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Outdoor gear – Some thoughts on customer choice and industry sustainability

Did you take part in ‘Takeback Tuesday’ this week?  Royal Mail dubbed Takeback Tuesday the day when people go back to work and take unwanted packages into a Post Office for return to the retailer.  It’s estimated that 15-20% of goods bought online are returned, worth £2.5bn in the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy.

What’s this got to do with the outdoors industry, you may be asking?  While it’s true that high street fashion is probably driving this growing trend, my own experience in buying a new mountain jacket suggest that the outdoor industry is subject to the same cost pressures and retail trends as the rest of the retail sector.  I think this begs important questions about the outdoor industry’s sustainability and environmental credentials.

A sustainable model?

Back in the olden days (let’s call this the 1970s/80s), things were much simpler.  There was much less competition between manufacturers and this tended to be overwhelmingly domestic (ie competition within the UK).  The innovation cycle was measured in months and years, and manufacturers tended to produce a limited range of ‘standard’ products which were tweaked every year or two.  Manufacturers made stuff and shipped it to high street shops, who sold it with a reasonable mark-up to customers.

Nowadays, with the advent of online channels, competition is global and the barriers to entry for new competitors are far lower.  Global shipping costs account for a relatively minor share of total production costs, with materials and labour far more significant.  Manufacturing is globally distributed, with much outdoor gear current produced in Asia (with all the water consumption and transport emissions that entails).  Retailers blend ‘bricks and mortar’ with online marketing, sales and distribution, and web-savvy customers know how to get the best deal using a combination of traditional shops and online methods.

With this stiffer competition has come both the mushrooming of customer choice (as manufacturers try to differentiate themselves) as well as the acceleration of the innovation cycle (as new materials, designs and so on are rapidly prototyped).  The North Face and increasingly Rab, Jack Wolfskin and others are arguably becoming fashion brands, subject to the multiple product changes demanded of retailers each season.  Outdoor magazines (and let’s not forget bloggers) are used by manufacturers to push their latest gear, promoting it as the latest must-have purchase.

It’s a model that feeds excessive consumption.  And a pretty complicated one at that.

All this complexity adds additional ‘cost’ – to manufacturers, retailers as well as to the planet.  Satisfying online orders costs extra compared with distribution via high street shops, given each product needs to be labelled and packaged individually before armies of white vans deliver them up your driveway.  Any returns incur an additional cost in transportation and postage as well as the labour involved in repackaging the product before it can go back out on sale.

 

A case study – Buying a new mountain jacket

My recent experience in buying a new mountain jacket illustrates well some of the issues around choice and sustainability.  Having done my research online I narrowed my selection down to three all-season jackets, the Alpkit Definition, the Arcteryx Beta and the Mountain Equipment Lhotse.  These are all ‘technical’ jackets designed to withstand winter mountain conditions in the UK, selling for between £230 – £370 full price.  (After 15 years, the seams in my old Mountain Equipment Lhotse have started to come apart and it’s now no longer fully waterproof).

However, the three jackets were only available to buy from three different retailers which presented an issue in making an accurate comparison.  I travelled to Edinburgh and Stirling to try on the Arcteryx and Mountain Equipment jackets before discounting the Arcteryx owing to it being a poorer fit.  I needed to actually buy the Alpkit Definition online given their nearest store is a 200 mile+ round trip away in the Lake District, confident that they have a very respectable free 123 day returns policy.  That meant I could physically compare the Alpkit and Mountain Equipment jackets in my local Cotswold store in Stirling.  I ended up selecting the Mountain Equipment jacket but ordered it in a different colour to the only example they had in stock.  It took five days to pick it up using their ‘click and collect’ process and in the meantime, I returned and received a full refund from Alpkit.

All a bit of a faff, to be honest.  For me, the whole manufacturing, sales and distribution process poses some serious questions about choice and sustainability.

 

Who’s serving who?

First, who’s asking for so much customer choice?  The Arcteryx website is currently selling six different versions of their Beta jacket (all-round, lightweight, superlight, durable …) in a wide range of colours and sizes across the range.  By my calculations there are around 150 permutations available of the same jacket.  As it turned out, Tiso in Edinburgh only stocked one version and not the superlight version I was most interested in.  Retailers seem to have a deliberate policy of only stocking a very limited range (presumably given the cost of backroom storage) and rely on being able to order other products in.  So why do some manufacturers go overboard?

In contrast, Alpkit produce their Definition jacket in just four colours and five sizes from S to XXL.  Mountain Equipment are the same with the Lhotse: four colours and five sizes.  I essentially bought the same jacket 15 years later with lighter materials, improved performance and similar features.  It seems to me both companies know their market and rely on in-depth market research rather than wasting money on over-complex manufacturing processes and unnecessary costs of product returns.  My over-riding concern is function, not fashion.  I’m not interested in the 2019 colour or design variations.  Just sell me a jacket that does the job effectively.

Secondly, when manufacturers are eager to display their green credentials, have they really through through the process from a customer’s perspective?  I can research functions and features online so what I really want is to check the fit of a jacket and to compare rival products before I part with a significant pile of cash.  So when it comes to the buying process, having to transport products or (worse) me around different cities is great for distribution companies but not so good for emissions, congestion and retailers’ profits.  I’d much prefer to go into a single shop rather than organise the  logistics across three separate retailers – or a cluster of adjacent outdoor shops, with Aviemore the best example I can think of.

My perception of manufacturer’s and retailers’ green credentials will be improved if I know that they’re focusing on a limited range of tried-and-tested products rather than contributing to over-consumption by marketing ‘this year’s model’.  While stocking the full range in every size/colour combination might be prohibitive, a ‘click and collect’ model is more sustainable than a home delivery approach that simply serves to employ more ‘white van men’ (and women). I would be much more likely to buy from a particular retailer if they demonstrate circular thinking and operate a product re-use scheme (such as Gift your Gear) to allow outdoor gear to have ‘second life’ with another owner.

Reasons to be cheerful

Some manufacturers and retailers are making a good effort to address these issues – Cotswold Outdoor and Alpkit are good examples – but more can still be done across the outdoor industry as a whole.  There’s been a focus on material sustainability in recent years (such as ethical down, PFC treatments and microplastics) but cradle-to-cradle thinking demands a much broader approach that includes choice editing and logistics.  Outdoors enthusiasts are (or should be) inherently environmentally conscious, so they should be driving improvements as much as manufacturers and retailers.

We can ill afford ‘fast fashion’ when it comes to outdoor gear, so please let’s have a wider debate about what good practice looks like for the industry.

 

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2018 Review and plans for 2019

Moody skies over the Cairngorms and the green loch from the slopes of Meall a’ Buachaille

 

New year.  New beginnings.  New adventures.

This time of year I like to reflect.  In the quiet days of early January I take a look back at my aspirations for the year just gone, celebrating what I achieved and chalking up to experience what I didn’t.  But it’s also a time when I collect ideas, make plans and dust down my bucket list with a sense of anticipation and excitement.

So what did I get up to last year?

Looking back at 2018

Twelve months ago I said that 2018 was going to be a year of simplifying my life.  I wanted “to get back to basics, to give my time to the things that really provide me with rewarding experiences“.  I set myself four goals – plus a fifth one my wife sneaked into the list:

1.  Ditch social media

In fact, my aim wasn’t to ditch it altogether but was to cut down on the unproductive time taken up by social media.  Compared with blogs, which have the space to properly develop and explore ideas, other social media platforms tend to focus on blunt soundbites, sanitised ideas and airbrushed images.

I’m pleased to say I’ve stopped using Twitter (the worst offender) and only use private Facebook groups as the main way to communicate with my Duke of Edinburgh groups (I stopped using Facebook for personal use many years ago).  Instagram is the only platform I actually enjoy looking at, and I still occasionally share pictures.  I haven’t missed this ‘wasted’ time.

2.  Focus on quality over quantity

After five years’ blogging I took a three-month break in late 2017, and became much more selective in finding the things I wanted to say.  My goal last year was to focus on improving the quality of my writing, acknowledging the therapeutic and rewarding benefits of creative writing.

