Monday, May 12, 2008

Adventures in Scotland (Ullapool, Lochinver, Stromeferry, Staffin, Metz)

Wick to Eriboll or, how to fix a starter

I got up at 7 in the morning and oh boy did the foot hurt! Probably I have a muscle somehow twisted or what because it is not the bone. You should see me walking. At any rate, somehow I got to Richard's garage with all my belongings and watched how they just removed the starter. Although Monday was truly a national holiday, this somehow doesn't matter in Scotland as they have all holidays differently. As the Scottish AM radio station said later, there is a 12 page handbook listing the individual holidays within Scotland -- apparently each town has a different day when celebrate a national holiday. This was however good for me, as the starter was off the car at 8:40 and I was out of town at 9:30. Apparently the whole thing was a lose contact inside the starter, so the guy who has a whole setup for testing starters had an easy job. Hence this was the cheapest and fastest way for me to get away: ?28 for the towing (which I didn't need after all) and ? 25 for fixing the starter. What a bargain -- how can they survive at these rates? I was stranded some 20 miles away and a whole tow truck came out at night to get me, for ? 28. I will ask my shop at home, but I know for sure that they do not repair such ridiculous things like a starter but rather exchange it, at about $300 or so. And yes I am happy for not joining the British automobile club for ? 90. The only question that remained was why could the damn thing not fail 2 hours earlier? I would have been out of town 3 days ahead...

The rest of the day was smooth. First I drove to Thurso along the coast, after which I returned through the inner land to Wick for a wonderful Chinese lunch for ridiculous ? 4. After this, by heading steadily west, people's predictions came true: the roads are indeed wide enough to allow a car and a sheep to cross, and you will see definitely more sheep than tourists. The more you head west the prettier the landscape becomes, but that of course depends on what you are looking for. Lakes and hills and green and sheep is what I was after, and I sure got it here. Three rolls of film are proof of it. Braveheart pure, you could say, except that the language of the locals is even stranger. Once I was attacked by (mad?) cows when I was attempting to take pictures of the interesting trees in the background... I am still about only halfway west, so there is more to come, I assume. In the meantime the weather forecast has whispered some rather bad news, so I am getting ready.

More news from the radio: no FM stations at all, only two MW and one LW station, but that is sufficient to get the basics. So far during my stay here, they have lost some five children, of which they found some three raped and dead. Other two sex offenders have been sentenced to impressive jail terms. Without the usual sarcasm, I thought that this was a safe place. Burning ferries (and cricket and rugby) aside, this is about all the radio is talking about.

Another interesting news came across the airwaves today: private car clamping is legal everywhere in the UK except in Scotland, where it is regarded as "legalized extortion and theft". This means that in almost all of UK a private person can clamp another's car if illegally parked and then ask for ridiculous money if you want it back. Apparently there are no legal limits and so the clampers just take what they can get. Strong opposition is now building up and wants it prohibited. Soon no more wild west in Britain?

Eriboll to Eriboll via Lairg or, Scotland at it's best

When I woke up it was raining. Slowly I should find another opening sentence, but this one is rather fitting. Once it stopped I headed south through the land, and it was indeed a magnificent sight which can hardly be described in words. Also fitting, the only LW radio station that could be received broadcast a discussion about Prince Charles, Diana and Camilla. About any possible opinion was represented: should he marry and become king, should he marry yet leave the king part alone, etc. The IMHO best line gave an older lady about Lady Di: "Very pretty empty head who lived in the center stage". I could not have put it better. During another radio broadcast, the story was that a police station was evacuated after a guy brought in a bomb from WW2 which he found at the train station. The state agents were of course not very pleased about that and the bomb was detonated by the bomb squad somewhere else.

Did I already mention that sheep are rather shy animals in Scotland? Usually I need a telephoto lens to take pictures of them, but there was this one sheep with a probably very itchy butt, as it was rubbing its behind at the grass, making very happy / relieved sounds, and was not at all disturbed when I approached it and took a candid picture...

