Monthly Archives: July 2019
We have had a couple of relaxing days in Vegas after the river rafting trip. Allthego has had some good sleep ins after the long days on the river. The young’uns have left and gone to Houston as planned. So we have had a little wander around town, been here before a couple of times. There is always something to see that you didn’t see last time. Vegas is a town of many colours and flavours. Mostly loud and noisy. People of all nationalities and sizes, some conservatively dressed others with very little left to the imagination. You feel quite safe wandering around the Strip, even late at night. There is so much neon light that it is almost daylight.
One of the things we do like doing here is going to some shows, don’t do it much at home. A favourite of Homealone is a Cirque du Soleil show. So we went off to see ‘Mystere’. Not sure what it was all about, very ‘arty’, but there were great costumes, some spectacular acrobatics and high wire trapeze action. We also caught up with another Homealone favourite Human Nature, the Aussie vocal group, doing a Motown and others show. Full of 50s and 60s hits by artists like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Supremes, Sam Cooke, Drifters, Righteous Brothers etc. Some of the songs …… Runaround Sue, Under the Boardwalk, Stand by Me, Unchained Melody, Wonderful World, Why Do fools Fall In Love and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. Great night out. After the show Homealone managed a photo op and an autographed CD to add to the collection.
Back in the hotel we do a bit of packing before our departure the next morning, have to be out by 11am for a 3.30pm plane to Los Angeles and then a 10.30pm to Brisbane. Will finish this blog off at the LA terminal if possible.
So we made the short journey to the Vegas airport in a taxi. A funny thing happened at the Airport after arrival that illustrates the saying that ‘things come in 4s not 3s! Or, you hope that the 4th isn’t the start of another string of 3s! Readers may recall from an earlier blog Allthego’s three earlier experiences. Well you couldn’t believe it but there has been a 4th. Allthego has a black ‘carry on’ camera bag and we made the mistake of getting into a cab with black seats and black floor mats, the bag blended in well with seats. The camera bag also has some other lens and on this occasion Allthego’s reading glasses and phone.
Duly alighting at the Alaska Airlines terminal the driver emptied our luggage onto the street, we put it on a cart, paid the driver and went into the terminal. Staring around a bit working out where to go Allthego got that Sinkin’ Feelin’. Yes, the camera bag was still in the cab, but the cab had long gone somewhere else. Mmm. Despondency set in fairly quickly. Homealone suggested that maybe the cab had got in the line of cabs taking people from the airport and Allthego could intercept it there. A good idea, so off Allthego went. Downstairs two levels to Arrivals and onto the street. The line of cabs disappeared into the distance. Allthego slowly walked the line. He couldn’t remember the cab company, the cab colour (except the black seats and the long haired toothless driver) and he didn’t have a fare receipt either. He stuck his head in a random cab and asked the driver for a solution. The driver was helpful and said there were about 8 cab companies, his company covered three of them and if I rang a number he gave me they could put a notice about the lost bag on the computer and maybe the driver would see it and some how we might get it back. Worth a try Allthego thought. So back to where Homealone was based and onto the phone. Usual thing, a computer answered and gave Allthego a choice of about 6 numbers to press, none were for ‘bags left in a cab’. Eventually a person came on the line, pleasant lady, and I set about explaining our difficulty. Hadn’t got much out when she suddenly said ‘Are you the guy at the Alaska Terminal’? To this Allthgo said yes and she then said well ‘wait outside on the street, the driver is on his way back to you with the bag right now’. Allthego was a bit dumbstruck at this and did as he was told. The cab duly arrived, driver alighted and returned the bag with a big toothless grin. All’s well that ends well. There are many lessons to be learnt from this experience, but Allthego won’t go into them now! Homealone doesn’t think there are any lessons to be learnt other than ‘DON’T LEAVE YOUR BAGS BEHIND IN CABS’.
So it was onto the plane and we are heading for Brisbane and home. Homealone is eager to do the washing. Allthego continues to wonder whether things come in 4s or 3s.