In 2018 I wrote 33 blog posts, far fewer than in previous years.  I’d like to think that their quality improved (others are the best judge of that), both in terms of writing as well as images.  But part of the reason for my lower output was simply that work stepped up a gear and there was a lot going on on the home front.  You can’t do everything, and choices often have to be made.

3.  Focus on my main passions

My third aspiration was to simplify my life by consolidating what I already enjoy doing.  In the past I’ve dipped my toes into new activities, such as sea kayaking for example.  These were all great fun of course but with a finite amount of ‘spare’ time, a focus on new stuff inevitably meant time away from my existing passions. So my aim in 2018 was to focus on a smaller range of hobbies – mainly walking, camping and cycle touring – so I could enjoy these in more depth.

This was exactly what happened last year. I spent a week climbing the 13 3000-foot mountains in Ireland (completing the Furths as a result), I cycled Scotland’s coast-to-coast route and went skiing in the French Alps with my son.  In between this I also found time for a few cycling day trips and wild camps, and also continued my Duke of Edinburgh volunteering.  I led a Silver Duke of Edinburgh group for the first time in trips to the Cairngorms and Glen Tilt.

4.  Give my time to things that give me something back

I aimed to practice the (difficult) art of slowing down, living one day at a time and being more spontaneous.  So many of us lead busy lives and for me in particular, getting out of the fast lane and slowing down is an ongoing challenge.  As I get older I’m becoming more conscious of the importance of getting exercise in the outdoors to manage my mental wellbeing.  As a classic introvert, I crave the solitude needed to recharge my batteries so I can return home renewed and happy.

I’d say I achieved this in part although it’s unfinished business.  Work has a lot to answer for but I guess its ultimately up to me to recognise and manage my stress levels.  I already have some ideas of other ways to relax over the coming year.

5.  De-clutter

The fifth goal sneaked in by my wife – all in the interests of jointly leading a simpler life – was to de-clutter.  I think what she meant was that by clearing out the junk in our garage and loft we would be unburdened by so much ‘stuff’ hanging around our necks.  An ideal way, then, to de-stress and also earn some additional cash by offloading our unwanted stuff on to new owners.

We partially achieved this goal.  On the plus side, we now have a much clearer garage and loft, having sorted through boxes we hadn’t opened for the last 16 years.  It’s amazing how you gather so much stuff through the phases of family life.  My rucsacs now hang neatly in the loft and all my walking gear is organised into a couple of boxes.  (At least, none of that has been chucked out – I have to admit it can be stressful letting go!).  However, there’s still a little more to finish off so that’s a job for this summer.

 

Looking down on Loch Restil, the Rest and be Thankful and Glen Croe from Beinn an Lochain

Plans for 2019

Having just reviewed this list I actually think it still serves as a great set of goals for 2019 too.  If it’s working, why change?

In addition, I’ve decided to add another few activities under number four: to read more, to exercise more regularly and to make sure I get enough sleep.  I’ve challenged myself to read 10 books this year using my new Kindle.  It’s not quite as many as the lady whose blog post I read today, celebrating smashing her 2018 goal of reading 120 books.  But for someone who normally reads just one or two books a year it’s quite an improvement.

I have a rough plan forming around taking one trip away a month during 2019.  The general idea is to give myself tangible goals to plan for, while also getting some exercise and exploring some new places.  While I’m thinking about tackling a couple of classic routes that I haven’t yet had the time for – including walking the West Highland Way and cycling the Hebridean Way – I’ll probably also include simpler trips such as bagging a summit or having a wild camp overnight somewhere.

I’m pleased to say that I’ve already completed January’s trip, a short outing yesterday to climb the Corbett Beinn an Lochain in the Arrochar Alps.  It was icy and cold, and more overcast than expected, but nevertheless a great remedy to get rid of the excess calories and sluggishness from the new year.  I’m also sharing a couple of photos from a walk up Meall a’ Buachaille in the Cairngorms between Christmas and New Year.

I’m sure family life and work will take up just as much time as they have last year but I’m hoping that these plans will give me a sustainable balance between ‘work’ and ‘play’.

Whatever your own goals for 2019 I hope you have a very happy new year.

 

The green loch (an lochan uaine), near Glenmore in the Cairngorms

 

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Most memorable photos of 2018

My trips this year took in not just Scotland but I also ventured a little further afield to Ireland, France and Indonesia.  From mountain to sea and from coast to coast I hiked, biked and camped my way through many adventures.

Take a look as I describe some of this year’s standout memories.

1.  Cycling around Lismore

On cold, frosty morning in January I was the only passenger on the first ferry of the day over to the island of Lismore.  Sitting in the middle of Loch Linnhe, Lismore has great views north towards Ben Nevis – on this cold morning, snow-topped with light cloud brushing its summit – and west to Mull and the Morvern hills.

Lismore was quiet that Sunday morning in January.  I’d passed the Minister already, hopping off the ferry en route to his first service of the morning on the mainland.  Other than that, I spotted a farmer feeding his cattle, with clouds of condensed air hung above their heads in the still, cold air.

I’d timed my ride to cycle the 19km length of the island, take in a couple of detours to its many historic sights, then get back to the Pierhouse Hotel on the mainland for a lunch in front of a roaring fire.

 

2.  A snowy ascent of Beinn Creachan, Appin

The previous day saw me ascend from a mundane, brown winter’s morning, through a carpeted wonderland of powdery snow on Beinn Creachan’s ridge, to the sublime experience of crunching across the icy crust towards the Corbett’s summit.  On day’s like this, when daylight is short, the combination of sun and snow have a remarkable ability to transform the mundane into the extraordinary.

I tried to sum up the atmosphere in my original post:

Up on the ridge the sun’s rays made a determined effort to escape the clouds, sending sharp tentacles down towards the depths of Loch Etive.  The soft light reflected off the dark water, providing the promise of an improving day.  As the sun topped the clouds its rays washed the snow with a brightening cast, throwing shadows across the frozen hillside.  Then finally, as the bright sun escaped the clouds it illuminated the rime-covered stalks of grass bravely poking through the snow.  The ice sparkled and shone with a brilliance that turned the ‘ordinary’ into a truly wonderful sight.

 

 

3.  Drinking in the ‘super blue blood moon’ at the Wallace Monument

For the first time since 1982 we were treated in February to the spectacle of a ‘super blue blood moon’.  It was a chance to see the convergence of three rare events: a supermoon, a blue moon and a total lunar eclipse, which turns the moon a blood coloured orangey-red.  A supermoon is when there’s a full moon that happens when the moon is positioned closest to the Earth in its orbit, and a blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month.  It’ll be 2037 before these three phenomena coincide again.

The high cloud seemed to exaggerate the effect, giving a ghostly glow above Stirling’s Wallace Monument.

 

 

4.  Skiing at Les Arcs

I went skiing at Les Arcs in the French Alps back in February, enjoying the highest snowfall they’d had for several years.  We rented at apartment at Peisey, close to the fast Vanoise Express  cable car that links Les Arcs to La Plagne.  With such a variety of skiing over such a large area we were spoiled for choice.  Fast red runs like this one that took us back to Peisey were our favourite, with great views across the valley to snowy peaks all around.

 

5.  A cycle tour of the Trossachs

The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority describes the cycling tour of the Trossachs as “an exhilarating and hilly ride through the heart of the Trossachs – a classic roadie circuit featuring a big climb, quiet roads and outstanding scenery“.   And on this sunny day back in April it didn’t disappoint.

With the Trossachs often called Scotland in miniature I decided to re-name this the ‘lochs and bens’ tour.  In a 50 mile loop, including a short out-and-back detour to Inversnaid on Loch Lomond it takes in no less than seven lochs (Drunkie, Achray, Katrine, Arklet, Lomond, Chon and Ard) and five bens (Venue, A’an, Vane, Ime and Narnain).

Now, that’s pretty good going for an afternoon out.