Around noon I drove through the town of Crask, consisting of two houses. I am used to rather cute "villages" from Montana and Nevada, but two houses, one of which seemed uninhabited, made me wanting a town of my own as well. Not much later I have met two young Germans in a rather strange small motorhome as they just were preparing breakfast, as they said. We talked a bit and eventually went our own ways. Just as I found my campsite for tonight, though, which is completely invisible from the road, I saw their van pulling in. So we hung out for a while again, before they followed the dirt road which lead just in front of my campsite, to come back only a few minutes later saying that the road disappeared in the nearby river. This prompted them to get back on the main (one lane) paved road and to the nearest town this rather boring, common way. Since here are very few roads which one can choose from around here, chances are I will see them again.

Here at the campsite it is rather cold and rainy. It is cold enough that I felt it necessary to do for a few minutes what every good American does when waiting for more than a few minutes -- leave the engine running. I also put on double socks and dug out a winter sweater for the night, just in case. Once I turned off the engine, many sheep and even two deer families joined me. This is not Yellowstone, folks: here, deer are being shot by hunters, as the signs say, so it's truly unusual that they get so close to people, especially if they smell the way I do. I could not take any pictures of them as even at f2.8 the exposure time would have been around 10 sec, and deer won't wait that long posing. Yet they enjoyed the fresh grass and the water in the river quite extensively, and likely are doing so even now as it's completely dark and I can't see a damn thing.

In short, this was a day like I imagined it: little driving, very few tourists, no big events, quite some water from the sky, peace and animals; little to tell you other than to come yourself and see it with your own eyes. It sure is worth it.

There were not many sheep in the morning around my car, but I felt almost my whole body itching. The reason were bites by flies not bigger than 1mm, but appearing in groups of millions and hence causing terrible destruction. How they got at my feet in the sleeping bag is yet unclear. My face at any rate looks like I stuck it into a bee house, and it sure feels similarly.

My goal for today was to see a part of the northwest, using those famous one-lane roads, many of which even aren't on the map. I also included a trip to the next gas station, about 30 miles away from where I wanted to go, in today's plan. First, when visiting a cave in Durness, I met again my new German friends. They just were on their way to dive in the cave, with all that rubbery stuff such people tend to wear, which I found rather disturbing given the temperature of the air, forget the water. But I am sure they survived.

While the weather forecast was rather positive, the real life looked differently. Hoping that this was to change, I first got gas and later on the weather indeed improved dramatically. Kodak certainly appreciated that, since my consumption of their LPZ film soon reached unknown peaks. I even took pictures from the middle of a river, taking full advantage of my rubber boots. I called it "all or nothing", having most of my gear in my backpack -- but fortunately I stayed over water.

Together with some Swedish and German tourists we stared at the unbelievably blue sea around sunset. The water here is truly clean and the beach is white, hence the bright blue color of the sea. This is very much in contrast to the local streams and lakes; regardless where you look you can see uncountable sheep, which produce different sorts of exhaust. The frequent rain then flushes everything down and hence the countless little lakes have a dramatic brownish color, partially covered by the typical foam. While there is no other source of pollution here, it is advisable to watch where you put your feet.

Stoer, Ullapool, Stromeferry, Staffin (Skye) or, the joy of one lane roads

Although the radio announced that we will have a full moon, there was no white spot to be spotted on the night sky. Nights tend to be rather cloudy to say the least here in Scotland. In the morning, the hygiene thing had to be postponed due to life threatening monsters: already millions of these small flies were waiting outdoors, prompting me to leave without opening the door. Finding it a windy enough place to keep myself safe, I spent a good hour walking around an isolated lighthouse; except for a few sheep and hairy cows I was all alone. Soon afterwards I found a tree suitable for a shower by attaching my water container onto it and standing under the drizzling water. Finding a tree at this latitude (or is it longitude?) is actually not an easy task, other than trees in people's gardens or right next to the water (then again with the flies). This shower made me feel really good again, especially as the sun was shining. This surprisingly lasted throughout the whole day.

