salt to absorb water, and had bridging struts to prevent crushing by pack ice. Provisions included 45 sheep.. many of which were lost overboard, and vast quantities of meats, bottled fruits and vegetables and cheese, to provide a balanced diet and try to prevent conditions like scurvy, but they could not last for the nearly 3 years that the trip took!

The purpose of the voyage was as a scientific exploration of uncharted territory, so scientists and research equipment were all on board, covering geology, botany, zoology, cartography, physics and engineering.

Many of their findings are in use today. The ship itself was remarkable. Solid, with beautifully polished woodwork, and giving a real sense of life onboard.

But nothing could simulate the privations of their stay in Antarctica, at -60 degrees and eating seabirds! Devilled skua was one recipe.. apparently it tasted like devilled rotten fish!

Next door, the V&A’s architecture is supposed to echo the rugged Fife coast. Inside we visited a fascinating exhibition on how videogames are conceptualised and created, plus the problems they can cause.

We were surprised, and impressed, at the amount, and quality of ‘real’ drawing that occurs before the computer graphic stage.

Some games used full orchestra and choirs to record the backing music! The permanent Scottish gallery celebrates all aspects of Scottish design. Highlights for us were the Rennie Mackintosh oak room, an exhibition on the Beano.. DC Thomson publishers are based here, and the last tiara Cartier ever made, which was commissioned here, and contains over 25,000 diamonds.

The Scottish fashion exhibit had a lovely line in 1960’s skiwear!

To avoid city centre parking problems, we had earlier driven across the long Tay bridge, with the lovely views… including of more oil platforms in for maintenance!

We then caught the local train into and out of Dundee from Leuchars, crossing the railway bridge, under which you can see the stone stumps of the first rail bridge which collapsed in 1879 in a storm, killing everyone aboard the train that plunged into the river. A sobering thought. Back to Boris and we drive out to the Fife coast at St Andrew’s. This is the land of sand dunes and many, many golf courses, including the Holy Grail of Golfers, St Andrew’s itself.

The quaint town now has golfing hotels, and golfing apparel shops everywhere. On its south side are the remains of a magnificent 12th century Abbey, and castle, reminding us that St Andrew’s was here long before the first Mashie Niblick!

How has that tower stayed up for 800 years?! Of course, St Andrew’s recently had another claim to fame, and they are not shy about exploiting it!

Next, down the coast to Cambo Sands and our free car park for the night, again with a stunning sea view and the chance of an evening walk on the beach.

Next morning, a 6 mile walk along the lovely shore, and a pretty stream, watching birds and doing our usual beach clean as we go.

On the whole the beaches are pretty good, but we just pick up any plastic, ropes or litter that we see as a matter of course now. Something we can all do whenever we walk along a beach.

Fife is famous for it’s charming fishing villages, and we drove through Crail, Anstruther, St Monans and Elie

before turning inland to visit Loch Kilconquhar and then Loch Leven, a lovely RSPB reserve where we picked up 3 new birds for our species list, bringing our trip total to 99 different species in Scotland. We cannot leave without the elusive 100th! We also had traumatic ‘nature in the raw’ experience. I took this photo of a black headed gull chick on an island nest with it’s parent birds.

Seconds later, a greater black backed gull dived down and snatched the chick. Adult bh gulls mobbed it, but it got away. A sad Springwatch type moment!

We then started our drive across the more built up areas of central Scotland, until we reached the incredible Kelpie sculpture near Falkirk. Two enormous heads of Kelpies, mythical horses, that represent endurance and strength. They are 30 metres tall and stand by a turning pool on the Union canal. We could spend the night here on the lower car park for £5, which we did so that we could walk to see the Kelpies at night. However, being Scotland and mid June, it wasn’t dark enough until after 11pm! It was worth it though.

They gradually change colour, but my favourite shot is this one, with Chris standing next to one to really show the size and majesty of the Kelpies.

From here next morning, it was just 10 minutes drive to the Falkirk wheel. Scotland’s canal network was built 200 years ago as a major transport network for it’s burgeoning industrial output. The two main canals, the Union, and the Forth and Clyde canal, were linked here by a series of locks. The coming of the rail network, and road haulage meant canals fell out of use and were abandoned. Three blocks of flats were built on the site of the locks. In the 1990’s, interest in canals was renewed and a huge restoration project was begun. They no longer had locks, so they looked for ways to link the 2 canals, finally accepting this superb design from a team led by Tony Kettle.

This is the worlds only rotating boat lift, and has been a huge success both as a functioning boat lift and a tourist attraction.

After our boat ride on the lift, we drove to Uddingston, a leafy Glasgow suburb, and caught the train into Bridgeton, in the east end of the city, to meet Margaret, a dear friend from many years ago.

We had a super afternoon catching up, and visiting some fascinating places in a part of Glasgow off the main tourist trail. They certainly have a jazzy taste in cars!

Margaret works in the Glasgow Women’s library, which evolved from a small project set up in 1990, during Glasgow’s year as European City of culture. It has moved into a beautiful old library building, and is dedicated to women’s lives, histories and achievements, plus hosting workshops, literacy classes, history walks and many other activities for the community. Amongst their treasures is this beautiful umbrella stand, painted by suffragettes imprisoned in jail in Glasgow.

They also have an art space, and were recently chosen by the National Gallery to display a newly acquired painting. A self portrait of the little known but highly regarded, female renaissance artist, Artemesia Gentileschi.

Her story is remarkable. Her father was an artist, and recognised his daughter’s talent. He hired a tutor, who raped Artemesia and was put on trial! However Artemesia was subjected to gruelling questioning and physical torture during the trial that ensued, although finally, and very unusually for the time, he was eventually convicted. She rose to fame in Florence and Naples as an excellent artist.

Walking in the local area we visited the People’s Palace, built in 1898 as a museum of people, and daily life in Glasgow from the 1750s.

Behind it are the glass Winter gardens, currently closed, and in front, the Doulton fountain. The largest terracotta fountain in the world, it was the centrepiece of the Glasgow Great Exhibition in 1888. Some fascinating museum displays, reflecting both Glasgow’s heyday as 2nd city in the Empire, and the extreme poverty experienced here. Pictures of ‘Steamies’, tile clad communal laundries, were given extra meaning when we walked across Glasgow Green and saw the metal poles that would once have been connected by lines for people to hang their washing on, after visiting the steamie!

The most dramatic building was a huge, ornate, tile hung facade resembling the Doges palace in Venice.

However, it was Templeton’s carpet factory, built this way in 1888 to appease local residents who didn’t want an ugly factory in their midst! Templetons created Axminster carpets that graced Royal Palaces and cruise liners…including the Titanic!

It now houses a brewery and restaurant, where we had an early supper before saying our goodbyes after a lovely afternoon, and heading south to Girvan on the Dumfiries coast… coming full circle as we again had a view of Arran and Ailsa Craig from our car park stop!

Possibly our last night in Scotland, and our last being lulled to sleep by the waves.

Our last day in Scotland, so we drove around the beautiful coast of Dumfries and Galloway to RSPB Mersehead where we saw Sand Martin to take our total to over 100 in Scotland. Yippee! We also saw Roe deer!

Then to beautiful Rockcliffe and a wonderful, if hilly walk along the coast where we had not one, but two wonderful wildlife experiences. Firstly, Peregrine Falcons, nesting on the cliffs,

and secondly, a first for both of us, two young badgers rooting in the grass on the hillside!