We had a few days with Mitchell and Piper in Houston. Since our last visit he had settled into his own house in Cypress (a suburb of Houston), having previously rented in nearby unit complexes. He was working the last few days of his summer school commitments, they finish around 3 pm, and we spent the time looking after Piper until he returned for the evening. Some good recovery time from our Scottish travels. The four of us left Houston and headed off to meet up with the other parts of the Brown family in Las Vegas. Libby and Shane with their two kids, Alyssa and Jordan, together with Gillian had been doing their own touring around Southern California for a bit over two weeks.
We were meeting in Las Vegas to start a Colorado River rafting trip on the lower section of the Grand Canyon. The first day of the trip involved getting to the Bar 10 Ranch. We left Las Vegas around 11am on a bus and later transferred to a light plane for the flight to the ranch. We arrived around 1pm and spent the afternoon engaged in various ‘ranch things’ a bit of horse riding, looking around old parts of the ranch, some skeet shooting and generally hanging around the lodge. That evening, after dinner, there was some country and western entertainment performed by the ranch staff. Some was not too bad and some was well a bit on the rough side. Hey, but at least they tried! The food was good. Allthego, Mitchell and Gillian slept in the open under the stars on the lodge deck, the four Mc Conochies ‘roughed’ it in a lodge bunk room.
Early the next morning after a 6.30 am breakfast it was off to the river in a 7 minute helicopter ride, skimming across the landscape, down into the Canyon and then at a low level along the Colorado River. Great experience!
There were 20 other fellow rafters on the trip, plus 5 crew. Two powered rafts. Some years ago we had spent a few days at the top of the Canyon on the South Rim, looking down. After this experience Allthego had long had it as one of those ‘bucket list’ items to do a rafting trip on the river. There had been a couple of false starts in the past at organising a trip, but now we were here. River Runners at last! Homealone was not of the same mind though about this rafting stuff and stayed behind in Las Vegas with Piper (who was unfortunately too young to go rafting).
So, off we went down the river on the rafts. Some great scenery and views of the Canyon walls. The part of the river we are travelling is fairly gentle compared with the sections upstream from our entry point. The Canyon walls are also not quite as high. It didn’t take long to realise that taking photos of all these rocks was a bit counter productive. Whilst in ‘real life’ the rocks were spectacular and quite awe inspiring, endless photos were just more rocks. Better to sit back and take it all in! Experience the rapids and the gentler sections of the river where we could just drift along in the current.
We stopped along the way for lunch and some side trips before pulling in for the night. Sleeping out under the stars. One of the tricks of this river rafting is that it is National Park rule that surplus liquids have to be disposed of into the river, not on the land. Including pee! So one has to stand in the river semi submerged and do one’s business. For the other end there is a porta loo facility hidden up in the bushes for privacy. The water temperature is around 55 F, a bit chilly. It is also hot! We read a high temperature of 125 F, which is a tad over 51 C. So wading around in the water was also quite refreshing. Very dry heat, we also had a light wind to blow it around. No flies! Lying awake and trying to sleep at night one could feel the heat radiating from the Canyon walls. Eventually cooled off a bit.
Another early rise the next morning for a 6am breakfast, scrambled eggs, pork sausages and muffins for breakfast. It is very difficult to get beef sausages in the USA. Off down the river for some more rapids until lunch time. This particular river section had some more vigorous rapids than on our first day, which kept us damp!
After lunch we transferred to a jet boat to take us out of the Canyon and to our take out point on Lake Mead. Then it was a bus back to Las Vegas. The bus suffered heat stroke on the way back and after waiting about an hour we swapped onto another bus to complete the journey, arriving around 6pm.
All were pretty exhausted. But a great trip.
The plan was for the Brown siblings, Shane and the ‘kids’ to return the next day to Houston. Homealone and Allthego would have a couple of nights in Las Vegas before heading back home to Brisbane.
After leaving Tammie Norrie in the morning we spent our last day on the Shetlands wandering around Lerwick. Our ferry south to Aberdeen left at 5.30 pm so we had a few hours to fill in on the streets. Lerwick is a relatively old place and dates back to the late 1100s. It has always been an old sea port and fishing centre.
The town is built back from its harbour with rows of 1800s early 1900s double storey buildings separated by narrow streets and lane ways. It is really a bit of a rabbit warren. It all looks a bit Dicksonian. Once you get to the top of the hill and overlook the Bay things spread out and the town modernises.