 

 

6.  Hiking the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks ridge

I ventured over to Ireland for the first time in June and climbed the Irish 3000 footers in a week.  I enjoyed driving the back roads of Wicklow, Tipperary and Kerry, soaking up the culture and views.  I was lucky to have such great weather.  It’s not uncommon for hill-baggers to get drenched and see very little from mist-shrouded hills; the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, for example, are notorious for being in cloud for around 75% of the time and receive 225 days annual rainfall.  But in spite of building in spare days in case I needed them I walked and camped in warm, sunny weather.

I climbed the ten peaks along the Reeks’ ridge in one spectacular day, one of the best mountain days I’ve had in twenty years.  The ridge is home to Ireland’s highest mountains and has a scale and grandeur reminiscent of Snowdonia or the Scottish Highlands.

The photo is taken from the slopes of Cruach Mhor, looking west across Loch Cummeenapeasta and along the ridge towards Carrauntoohill (at 1039m/3406ft, Ireland’s highest summit) and pointy Beenkeragh (1010m).

 

 

7.  Climbing Mount Brandon

I completed climbing the Furths with a walk up Mount Brandon, Ireland’s most westerly 900m+ mountain.  Called Brendan’s Hill after Brendan the Navigator who was born nearby at Tralee in 484AD, the walk starts near a grotto and finishes with the almost obligatory Irish summit cross.

But most memorable were the views.  From the top there’s a marvellous view south to the Dingle Peninsular but the highlight of the Pilgrim’s Path is the fantastic view north across Tralee Bay as you descend.

 

 

8.  Camping on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

Fine weather meant that I climbed Ireland’s highest hills in double-quick time, leaving a couple of days to explore before returning home.  While the Wild Atlantic Way stretches all the way around Ireland’s west coast I spent most time following the views around the Ring of Kerry.   The pick of the campsites was Wave Crest Camping and Caravan Park at Caherdaniel, overlooking a small beach and with a cafe and shop on site, and a bar/restaurant a ten minute walk away.  A great, relaxing spot.

 

 

9.  A glorious mid-summer’s wild camp

With itchy feet I took a notion one Saturday night in late June.  “What about a wild camp?”  Within 35 minutes I was pitched up with my own Saturday night TV stretched out in front of me.  Grasses waved in the balmy evening breeze.  Meadow pippets chirped incessantly, bobbing back and forth.  Just the sounds of nature, without the hustle and bustle of people and traffic.

As the sun began to dip towards the horizon, shadows lengthened.  Layers of distant ridge lines were laid on top of one another, muted oranges and greys, slowly darkening.  I picked out more than 20 Munros and at least another half dozen Corbetts, from Ben Lomond and The Cobbler in the west to the Ben Lawers ridge in the north.  A view to savour – and right in my back yard too.

 

 

10.  Cycling Scotland’s coast-to-coast

Over 3 days in August I cycled the Scottish C2C from Annan to the Forth Rail Bridge, including tacking on an extra 40-odd miles to get me home.  Much of the route is on quiet and gently undulating back roads following the Rivers Annan and Tweed.  Through rural Dumfrieshire and Peebleshire it was a peaceful, scenic ride with quiet wild camps.

I emerged out at the Forth on a busy Sunday afternoon where it seemed that locals and daytrippers alike had all assembled on the beach at Portobello for an ice cream and a paddle in the sea.  Leaving the crowds behind (plus a noisy campsite below the flight path into Edinburgh Airport), the old Forth Road Bridge took me to the quiet NCN76 cycle path from Dunfermline to Clackmannan.  After enjoying fine weather for 3 days the heavens opened just a mile short of home.

 

 

11.  Mountain biking around Beinn a’ Ghlo

I swapped my touring bike for a mountain bike later in August to try out a classic Scottish route that circumnavigates Beinn a’ Ghlo.  I was checking out a route for my Duke of Edinburgh group but rather than take 3 days I covered the 35 miles in a day.

Dark clouds and sunshine jockeyed for prime position all day.  I barely saw a soul but soaked in the open vistas of moorland and mountains.  The highlight was the Falls of Tarf near the head of Glen Tilt, a perfect wild swimming spot if ever I saw one.

 

 

12.  Sunrise over Bali and Lombok’s volcanic peaks

I flew to Malaysia and Indonesia in September for a ten day break with my daughter, who’d been volunteering in the rainforests of Borneo for the summer.  Indonesia (and especially Lombok) have been in the news a lot recently owing to volcanic activity, earthquakes and tsunamis, and I thoroughly researched the trip before travelling.  We spent most of the trip in Bali, trying to fit in as much as we could in only a short time.  It’s an island of amazing scenery, food and people.

We took a trek starting off at 3.30am to catch the sunrise near the summit of Mount Batur.  Mount Batur is a double caldera, in other words a crater that sits within a much larger crater 14km across.  From it’s peak at 1,717m we saw the sun gradually rise to pick out three other volcanoes, all in a row.  From left to right in the picture below you can see Mount Rinjani (3,726m high, around 60km across the sea in neighbouring Lombok), Mount Abang (2,152m) and Mount Agung (3,142m).  The picture really doesn’t do justice to the absolutely stunning view that morning.

 

 

 

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Guest post: Cycling Land’s End to John o’Groats via Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way – A coastal journey along the western seaboard

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Cycle touring seemed an opportunity to travel greater distances and in more comfort, so in 2017 I completed that tour, 6,000km around the North Sea over 55 days.  This journey was a great success, so for the next adventure I considered the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) in Ireland.

The first journey explored the Anglo Saxon and Viking coasts, and the Wild Atlantic Way offered an opportunity to do the same for a Celtic nation.  With a little imagination I could add Cornwall, Wales and Scotland to the itinerary which led to the concept of cycling the Atlantic Seaboard from Land’s End to John o’Groats (LEJOG), some 4,000km. Studying the Sustrans and Eurovelo maps suggested I connect NCN Routes 3, 4, 78 and 780 to the WAW to form one continuous journey.

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So with a rough route in mind I started to plan in more detail. I anticipated a 40 day journey, using these routes and a few ferries. Hotels and B&Bs each night would be prohibitively expensive, so I researched hostels and camping sites.  The Independent Hostel guide and Youth Hostel Association covered Scotland and England, and various searches reveal possibilities for Ireland. Campsites can be searched on Google Maps.  All of this information can then be plotted on My Maps, overlaying the upload GPX files. While not sticking to a strict schedule or booking ahead, it would save time researching accommodation each evening.

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My bike, a red Thorn Sherpa, required a decent service, new transmission and tyres, but remained unchanged to the formula that worked around the North Sea.  It is a traditional setup, with Ortlieb panniers and gear shared with my backpacking equipment, except perhaps for a slightly larger tent and bigger kitchen. To save costs, I planned to cook as much as possible and stay at campsites or wild camp. Hostels every 3-4 days would make for greater comfort and an opportunity to meet like minded travellers.  All up the load carried was 20kg.  Even with this weight the bike handled superbly and was comfortable, even on rough tracks.

I am a bit casual about Navigation and tend to just follow the signs, which for the NCN, are usually excellent. Whenever I felt lost I would just pull out my Android smartphone and open the View Ranger or Backcountry Navigator apps to pinpoint my position. After many years I have developed a sixth sense, which tells me something is up – the sun is in the wrong place, the wind has changed, tyre marks have gone and so on…

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What came as a surprise when I cycled NCN Route 1 as part of the NSCR, was the extent of the traffic free sections and quiet roads.  Cycling was much safer than I expected, only 15% of the route is shared with traffic, which I took to mean > 10 cars per hour. This was equally true for NCN Route 3, which takes you from Land’s End to Bristol. The only challenge being the relentless climbs and descents of the Cornish and Devon landscape. It is a brutal introduction, made easier with connecting former railway lines, notably the Camel and Tarka trails, popular at holiday times.

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Crossing the Severn Bridge on NCN Route 4 (like the M4 but for bicycles) I entered into Wales and again follow great cycle paths through the urban areas of Newport (via the Transport Bridge), Cardiff, Port Talbot and Swansea.  These paths connected to lovely disused railway sections which led into the quieter countryside of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. After a few days I had crossed Wales east to west and boarded the Fishguard to Rosslare ferry, with a few other cycle tourists.  The first I had met.