Scotland was really saying goodbye to us in style!

We headed towards Gretna Green and the M6. After nearly 25 days of virtually hold up free motoring, the first thing we saw was a road works sign!!

Part 6 Aberdeenshire… North coast

Next morning we entered the Cheese Pantry to find an Aladdins Cave of cheese treasures.So many beautiful cheeses, including their own which are made on the premises.The very friendly staff were keen for us to taste as many as we wished! We were happy to oblige! We came away with 4 delicious cheeses and a smoked Salmon paté made with their own cream cheese, for less than half of the price of a night on a campsite…and our fridge was re-stocked!First stop this morning was Cawdor Castle, built in 1372 and still lived in by the Campbell family.It was wonderful. A comfortable, homely feel in the rooms was offset by doors that opened onto stone staircases and secret dungeons.I have never seen twin four posters before!The first part of the castle to be built was a central keep, and the legend is that when the Thain of Cawdor wanted to build his castle, he sent his donkey to wander with a panniers of gold. Wherever the animal rested, he would build. It stopped under a Holly tree, so he built his keep around the tree. The holly tree is still there, and when it was carbon dated, it dates to the late 1300’s, when the castle was built!Around the castles were beautiful gardens and a maze, and we decided it was one of our favourite places.We were disappointed not to see Osprey at Loch Garten, and we had been told of a secret location near the castle to see them. We headed there on foot, in quite heavy rain, and saw the nest with a parent bird hunkered down, presumably sheltering the chicks. Hurray!Next, onto Lossiemouth where, as the rain had stopped, we did two walks. The first into the coastal forest, the only place we have ever seen where lichen carpeted the ground, looking like snow!Then, literally in the middle of nowhere, is a hidden corner where bird feeders are set up and regularly replenished. We sat on the bench there, literally feet from the feeders, as birds came and went, including coal tits feeding young. Suddenly, a flash of yellow, and a family of yellowhammer arrived, which were delightful. What a treat.Next a walk to Loch Spynie for some more bird watching, before returning to Lossiemouth, and, in particular the Lossie fish and chip shop!Supper purchased, we drove to the car park at the west beach where we could stay the night.Parked looking across the beach, two birds appeared, hovered and then dived into the tidal lagoon right in front of us. They were Ospreys, and we were treated to a few hours of them fishing! Every time they caught something they were mobbed by gulls. Amazing to watch.Then at 7.45 a jet took off from RAF Lossiemouth and disappeared towards the horizon. A lady passing said ‘There goes the 8pm fly past’ Sure enough, at 8pm exactly the Typhoon jet came roaring towards us and as he reached the shore, pulled into a lightning fast vertical climb, before spiralling down and vanishing!Another treat… and a regular occurrence apparently!The final treat was a super sunset!We both woke at 4am, and peeked out of the window. What a sight. The tide was in, the sun was beginning to rise…. and the Osprey were back fishing!And the cost of that campsite… free! Wow…so lucky! We even went straight back to sleep!Next day was forecast sunny, so we decided to do some walking!! Firstly, a visit to beautiful Elgin Cathedral… built in 1224, but left for ruin after the reformation in 1560, it has been a tourist attraction since the 1800s!On the Bishops house next door, these interesting house shaped gable ends caught my eye.Next door is the peaceful Biblical garden.Then an 8 mile coastal walk from Portsoy to Cullen (home of Cullen Skink… not an animal but gorgeous smoked haddock chowder!). We had parked Boris in Cullen, then caught the local bus to Portsoy to walk back. Sadly, Chris’ English bus pass was not accepted! If we had been on bikes (anyone who knows me should now be laughing loudly!), there was a super bike service point provided in the town square!This was an exhilarating walk.We also saw some beautiful orchids.Lots of beautiful scenery, cliffs studded with birds, sandy beaches and even an impossibly sited castle ruin – Findlater castle.We completed the somewhat hilly trek, and had an award winning ice cream as our prize!Back into Boris and a journey 10 miles along the coast to the RSPB reserve at Troup Head. Another few kilometres walking here was amply rewarded by the views of Scotland’s only mainland Gannet colony… 2000 beautiful birds, which we could see, hear and definitely smell!From the cliffs we were at eye level with these magnificent birds as they flew effortlessly by.The gannets are still mating and laying eggs, so no chicks yet. Gannet chicks are amazing. They turn into fat fluff balls, and their way of fledging is to literally fall out of the nest to the sea far below, cushioned by their fat. They are too fat to take off again, but their fat sustains them until they can!Lastly a few miles along a narrow twisty lane to St Drostan’s beach, our stop for the night, backed by sandstone cliffs.We spent an hour walking to explore some huge caves and rock pools before watching an even more amazing sunset, and then sleeping like logs… we didn’t wake up until after 9.00 am… unheard of for me!

Part 5 The Black Isle!

I have been playing catch up with the blog, and have finally made it with this post!

Our last morning in the Cairngorms was supposed to be spent at the RSPB reserve at Loch Garten, seeing the Ospreys, but sadly they didn’t return this year, so we walked in the beautiful Anagach woods in Grantown instead.

A wonderful walk through mixed woodland, with lots of birds, and some very cute red squirrels!

Also, a man in a kilt walking his dog who was very proudly telling us how much he loved his forest!

Then we headed northeast, past Inverness, to the Black Isle, a promontory next to the Moray Firth. First stop, Udale Bay to look for birds with the interesting spectacle of huge oil rigs in the bay which had been towed in for maintenance.

Some of them are huge!

At the tip of the promontory is the charming town of Cromarty, which we loved.It had lovely views, cute cottages, and some interesting Georgian architecture.

Full of history, it contained some interesting museums. We visited the old East church, and then the Hugh Miller house and museum. He was a local lad who became a Geologist in the late 18th century, and who, throughout work with fossils, began looking at evolution.

He also spearheaded the split of the Scottish Free church from the Church of Scotland, but is relatively unknown. The Courtyard garden contained art inspired by his work.

We also found this interesting(?) mnemonic for remembering geological eras!

Then to our stop for the night, the super Camping and Caravan club site at Rosemarkie which runs along the back of the beach and has very friendly wardens! Before supper, we did a lovely 1 hour walk up the Fairy Glen in Rosemarkie to the 2 pretty waterfalls at the top.

Then supper in the van, listening to the wind increasing in intensity! This was important, because we had to go out again, so putting on all our warm layers and waterproofs we braved the elements. We walked for 20 minutes to Chanonry Point at the end of the promontory for a very special encounter.

Approximately 1 – 2 hours after low tide, at this time of year, the incoming tide brings shoals of salmon up the Firth, heading upstream to spawn. These pass close to the end of the point, and they are often pursued by hungry dolphins! We waited for about 40 minutes, and, were just about to give up, when, at 9.30pm, they arrived, and we spent another 30 minutes watching fins dashing back and forth in a frenzy of feeding. The pictures are poor because they were moving fast in fading light.

They gave the occasional leap in the air!

This blurry shot is here because it shows a huge salmon tossed in the air. What an encounter!

Next day was a lovely pause from travelling to meet up with our friend Diana, who moved up to this delightful area last year. We met her for coffee in the tiny, and much more delightful than it sounds, Slaughterhouse coffee shop back in Cromarty.

