Sunday, July 30, 2006

Following old footprints

Come with our five brave adventurers as they step back in time to follow in the footsteps of ancient peoples. Firstly, the evocative Fort Dunadd - one of the most important Celtic sites in Scotland. Populated aroud 500AD, it was the centre for the Kingdom of Dalriada - a fierce tribe stretching from Northern Ireland to the West of Argyll. Frequently at war with the Picts, the leadership of Aedan mac Gabran made sure the Dalriadans punched above their weight, and under king Kenneth I MacAlpin the two bands were unified and became Scotland - 'Scotii' being the Gaelic for 'coming from Ireland'. I'm guessing the king lived in that nice cottage, and his subjects huddled around that big rock in the garden.

It turns out Dunadd is actually the mound - so after a short climb (during which Ali had a close encounter with an Adder), the ruined fort could be found. It's really pushing it to call it a fort - grassed over boulders might be a better description. But then it is 1500yrs old. Ancient ceremonies took place on top of the rock - the Dalriadans used a carved footprint in their coronation ceremonies. Possibly Kenneth himself daintily placed his foot in the cut. He must have been tiny, as apparently it's a size 6 (UK measurement). As you can see, my manly Sassenach size 10's almost seem to fit - what manner of Scottish trickery is this?

They may not have been much good at modern shoe size measurements, but the Dalriadans could sure find a rock with a view. Dunadd sits in the middle of a wide valley, surrounded on all sides by a boggy marshland called Moine Mhor. Numerous Lochs can be seen in the far distance, with mountains and hills jutting up abruptly at the edges of the flat plain. Your intrepid explorers were there on a lovely day, but even then the wind pelted across the valley - which thankfully kept the midges grounded. This picture captures the moment when Ali wishes she'd stayed in the car, after listening to one too many Loch-based facts from your author.

OK, in my defence - unless you're wearing a leather jacket and carrying a bullwhip, it's very hard to look cool in a tomb. Lara Croft is the only other person to manage it, but a) she's not real, and b) the image of me in hotpants is probably too much for many of you to bear. This is the wonderfully named Nether Largie cairn, a chambered tomb dating from the Neolithic Period, with some bits added to in the Bronze Age (the Bronze bits, I guess). And a large slug, when we were there. Amusingly, you can shove your hands down through the gaps in the roof to surprise people taking their photo - but equally (and possibly more) amusing, you can throw stones back out of the holes at those wacky funsters, causing them to fall over.

Two miles North of Kilmartin (the nearest modern settlement to all of these sites) is the ruined Carnasserie Castle, and your brave band of amateur history sleuths fill the time until the Pub opens by paying it a visit. A good example of a French Renaissance-influenced tower-house, as I'm sure you're all thinking, it was completed in 1565 by the Rector of Kilmartin, Bishop John Carswell. The castle was demolished in 1685 by MacLaine of Torloisk when it's then owner joined in the Monmouth Rising. You always sign up for these type of things without thinking through the consequences.

The castle is in two parts - a tower house, and a hall house - essentially a livingy bit and a towery bit. Both come with spiral staircases and archery slits. Today, all the internal floors have gone, but you can still climb up both sides to get good views of the surrounding hills and valleys. For such a dilapidated building, they don't half have a nice-looking hedge. If they put the same amount of effort into looking after the castle, maybe it wouldn't be in such a state. Or maybe the hedge and lawn are original features, and the inhabitants designed them to be too nice for attacking forces to cross. "Och aye, Hamish, we cannae charge the ramparts o'oer there. Look at yon lovely hedge. Aye, we'd best come up wi' another plan"*

* This is actually how all Scottish people talk, even today.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Crinan Canal Cycling

I haven't ridden a bike for almost twenty years - I've never owned one or anything. In fact, to show my age (and ultimate coolness), the last bike I rode was a Raleigh Chopper. So when it was announced we'd be going on a 9mile cycle along the Crinan Canal towpath, I was wondering what it was going to be like. As it turned out, it was great - the first time I had a practice I was off down the road like a natural (almost). There really should be some kind of saying about how people seem to remember being able to transport themselves on a self-propelled two-wheeled vehicle. And as you can see, I looked super awesome in my gear. And if you were wondering, it isn't a ladies bike. Next photo.

To me nine miles sounds a lot, but we were soon whizzing along the smooth gravelled towpath between the small loch villages of Ardrishaig and Crinan. The rest of the guys hared off like excited teenagers, but thankfully Ali stayed alongside the wobbling wonder as I rumbled along. Cycling's good fun, isn't it? Especially when you're away from cars and buses, and only the occasional errant Golden Retriever causes a problem. I also managed to avoid any Jacques Tati-esque tumbles into the canal itself - although it was so hot it might have been pretty nice. As it was, we rested enough times for pit-stops.