It was wonderful to be back in Ireland after 25 years and a large welcoming Eurovelo Route 1 sign pointed westwards. Good roads, the Waterford Greenway, a couple of ferries and a few busy stretches led me to Kinsale. The start of the WAW.

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I should perhaps point out, that the WAW is more of a marketing concept than an actual cycle route and is really designed for motor vehicles. Nevertheless it is a route used annually for a WAW Cycle Sportif and with a few exceptions is generally safe for cycling. Unfortunately, it is not yet up to the standards of the NCN, so I used a 1:400,000 Michelin Map (#712) to seek out quieter roads. This was successful and on the whole I had a safe riding experience, more than offset by some glorious coastal cycling and idyllic rural lanes.

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The coast is exposed to the Atlantic ocean and weather in a more dramatic way than I had experienced (“Wild and Windy” is a better translation of WAW). Combined with Irish hospitality and relax nature made for pleasant days, even if it is raining and wet.  Now I get “inside” the ride, a point at which I have left my normal life behind and the cycle tour routine kicks in.  I’m packed and fed each morning within an hour. A huge bowl of Flahavan’s porridge with nuts and berries is perfect cycling fuel, washed down with fresh coffee made using an Aeropress system – a weight penalty I could not contemplate as a backpacker.

Now I get “inside” the ride … I have left my normal life behind and the cycle tour routine kicks in

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On the road from Mizen Head I came across numerous M2M painted marks in the road way.  These, I later learned, mean Mizen to Malin, the Irish equivalent to LEJOG and over 600km in length. A distance covered in a straight line and two days by ultra-athletes.  It would take me a further two weeks hugging the coast. Perhaps 2,000km to reach Malin Head – but why rush? I could not miss the iconic Healy and Conor passes ahead, with tough ascents, yet exhilarating descents and a chance to see panoramic views.

Choosing my own route, but keeping roughly to the coast and electing not to explore every peninsula, I progressed up the west coast taking ferries as they presented themselves.  Dingle and the Ring of Kerry deserve their popularity, but the less popular Beara Peninsula and Slea Head were not to be missed as a cyclist. The biggest “short cut” ferry is across Galway Bay via the Aran Isles, which are a delight and fit in with the spirit of an Atlantic coastal journey. Connemara retains a strong Irish speaking community and has lovely cycling roads all the way to Clifden through an ancient rural landscape.  The past few days are perhaps a highlight of the tour as a whole, taken at a relaxing pace, stopping for long lunches at the many picturesque locations.

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Campsites and hostels have been great so far and I am meeting more people who are touring the west coast, mostly from Europe and America.  We share notes and experiences, which often result in changes to plans. I hear about the Western Greenway Cycle route to Achill Island from Westport and good cycle shops that can help me find a new chain I am sure I will need.  Surfers frequent a particularly nice section along the coast past Easky towards Sligo, where of all places Halfords has the exact right chain I need. The smooth transmission has improved my mood after enduring mechanical imperfection and I take a half-day servicing the bike and giving my body a chance to rest. I am averaging a pleasing 100km a day, but now I judge progress in units of time rather than distance. If I have cycled 8 hours elapse I am happy.

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I had high expectations of Donegal, having spent a few boozy nights there many years ago, enjoying the local craic and superb music.  Nowadays it seems to be a tourist trap, with coach loads of people idling about, studying overpriced menus. I’m happy to move on to Killybegs, a pelagic fishing port, along the beginnings of the Donegal Cycle Network (DCN).  The campsite to the south of the port offers superb views south towards Benbulbin, a distinctive coastal mountain.

County Donegal is very relaxing and superb for cycling. The roads are quiet and new former railway lines are being converted for off road cycling use.  Ideal for my Thorn Sherpa with wide 2″ tyres. Sections past Errigal on peat roads and farm tracks are rugged and tough going, but a welcome break from traffic. The DCN follows Eurovelo 1. I would highly recommend the region for cycle tours, with perhaps a break to walk along Slieve League – some of the highest coastal cliffs in Europe.

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I time my pace to catch two ferries ahead, but learn that the Rathmullan ferry has not yet started the summer season, so I divert around Letterkenny and cycle along Drongawn Lough towards Malin Head, the most northerly point in Ireland.  I’m the only guest at a huge hostel in Buncrana and sleep well before an exhilarating day on the Inishowen Peninsula. I have a favourable tailwind that beautifully changes direction with me into Moville. Malin Head does not disappoint for its raw beauty, watching the Atlantic swell crash against the rugged coastline.

It is a calm evening, with a still sea, but on waking a full gale has kicked in.  I depart early to catch the 08:00hr ferry from Greencastle across Lough Foyle.  The crew are studying the sea state and unfortunately tell me the service is cancelled. I now have a long detour via Londonderry, but set to the task, with a touch of adrenaline.  I have to be in Ballycastle that evening for a ferry to Islay the next day. I don’t feel guilty about using a train service to Coleraine to at least cut out some heavy traffic and fierce headwinds, but I can’t resist riding along the North West 200 motorcycle road course into Portstewart and Portrush.  One week later, motorbikes would travel at speeds of 200mph along the same roads. I reach my destination hostel in time, after bypassing the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The Antrim coast is wild, made more so in the Force 9 gale I battle against.

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It is with sadness I now leave Ireland for Scotland and Islay.  The boat, a fast RIB, takes bicycles and I am met at the quayside by three cycling couples planning tours north.  The crossing saves me several days. My only other options was to take the vehicle service from Larne to Cairnryan and cycle NCN 73 and 7 to Ardrossan and cross to the Mull of Kintyre via Arran. After a tipple at one distillery, I take the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Kennacraig and cycle in glorious weather to Oban, using the Crinan canal route along NCN Route 78.  A good tailwind brings me into the town on a gorgeous sunny day. I meet up with many more cyclists, all kitted out with bikepacking rigs, en route, like me to Barra and the Outer Hebrides. The gulls are stealing the seafood from unwary tourists who have just spent £30 for a platter of lobster, shellfish, crabs and prawns. No wonder the Herring Gulls are so large and brazen, the spread looks delicious.

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We see dolphins chasing the ferry as we glide across the Sea of the Hebrides and arrive in Castlebay late afternoon.  A dozen cyclists depart and go their separate ways to hostels and campsites. I settle in to a site I know well and relax to the sounds of oystercatchers and a rolling swell gently crashing onto the beach below.

Somehow, and I still don’t know how, I ride the 185 mile length of the Hebridean Way (NCN 780) in 3 days.  It usually takes 5. It is amazing how much a strong tailwind helps. Perhaps more telling is the uncanny knack I seem to have of arriving at a ferry terminal 10 minutes before departure. So I perfectly connect to South Uist and ride to the hostel on Berneray, a few miles from the ferry to Harris. The hostel is full of quirky, battle hardened cyclists and walkers drying out in front of a coal fire.  We have a great evening finding out if all 500 pieces of a wildlife jigsaw puzzle are in the box, drinking tea and sharing stories as the picture builds, each one of us assigned to a particular species.

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The beaches on Harris are sublime, followed by the ascent of An Cliseam in heavy mist towards Tarbert. A roadside burger van is a perfect fuel stop before I set out to the west coast on Lewis and the Stones of Callanish.  The hostel at Garenin fortunately has one bunk left. So I settle in with an excited group of Canadians, Americans, Scots and Czechs for the evening in an old Black House, recently restored. Unfortunately, the peat fire has been replaced with an awful remote controlled electric effect monstrosity.  I don’t know if to laugh or cry.

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I’m up early and the day is glorious.  I can reach the Butt of Lewis lighthouse today and pedal to a hostel in Stornoway before catching the ferry to Ullapool.  Lunchtime consists of moreish black pudding rolls, a local delicacy. In the capital, I meet more cyclists and  pitch my tent in the garden. We meet later at the local brewery for a pint or two to share stories epic climbs and sandy beaches.