Then a visit to the old Court House Museum and jail, which had fascinating displays about the history of the town, including dark days of poverty when the fishing industry collapsed, and how the North Sea Oil business has helped transform it’s fortunes. Our catch up continued over lunch in the super Sutor Creek restaurant, where the Scottish mussels were superb!

Finally back to Rosemarkie to visit the Groam museum of Pictish stones. These are found locally, and date back to both pre and early Christian eras.

They are beautiful designs, sometimes very intricate. The museum is also dedicated to George Bain, an artist born in 1881 who was fascinated by Celtic art patterns, and wanted to demonstrate how they could be interpreted and used in contemporary ways.

His body of work is kept at the museum, along with examples of what he inspired across many mediums… even knitting patterns!

We said our goodbyes, and turned south, as this was our furthest point north on this trip. We crossed the Moray Firth again near Inverness, and turned east for our free Britstop…. The Connage Highland Cheese Dairy and Pantry… we were looking forward to the shop opening in the morning!!

Part 3 Islands and nearly Islands…Arran and Kintyre

After a remarkably quiet night we awoke to a sunny morning. The ferry to Brodick on Arran took 75 minutes for a very reasonable £28.

Recently the ferry operator Calmac has had to drop their fares to RET, Road Equivalent Tariffs. This has of course been welcomed by many, but means that fares for motorhomes are much lower, so some of the islands, including Arran, are saying there are too many. I suspect in summer this is a real problem, but we saw less than we expected on our visit.

I had wanted to visit Arran since my sons went there on CCF camps with school, and came back with stories of amazing breakfasts, whisky gravy and alarming hikes where they had to be roped together! … I think they may have mentioned scenery and wildlife….. but probably not!

First stop was Brodick castle, set high above the bay, and with beautiful gardens.

It’s claim to fame is as the ancient seat of the Dukes of Hamilton, and is very much the archetypal baronial lodge with hunting trophies adorning the walls, and lovely state rooms. The food in the kitchen looked amazing… despite being fake!

The gardens are splendidly laid out, and were awash with the colours of Rhododendron and Azaleas.

They also had a red squirrel hide, but none there on our visit. A chaffinch wasn’t shy about eating the peanuts though! Look closely!

There was also an interesting book in the library that nearly persuaded me to take up yoga!!

We planned to drive around the islands coast, finding some walks as we went. Climbing the central mountains, including impressive Goat fell at 2866 feet, was not on the agenda!

Our first stop was at stunning Kildonan in the south, looking out towards Ailsa Craig. This strange island is where they source all the granite used to make curling stones!

We walked west past beautiful beaches and rocky shorelines, stopping frequently to watch the shore birds feeding amongst the rocks in the water. Some of the rocks would suddenly move! In fact there were hundreds of seals basking on rocks and in the shallows.

We also found a beautiful waterfall coming down the rocky cliffs, and hidden away in the luxuriant vegetation.It was a magical afternoon.

We continued driving west, and where trying to work out what other islands were coming into view. There was a huge one, very clear, that shouldn’t have been there! Then we realised we were looking at Northern Ireland, just 18 miles away! Heading up the east side, we found a great wild camping spot on a little car park almost on the beach. Heavenly.

Next day was much greyer, and again all day rain was forecast. (We had still managed to dodge it so far!!)

It was still dry, so we headed off to do a walk inland at Machrie, across the bogs and moor to the remains of 6 stone circles of standing stones that were burial chambers for ancient civilisations here about 4000 years ago.

It was remote and beautiful, with the mountains all around, and the grey, lowering clouds really added to the atmosphere!

Returning to Boris, we continued along the coastline to Lochranza, a very pretty harbour with an almost artistically positioned ruined castle.

The rain had still held off, so we decided to do a 4 mile walk over the northern headland to the Fairy Dell and return along the coast. It was a beautiful walk, but at the top of the hill we turned to look back…. and could no longer see the coast we had driven up that morning. A wall of Scotch mist was rolling towards us!

We headed on, with more urgency than before! The rain hit as we were halfway back, giving our waterproofs a good testing! Thankfully they were up to the job!

Returning to Boris, we discovered he had become a shelter for some sheep, and then we spotted some unusual players at the golf course!

We joined the queue at the ferry ramp, and caught the afternoon ferry to Claonaig on Kintyre.

Kintyre is technically a long promontory of the mainland, but only joined by a tiny bridge of land at Tarbert, so it feels like an island. The southernmost tip is the Mull of Kintyre, immortalised by a certain song! Despite the rain, we stuck to our plan to drive right around. The scenery was lovely, but not very photogenic in the mist! We did stop at a bird observatory and see nesting oyster catchers and eider ducks!

Our goal was Big Jessie’s cafe on the west coast, a Britstop where we hoped to spend the night. Arriving at 5.30pm, we were again parked adjacent to the beach, with Oystercatchers, sandpipers and gulls calling on the rising tide. Jessie’s cafe is a great example of isolated communities having to adapt to survive. A really excellent cafe that does breakfasts and dinners for some of the local accommodation, welcomes campervan who will mostly eat there too, and appeared to act as a transit point for deliveries and parcels to the neighbouring island of Gigha. It would have been rude not to sample the food.. and we had superb fish and chips, and of course a local brew!

We knew next day was very, very wet so we opted for a lie in.. and then a Jessie breakfast as brunch to set us up for the day! In fact, the brunch was so amazing, we didn’t eat again all day!

Mine was a speciality called Gigha Rarebit. I asked for bacon on the side, and was served a mini cooked breakfast.

It was certainly Chris’ first ever breakfast that included Haggis!!

Despite the rain, we enjoyed Kintyre. We left through Tarbet, stocking up in the Coop en route, and heading North to the Crinan canal. This pretty canal was built in 1801 as a short cut for Clyde ships heading to the Scottish West coast and islands.

It is very much in use today, although mainly by leisure boating.

The area south of the canal is wild and remote. The rain stopped and we did a fabulous walk down the hilly Taynish peninsula and achieved a great ‘first’ for us both… we saw not one, but two sea otters. Fantastic. Sadly no photos though! Then we visited Knapdale Forest which was the site of the much publicised beaver reintroduction. We had an excellent evening guided walk with the 2 very enthusiastic rangers. We held a beaver skin, and saw their webbed feet, and incredibly dexterous ‘hands’.

We saw their lodge, a dam and lots of gnawed trees!

Interestingly, beavers are vegetarian, and will crop trees for both food and lodge building, but they do not destroy them. They effectively coppice them, leaving them for long periods to regrow. They also only build dams if absolutely necessary, for example in times of drought, to conserve water. A fascinating evening .. but it was too windy to spot the beavers themselves!

We enjoyed another peaceful night, this time sheltered in the forest!

A proper Bimble with Boris.. to Scotland Part 1. Heading north!

So, we are on a proper Bimble WITH Boris! I wasn’t planning to write a blog, but 2 different people today asked “Where is the blog?”, so here it is! In big chunks!!

‘To bimble’ means to wander, and we set off from home with nothing booked at all except supper and a pub quiz with Peter and Tracy in Bracknell! Our goal was to head north for Scotland, but with unsettled weather ahead, our itinerary would be flexible to try to chase the sun. Or the bright days. Or even the drier days. Or even the days with a few gaps in the rain!

During an uneventful drive up the M1 and A1, it was decided that our first stop would be Northumberland.