Overlooking the Bay is Fort Charlotte. Rows of cannons have been staring across the Bay here for 350 years. The enemy? Those old foes the Dutch and the French. Apparently, the Dutch were very keen on Lerwick as a base for their fishing expeditions into the North Sea and their vessels were frequent visitors to the port during the 1700/1800s. The Town Hall has some amazing stained glass windows, which record much of Shetland’s Scandinavian era and maritime history. There is an imposing window of the Grand Master Mason of Scotland, the Earl of Morton. He owned Shetland in 1761. The window was a gift of the local Masons in the 1880s.
We boarded our ferry at the appointed hour and set off in a bit of gloomy weather for Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland. Along the way the ferry stops in at Kirkwell on Orkney at 11pm to do a pick up/set down of passengers before resuming the overnight journey to Aberdeen, where we arrive at 7am. After breakfast on board we head off for Inverness to return the car and catch a plane to Glasgow. It was quite a pleasant drive through the Scottish Highlands and along the malt whisky touring route past numerous distilleries. Stopped in for a look over the hedges and walls at Cawdor Castle. The Castle is well visited because of it’s loose association with Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Trouble is, whilst Macbeth did become the Thane of Cawdor in the play (he didn’t in real life), this castle wasn’t built until the 15th century and King Macbeth was around in the 1100s. Shakespeare took more than a few liberties with history.
Back on the road we arrived at Inverness Airport in plenty of time to drop the car off, Allthego to leave his wallet in the car, lock the car, then drop the keys in the locked key return box at the departure terminal. Homealone had not alerted Allthego to the fact that he hadn’t taken his wallet with him when getting out of the car. Allthego didn’t push this point at all but the wayward wallet was somewhat important and all efforts were now directed at getting it back. Two phone calls and ten minutes or so later the guy who was already coming to pick the car up arrived and said wallet was retrieved. A bit of luck here timing wise. But all is well that ends well.
It was a good flight down to Glasgow, via a stop over on Isle of Lewis & Harris. At Glasgow the saying that ‘things happen in threes’ played out quite nicely. Back tracking a little, Homealone had left our passports and some rings in a hotel safety box in London and Allthego had to go back and retrieve them some time later, fortunately they were still there. So counting the wallet affair that is two. Number three was Allthego’s lap top. It seems the hostie on board the plane didn’t alert Allthego that he had left the lap top in the luggage holes above the seats when he left the plane at Glasgow. This oversight was discovered whilst waiting for the luggage. Allthego tried to wander back onto the plane to retrieve the laptop, but security people thought this was not the way to do it and directed him to a service desk. Homealone was left on the other side of security to await the bags. The service desk was very helpful, somewhat amused though, and understanding. Seemed to take forever though for the lap top to return with a very helpful staffer, Allthego had been getting increasingly concerned that the plane would turn around and go some where else.
Anyway, the lesson from all this is for Homealone in the future to have a checklist.
Before moving on to the United States and continuing the journey home we recuperated for a couple of nights in the Glasgow Central Reni McIntosh Hotel, located in a building dating from the 1600s. No lifts and we were on the 4th floor up about 8 flights of steps, with sloping floors and low doorways. A slight trial for the knees and muscles. Small room but reasonably comfortable.
We are now in Houston staying with our son Mitchell and grand daughter Piper for a few days.
We were greeted on our arrival in Lerwick, the major town on the Islands, by fog. We haven’t had fog yet and the forecast said we were to have fog all day. It was a short drive to our self catering unit just out of town, opposite the brewery. Very comfortable lodgings with some nice lounge chairs to relax back in. It has been some weeks since we have had a lounge to lounge in! We are staying in a unit called ‘Tammie Norrie’ which is some sort of local lingo for ‘Puffin’, appropriate we thought. All the other units are similarly named after sea birds.
Our host suggested that we should go south first as his read on the weather was that the fog was going to clear from the south. So after settling in we set off. He was partially right and we did get some views of the countryside along the way. The rolling green hills were similar to those of Orkney, so were all the sheep! What was somewhat different though were the farmhouses and small villages, places tended to be of more ‘modern’ construction. There was less renovation of old structures. Along the way we past by the 60 dg north sign, the equivalent latitude in the south would put us a long way south of Tasmania.
