Sunday, 26 January 2014

A real boat trip ... Staffa and Lunga, Inner Hedrides

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I wanted to put the finishing touches to what I can only describe as the best and most interesting travel week that I will ever have in the UK with something really special.

Ok, I've done  Iona,  Tobermory,  Seal sanctuary  and  M.V. Isle of Mull  before also  Oban  many times on day rail charters, but the  plane trip and a bike ride  gave an extra dimension to it.  One of the difficulties with this week was working out a schedule and being able to book the following day without the appropriate office being closed for the night on return. As I said in an earlier post, I unsuccessfully wrestled with the idea of a trip to Coll, Colonsay or even Barra on board the MV Clansman or MV Lord of The Isles. However during the course of the week I did come up with a walking plan for the additional hours to fill in on the island of Coll for another occasion. The problem with Oban and what's available is so great that I stood gazing at the possibilities like a child in a sweet shop. I went into the tourist office in Oban near the end of the week to discuss what was on my mind about a real boat trip and the assistant  came up with the idea you are about to witness here (Turus Mara boat trips). After spending so much money in the week, this trip was a mixture of a huge thought (second most expensive trip of the week to the plane) and a no brainer (a trip of a lifetime to Fingals Cave on The Island of Staffa). Lastly it was the longest trip of the week and I would have to queue, choose and eat dinner in 46 minutes on the last ferry back into Oban !

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The journey started very similar to the Tobermory and Iona trip, on board The MV Isle of Mull ferry to Craignure. The tour company that was waiting for us was utilising a minibus (I was third last to book!) to navigate a different route across to the west of Mull along the torturous single track roads with passing places.

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Ben More, Isle of Mull (from the north or rather ... the minibus !! )
The passengers were given an opportunity to stretch the legs at the 3/4 way point to enjoy a 10 minute photographic stop, although a bit further on from this snap shot through a moving bus window !!

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Finally the bus arrived at the jetty on the west of Mull where the boat "Hoy Lass" was waiting for us. Two of the passengers opted to explore The Isle of Ulva opposite with The boathouse pub that seemed very welcoming ...  another time perhaps !

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Am I on the right trip ?? !!
The excitement started to build in more ways than one as we embarked onto the open sea. I had to remind myself that this journey was partially advertised to attract the birdwatchers. It has to be said though I was happy to be here.

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The Isle of Staffa
As Staffa and Fingals Cave came into view, as you can imagine from the previous image, it was difficult to get a vantage point to take photos without an elbow, head or camera in the way !!

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As the boat edged nearer to Fingals cave, the pilot decided to play the appropriate classical piece from Mendelssohn over the tannoy. It was a bit cheesy for the tourist as the amplification didn't give the right mood and it made me smile anyway.

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Then came the task of mooring the boat against the jetty avoiding the most amazing rock formation and the wave swell.

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It was at this point on landing and as I was making my way along the hexagonal shaped stones that I realised I was stepping back in the footsteps of history with the trailblazers and Victorian explorers. Firstly the discoverer and naturalist Sir Joseph Banks and the poet James McPherson who named it Fingal's Cave and inspired generations of tourism. The composer Mendelssohn, Author and ... explorer(?!) Jules Verne, Poets and writers William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott, Artist JMW Turner, and of course not to be outdone on The Grand Tour ... Queen Victoria herself !

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As the sea ripples in and out of the cave, the echo or reflection of sound from the walls and roof is meant to be like music. This may be inspiring to authors but personally I was just privileged to be able to witness this spectacle as the average person never gets the chance.

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I had a similar magical experience when I was visiting friends about 12 years ago who moved back to their home in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. On one of my three visits, they took me to Giant's Causeway that consisted of the same geological structure. Legend has it that Finn the giant built it to cross between the celtic countries of Ireland and Scotland. As you can imagine I was thinking about my friends rather than Finn !

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Another boat arrives following the route of mine 30 minutes later. This is the service from Fionnphort that I photographed in the Iona post.

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There was time for a quick climb of the hill to enjoy the view ... err ... without standing too close to the edge of the sheer drop .... exploration indeed !!

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Back on the boat after an easier exit at a lower tide from the jetty (first photo)  as we rounded the southern tip of the island for a last goodbye to the Cave and other similar structures to the south west of the island.

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Stranded ... for 2 hours ! Watching the boat retreat after arrival
Lunga, the next island destination, was a bit of a mystery to me as I had never heard of it before. I realised from the poster adverts and during the course of the trip that it was a place where bird watchers come to visit. As the ethereal shapes of the group of islands gradually materialised, I had a feeling that this was going to be something special. The boat slowed to a standstill on the sheltered east side of the island as the pilot announced "I'm sure you can guess what's going to happen next". There was no jetty and the bosun got out and attached the boat to a massive pontoon structure which the pilot drove onto the rocks. There were a few poignant safety announcements about disembarking and getting onto the footpath. As I had been advised by the tourist office, this was a place where the visitor needed to wear full mountain gear even on a sunny day like today ! It was quite a spectacle to see people who had no mountain skills clambering over rocks from the shoreline.

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Due to my patient wait on the rocks for the boat to slip back into the bay and drop anchor, I was last to climb the hill to the cliff tops. The above shot was the first thing I saw when the path levelled out at the top of the cliffs. At first I wondered what was going on ... and then I joined in ....