We never seem to make it past this beautiful area without stopping for a few days. Plus the weather there was lovely… less so further north. Having had a few problems with Boris prior to leaving, we wanted the first few nights on campsites just to check everything was ok.

Now winging it is great fun… but this was late May Bank holiday weekend, and the start of school half term… how would we fare getting a pitch?

All the big sites were full or, understandably, wanted a minimum stay of 3 nights. However, we were very lucky and had 1 night at Pippin’s Park, a 5 pitch Caravan and Motorhome club certificated site in a great location about a mile from our favourite place, Low Newton.

Or do I mean our favourite pub… the Ship Inn, with it’s own microbrewery. The pub was fully booked, but Chris’ soulful expression meant they squeezed us in for a fabulous dinner, followed by a glorious evening walk along the cliffs.

The best night’s sleep I have had in ages was followed by a visit to 600 year old Alnwick castle.. a place we had never visited before. Our HHA membership gave us free admission! A true castle residence, it is home to the Percy family, the 12th Duke of Northumberland. We took the free guided tours, and each one was fascinating.

Today’s top trivia… Harry Hotspur was Henry Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland. He was a medieval superstar on the battlefield, and got his nickname because he rode into battle so fast his spurs got hot!

When a certain football club was formed in 1882, Harry’s attacking spirit saw the north London Tottenham side adopt the term Hotspur in their name.

Alnwick castle has also been used extensively in films and TV, most notably as Hogwarts in Harry Potter… Chris wouldn’t let me have broomstick lessons which were on offer… he said I didn’t need them…..!!

It was also used in series one of Blackadder… no coincidence that Blackadder’s hapless friend was Lord Percy?!

Downton Abbey, Transformers, Robin hood Prince of Thieves… the list goes on.

Next stop was the amazing, huge, Barter bookshop in Alnwick. This is the largest secondhand bookshop in Europe. It is converted from the old railway station, and, much to Chris’ delight, had model railways running round above the shelves!

Not only great books, but a super little cafe, armchairs and open fires means this great spot is busy all the time, and yes, you can take in your old books and barter for replacements! Another claim to fame is that, in a box of books bought at auction, the owner found the original wartime KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster that has since been reproduced in thousands of formats!. The original is on display in the shop!!

We had managed to get 2 nights on the Glororum caravan park, a mile from Bamburgh, so after checking in, we caught a bus to Budle Bay, and did the wonderful coast path walk back to Bamburgh.

The castle towered ahead of us, with amazing carpets of pink campion all around.

Next day, and we had booked a boat trip with Billy Shiels from Seahouses, to travel out to the Farne Islands just offshore. We have done this trip several times before, but each time it is sensational. The Farnes are home to literally thousands of breeding seabirds. Even if you are not keen birdwatchers, you cannot fail to be amazed at the spectacle. We sailed past cliffs where every inch of space was occupied by a nest precariously perched on a minute ledge. Their eggs have pointy ends so they roll in a circle and dont fall out!!

Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwake and Shag jostle for space, and fill the skies and the water.

Then, there are the seals… huge and imperious, resting on land, then slipping into the sea and gliding past like rockets!

Finally, the trip lands on Inner Farne, where Arctic tern are nesting everywhere, even on the footpath, and protective parents fly up and pack at the heads of passers by.

Past experience means a) We were a hat. b) the hat was lined with cardboard!! Very effective peck protection. The stars of the show are always the puffins, and standing feet away from these stunning birds is such a privilege. I even managed a photo of one with sand eels in it’s beak!!

On our way back in the boat we were thrilled with what we had seen, when suddenly the captain asked if perhaps seeing some dolphins might be nice! Suddenly a pod of 5 were alongside us, racing the boat. What a brilliant end to the trip.

Our last day in England (!), we visited Bamburgh castle, again free with HHA.

More austere than Alnwick, it is owned by the youngest generation of the Armstrong family, although they no longer live there. Essentially a Victorian reconstruction, on an ancient castle site, pretending to be an ancient castle!

For us, the most fascinating part of the visit was learning about the first Lord Armstrong. He was an amazing inventor and pioneering industrialist.

He built Newcastle’s Swing Bridge and the hydraulic mechanism that operates London’s Tower Bridge. He created Cragside in Northumberland, the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. He was the Armstrong in Armstrong Siddeley and Armstrong Whitworth, and was involved in designing aircraft, cars and ships.

He was also a great philanthropist, and this role is carried on today.

Leaving Bamburgh, we drove north, crossing the border into Scotland and driving to St Abbs Head.

We then hiked the 5 mile circuit along the beautiful cliffs, again watching colonies of seabirds. There were a lot of ups and downs, and we were walking into a very strong headwind, so by the end we felt as if we had done at least 10, albeit very exhilarating, miles!

The weather on the east coast was deteriorating, so we decided to head inland and find some indoor pursuits for the next day. Filling up with fuel, we realised we were definitely in Scotland!

We drove to Dryburgh and found a super spot to wildcamp… a tiny, hidden car park near a huge statue of William Wallace. Not a sound all night!! Fantastic.

South America Post 15 Lakes and Legends

Next morning dawned cloudy and showery, so our view was still hazy.

We descended to town and boarded a boat to take us out through the massive reed beds to the Uros Islands.

The Uros people were persecuted in the 19th century, and fled from their shore settlements in their Reed boats. Gradually they evolved the idea of building floating Reed islands, using floating mud blocks containing reed roots as a base, then laying 2 – 3 metres of reeds on top.

There are over 100 islands, and 40% are fully inhabited, with a floating school and health centres. Many of the others are mainly there for tourism. The islands were small, with 5 -8 small huts on each, and between 10 and 20 people from the same family.

The surrounding water is 18 metres deep! We jumped on the reeds, and they were remarkably solid.

The top layer is supplemented every 2 weeks. Fish and bird eggs are primary foods, but they even grow crops on the island- usually potatoes! Reeds are used for everything, including the water tower, and symbolic condor!

Family feuds sometimes occur, and when that happens, the simply saw the island in half!!

A fascinating way of life.

Onshore, we visited the tiny Puno museum, which contained pre Inca, and Inca artefacts. The pottery was mainly Pre Inca,

as was this remarkable weaving.

This amazing gold neck plate was retrieved from the only Inca tomb that was not looted, as were these mummified bodies, buried in a foetal position, in reed wrappings, with food and essential possessions, ready for rebirth.

We next caught a local bus for a 3 hour drive to Bolivia at one end of Lake Titicaca. The lake is the highest navigable lake in the world, and is huge. It is over 120 miles long, and in parts nearly 1000 feet deep!! Jacques Cousteau came here in the 1970’s, and found giant frogs up to 20 inches long, that never left the water. Sadly they are now critically endangered due to pollution, often from illegal mining operations using mercury.

The border crossing is strict. After exiting Peru, we had to walk 200 metres into Bolivia, which was strangely exciting. Bolivian customs were quite grumpy, but we were allowed in. We saw our first bowler hated Bolivian lady!

Adopted by the locals in the 1920’s, when worn by British railway workers, they are now made locally to a variety of designs!

We were staying 1 night in Copacabana, a seaside village on the Bolivian shore, which gave Rio’s Copacabana beach it’s name. It was charming.