The Crinan Canal is one of rural Scotland's hidden treasures. First opened in 1801, it connects Loch Fyne to the Sound of Jura. The nine mile length has 15 locks - so can be time consuming for people not doing their Lance Armstrong impressions, but these days the slow transit is all part of the charm. In the old days, it was a vital link from the Clyde, as ships and barges could progress through to the open sea without having to sail all the way round the Kintyre Peninsula. And if you now have that Wings song in your head, it was in mine all weekend.

Look at that and tell me British food is rubbish. Go on. Admittedly, it's not on a par with the deep-fried haggis supper, but the seafood stew at the Crinan Hotel was a decent alternative. Also note the 'cycling fuel' alongside - isotonic, gets fluids round the body quickly, and has some kind of miracle effect on the pedalling power when you get back on. I can't think what it can be.

A fancy yacht bobs quietly in the Sound of Jura, in front of the Argyll coastline. The island of Jura itself was visible in the far distance, alongside it's smaller and rounder neighbours, Scarba and Luing - neither of which I'd heard of before. Crinan was fairly busy, with boats coming in every few minutes and starting their 4mph chugging up the canal. We saw a TV crew filming some travel piece, with the presenter Nicky Chapman on one of them. Fresh from her defeat on Only Fools on Horses, I saw the erstwhile Pop Idol judge trip over a rope and almost go over the side.

A job well done, as Paul, myself (still clutching helmet), Grant and Craig sit on Crinan docks getting ready for the exhausting forty minute ride back to Ardrishaig where we went putting. I suppose if you include drinking as a sport, we invented a new type of triathlon - cycling/drinking/putting could one day rival those chiselled loners that ride around in their swimming costumes as they're too pressed for time to pull on a pair of shorts. Anyway, I didn't win the cycling, finished mid-table in the drinking, and mid-table in the putting. With a performance like that I'd definately make the British team...

Friday, July 21, 2006

Off the beaten track

Keep an eye out for toads

Today was about as nice as it gets on the Western coast of Scotland - wispy cloud, faint sunshine, light winds. Although we ended up spending most of it creeping through dank undergrowth on a rambling walk through the woods. Inverary is an old fishing village on the banks of the famous Loch Fyne - home to some highly prized bivalves (although not by me). We're in Oyster country.

The village is usually busy with tourists apparently, but it wasn't too crowded on the Friday afternoon. The Duke of Argyll lives here, in Inverary Castle - which looks to me like it's made out of Lego. I don't know when it was built, but the symmetrical conical towers at each corner look like some kind of Disney-esque fantasy. No wonder the tourists love it. You can't go in it, though. Dukes only.

After the long drive over from Edinburgh - with an all-important pit stop for pancakes in Glasgow - we got to Inverary at around noon, nicely timed for a short ramble up the hillside to take in the Loch views, then into the village for a pie-based pub lunch. Of course, we came to one of those 'Left or Right' splits in the woody path, and obviously chose the wrong option. And possibly a few more times after that, also. Still, we came to see the country.

What seemed like a few hours later we were navigating along what turned out not to be the path, but a river bed. Having to bend double to get under springy tree branches, and frequently seeing shoes - or trainers in Grant's case - vanish into a boggy bit of marsh eventually became almost amusing. To those of us without hangovers, of course. There's only so much water your boots can take before it doesn't really matter anymore, and you just keep going for the sake of it.

We did see a lot of toads though. Hiding motionless in the undergrowth, they must have been thriving in the moist, insect rich woodlands. We even saw a few sitting rigidly on the path (found after a sharp downhill turn towards a 'road' spotted through the trees - which turned out to be an electricity substation). After a lengthy trek back along the road to town, hugging the Loch, the Steak Pie and beer tasted all the better...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The anatomy of a BBQ

Not a cloud in the sky. Perfect Barbecue weather...

Assemble a crack team of experts...

Round up some hungry people...

Those sausages might need longer...

Don't be scared of the fire...

Delegate basting duties to a minion...

Accept advice in a cheerful manner...

Experiment with dessert (bad idea)...

Sit back and enjoy the sunset...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The DUaB Guide to...temping

Go ahead punk...

After the mildly resounding success of my guide to hostelling, here's another in the series of DUaB Guides - this time, temping!!!

- The key to being a popular temp is to turn up on time, be polite, and do anything that's asked of you. Temps get the demeaning, mundane jobs; you just have to live with it. When you get back to your proper job later, take it out on any temps you have there - you'll feel better.

- Always make sure the timesheet is signed and ready to go by the appointed time on Friday, otherwise you won't get paid. Then pencil in another couple of hours work here and there, and fax it off. Go home early.