(note the sheep) For today I planned relocation towards Isle of Skye, which meant quite some driving. Out of the exceptional 455km the vast majority was on one lane roads with the occasional passing places because I decided to avoid the main through roads and mostly to follow the coastline. Among others, this opened the wonderful sight of good a dozen sheep lying at the beach in the morning sun. The water could not have been more blue and the sheep seemed to be truly enjoying themselves by rechewing the wonderful grass they ate earlier. My culinary experience for the day was however not quite as pleasant: being both lazy and sick of self-prepared meals, I visited a restaurant in Ullapool, the biggest town on my today's route. The menu featured the mandatory Fish & Chips, which I learned to avoid years earlier in London, so I opted for the alternative Chicken & Chips. Both the appearance and the taste of food reminded me of Roble food at Stanford. For those who don't know: all university food is said to be bad, but the Roble dining hall is so bad that students went on strike and nobody showed up for an entire week. I lived in Roble and hence know what I am talking about.

With an upset stomach I headed more south. Repeatedly I ran into a retired English couple, and so after a while we started to tell each other fun stories. The gentleman said that since he is retired he became so really busy; all the travelling, home video editing, etc. This strongly reminded me of my grandfather who all his life collected books, scientific ones most of the time, saying that he will read all of them once he retires. Through his retirement till now at age of 90, he hasn't read a single of them yet, but he has built a house, renovated it, traveled around Europe and has kept himself otherwise busy. But he is still buying new scientific books. Hence I guess I understand.

On the way to Skye I picked up a German hitchhiker. I brought him to the castle of Dornie, which was partially opposite to my way but then "changing cars" is for him more of a problem than returning some 5 miles for me. It was at any rate interesting to listen to his stories. Soon again alone, I headed across the Skye bridge to the isle. The bridge is one of the biggest rip-offs I have ever seen: ? 5.20 or around $7 each way, yet it is maybe 200m long. This suddenly makes the Golden Gate appear like a true bargain. Once across, however, the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. Especially the east coast with its steep cliffs which are green from pioneer grass growing at unbelievable locations represent one of the most spectacular sights of the entire trip. So the bridge toll may seem cheap after all.

In the heat of photographing these cliffs I got onto a road which is actually none, forgetting that my car may well have 4WD but still has only standard ground clearance. Crawling in 1st gear around rocks and mud I got into places which have not seen a tripod before. I was also happily expected by a swarm of the now famous flies. Those few which made it into my car I am now attracting by the interior light, squashing them there once they settle. Unfortunately they are rather swift and hard to catch. Hence I fear that by the morning they will have altered my appearance again.

Around Skye and to Inverness or, about perfect timing

The first look through the windshield in the morning filled me with childish joy: while millions of the flies were last sighted around the car in the evening, thousands were now lying dead on the windshield. The mixture of nightly rain and residues of the superb German windshield washer fluid apparently have treated the plague with little mercy. Good to see at least some justice in the world.

Being up really early, around 7, I found myself on roads even more empty than usual. In partly rainy weather I have completed a loop around the eastern part of the Isle of Skye, which does not mean too much in kilometers. I found the harbor of Portree in a still rather sleepy mood, where only the fishermen were active. This woke in me again the desire to return to the spectacular mountains of last evening.

On the way back north to the mountains I had to get past some of the local hairy cows. Other than their giant horns these animals are peace in person. They are about as calm and relaxed as a sleeping puppy, just bigger, much bigger. And since they know that nobody means them any harm, they tend to walk down the road where and as long as they please, which at times causes problems with the admittedly rare traffic. Shortly after I managed to pass such a herd of hairy cows, I picked up a couple of Italian hitchhikers who wanted a ride to Portree. Fortunately I have cleaned up the unbelievable mess in the car just moments before, miraculously creating one additional empty seat. This young couple was travelling around northern Europe with the Interrail ticket, facing the problem that there are virtually no trains in Scotland and hence they had to settle for this kind of transportation. They said that even if each time the second car were to stop, this could still take half an hour. However, both spoke excellent English and hence we had a fun hour driving towards the only considerable town of the island.