The crossing to Ullapool is surreal.  The Minch is like a mill pond, silky smooth with crystal clear visibility, that I cannot believe how close the mountains of Coigach appear – I think we are off to Harris and I’m on the wrong ferry.  I service the bike again, replacing brake blocks and sample local food from a great food shack. My fellow cyclists have found out a Ceilidh is on this evening. It is not advertised and the local shop selling tickets asks how I heard of it.  The evening is fantastic, with many tunes and reels that make a homesick cyclist reflect on the journey and the few days remaining.

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Now onto the North Coast 500, at first light, to avoid peak traffic. I hear cuckoos and see eagles in a silence that makes your ears pop.  The geological abnormalities of Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Canisp and Quinag are unreal and cycling through this landscape is perhaps one of the greatest cycling experiences. I cycle alongside competitors in the Cape Wrath challenge before entering Durness, whose supporters are keen to know if I can remember the leading runners bib number.  It is a long day into Melvich and a bustling North Coast 500 campsite, full of camper vans and motorcyclists. I chat to a few, who struggle to believe how far I have cycled over the past few weeks.

The geological abnormalities of Suilven, Stac Pollaidh, Canisp and Quinag are unreal and cycling through this landscape is perhaps one of the greatest cycling experiences

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The journey now to John o’Groats seems trivial and the final marker post is deserted on a dreary day.  Looking at the forecast which demands I carry on into Wick to camp overnight before a long train and sleeper service home.  The passenger (seating) coach is faulty and we are upgraded to sleeper beds.  I wake at Euston to the bustle and noise of London going to work.  I have to stop and adjust for 30 minutes, before cycling across the city to catch a train home.

What next? Perhaps take Eurovelo 1 to Nordcap, or south into Portugal and Spain, similar Celtic communities that, no doubt, still retain the echo of a strong connection with the route I have just taken.

 

If you’ve enjoyed this guest post please have a browse around Martyn’s blog and sign up for future posts at http://www.Trailplanner.co.uk.

 

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Product Review: Kuhl Team 1/4 Zip Merino Wool Sweater

I’m a big fan of merino wool tops, which are superbly breathable to keep you cool in summer yet trap your body warmth to keep you toasty warm in winter.  Naturally wicking and resisting odour retention, they’re the perfect solution for active day and multi-day trips and far better than cotton which traps and holds moisture next to your skin. While there are some synthetic fabrics that rival the performance of wool this is usually at the cost of breathability and odour retention.

First impressions

The Kuhl Team 1/4 zip merino wool sweater is made from 100% merino that’s boiled to increase its softness.  The Kuhl website doesn’t give the exact specification but I’d say this is a midweight weave (perhaps around 300g/m2) that’s warm and hard-wearing.  It’s a little heavier (380g) and thicker than my trusted Icebreaker Skin 200 long-sleeved top that’s still going strong after a decade or so, and which I wear walking and camping for all except the warmest summer days in Scotland.  At face value, then, I’d recommend the Kuhl Team 1/4 zip as a top for cooler and winter weather from late Autumn through to Spring.

An attractive long-sleeved merino top with a zip for venting

 

It’s a well-designed and high quality top.  The short 1/4 zip allows you to regulate your temperature and the flatlock seams mean that the Team is comfortable next to your skin.  It features Kuhl’s classic thumb loops for added warmth in colder weather.  The short collar can either be worn up or down, a useful and flexible feature.  The top I’ve been testing is a medium size, in ‘brick’.

 

Kuhl’s signature thumb loops

 

Kuhl hail from Utah and make a range of outdoor lifestyle clothing for men and women.  The company has a strong outdoor ethos and their products are  typically high quality, hard wearing and well made.  They’re well suited to skiing, moutaineering, backpacking, cycling and global travel.  I already own a pair of Rydr trousers and some Renegade shorts, as well as the Jetstream jacket that I’ve recently reviewed.

On test

I’ve been using the Kuhl Team merino sweater during the Autumn on walking as well as cycling trips.  I would find its midweight weave too warm for summers in Scotland but for cooler Autumn weather it’s been great.

On a cycle ride on a cool, crisp day of 8 degrees celsius it kept me warm enough – just – without needing a jacket.  It was sufficiently breathable to trap any moisture from sweating even when tackling some fairly brutal short uphill sections.  I’m looking forward to wearing it when skiing.  This will certainly be my number one choice for winter walks, camping trips as well as for skiing.

 

 

The Team looks easy to care for, able to either be machine washed or hand washed.  I’ll be keeping a close eye to see if it keeps its shape and appearance after several washes.

 

Close-up of the Team’s flatlock seams

Overview

I’d recommend the Kuhl Team 1/4 zip merino top as a great choice for colder weather outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing and backpacking.  Wool is the original performance fabric, helping to regulate your temperature effectively and soft enough to be worn next to the skin.  I tend to walk ‘hot’ and have found the Team great as a single layer even on cool Autumn days.

What I liked:

  • Merino is extremely effective in regulating temperature, naturally wicking and odour-free
  • Soft, medium-weight fabric
  • 1/4 length zip useful for extra cooling
  • Thumb loops for colder weather

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • Nothing

 

Kuhl clothing is increasingly available at a range of UK outlets including George Fisher, Winfields and Tiso.  You may need to shop around for the Team 1.4 length zip but I found it retailing for between £115 and an absolute bargain sale price of £34.

Note:  The Team 1/4 zip merino top was provided to me to review for free by Kuhl.  I have no connection with the company.  I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using it.

 

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Product Review: Kuhl Jetstream Jacket

Many hikers yearn for a jacket that hits that sweet spot: a lightweight, technical jacket that not only performs well in the mountains but is equally at home in the city.  The Kuhl Jetstream jacket certainly ticks the right boxes but does it live up to this promise?  I’ve been testing it to find out.

First impressions

At first glance the Jetstream hiking jacket seems to have all the right credentials.  It’s made with a highly waterproof and breathable 2.5 layer fabric (Airskape™) that comes with a 20K waterproof rating.   All seams are steam-sealed and water-resistant zips are used on the front, chest and hand pockets.  The jacket is made with woven ripstop nylon that gives stretch and strength, topped with a clear hydrophilic membrane that’s breathable but also disperses any moisture so the fabric dries faster.

 

 

So its high-performance credentials would appear to be up to a soggy day in the hills.  But is it suitable to be worn on your local commute as well as on a mountain summit?

In my experience it certainly is.  The Jetstream fabric is soft to the touch, lightweight (the medium-sized test jacket weighed in at 307g) and it packs up small.  There are five, fairly muted colour combinations (mine is pirate blue, similar to a dark denim shade) which won’t stand out like a sore thumb on the station platform.  The jacket is nicely shaped, with five-panel articulated sleeves that add to its comfort.  I found the cuffs to be a close rather than a tight fit, with some ‘stretch’ to the fabric.  So while there aren’t velcro or elasticated fastenings the cuffs certainly keep draughts and water out.  There’s a generous hood with a reinforced brim and an eye-lock adjuster at the rear, although no roll-away fastening.

 

 

The Kuhl company’s brand strapline is ‘born in the mountains’, having emerged in 1990 from Utah.  It makes a range of outdoor lifestyle clothing for men and women and according its website, Kuhl’s staff all have an outdoor passion, whether it be for skiing, moutaineering, backpacking, cycling or global travel.  I first noticed their products about three years ago and have since bought a pair of Rydr trousers and a pair of Renegade shorts, both stylish and hardwearing.  The Jetstream is clearly well-designed and fits well into this outdoor lifestyle brand image.

On test

I found the medium size a fairly generous fit without being overly roomy.  It’s comfortable to wear, the fabric being soft and flexible.  At a fraction over 300g I really like its low weight.  It’s the kind of jacket you would easily take in your rucsac in fine weather ‘just in case’ without weighing you down.  A neat feature is the way the right hand pocket becomes a stuff-sac complete with hanging loop.  The Jetstream then packs down to a respectable 20 x 15 x 10cm.

I’ve been testing it throughout the summer and early autumn.  On a wet day’s backpacking in the Cairngorms in September it proved a great rain jacket, keeping me warm and dry, with the rain beading off the outer membrane.  I did find the size of the hood a little too generous though.  Even with the drawcord adjusted at the rear it felt a little too big and I would have liked the peak to be much stiffer to keep the rain away from my face.  All in all, the hood felt a little too ‘flappy’ to use comfortably on windy summits.