- Remember the best thing about temping is the complete lack of responsibility. Temps are the least stressed people in the office, as they know they are only expendible drones who can be replaced with a phone call. So if you knock a bottle of Tippex over your keyboard - don't worry. When everyone's gone home, swap it with that idiot who always talks about rugby, and then carefully blob white marks on a third person's desk. Sit back and enjoy.

- The temps worst enemy, their nemesis, their bete noire, is the photocopier. Treat it with scorn at every opportunity (and being a temp you'll get plenty of them). As soon as it senses you don't work there full time, it will jam and make painfully prolonged grating noises. Leave the room straight away - if anyone asks, say the last person to use it was "that bloke with the Simpsons tie from accounts".

- Find the person in the office that smokes the most, and befriend them. Go out of the building with them every time they go for a fagbreak. If you don't actually smoke, just say you recently quit and appreciate their support. Take a battered biro and chew on it whilst looking mournful - this will get you sympathy from everyone in the office and plenty of chances to stand outside in the sun.

- If someone sends you a long email you want to read, or if you find an interesting article on the internet - simply copy and paste it into a Word document and make the font smaller. You can read it at your leisure, you don't have the internet window open for all to see, and it looks like you're working.

- Go up to a random person and say "That was a bit of a shock from Head Office the other day, wasn't it? The bad news they said had been coming? Oh - you didn't get the email? Ah. What department do you work in?" When they tell you, breathe in sharply, shake your head, and walk away.

- Temps don't get time off or leave, so if you need that day off come up with a believeable excuse and call in. Make it convincing - as did the temp who worked next to me in North Sydney one day. However I'd seen him through a window, dancing in a gay bar, as I was walking to work that very morning (true story).

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Monday, July 10, 2006

A very naughty boy

Hungarians are extremely small

If you believe the British media, the entire country is going down the tubes - descending into some Orwellian nightmare of disaffected youth and twitchy police. Barely a day passes without some ASBO-toting hooligan appearing in the papers for whatever reason, and the law either impotent to the threat or zealously going after honest Britishers out doing their normal business. But seeing as I don't read the Daily Mail, things at my end aren't too bad. The local gangs where I live are sweater-over-the-shoulder, rugby playing, public school oiks - although the other week I was in Threshers buying some cooking lager when three of them burst in and grabbed a case of wine each before running off. Maybe nowhere is safe these days.

**Old man phrase alert** - When I were a lad, it was all different of course. We used to badger police officers for 'Coppa Cards' - naively produced by the Lancashire Constabulary in a timid attempt to cash in on the 'kids will collect anything' mentality. From what I remember they had pictures of police incidents and a description, although they were tame stuff like the consequences of parking on double yellows - they might have lasted longer had they featured things like 'No.4...PC Bloggs looks for Timmy's head in a railway siding - JUST SAY NO TO TRAINSURFING KIDS!!!'. In reality, I think I got one or two before talking to policemen became as naff as wearing Grolsch bottle tops on your shoes, and that was that. Anyway - trainsurfing, happy slapping, tombstoning and the like were unheard of in Preston in the 1980's. Eating three Wham Bars and drinking Tizer in one sitting was as dangerous as it got for us.

It was four years ago in Hungary where I had my only serious run in with the local authorities, when I was fined for fare-dodging by the Budapest Transit Police. Of course, it wasn't my fault - but the only Hungarian word I knew was 'Gyalogosforgalom', which means 'Pedestrian access', so that didn't help me much. Tourists there can buy a Budapest Card which gives you free entry to attractions, and free use of all public transport for 24hrs. As such, they start at an allotted time of your choosing - so we picked 12noon, and left the tourist info and hopped on a train.

The Metro in Budapest is great, old and rickety with mosaics and pillars in the stations. We were only going a short distance - down to the banks of the Danube to check out boat trips up the river, so got off at Vorosmaty Ter and handed the cards to an armed (and stern-looking) woman in a grey uniform, complete with peaked cap and red armband with the letters BKV on it. She immediately motioned for us to move to one side and wait - "Is problem", she said. So we stood as the other passengers filed past, giving us cheeky grins - everyone hates tourists, after all. Eventually the woman came up to us and pointed at her watch. "Ticket starts at 12. Is not 12 yet.". I looked at my watch. I'm not making this up - the time was 11:58am.

"You're kidding. This is a joke, right?" I protested, as she reached - past her gun - for an officious looking notepad. "Is not 12. Ticket is not valid" she said. By now the station was completely empty, but there wasn't much I could do. I decided to play the dumb foreigner. "The woman at the tourist information said ticket was OK", I told her, with a cheery expression. She looked back with a stare that could have frozen the Danube all the way to Vienna. "Ticket is not valid. You break rules - so you get penalty". Oh crap, how much is this going to cost? Another train pulled in, and passengers got off and walked past us, to a person looking at the dimwits getting a fine.