Our hotel was the unbelievably quirky Las Olas. 9 very individual rooms, Gaudi style. We were in a huge egg, with a circular bed, a spiral shower, and a great view!

Alpacas and Llamas wandered around freely! This is blurred as it was at night!

Next door, La Cupola restaurant was charming and we enjoyed a lovely supper. Next morning we took an all day boat trip to the Islands of the Moon and Sun. (Our boat was a bit bigger than these!)

It was a gloriously sunny day, full of fascinating history and dramatic landscapes.

These islands were of huge cultural significance to the Pre-Incans, and Incans. There is a legend that Lake Titicaca was once a dry, fertile land where people lived in peace, but they started to argue, and get greedy, so the Apus, or mountain Gods, decided to punish them, and sent Pumas, to destroy them all. Just 2 people escaped, and Inti, the sun God, cried so much that his tears filled the Lake. The two that escaped were the first Incas!

The Island of the Moon contains a temple to the moon goddess, built around 1450.

This was inhabited by Virgins, some of whom would be chosen to be sacrificed. The Incas believed in life after death, and to die in this way was considered honourable (presumably mostly by those who weren’t about to experience it!) The Incas abolished human sacrifice in the 16th century, but today some still sacrifice a black Llama on certain feast days!

This was a very atmospheric place. 3 delineated areas were for worship to the Moon Goddess, and Mother earth – Patcha Mamma.

The Andean cross was adopted by the Incas from earlier civilisations, and represents the Southern cross stars. It is deeply significant to the ancient and modern people. It appears everywhere in ancient Inca ruins, pottery, and in Christian churches and modern art. The four x 3 steps represent the 12 core precepts of Andean life, and the 4 outer sides are the compass points, the 4 major elements found on this planet, earth, air, water and fire and the 4 stars in the constellation. The centre point is Cusco.

We then moved on to Isla de la sol, Sun Island, where an early pre Incan temple survives, with Inca building on top.

Inti, the Sun God, was their most important. This temple had 3 openings. At each equinox, and solstice, the sun would shine directly into a specific opening, signalling to the people to start their new season of harvest, or sowing etc.

800 people live here, and tourism mixes with a traditional way of life.

We watched the donkeys clatter down the steep steps to the shore ready to carry the provisions that were arriving by boat, up to the top of the town.

We climbed high, and the views were stunning.

Returning to Copacabana, we visited the enormous 17th century Basilica which sits proudly above the town.

It was beautiful, but again Inca symbolism was part of it.

A few last evocative images from the town before we had to leave. We loved the humming bird at the flower stall!

We were sad we did not have more time in Bolivia, as we climbed onto the bus to return to Peru and our high up hotel!! We had both experienced the usual difficulties with altitude, shortness of breath and fatigue, but nothing more serious. However I think were both ready to return to sea level!!

Our last morning was spent at Sillustrani, 35km from Puno. En route we saw traditional reed thatched farms, with the rooftop Inca bulls as good luck charms.

We had come to see the Chullpas.

These tall chimney like structures were pre-Inca, and Inca burial towers, which had been looted by the Spanish many years ago. As we saw at the museum, the deceased were buried in the foetal position, with food, drink and treasures… and possibly a few members of their family who were killed and buried with them. Rough stones were pre Inca, smooth were Inca.. but you know that by now!!

Each tower had a small opening to the east, through which their spirit would be reborn to the God of the Sun. This opening was surrounded by a half Andean cross. When the sun rises at the solstice, the shadow makes a full cross. Each Incan leader would have his symbol carved on the tomb, as they had no written language. This is a lizard.

These Incan, and Pre-Incan troughs of water were used to reflect the stars.

It was a fascinating and moving site, perched on a hill above Lake Umayo.

From here we headed to Juliaca and our flight to Lima, for the last day of our amazing trip.

South America Post 13 Perfect Peru Part 1

Arriving to Lima late in the evening, I had booked a night at an airport hotel before our 08.00am flight to Cusco, high in the Andes. At Cusco, we were met by Pablo, who taxied us 90 minutes into the Sacred Valley.

We were staying at a B&B called Lizzi Wasi, in Urubamba. Lizzi, from the US, is married to a Peruvian, and has created a fabulous oasis of rooms in lovely gardens, centrally located in the Sacred Valley.

It is a perfect base from which to explore this Inca heartland, using fairly inexpensive taxis. Located at over 9,000 feet, we ‘rested’ for a few hours before our first trip, to Pisac. A charming village of cobbled streets, gardens and colourful local markets.

After a great lunch at Bistro Terra we drove up the steep valley sides until some remarkable Inca terracing came into view.

We climbed impossibly higher until we reached the old Inca settlement. Walking to the top made us feel about 120 yeas old, as we huffed and puffed due to the altitude. It was incredible to see.

The Incas were active here between 1425 and 1540. They had no written language, and had not invented the wheel, yet their settlements involved transporting building materials over great distances, and up huge mountains, and were quite sophisticated, especially in their water transportation and bathing arrangements! This was a line of separate pools!

This hillside was the cemetery. Each hole is a burial site.

Back to Lizzi Wasi for a good night’s sleep, but en route we also saw many Adobe blocks and Adobe houses being built in the countryside.

Next morning, off to see 3 major Inca sites. The fortress and town at Ollantaytambo was huge and impressive. Climbing to the top was exhausting, but rewarding!

Again, the bathing areas were sophisticated.

The most remarkable structure is the temple de la sol which was never finished. Unused granite slabs litter the ground, and 6 huge monoliths create a wall. However did they get these up here?

This is the huge wall which was built to block the valley, and which they used to dam the river and then flood the valley, in the Incas only significant victory over the advancing Spaniards.

Here we also visited a charity for girls that a friend had worked at some years before. Girls in poor, remote communities in the high Andes often receive no education at all. Thanks to the Sacred Valley Project, they can stay in dormitories under the care if a house mother, go to school and have help with their homework. We were made really welcome!

We also drove high into the mountains again to visit 2 incredible sites. Firstly the Maras Salt mines. A spring here has an unusually salty composition. Since 200 AD local pre-inca people have recognised the potential, and created over 5000 mini salt pans, in terraces down the mountainside.

Over 3,000 are still worked today, and demand is now global. Pink Himalayan salt is hailed as the most healthy, and a recent study has shown that the Pink salt from here is even better! All the pans are still worked by hand, and it was like taking a step back in time nearly 2,000 years! The photos do not do the enormous scale of this justice. From here, we drove to Moray, where another remarkable Inca creation was cut into the earth.

To Get an idea of scale, look for the people in the above picture!!

Much larger, and deeper than the pictures show, this incredible construction appears to have a scientific purpose. It is exposed to all aspects of the sun, shade and wind, and has temperature differences of up to 15 degrees difference from top to bottom. There are various theories as to its purpose, but soil, seed and plant traces have been found on different levels, and different orientations. Most scientists believe that this was an agricultural laboratory for testing crops in different soil’s and microclimate, so they could make the best use of each part of the empire. Even more remarkably, there is evidence that they practised hybridization, developing new strains of vegetables like potatoes that were better suited to prevailing conditions. The outcome is that Peru has over 4,000 varieties of Potato, and they feature in some way in most meals. We were left so impressed by everything we had seen today.

An early start on Wednesday saw us driving back to Ollantaytambo to catch the train to Aguas Calientes, and Machu Picchu. The weather forecast was bad so we prepared ourselves for looking at low cloud and rain and saying “Well that is where it should be!”