 

 

Not only have I used the jacket when out walking and backpacking but I’ve been wearing it on a daily basis for work and commuting.  It certainly is multi-functional, being stylish and comfortable in the city while also being a practical, high-performance jacket in the mountains.

There are compromises to be made when designing a jacket like this of course.  Its lightweight materials, while great for the daily commute, are not up to all-season wear.  This isn’t therefore the jacket I’ll be reaching for when temperatures drop towards freezing and I’d recommend it only for 2-3 season use when outdoors in Scotland.

 

 

One fairly significant drawback is that the two chest pockets are too small for OS maps.  I like to have a map handy at all times and find it too unwieldy to have to store a map in my rucsac.  The pockets are certainly large enough for a wallet or a pair of gloves, but not for convenient map reading.

The other gripe I have – though less significant – is the front zip.  I’m presuming this is down to US convention but the zip pull is on the right hand rather than the left hand side which would be the norm for mens’ jackets in the UK.  It’s not a huge issue that the zip feels as though it’s on the ‘wrong’ side, and not enough to put me off wearing the jacket, but just mildly disconcerting.

 

Overview

The Jetstream is a very capable multi-functional jacket suitable for walking, backpacking and camping at the weekend, yet smart enough to wear around town on a daily basis.  It’s not without its drawbacks though, particularly the hood that’s a little too ‘flappy’ and small-sized chest pockets.  For the UK climate I’d be happy wearing this between March and October.

 

What I liked:

  • Lightweight (307g) and packing up into a small pocket/stuff sac
  • Highly waterproof, with water-resistant zips and steam seams
  • Comfortable fit
  • Muted colour combinations
  • Multi-functional – at home in the city and in the mountains

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • Over-generous hood and lack of stiffness to the peak
  • Chest pockets too small for a map
  • Front zip on the ‘wrong’ side (for UK males)

 

The Kuhl outdoor clothing range is available in various outlets including Tiso, Blacks and Go Outdoors.

Note:  The Jetstream jacket was provided to me to review for free by Kuhl.  I have no connection with the company.  I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using it.

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Product review: Olight M1T Raider torch

The Olight M1T Raider is a rugged, waterproof and multi-purpose torch that’s likely to withstand a lifetime of use.

First impressions

Olight specialise in LED lighting and sell a range of torches and headtorches suitable for walking, camping, hunting and general outdoor use.  I’ve previously reviewed the H1 Nova headtorch and highly recommend it as a lightweight and powerful torch for walking and camping.  The M1T Raider is from their range of torches (“flashlights”) and comes with a wrist lanyard rather than a headband.

At first glance it’s seems quite compact (measuring 91mm by 21mm) and weighing just 69g for the torch and lanyard.  It easily fits in a pocket or can be clipped to a shirt or jacket.  I found it convenient to use: easy enough to hold while walking around before slipping it into a pocket.

 

The M1T is very well made.  The aluminium case is rugged and likely to withstand normal bumps and scrapes.  Olight claim that it will survive the impact of being dropped from 1.5 metres.  The torch also has a waterproof rating of IPX8 which means that it’s capable of operating after having been immersed in up to 3 metres of water.  This should give enough comfort that it will survive outside in the rain for prolonged periods.

For such a small and lightweight torch it packs a powerful punch.  At full power it generates 500 lumens; according to the manufacturer, enough for a beam to extend 97 metres.  I haven’t measured this precisely but can confirm that it provides a bright light that’s more than adequate for general use around a campsite or when walking.  (If you’re looking for something more powerful still, the M2T is a slightly larger handheld torch with up to 1200 lumens brightness).

The single, chunky button on the base cycles between two modes.  After 5 minutes on full power the torch automatically steps the light down from 500 to 300 lumens, giving an additional 120 minutes of power on a full battery.  The second mode gives a much softer 5 lumens of light, with a full battery lasting up to 100 hours’ use.  I found this bright beam for outdoor use and low-level light for close-up tasks a good combination.

 

 

 

What’s it like to use?

The M1T was convenient to use when I took it out on a 3-day walking and camping expedition with my Duke of Edinburgh Silver group.  Around the campsite it gave a really bright beam and I’m pleased to say won the competition to see who had the brightest torch or headtorch!  In the tent the 5 lumen mode was just about right for finding gear at night.

I would still prefer to take a headtorch when out walking or camping though.  Being able to still use both hands is a big benefit and so I’d say the M1T is best suited to general outdoor use when hands-free operation isn’t desirable or essential.  With a battery life of up to 100 hours on low power mode it will be very useful to keep in the car or at the back door of your house, safe in the knowledge that the battery won’t need to be changed very often at all.

Olight produce a range of rechargeable as well as battery powered torches.  Whichever you choose is I think down to personal choice.  I tend to prefer battery-powered torches (such as the M1T) for their simplicity.  CR123A lithium batteries are compact and widely available these days; a little more expensive than AA batteries but perhaps lasting for longer.

There’s no case for the torch, nor is there a locking mode to prevent it being accidentally switched on.  Neither of these are big drawbacks but just something to be aware of if you plan on stuffing it into a rucsac.

 

Overview

All in all, there’s little not to like about the M1T.  It’s powerful, lightweight, robust and highly waterproof – in fact, everything you would want in a small, handheld torch.  Its simplicity means that it’s ideal to keep in the house or car ‘just in case’, and its good battery life means that it’s very practical too.

But given the choice between a handheld torch and a headtorch I would personally choose the latter for the kinds of activities I tend to do.  Given that Olight make also headtorches that can also be removed from the headband and used as a handheld torch (such as the H1R Nova), this would be my preferred choice.

What I liked:

  • Small and lightweight (69g including the lanyard)
  • Powerful torch (max. 500 lumens) with 2 different brightness modes
  • Well made and robust
  • Highly waterproof
  • Easy to operate, even with gloves on

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • CR123A batteries are slightly more expensive than AA batteries
  • I personally prefer a headtorch for hands-free operation when camping or walking.

 

The M1T Raider currently sells for £39.99 on the Olight UK online store.

Note:  The M1T torch was provided to me to review for free by Olight.  I have no connection with the company.  I have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using it.

 

Snapshots of Bali – Part 2

Snapshots of Bali – Part 2

Soon after I posted Part 1 of my Snapshots of Bali news filtered through of the devestating earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Palu and Sulawesi.  The pictures on TV have been utterly heartbreaking.  

With 2,000 people killed and another 5,000 still missing this disaster is one of the deadliest since the massive Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.  I’ve donated to the disaster emergency appeal and hope that my contribution will go some way to helping the people of Sulawesi cope with this tragedy and start rebuilding their lives.

It’s with a lot of sadness then that I’m sharing this second post of pictures from my recent visit to neighbouring Bali.  I’m featuring another set of pictures that show some of the highlights of my trip with my daughter.  Following on from my first post, here then are words and pictures depicting another six themes of life in Bali.

Monkeys

In Ubud, the cultural centre of Bali, we visited Monkey Forest, home to several hundreds of monkeys.  This is the number one visitor attraction in Ubud and pretty touristy.  Despite this, it’s in a tranquil location just south of central Ubud, where the monkeys roam free around the forest and temple.

They look cute enough from a distance but if they’re hungry, or simply like the look of something you might be carrying, then they certainly won’t hesitate to jump up and grab it out of your hand.  We quickly walked away when one monkey took a fancy to my daughter’s bag, baring its teeth.  I can’t imagine why some visitors were willing to let the wild monkeys sit on their laps and heads.

Waterfalls

Bali’s stunning waterfalls are firmly on the tourist trail.  Many are easy to reach and have the added attraction of a cooling swim after the walk in.  This is Nung Nung waterfall, north of Ubud.  Our driver suggested it would be quieter than some others and we were fortunate to be there with only a handful of other visitors around.

The water thunders down to an inviting pool 25 metres below, spreading clouds of fine spray that pick out the shafts of sunlight shining through the canopy of trees.  