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We were told by the pilot on the boat that the Puffins would come and pose for us for a small fee :-)

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"Yawn ... How many pictures are you going to show of my family and me ? "  "OK, I'll stop there !"

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There's only so many photos that one can take of Puffins (I took 200 !) so as I was fully dressed with all my hillwalking gear on, I decided to climb to the top of the hill and view the lesser islands in the group of The Treshnish Isles. The unusual geological formation of the middle one is known commonly as the Dutchman's Hat.

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Time to get back on board as the pilot waits to depart. There were many possible worrying moments for the pilot. This one was wondering whether all the passengers would be back on board in time to make all the connections for the last ferry of the night into Oban.

Leaving and looking back on Lunga, it gave me time to reflect that this was my best day out in 2013..

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Saturday, 11 January 2014

A plane trip and a bike ride, Inner Hebrides (Islay, Colonsay and Kerrera)

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One evening I was looking at the wealth of information and the amazing wall map in the hallway of the accommodation where I was saying in Oban. Up to that point I hadn't met the Guest House owners son who was passing through, introduced himself and asked what I was looking for. I told him I was just looking for an idea a little bit different other than the routine tourist trips that I had now been on twice to Tobermory and Iona. He came up with an amazing idea to get my travel juices going ... of landing on the sands of Barra in the Outer Hebrides by plane.

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In reality it seems, that does happen although not on a scheduled flight. The services from Oban airport cover four of the Inner Hebrides islands, two trips each day to two islands on alternate days, Islay and Colonsay, Coll  and Tiree. The load can be spasmodic and is supported by the Scottish Government as an additional form of transport to supplement the erratic ferry service that I briefly hinted at in an earlier post.
As you can imagine, this was the most expensive trip of the week but was an opportunity that wouldn't rear its head again for a long time to come so I grasped it with both hands and my bank account !!

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The departure lounge, Oban airport !!!

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Taking off from Islay airport looking north towards the Paps of Jura, something I only ever had the opportunity of reading about before in mountain books and magazines.

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The terminal building at Colonsay airport !!

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Just taking off from Colonsay. (Not sure how I kept the horizon straight at such an angle!!)

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Dunstaffnage Castle in the foreground trees, Connel bridge (previous post) background right with Loch Etive and the mountain of Glen Etive in the distance.

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Similarly the Guest House owner on another occasion suggested an alternative option of bike hire using Nevis Cycles in the main street which turned out to be the least expensive day of the week.

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The arrival of the Kerrera ferry.
Even though I was last to board the ferry due to the queue !!,  I was nearly refused for the weight limit ... I know my breakfasts were good from my host but ... not that good .... !!

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After a short coastal bike ride from Oban and a gentle crossing over the sound of Kerrera, I was met by my tour guide ... err ... this wooden map nailed to a shed. The island was a little smaller than I thought based on the timings of the suggested walks and consequently I had my lunch back at the jetty while I waited for the ferryman to have his on the mainland. All very well considering I had only been on a bike once before (two years ago) in the last 25 years !! I'll talk about that again when I finish this Scottish series.

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On my clockwise ride around the island, I unfortunately discovered that the parrot sanctuary was not open to the public so I had to make to do with photographing other forms of wildlife.

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One of the advantages of travelling by bike from the ferry was I was first to reach the tea shop (Kerrera Tea Garden).
As it wasn't my bike, it took me three attempts for the tea shop owner to decide where a suitable place was to leave it away from his precarious fence. The final resting point was on a grass bank outside the garden on the other side of the path. "No-one's going to steal it there !!" I was informed.
I felt like a dispatch rider as he enquired how many people were on the ferry and he seemed pleased with my answer.

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It was only coffee time ... Oh well. I better force down a slice of Lemon Drizzle cake !!

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Waiting for the cutting of the cake  ... inside that window !

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More familiar faces arrive from my ferry as it's time for me to vacate a seat for the masses !! ... and move on to other things.

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Gylen Castle at the south end of the island was a short return trip from the Tea Garden. The castle was built in 1582 and was only occupied for a short period of time before being burned in 1647 by the Covenanters during The Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The castle was restored in 2006 with £500,000 made up from a Historic Scotland grant and donations from the modern day members of the Clan who built it .... MacDougall.

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The easy bit on the western section !
The journey heading north on the west coast of the island was a little more torturous for the novice cyclist.

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Houses on the island, particularly on the less accessible west coastal track, are few and far between. Little did I know at the time when I took this picture that I would have to cycle up the curving track in the middle of the photo.

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Made it, time for a breather. A rare glimpse of the illusive M.V. Clansman returning from Barra with the dark long thin island of Lismore behind it. Not strictly accurate to the purists but the eastern hills of the Ardnamurchan peninsula making up the backdrop.

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A distant Oban when I'm allowed to go !!
I opted out of the ride to the marina at the north end of the island (another time maybe) as I was a bit saddle sore from my inexperience of the rough roads. I longed for the tarmac of the mainland but was prevented as the ferryman was on his lunch ... but hey what a great view.

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The return ferry was a little less busy to say the least with the company of the ferryman, the bike and a few pieces of marine ware !
I was however in for a treat as I spotted the other illusive vessel M.V. Lord of the Isles coming up the "sound" from Colonsay. I had no idea if we were going to make it across her path or not because I was all prepared to  .... "take a run and jump !" .....

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