The train journey follows the Sacred Valley and was stunning at every turn.

Aguas Calientes reminded us of an Alpine village with cute bins!

It’s little church had an Andean take on the traditional Mary and Jesus statue!

We had to queue for buses to drive up the mountain at our set entry time. The flow of visitors is always increasing – potentially over 2 million visitors per year – and the authorities and UNESCO are constantly battling between protection of this modern wonder of the world, and commercial profitability. We could see the clouds gathering as we ascended and we just hoped the rain would hold off for a while. The road twisted and turned, climbing steadily for 30 minutes. Surely nothing could be up here?

Then, we glimpsed a few terraces, still high above us, with the valley far below.

On entering the site, we chose to climb high above it, up towards the Sun gate, and then walk in down the old Inca trail, seeing it as the original visitors would have done.

This was a great choice. The view from above really gives you a sense of how remarkable this lost city is. I confess, I became quite emotional!

The city was abandoned in 1572 as the Incas fled from the Spanish, who never found it, and it remained undiscovered until the American, Hiram Bingham arrived in 1911. Well, undiscovered except for the 2 tribal families who were living here, totally unaware of it’s significance!! Sadly, during excavations, the treasures were removed and taken to museums around the world, but the city is still remarkably complete.

As we descended to the city itself, the heavens opened, but it allowed us to see Machu Picchu in all her colours, and it was truly atmospheric as cloud swirled around.

Our guide thought looking for shelter was unnecessary, so we learned about life here while getting progressively wetter.

(It didn’t help that one of my boots had torn in Tierra del Fuego, and the repair was failing, AND my trusty Berghaus waterproofs decided 12 years was enough and sprang some leaks!)

Machu Picchu contains housing, temples, meeting areas and an extensive agricultural section of terraces cascading down. They had complex irrigation and drainage systems which we witnessed in action, as water cascaded through gullies and into a central canal. Inca building techniques are remarkable. Machu Picchu was built without metal tools, the wheel or mortar! Granite is cut along natural fault lines, and then polished into blocks using coarse sand. They are smooth, and are fitted together with no mortar at all. The walls all recline slightly, for earthquake resistance!

Astrology and earth rhythms play a huge role in Inca culture. Temples are built to receive shafts of sun through windows on solstice and equinox days . These were used as signs for the next agricultural season. Planting, harvesting etc.

This immense sundial was used in the same way. Unfortunately visitors cannot get close to it, after it was broken by a crane falling on it during the filming of a beer commercial in 2000.

This was a sacrificing table.

This was the temple of the Condor.

This huge slab is cut to be the shape of the sacred mountain behind.

We left this amazing site in mid afternoon, completely awestruck. We had 3 hours to wait for our train back, so we found Mapacho, a recommended cafe / craft brewery, and decided to have a 3 course meal, to spin out the time and let us warm up. Chris was very happy!

The Urubamba river was roaring past the open windows, adding drama!

We moved to the station waiting room, still dripping, and suddenly heard our names being called. On reporting to the man with clipboard and microphone, he told us with great delight that we had been upgraded to the first class carriage. ‘Ooh, comfy seats’ we thought! That was just the start. We were escorted to a Pullman carriage, luxuriously furnished…. and to a table set for dinner! We were served a complimentary 3 course dinner, with Pisco sours, wine and after dinner drinks all included! Despite having eaten a few hours before, we did our best!

It was a delightful end to a wonderful day. We ❤ Peru!

South America Post 11 To the End of the Word

A flurry of posts because of 5 days without wifi, and no chance to upload pictures!From Buenos Aires we flew via Santiago, to Punta Arenas, at the southernmost part of mainland Chile. On the flight we got great views of the Chilean Volcanoes.

Out came the thermals, hats and gloves we had lugged with us!

We had an overnight stay here in a charming air bnb, prior to boarding the Stella Australis ship for our 4 day expedition through the Patagonian and Tierra del Fuego fjords, known locally as the End of the World. It certainly felt like it!

We thought of Punta Arenas as ‘just a stopover’, but we were very wrong! It is a really remote frontier town, with many low, functional buildings designed to withstand ferocious winter winds and cold. However it has some real hidden gems! Two museums display the history of the region, from the original tribes through it’s many roles in the fishing industry, security, oil and gas exploration and even a gold rush.

Today, tourism is a vital component of the economy, and the population is growing! Just outside town is an amazing museum, the Nao Victoria. In a hidden shipyard, dedicated carpenters work on ship reconstructions, all carefully reproduced in 1:1 scale, and related to this part of the world. Their star is the Victoria, Magellans ship on which he discovered the Straits of Magellan in 1520 and on whose shoreline we were standing. At 350 miles long, this was a sheltered shortcut avoiding notorious Cape Horn.

Beware of Spanish soldiers…

Then they have reconstructed the Beagle, captained by Fitzroy, who discovered the Beagle channel in 1830, and who later brought Charles Darwin here, a nice link with our Galapagos visit.

Finally the little lifeboat, the James Caird, which, against impossible odds, carried Shackleton safely from Elephant Island across the worst seas in the world to South Georgia. There he arranged rescue for the men he had to leave behind, 24 months after they set sail for Antarctica.

Their rescue ship, the Ancud, is also reproduced here.

Walking in town, a real highlight is the beautiful wall art.

And did we mention the food? We ate at La Yegua Loca, a newish restaurant highlighting local produce. It was wonderful, and we were grateful for the log burning stoves!!

Then, on Sunday lunchtime everything was closed, until we stumbled upon the Parilla los Ganaderos, or Grill of the Gauchos, full of local families. It was fabulous, and we sat next to the traditional bbq where whole lambs are cooked vertically around the flames.

Next, to our ship, a 100 cabin expedition ship.

We were excited and apprehensive at the same time. Weather forecast was poor, and we were stuck in a sardine tin with lots of other people for 4 days!

We needn’t have worried. Our cabin, and all the public rooms were lovely, and then we were greeted with cocktails and canapes for our briefing!

We would sail through the southern most routes of the continent; the Straits of Magellen and the Beagle channel, into fjords and out into the Pacific.

This was an expedition, not a cruise, so no long dresses were required.. much to Chris’ relief!! However the food seemed worthy of a much grander trip, with three delicious meals a day, and a constantly available buffet of cakes, biscuits, tea coffee.

Oh.. and the fully inclusive bar where I discovered the Pisco Sours and Calafate Sours! We were lucky to share our table with Meghan and Scott from New York. A young couple on their belated honeymoon! They were married last year, and it turned out we had the same Wedding Anniversary. They were delightful, and much fun was had.

Most staff were Chilean, and so friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Each day was a combination of interesting talks, and trips in the Zodiac ribs.

Our route is shown on this map.

After leaving port, we saw just one other ship, and 2 buildings in 4 days! This is a wild and remote place. A hostile environment in which to survive, due to extreme cold, bitter, strong, unpredictable winds, and precipitation. Vegetation struggles too, and wildlife is limited to sea birds, seals, some fish and a few mammals. However there is evidence that early tribes settled here up to 10,000 years ago. Needless to say the Spanish, British and others tried to ‘civilise’ the tribes, but diseases like smallpox, and persecution almost wiped them out. The Yamaga tribe were most remarkable. Each family lived in an open canoe, with a fire in it which the children kept alight. They were no clothes at all, even in winter with temperatures of -25, using seal fat on their skin to keep warm!