Volcanoes

The north east of Bali is dominated by evidence of recent volcanic activity.  We took a trek, starting off at 3.30am, to catch the sunrise near the summit of Mount Batur.  The pictures really don’t do justice to the absolutely stunning view.  Although there was a cold wind at the summit we sat entranced as the soft dawn gradually heralded a new day.

Visitors are obliged to hire a local guide, all employed by a single consortium.  A number of paths converge at the top, starting on rock which then becomes (slippery) volcanic sand as the gradient steepens.  Unfortunately the paths are becoming quite eroded and I hope that remedial work takes place soon.

Mount Batur is a double caldera, in other words a crater that sits within a much larger crater 14km across.  From it’s peak at 1,717m we saw the sun gradually rise to pick out three other volcanoes, all in a row.  From left to right in the picture below you can see Mount Rinjani (3,726m high, around 60km across the sea in neighbouring Lombok), Mount Abang (2,152m) and Mount Agung (3,142m).  You can see the black lava that has fairly recently spewed from Mount Batur in the picture underneath; the last major eruption was in 1963.  However, Mount Agung erupted in February 2017 and the Foreign Office still advise staying at least 4km away.

Scooters

Scooters are everywhere in Bali.  It’s expensive to learn to drive and buy a car but almost everyone can afford to buy a scooter.  And in an island where there’s little or no public transport, they’re pretty essential to getting around.

Scooters are therefore where you see can see real life being played out.  People commute to work on them.  In rural parts you see scooters piled high with grass or palm leaves.  Kids sit on their mothers’ laps being taken to and from school.  And you see whole families – including sleeping children – travelling from A to B.

Jungle swings

Instagram has a lot to answer for.  Jungle swings, bamboo lookouts and a range of existing temples and stone gates are must-see attractions for visitors of a certain age.

Given my daughter belongs to the Instagram generation we couldn’t resist either, taking suitable snaps at the Wanagiri Hidden Hills Lookout.  Overlooking a lake and mountains beyond, it’s a great location.  There are several different swings and bamboo constructions that make for impressive pictures.  (What you don’t see of course, are the platforms and steps just out of view, giving the impression that people are standing on the top of a cliff with nothing between then and the water below).

I take my hat off to the enterprising locals.  Seizing a business opportunity to help the hoards of Instagrammers part with wads of cash, they charge handsomely for the privilege.  Great fun, but an expensive photo op!

Sunsets

We saw some wonderful sunsets during our stay on the island.  Seminyak beach looks due west and I love this picture of a guy contemplating the waves and fading light.

And how better to enjoy the sunset than to sip on a posh cocktail at a beachside bar?

A storm in an inset box

The media has taken great delight this week in announcing that the Scottish Parliament has passed a law banning public bodies from showing Shetland in an inset box. 

The Islands (Scotland) Bill aims to outlaw the practice (by public authorities at least) of  positioning Shetland just north of the Moray coast and east of Orkney.  In fact, the islands are around 150 miles from the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland.

The two examples, from different Scottish public agencies, both show how Shetland is commonly illustrated.  In fact, a cursory glance at Google Maps shows that more often than not, Shetland is omitted altogether.

Map by Historic Scotland, a public body
SEPA map of areas of high flood risk

While this move may have satisfied many Shetlanders, it’s not gone down particularly well with cartographers.  According to the Ordnance Survey, inset boxes avoid “publishing maps which are mostly sea“.  An OS spokesman said: “The Shetland Islands are approximately 245km (152 miles) from the Scottish mainland, from the most northerly part of the Shetland Islands to John O’ Groats, and 690km (428 miles) from the most southerly point of the Scottish and English border.  It would be virtually impossible to print a paper map, with any useable detail, of this vast geography.”

To illustrate this, the maps below show Scotland with and without Shetland.  Showing Shetland in its actual position reduces the scale of the map by about 40%.  This effectively means that the names of many important places, motorways and national parks are left off completely.

Comparison of map scales with and without Shetland (Source: Quartz 4/10/18)

Maps, by their very nature, are a gross simplification of reality.  We all understand that it’s a cartographic convention to show large cities as circular dots.  We know that on OS maps water is blue, forests are green and mountains are brown.  We’re not confused by the fact that those 1km grid squares on 1:50,000 scale maps don’t really exist on the ground.

Come on, I don’t think anyone really believes that Shetland is floating in some transparent box in the North Sea.

Boxing islands, and re-positioning them to ensure a map can show greater detail, is a common practice in cartography.  You see it the world over.  The Canary and Balearic Islands are insets beside a map of mainland Spain, and the Galapagos Islands sit right next to Ecuador.  Imagine how ridiculous a map of the US would look if Hawaii and Alaska weren’t inset beside the lower 48 states!

In an interview with the BBC, Tavish Scott, local MSP for Shetland, pointed out that this change is needed to combat inaccuracies and misunderstandings about the islands. “Recognising where Shetland is located would go a long way to understanding the challenges we face as an island.”

I’m sure there are other ways to achieve this objective than banning cartographic conventions.

No doubt this headline-grabbing story has benefited the islands in other ways though.  There will now be people who have actually heard of Shetland.  Others will know that islanders are called Shetlanders and not “Shetters” (as I heard on Radio 4 yesterday, admittedly in a comedy show).

But is this whole story merely a storm in an inset box?  Has this flurry of media attention simply been a minor distraction from something that annoys Shetlanders far more than even putting their beloved islands in a box just north of Fraserburgh? 

What am I talking about?  It’s correcting the common mistake that the northern islands are called “Shetland” and not “the Shetlands“.  Now that’s something that might actually have been worth legislating for.

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Snapshots of Bali – Part 1

The summer seems to have flown by and my blog’s been neglected of late.  Mainly this is due to a crazily busy time at work (even blogging has to take a back seat when you’re exhausted), but I’ve also been travelling.

For my globetrotting I have my daughter to thank.  She’s been volunteering in Borneo all summer having recently left school.  When her end-of-trip travel plans fell through she was looking for company:  “Help, Dad … I want to go to Bali.  Can you come with me?“.

Obviously, it didn’t take too long to answer that question.  Flights were hastily-arranged, time booked off work, travel options researched and bookings made.

Bali’s a long way from Scotland (around 20 hours flying time, to be precise).  It’s a world away in many senses: climate, culture, people, food and landscape.  It was also a reminder that travel has that endless capacity to instantly ‘change the channel’, switching off one place only to immediately find yourself immersed in a completely new environment.

I found it fascinating.  The stresses of work were soon forgotten and I had so much to catch up with my daughter about, all in culture that’s so open and welcoming to visitors.

Although I’ve travelled in Asia before I’d never been to Bali, a smallish island within the Indonesian archipelago.  Interestingly from a Scottish perspective, Bali’s population is marginally less than Scotland’s (at 4 million) but its population density is ten times ours.  It’s also a comparatively ‘young’ population.  So it’s a busy place, full of young and energetic people whose economy is growing like topsy.

If you’ve never visited Bali then hopefully my snapshots of the country will whet your appetite.  If you know the country well, then my photos should be very familiar.  I’ve selected some of my favourite photos, together with some text to set them in context.  Ayo pergi!

Boats and beaches

Mention Bali and many people first think of beaches.  It really is a paradise island, blessed with warm water, weather and people.  From the world class surfing beaches of Ulu Watu and Padang Padang in the south to the idyllic sandy crescents of the east or north coast, Bali has it all.

We spent a couple of days relaxing at Seminyak before finishing up our trip with an afternoon snorkelling at Padangbai.

Dusk, Seminyak beach
Kuta beach
Padangbai beach

Rice terraces

Rice has been cultivated in Bali for centuries.  We eat a lot of white rice, and occasionally brown, but have you ever tried red, yellow or black rice?

Rice is served at any time of the day; in fact, anything not served with rice is considered a jaja (snack).  The classic Balinese plate of nasi campur has a portion of steamed rice in the middle of the bowl with a variety of meat, seafood or vegetables around the outside, together with a spicy sambal.  Delicious!