We followed a similar pattern as we did on the Orkneys, wanting to see the west and north coast as well as the south. The west of the main island is supposed to have a slightly different climate than the rest. It can be sunny there when it rains elsewhere. So we tried it the next day and it did clear somewhat for us to see the west coast beaches. No swimming. Along the way we passed by a small village called Sound, this was were John Clunies Ross was born. Ross was responsible for colonising the Cocos & Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean, his family ran the islands up until 1978 when Australia took them over. There always seems to be able to found some link to Australia in these parts of the world.
We woke to bright sun on our next day and took off for the north, many rolling hills and sheep. There are a lot more black sheep here compared to the other places we have been. Quite a lot of Shetland ponies out in the paddocks and beside the road, very friendly little fellows. In the north is an ancient volcanic landscape and the cliffs along the Eshaness coastline were very impressive. Allthego and Homealone are starting to get a little weary on the road as the afternoons drag on into the late twilight and so we headed back to Tammie Norrie to put our feet up and enjoy some home cooked food. Evidence of the ancient past here in the Shetlands appears to be able to be found in numerous places, like on the Orkneys. But we have preferred to pass by this and just enjoy the countryside.
One of the things we have learned whilst we have been journeying around the north of Scotland is that you can’t rely on the weather forecasts that pop up on the mobile phone. For starters they show that rain is forecast for most days. And it does rain or drizzle on most days that it is forecast. But there are also periods of sunshine amongst the Scottish mist. And, so it was on Orkney. Rain was forecast on each of the 4 days we were there, but we got some reasonable periods of sunshine on 3 of them. So we made the best of it and got around to see most of the touristy sights on the main Island.
We caught the early ferry across from Thurso in very unpleasant drizzly conditions. The seas were quite smooth and it took a little over an hour to reach Stromness. Along the way we passed by the Old Man of Hoy, the great big stack just off the island of the same name. Lots of sea mist around and drizzle as we went past. This is the easy way to see the Old Man, the other is to do a lengthy 9 km return walk along the Hoy headland and sea cliffs, so it would have been a lengthy effort for the Old Man of Mt Ommaney.
In Stromness we stayed in Asgard a rather elaborate B & B just outside town. The house was full of nick knacks of all descriptions, one had to be careful of not knocking things over. Phones and Ipads banned from the meal room, but very comfortable establishment. Asgard is actually the home of the Norse gods, so there was a link to Orkneys’ Norse heritage. In fact there is a lot on Orkney dealing with its Norse heritage as well as Picts, Neolithic and earlier stone age peoples. As well as heaps of ruined croft houses and sheep. There are sites everywhere to visit and one could spend days wandering around looking at them. Allthego and Homealone have had a big dose of these places on the journey so far. So we held back and looked at the main ones. The 5000 year old stone age village at Skara Brae beside the side was ‘discovered’ when there was a big storm that washed away some sandhills. The rooms were still intact with stone age ‘furniture’ in place. Amazing place to walk around. Then there were the standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar, a big circular site set up on a hill overlooking a loch and the countryside, and later a visit to the Tomb of the Eagles down at the southern end of the Island. The Tomb is a an ancient burial site discovered on a sheep farm. Getting in is a bit tight. One has to pull oneself along on a sled through a low and narrow tunnel into the tomb. Allthego enjoyed the experience, Homealone stayed outside and took pictures of the process, as well as a couple of videos (for private screening only). A number of skulls and other bones were found buried here. Eagles bones were also found among them. The human bones bore lots of ‘scratch’ marks and was evidence that the humans had been cleaned of their flesh by eagles before burial. As was the practice at the time it seems.
The landscape is also impressive. Rolling green hills and rocky sea shores. We did not see the white sand beaches at their summery best and Allthego couldn’t get his swim in! A bit too nippy. Sea birds everywhere. The highlight was a walk to the lighthouse on the Brought of Birsay, a small island linked to the main island by a causeway that is covered at high tide. We walked across and up the hill to the lighthouse, bit of wind to hinder views over the cliff edge at the top. Plenty of fulmers around but no puffins, which is why we went. They were almost guaranteed to be there. So we walked back down, bit of a trudge. At the bottom we had a chat with a couple of locals Allthego had met at the top. They had seen puffins, a bit further on from where we had stopped. So back up we went and there were two of the little fellows perched on a ledge. Homealone a bit on edge looking over the edge, but they were seen. First time! Cross that one off the bucket list!