Our first excursion was to Ainsworth Bay which provided a stunning backdrop to a very informative nature walk, learning about the sub Antarctic forest.

Amazing mosses and lichens grow here.

Many parasitic plants too, like this false mistletoe,

and this innocent looking plant which can destroy a shrub in a season.

It is rough but absorbent, and the local tribes used it as toilet paper!

This plant is known as the everlasting plant, because during storms it’s habitat can be flooded with seawater, but it just regrows!

This is the Devil’s Trouble, and is apparently a powerful laxative!

We saw fur seals swimming, and birds.

Introduced species are problematic, especially the beaver which is destroying the environment.

In the afternoon we anchored at Tuckers Islets and bounced across the waves on the zodiacs to see Magellanic penguins. So adorable.

We also saw Caracara and an Imperial cormorant colony.

Next day was cloudy, but we visited the incredible Pia Glacier, one of the few which is advancing rather than retreating.

We hiked uphill for a panoramic view. The glacier was constantly creaking and groaning, and we witnessed several calvings as ice broke off and thundered into the water below.

The zodiac ride was like Dodgems with ice cubes!!

Our ship then sailed down Glacier Alley, past 5 huge glaciers named after European countries.

The waiters appeared with drinks and nibbles for each country as we passed! Then great excitement as some Orcas swam past, and then dolphins.

Our foray out into the Pacific was decidedly bouncy, but during our penultimate night we sailed right out to Cape Horn. We knew the weather forecast was bad, and just before dawn we were told that it was too dangerous to get close or attempt a landing, as winds were Force 10, gusting Force 11! Chris and I went on deck while in the lee of the island. The wind was howling, and the rain lashing down, but we saw Cape Horn in the dim light. Somehow it seemed more fitting to experience it like this, rather than on a calm sunny day.

We were just 595 miles from the Antarctic islands, and have now visited the southern most points in Americas, Africa and Australasia.

Later that day, we went ashore and hiked at Wulaia bay, where Darwin landed and first met natives.

It was also home to the barrel post office. Mariners would leave letters for family at home, and when another ship came by it would take letters addressed to places it was heading to. We popped in a postcard, and took one to deliver!

When Magellan first came, he found huge footprints in the sand. They believed the natives must be giants and named the land Patagonia from the old Portuguese words Pata Guan meaning big foot! Finally we sailed to remote Ushuaia in Argentina.

The whole trip was amazing. My travel pills were exceptional, and after rolling around at Cape Horn in Force 11 gusts, I polished off a hearty breakfast!!

The sense of wilderness and isolation here was immense, and we felt a huge respect for early sailors navigating these unforgiving waters.

South America Post 10 Beautiful Buenos Aires

Landing in Buenos Aires in the early evening, on our taxi ride to the hotel we were instantly impressed by the abundance of parks and attractive balconied buildings. It had a more European feel than anywhere else we had been, although the music emanating from shops, cars and parks was decidedly Latin American!! Our small hotel, the Grand Petit Casa would have been right at home in Paris. Tall, narrow and with a tiny, ornate lift that must have been 90 years old!

Invaluable as we were on the 3rd floor. It was in Recoleta, a central and safe district.

Buenos Aires is on the huge River Plate Estuary, and was founded in 1540. It expanded in the 18th century due to successful cattle farming, and in 1816 gained independence from Spain. It has always been a city of immigrants, and is very multicultural. By the early 1900s it was a booming city, with a great love for European art and design, so many buildings have a marked influence from Art Nouveau, Art deco, often in a French style.

Britain built their first metro line, with very ‘London underground’ tiling! Beautiful French style coffee shops abound, with elegant style, stained glass, and amazing cakes! One even had it’s own tango theatre!

We just had to sample them… for research purposes of course!

Having only a few nights in Argentina, I wanted to make sure we had sampled the ‘Best Steak in the World’ claims from every angle, so tonight we were booked into Don Julio’s Parilla, apparently quite renowned, as you have to book months ahead or queue outside. When we arrived at 7pm, there was already a queue, even though the restaurant wasn’t yet open! They eat late in BA. Some don’t open until 8 or even 9 PM!

I had booked to sit at The Bar, which meant you watched them cooking the steaks. Oh my! Sourced from grass grazed Hereford and Angus cattle, these steaks were incredible.

Huge in both length, width and height, they also looked delicious. Our waiter thoughtfully suggested we share, as each steak weighed over 16oz!! They tasted Amazing!

Next morning I had booked Elisa, a local guide who promised to take us to see some ‘hidden treasures’ of the city, rather than the usual tourist trail like the Casa Rosado where Eva Peron addressed the crowds!

First we wanted to visit Recoleta cemetery, famous for it’s ornate mausoleum, created as the 19th century, wealthy families vied to outdo each other, even in death!

Eva Peron is the most famous inhabitant, finally buried here as Eva Duarte, in her family vault. After her death from cancer, aged just 33, in 1952, her body was embalmed and lay in state, but after the military coup, her body disappeared. In 1971, it was eventually traced to Milan, where it had been buried. It was returned to her husband, in exile in Madrid, and eventually back to Argentina and buried, 5 metres below ground, to prevent ‘interference’!

This poignant tomb is of a young woman who died on her honeymoon in Austria. The mausoleum is a recreation of her bedroom, with the girl in her Wedding dress outside with her dog.

Sadder still, are the memorials dotted all over Buenos Aires to the 30,000 people who ‘disappeared’ in the dirty war, during US backed military rule between 1974-1983.

Elisa was true to her word. We visited El Ateno, a beautiful bookshop in an old theatre;

A huge Victorian gothic building in the heart of the city, that we assumed was a museum, or the town hall, but which turned out to be a hugely extravagant building to house the waterworks! These pictures show what the inside was like, and the grand exterior!

Then the stunningly beautiful church, Basílica María Auxiliadora y San Carlos, built in 1906, and where the current Pope, Francis, was baptised.

It is unusual because the stained glass windows are all floral, bearing a striking resemblance to William Morris designs!

It is also where a certain Carlos Gardel sang in the choir. Unknown to us, he is a legend in Buenos Aires. Tango music had it’s roots in the immigrant and poorer sections of BA society. Not just music, but songs with powerful, sad, or sometimes amusing lyrics are a huge part of society here, and Carlos was one of the most loved singers. His picture is everywhere!

Tango was banned during the military years, seen as subversive. Now it is back, with dance halls, outfitters and classes everywhere, appealing to young and old.

We went to a rather edgy steampunk style hall, where a lesson was taking place. We watched in awe, but I only filmed a snippet!

They had an interesting line in chairs too!

The streets in this neighbourhood, San Telmo, also have a decorative style of decorating their houses called fileteado!

Theatre Ciego has a new lease of life as a theatre for the blind. Each performance is in darkness, encouraging the audience to use their other senses.

This street has some interesting benches.

We were completely fooled by these, completely baffled as to why you would leave fabric seats outside. Until we felt them! They were solid! Brilliant.

Then Tango lessons on the pavement!!

We visited a buzzing market, one of many, where really fresh produce mingles with the delicious aroma of hundreds of freshly baked empanadas!

Finally, in a quiet neighbourhood, a tiny barbers shop, run by a 4th generation family. They have preserved the barber shop as it would have been 60 years ago, including equipment and products!