At Jatiluwih you can see how rice has been grown over many centuries.  Ribbons of curving terraces adorn the sloping hillsides with as many shades of green as you can imagine.  This is a Unesco-recognised site, where the fascinating system of subak ensures that water equally irrigates the terraces at the foot of the slope as those at the top.  Bamboo channels of water trickle constantly as you thread your way in between the narrow terraces.

Jatiluwih rice terraces
Working in Jatiluwih rice terraces

Temples

There are estimated to be 10,000 temples in Bali.  You see them everywhere, from simple shrines to impressive, ancient sites.  In fact, every home has its own temple, every village has its own temple and then there are more elaborate temples that are the focus for important religious ceremonies.

We were lucky enough to visit Pura Ulun Danu Beraton on a morning when a significant ceremony was taking place, involving several hundred worshippers in traditional dress.  It was essentially a service of remembrance; those attending had all recently buried family members and the ceremony was taking place to commit their souls to god.

Pura Ulun Danu Beraton, Lake Beraton
Funeral remembrance ceremony, Pura Ulun Danu Beraton temple

Offerings

In Bali 85% of people are Hindu, in contrast to the Muslim majority elsewhere in Indonesia. At each home-temple Balinese families make a daily offering.   This can literally be anything that you offer to god as a blessing: flowers, coloured paper, food and such like.

These simple shrines are also to be found in the corner of restaurants, outside shops and businesses and in public places.  You’ll see simple square trays made from banana leaves left on the pavement – and need to tread carefully to avoid stepping on them.


Pura Ulun Danu Beraton temple
Everyday offering in a hotel garden

Bamboo

Just as rice plays a central part in Balinese culture, so bamboo is ubiquitous.  It grows freely on roadsides, is widely used as a building material and is now recognised as a significant renewable resource (bamboo straws are fast replacing the polluting plastic variety).

We loved the entrance to the W Resort in Seminyak, where we splurged for our first two days of down-time beside the beach.  A vibrant green bamboo colonnade provides an incredibly dramatic entrance, providing that ultimate separation between the hustle-and-bustle of the narrow, traffic-choked streets and the serene luxury of a 5-star resort.

Entrance to the W Resort, Seminyak

Markets

In every country around the world, markets are the go-to place to observe ‘real life’ at work.  We visited the combined fish, meat and vegetable market at Jimbaran early one morning as a prelude to an Indonesian cooking class.

Locals bartered and noisily chattered amid scooters, cats, boats and outboard motors.  From fresh lemongrass, aromatic ginger and rolls of banana leaves to coconuts being pulped, chickens being prepared and the most amazing variety of fresh fish and seafood being carried from boats up the beach, it was all on view.

Jimbaran vegetable market
Jimbaran fish market, early morning
Inspecting the catch on the beach at Jimbaran fish market

Have you visited Bali?  What sums up the Balinese culture and way of life to you?

In Part 2 of this post I’ll share another six snapshots of Bali, including some 21st Century aspects of Bali’s culture.

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The essence of Scotland

 

Take just two minutes to enjoy this video of the essence of Scotland.

Nate paid a recent visit to Scotland from California and got in touch to share the cool video he’s made.  It was great to hear that he’d made good use of my blog to find out about places to go while touring the country.

How many places can you recognise?  And where’s next on your bucket list?

 

Thanks very much for sharing, Nate!

 

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The Beinn a’ Ghlo circuit by mountain bike

The circuit of the Beinn a’ Ghlo range of hills is considered a classic Scottish mountain bike route, a full 35-mile day out in a scenic and fairly remote part of Highland Perthshire.  If you’re looking for a circular route which is mainly on rough vehicle tracks – plus a pub and/or a chip shop at the end – then consider adding this one to your list.

I was checking out the route for my Silver Duke of Edinburgh group who are walking it over three days in early September.  The start point is at Old Bridge of Tilt, just near Blair Atholl.  The route then follows tracks and paths northeast and parallel to the Allt Coire Lagain to an estate house at Daldhu before turning north along a good track to Fealar Lodge.  It’s a singletrack path from Fealar Lodge west, dropping down to the Falls of Tarf, before the long descent of Glen Tilt along a rough track.

The route can be done in either direction.  How you ride it perhaps depends on the wind direction and/or whether you want to start off with a steep climb and have a long downhill ride at the end of the day (as I did it, anticlockwise) or whether you want to ease yourself in gently by tackling Glen Tilt first of all.

Route description – Anticlockwise

From the car park at Old Bridge of Tilt it’s a long uphill to Loch Moraig, a good opportunity to get the heart muscles pumping hard.  Having gained height, the views open out along the rough track west, with the Beinn a’ Ghlo massif directly in front.  While the main route continues straight on to the northeast, our Duke of Edinburgh takes a detour southeast to the remote farm at Shinagag and so did I.  While it stayed dry all day, dark clouds weren’t far away.

Standing stone near Shinagag

 

The Beinn a’ Ghlo hills from a distance, taken from near Shinagag

 

I took a faint grassy track north from Shinagag to climb a heathery hillside.  This was the start of a tough stretch – certainly easier walking than with a bike – following a path that skirted the hill Sron na h-Innearach (‘inner ear ache’ perhaps?).  The heather was just coming into bloom and the mountains loomed large over the landscape.  Following a fast but rough downhill, and through a couple of stream crossings, I soon arrived at the estate house at Daldhu.

The twisting summit ridge of Beinn a’ Ghlo taking from the hillside north of Shinagag

 

Navigating the path north of Shinagag, looking north to the summit, Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain

 

It’s a long, gradual climb north from Daldhu along a good track.  I stopped for a well-earned breather at the summit where I met the only other cyclists I saw all day, a couple of guys who had done the route several times.  I wondered, if this is considered a classic Scottish mountain bike route, why on a Saturday in mid-August it was almost deserted?

The reward for a long climb uphill is a good old blast downhill; it certainly got my eyes watering.  A good track leads to another group of estate buildings at Fealar Lodge before the route turns west along a faint footpath.  Just as I’d needed to push my bike for much of the section north of Shinagag so I also needed to get off quite a bit of the way along this path.  While the last week had been fairly wet across Scotland the crossing over the River Tilt turned out to be easily passable and I hopped across the boulders.

After a short distance I came across the highlight of the whole route, the Falls of Tarf.  This really is a magical spot: two large waterfalls, still pools perfect for wild swimming and even a flat, grassy patch ideal for a small tent.  Maybe it’s just as well this delightful spot is over 10 miles from the nearest paved road since it would have been trashed in a more accessible location.

 

Approx. 2km south of Fealar Lodge with the remote munro Cairn an Righ behind

 

Steep downhill track towards the Falls of Tarf

 

A magical spot – the Falls of Tarf and the Bedford Bridge

 

At the Falls of Tarf the route turns southwest along Glen Tilt and path widens into a rough vehicle track.  I always find Glen Tilt to be quite a dark and foreboding place, with the river hemmed in by steep mountains at both sides.  The coming cold front had already shrouded the Beinn a’ Ghlo hills in low cloud and the gloom hung heavily.  It somehow seemed a spooky place in the dark, late afternoon …

However, all thoughts were erased out of my mind as I cycled down Glen Tilt.  I’m sure the landowners have done a good thing by filling in the potholes with new stones but on a bike, even one with suspension, I felt as though I’d survived an endurance test on a boneshaker by the time I reached the car park again.  My hands were throbbing with the handlebar vibrations.

While this is considered a classic MTB route I have mixed views on it.    Much of it are on rough tracks which can be a little dull, and the path sections can be hard going since they’re not all cycleable.  It took me eight hours, including the detour to Shenigag as well as breaks.  It’s a fairly long day out and a bit of a slog at times.

Having said that, the scenery is great and there’s a real feel of ‘getting away from it all’.  The path sections on the route are most scenic, particularly as the heather was just coming into bloom.  Other than two other mountain bikers doing the route the only other people I met all day were two backpackers just setting out at the bottom of Glen Tilt.

I’ve come to the conclusion that in spite of the long stretches of track I think this is a better route on foot than by mountain biking.  Why not take a tent and make a weekend of it?  In fact, roll on next month when I’ll return with my walking boots and a tent.