Going down south also involved crossing over ‘Churchills Barriers’. These are a series of causeways linking islands creating a barrier that was designed to prevent access to Scarpa Flow by German U-boats during WWII. Scarpa Flow was the harbour that Britain’s Navy used as a base. It was also the base during WWI when the surrendered German naval fleet scuttled itself in the harbour. Nearby is an elaborate chapel built by Italian prisoners of war during WWII, the prisoners participated in building the Barriers.
Orkney is also famous for its whisky. Highland Park is the most northern whisky distillery in the UK. We dropped in and had a look around the visitors centre, didn’t do a tour. Have done the distillery tour thing before and the process has not changed much, we are told, over the last few hundred years. Gin here is all the rage at the moment, particularly the botantical varieties. Straight gin ‘flavoured’ with various plant and fruit essences, also seaweed extract. Mixed with tonic or lemonade. We went into the Orkney Gin distillery centre in Kirwell and enjoyed a fruity gin mix before dinner on the night we left for the Shetlands.
Back in Stromness it was dinner at a local pub where Allthego tried a Ham Hough whilst listening to a local musician in the lounge, somewhat incomprehensible at times. The Hough being a change from Fish n chips and steak and ale pies. In Australia we would call it a Ham Hock. Simply enormous plate of very tender slow cooked ham on the knuckle bone. Just managed to get through it all, left the bone and fat strips behind.
We moved out of Asgard at the appointed hour of 10.30am on our last day.The ferry to the Shetlands does not leave until 11 pm however, as it as an overnight journey north. So we spent the day wandering the Kirkwell township before boarding. St Magnus Cathedral a 12th century church complex was quite an interesting place. It had been a catholic church until the reformation when it was stripped of the gold and all the finery. Now a fairly austere interior, with early 20th century stain glass windows. St Magnus’s bones were found in a box in one of the pillars in the early 20th century. The bones are still in the pillar, but we found the box on display in a local museum. Interesting, display the box but not the relics, very protestant to say the least! Out in the streets a young lady was being carted around on the back of truck on the equivalent of a hen’s party crawl. Known locally as a ‘blackening’ the ceremony involved her being coated in mud and treacle and put on display in the back of the truck. The fellow revellers were also ‘blackened’. Much honking of the horn and singing. Male driver and assistant.
We finally boarded the ferry around 10pm and settled into our cabin for the journey north to the Shetlands. This has been a lengthy epistle, apologies to my readers, but it has been an effort to catch up on a few days of non blogging!
We are now in Thurso, after staying at Armadale for a couple of nights exploring the area in the inland to the south. Much of this country is a vast peat bog, apparently the largest area of bog in the world. It is up to 10 metres deep in some places, layers and layers of water logged partly decomposed plant material. The remnants of an old staging house gaze out across the bog. It is very damp and spongy here. There is an old road beside the house that was built in the 1800s and to give it a firm base layers of heather and bracken were put on top of the peat. You are warned not to wander out onto the bog as in parts grasses ‘float’ on the surface and it is a bit like ‘quick sand’. For followers of climate change matters the bog is in effect a vast carbon trap, the scientists suggest that if all the carbon was to ‘escape’ it would be a big problem. In the past we have ‘drained’ parts of the bog to farm it and grow pine plantations on it. This releases the carbon, so efforts are now being made to reverse the draining and stop further pine plantations. What might also happen is that with global warming the sea will invade and a few million years later we will have a big new coal basin to mine when the land re-emerges from the sea!
Our lodgings at Armadale were in an old ‘mansion’ built in 1854, it is being slowly renovated as a B & B. The house originally had 13 fire places but was not connected to a water supply. Peat for the fires and water had to be brought in for the residents by servants. The owner believes the house was built as an outpost for the English land lords in order to keep watch over the Scottish ‘peasants’. After the Jacobite wars Highland society was devastated by new laws imposed by the English to stifle the clan system and install English landlords. Little villages all through the Highlands where the people survived in a subsistence type environment were ‘cleared’ and replaced by broad scale sheep grazing. There was an insatiable demand for wool from the industrial revolution in England. ‘Cleared’ is a euphemism for forced removal, often with short notice and the burning of the village.