This device once gave you a perm… how I am not sure!!Barber shops were centres for singing, and every week locals gather here to listen to some old tango singers from another era. We were the only tourists, and were made very welcome. It was a lovely atmosphere and a privilege to see.

Chris resisted the pressure to shave off his beard… in the old fashioned way!!

Our last night in BA was spent in Restaurant Roux, named after the sauce, not the famous chefs! We had a wonderful meal, in a restaurant full of regular patrons, judging by the hugging and kissing that was happening as each one arrived. Despite their horrendous inflation, (prices have increased by 50% in a year), the pound is still strong, so our wonderful meal was about the same as a 2 course pub meal at home.

We loved Buenos Aires. A slightly edgy, vibrant, elegant city.

South America Post 7 The Cloud Forest and Farewell.

Warning….lots of photos, many birds!

Ecuador is one of the geographically most diverse countries on earth! From Volcanoes, and high Andes peaks, to Jungle, coastal lowlands, and the Cloud Forest. The vast number of species here is due in part to it never having had an ice age.

The Cloud forest is a belt of mountainous land between 1000 and 2,800 metres above sea level, where cloud is frequently trapped. High rainfall and moisture mean flush semi-tropical vegetation, and masses of wildlife, particularly birds.

After our very long journey, we arrived late to a lodge, Las Terrazas de Dana, and were shown to our cabin up a very long flight of steps. The owners organised dinner for us on the veranda, and although it was too dark to see much, we sensed we were somewhere special, although the insect visitors were a bit alarming!

Despite our long day travelling, we couldn’t waste any time… although when the alarm clock woke us at 5am I did momentarily doubt the wisdom of booking the early morning bird walk!! We went down at 6.00 to meet Julia, our guide, and left in the dark to climb up the hill. As it got light, Julia came to life, planting her telescope down and calling ‘Hurry hurry, Look look, special bird’ as she pointed out lots of new and magical birds. 3 species of Toucan, Laughing hawks, brightly coloured Tanagers, Parrots, and many more.

59 new species to be precise, and an alarming wasp nest!

Julia came back to the lodge with us at 10.00am… where we found breakfast was waiting!

This was the first time we could see the lodge in daylight, and we were in beautiful tropical gardens, with views of the cloud forest all around.

Amazingly, the gardens were full of hummingbirds.

We sat and watched them for ages, before returning to our room to plan the afternoon….. and promptly fell asleep!!

Later we walked down into the local town, Mindo. It is an unspoiled Ecuadorian town, and although many of the houses were very basic, and there were people who obviously had very little, they were happy, friendly, and never once were we asked for money or help. Birds and colour seem to be a big part of their life. Murals adorn many walls, including the football ground!

We found the delightful Food Studio, a Vegetarian/Vegan restaurant run by a charming Ecuadorian couple. We had an unusual but delicious supper there, and loved the fact that if you weren’t fully embracing the Green life, for $4 extra, you could add a piece of beef, Chicken, Fish or cheese! A cunning way to broaden your customer base, and cater for groups with mixed eating needs!

The highlight of the meal was vegan icecream made from Plantain juice and Flowers. The Hibiscus was divine.

Passionfruit and Basil sounded odd, but was gorgeous, and the others were fruits we had never heard of, but equally yummy!

Back to the lodge to discover that the bird tour we had booked for the next day required us to be ready at 05.20 am. Gulp… early to bed then!

The 4.30 alarm was harsh.. this had better be good. The lodge gave us muffins and bananas to keep us going and we set off with a jolly taxi driver who spoke no English. Our Spanish lessons mean I can manage a little bit of conversation, but only the basics. All the roads here are packed earth, and very twisty and bumpy, so it was an interesting 45 minutes. We pulled up behind a few other vans, just as it was getting light. We were introduced to Angel, one of 2 brothers who own the land at La Paz des Aves. We were in serious company. Mostly men carrying expensive cameras with huge lenses, and top of the range binoculars. We had come to see a rare and iconic bird, the Cock of the Rock. Very elusive, if we were lucky, they would gather here for a short while at dawn.

A gate was unlocked, and we were led down a twisty, narrow path to a hide.

We were lucky. About 12 birds gathered in the trees. Never coming really close, and in poor light, but giving us a great view through our binoculars. A really stunning bird.

We felt somewhat inadequate.. Chris with his little Lumix camera, and me with my phone, so these are the best pics we got.

We didn’t realise this was only the start. We climbed back up the hill, into the taxi and Vans and set off to another spot, where Angel and his brother disappeared into the forest, whistling and cooing. Suddenly, Angel appeared, and called us all over. At the edge of the woods he put a banana and cooed gently. Suddenly 2 birds appeared and pecked at the banana, keeping a wary eye on us. This was the Great Ant Pitta. A very very rare bird.

The whole morning was spent with the brothers who called almost magically call these wild birds. Their land is a world renowned refuge, and they have spent years creating a safe haven here, and building up relationships with the totally wild birds.Finally, we were taken to a shack, where breakfast had been prepared for us (at 11.00am). It was surrounded by stunning views and Humming bird feeders . So many birds visited while we were there. Here are some photos. What a morning!

Some of the birders were a bit intense, and we struck up a friendship with a Netherlands couple. She had a wicked sense of humour, and she and I did have some very non serious giggly moments!! Here are Chris and I looking like proper birders!

Back to the lodge. In the afternoon we walked into town again. Several hostels have sidelined to bring in a few extra dollars. One had an amazing garden of Orchids. There are over 4000 species of orchid in Ecuador, and some of these were miniature, which perfect flowers just 1 or 2 mms across.

Another hostel had created a hummingbird garden and a terrace. We sat there for ages watching 10 or 11 different species performing aerial acrobatics. Finally, to an artisan Chocolate cooperative, where we were shown all the steps to making natural chocolate, which, if made from pure cacao, is very good for you!! We had lots of tastings at the end which were yummy.

Our last dinner back at the lodge, and then packing for our flights the next day.

We were lulled to sleep by rain, and then rudely awakened (well I was…. Chris snored on!!) by thunderous rain which lasted for hours. The cloud forest was living up to it’s name!

Next day, en route to the airport we stopped at Mitad del Mundo, literally The middle of the World. Ecuador is the only country to be named after a geographical feature.. Equator. And we were on it…. well, nearly on it. They built a big monument on it, but when GPS came along, they found it was a few hundred metres down the road, so the Intinan museum opened there. We visited that which is tacky but fun. On the equator line they do experiments like pouring water down a plug hole. On the equator, straight down, no spin. Northern hemisphere, it whirled anti clockwise, southern hemisphere, it span clockwise. We also tried to walk along the equator with our eyes closed despite being 11am, Chris looks as though he is quite drunk! (He really wasn’t! Honest!).

Quite how this all works, we aren’t sure because new scientific measurement suggests the real equator might be another few hundred metres away! Anyway, it was fun, and we had a kiss across the equator, one in each hemisphere!

We are sad to say goodbye to Ecuador. A diverse, friendly, beautiful and wildlife rich country with great food! The world’s largest producer of bananas, home to 1600 species of bird, and of the Panama hat (yes really), two of Unescos first World Heritage sites, the World’s largest active volcano, and the first country in the World to abolish slavery.

Quite a place. Ecuador, we will miss you.