Of course, by this time it was after 12. "It's after 12 now", I said hopefully. "Got any Coppa Cards?" - I was clearly desperate. She ripped off a ticket and handed it to me. "You sign". So I signed. She then put both copies back into a black leather wallet and put the notebook back into her pocket. "Penalty is 2000 Florints each. You must pay this now". She was obviously enjoying this, and tweaked the brim of her cap, drawing herself up to her full 5ft height. 'I could push her over the platform edge - there's nobody else here...' I thought, but in reality I just got out my wallet and meekly handed over HF4,000 - which I later worked out was only £9 (US$16). She took the money and grimaced at me again. I turned towards the station exit. "Gyalogosforgalom" I said to her as we left, and for the first time, she looked unsure of herself.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Explorers - Alexandrine Tinne

These days there are very few places on Earth we have yet to touch. The odd forest clearing deep in West Papua maybe, or a frozen valley in a remote corner of Antarctica. At the moment we live in an age of Technological discovery - every week new products are released or tested, things get faster, smaller, more advanced. In wasn't always thus - previous centuries were dominated by the age of Geographical discovery, where men would attempt risky trips to fill in the blank bits of maps. This has always intrigued me, the desire and determination to remove yourself from everything you know in order to know just a little more.

Come 2006, all the rivers are named, satellites have photographed the planet to the extent that a new species of mouse becomes headline news. Recently I've been reading about several people who lived back when there were still vast tracts of the Earth undiscovered (at least by those who could record it for others). Starting with this post, I'm going to summarise as best I can some of these people - most of whom you will probably have never heard of. For a start, they weren't always men. Alexandrine Petronella Francina Tinne was the first woman to attempt to cross the Sahara desert, in a time when women were very much supposed to be doing less exhausting things. Her trips were frequently long and arduous, and as was sadly so often the case in that time - her final trip came to a quite awful end.

Born in 1839 in the Netherlands, Tinne had a relatively comfortable childhood (her parents were wealthy merchants). Allowed by them to travel widely, she became fluent in languages and developed a desire to explore further. Her father died when she was very young (he had been 65 when she was born), and her mother decided to take the young Alexine to Africa. Together they explored Egypt on a barge with two support boats laden with servants - the way Victorian ladies were supposed to travel. This proved to be a trigger for Alexine, and she returned to Africa time and again. Accompanied by her Aunt Adriana, the intrepid women attempted to find the source of the Nile, and explore the Sudan region where no European had been before.

In 1863 they tried to find the Western reaches of the Nile, and the mythical large lake at the centre of the continent. By this time their party had been joined by a couple of Barons, and the group abandoned the boats and crossed the desert to find their objective. The going was atrocious - their armed guard mutinied and left them, the monsoon arrived early and destroyed their camps, they were ravaged by disease and mosquitoes. Having to shelter with a local tribe, the party slowly began to wither - the Barons were the first to die, then Alexine's mother. Desperate, the survivors limped to Khartoum, where Aunt Adriana also succumbed to malaria. Alexine was distraught, and returned to Cairo.

Over the next four years she regained her resolve, publishing her late mother's journals and travelling more around North Africa. Studying the region in detail, in 1869 she decided to revisit the Sahara and find the source of the Congo River - travelling from Tripoli via Lake Chad. Long a source of debate, the Congo was one of the Holy Grails of Victorian exploration. However, like many of her peers, it proved a challenge too far. Setting out with two huge camel-drawn iron water tanks, her party traversed the vast desert into the territory of the Tuareg - where only two Westerners had ever set foot before her. It seems her faith in the tribe was badly misplaced - a rumour had started that her iron tanks were full of gold. Rival factions were also warring in the area. On the 1st of August 1869 her small party was attacked and quickly slaughtered. Alexine had her hand cut off, and was left to bleed to death in the desert.

Outside of the Netherlands, hardly any people have heard of her. This is as great a tragedy as the manner of her early death (she was 29). Partly due to the sheer number of 'boys own' style tales of endeavour from that period, and also due to another piece of terrible misfortune - her collection of papers and specimens stored in England for safekeeping were destroyed during the Blitz. She may have been able to travel because of her priviliged upbringing, but put herself in danger to discover answers to the great questions of the time. Had she lived, she may have become the first to find these answers. She deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as men like David Livingstone - who said of Alexine "But none rises higher in my estimation than the Dutch lady, Miss Tinne, who after the severest domestic afflictions, nobly persevered in the teeth of every difficulty."

Biography of Alexine Tinne
Her Wikipedia entry

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Summer begins, Edinburgh style

Sunday 2nd July, 2006: 'British Government issues heatwave warning', says the BBC. Not in Scotland I bet - as these photos that I took twenty minutes ago prove. Summer has started in Edinburgh...

edit - after emailing the BBC, they published picture 3 above in their 'Your pictures' section on the hot weather and storms in the UK.
Link (pic 5)