The people were moved to the coastal areas and set up on small uneconomic croft farms. As the coastal population grew there then followed a second period of clearances with more or less forced emigration to the USA, Canada and Australia. And that is how the Australian colonies got their Scots. We went on a short drive along the Strathnaver trail around the areas were the clearances took place. Remnants of the old houses can still be seen in various parts, but much overgrown by pastures and ‘scrub’. Enough history I can hear Homalone saying!
After leaving Armadale we headed to Thurso for the night before leaving the next day on the ferry for the Orkneys. We spent some time out at John O’Groats, the most northerly point on the UK mainland. A big tourist trap here, souvenir shops every where. Homealone couldn’t resist a tea towel of a map of the UK showing the route from Land’s End in the south to John O’Groats in the north. No Archie mug! Years back, on a previous trip we had dropped in on Land’s End. So the tea towel is a bit nostalgic, but can be used in the kitchen and not hung on the wall back home. Also came here to see if we could find a puffin on the cliff tops. Some spectacular sea stacks and fulmers everywhere, no puffins. We will have to look elsewhere.
The ferry to the Orkneys left early the next morning and we had breakfast arranged on board so it was an early night in the old 1905 hotel in Thurso. Another sleeping experience in an aging Scottish icon!
The ferry left Stornoway mid afternoon and we arrived back at Ullapool around 6.30pm for the drive north to Stoer, which is only about 35 miles north of Ullapool, near a town called Lochinver. It is on part of the coastline that jutts out into the sea opposite Stornoway, over on Lewis. It for the most part a dual lane road, but after turning off to Stoer becomes a single lane track. So it was a bit slow going along this part. Some great highland scenery and clear skies for parts.
The Ardvreck Castle ruins on a small peninsular in Loch Assynt were particularly evocative of times past. Originally built in mid 1400s, modified over the years and then destroyed by a lightning strike in 1795. It was home to the Clan MacLeods of Assynt. It was the scene of much violence, with murders, executions and sieges of both traditional enemies and quarrelsome branches of the MacLeod family. Many ghosts are said to haunt Ardvreck.
The Highlands B & B at Stoer was an interesting piece of accommodation. It was formerly a ruined croft house, of which we have seen a lot. There were some photos of the place pre restoration. More or less a pile of rocks with stone wall ends. We stayed in the loft. Quite a big comfy room. There were a few other croft houses scattered around the area. It was close to a white sand beach. But there is nothing much more at Stoer, other than sheep.
The reason for staying at Stoer though was to attempt the track to the famous sea stack, the Old Man of Stoer. It is a short drive out to the Stoer Lighthouse, where the track starts. Homealone decided to remain behind. Allthego set out on the 3 km track over the moor to the Old Man. There were a few other people doing the walk, so it wasn’t lonely. It was up and down though, a particularly steep section down into a gully and then up the other side was mildly challenging for the knees. The end of the trek though was rewarding with a great view of the Old Man. Allthego turned back at this point, one could go on and look down on top of the Old Man, as time was marching on. The track out and back took the Old Man of Mt Ommaney about two and a half hours and he was a bit puffed on arrival back at the Lighthouse.
We continued north along this coastal single track secondary road before rejoining the main drag north and around the top to Durness. Along the way we stopped for a late lunch at the village of Kylesku, perched beside a sea loch. This was a nice spot sitting out in the sun, bit of wind blowing, gazing across the loch to the mussel farm in the waters on the other side. This was the farm where the mussels Allthego had for lunch came from. Pretty fresh and tasty they were too! Home alone had some fish ‘n chips. The standard for fish ‘n chips is a big piece of battered haddock, all of the ones we have had have been excellent, with varying quantities of chips. But it is starting to get a bit repetitive diet wise. Most move on to some lamb! Of which there are plenty running around in the paddocks. We stopped in for a short break at Durness. Unfortunately, the Zipline across a beach side ravine had just taken its last passenger for the day and we couldn’t try it out. Some great views and an adrenaline rush were missed out on.
Our stop for the next couple of nights is at Armadale, a few miles east of Durness. The sun is setting around 10.30 pm so it makes for long evenings. It is also early mornings with the sun rising around 4 am. It makes for long days!