When I dropped them off I headed back to the western part of the island. This side is less spectacular than the eastern and even less populated. With quite some surprise I witnessed a mass of the newest technology in the middle of green: a new Ford Mondeo (European equivalent of the Contour) commercial was just being shot at an otherwise truly deserted location. Although not quite the same as Braveheart, filming action nevertheless, and sheep were watching from a safe distance.

Around noon I visited a lighthouse at the northwestern corner of the island. The parking lot was full of cars and featured huge signs inviting people to visit the lighthouse. After a considerable walk up and down some cliffs a tiny note said that sorry, the lighthouse is closed. This made especially some senior citizens rather upset, had they to walk back over the same cliffs again without seeing anything. What we all could see was a fake graveyard in front of the lighthouse which was used for some kind of a gruesome movie. After finishing shooting they simply left the stones there...

Just as I got back into the car an impressive rainstorm has started. This gave me the opportunity to go into the only restaurant of the nearest town (or better, the town consisted of the restaurant and a few sheep) and get a real lunch. To my pleasure the prices were acceptable, the food was great, and the server looked pretty much like Winnona Ryder. By the time I had satisfied my stomach and eyes the rain had stopped and I could head south in general direction mainland.

Being alone on the now wet winding roads with a car which was born to be driven fast through such courses, I enjoyed for some 30 miles things which are prohibited in the US by cops and in Switzerland usually by traffic density. These are the moments when you can best enjoy 4WD in a normal car. Ask LHB or Edwin for details, and don't do that with a Jeep, kids. The car eventually protested by letting the center brake light fall off the roof, even though it was screwed into the metal frame. Hmmm...

Soon the traffic became denser and the fuel tank empty so I had to reduce speed and entertain myself with the radio. The friendly speaker announced in the news that a dangerous convicted pedophile escaped when being on a surveyed walk away from the jail in a children's amusement park, and that archeologists have found the casket where it is believed the heart of the Scottish king Robert the Bruce was stored. For those who know Scottish history only from Braveheart: that was the bearded guy who first committed treason against Wallace but later saved his butt and finally kicked the English' arses (just after the movie, that is), to put it in the original words. This very same guy supposedly requested that his heart be buried somewhere else in a small box. Now they are trying to find out whether it's authentic or not.

Just barely off Skye I picked up other two hitchhikers, this time from Belgium. The way they spoke one could think they hated their native country and thought that it was boring. We finally agreed that most people think that of their own countries, except maybe those who never left their native town, or those who came back to their senses after seeing the whole world.

At the southern edge of Loch Ness they headed more south while I was due north. I followed the western shore of famous Loch Ness yet could not see the monster. This prompted me to visit one of the many shops and at least to buy a little Nessie, a stuffed green monster. It shall join my collection of more or less identifiable animals; at least I don't have to find a name for it. Just earlier I witnessed a draw bridge of a special kind being drawn, or rotated for that matter. Barriers went down and the road in front of my eyes simply started to rotate, allowing a few yachts to pass into the Loch. This was rather remarkable and attracted several dozens of onlookers.

By the evening I got to Inverness and visited the local Safeway. No, that's not a typo, they have such a chain here, too. It has even the same labeling and hence one may conclude that it is the same thing, just imported one way or the other. The big difference is that the UK Safeway doesn't have 24hr opening hours nor free parking, at least not in Inverness. But they had apples, Coke and some French bread, and so I was very satisfied. This provided me with the vitamins and other particles required for a good night's sleep in a forest east of Inverness.

Tour of Loch Ness and all the way to Metz or, why do things always break on weekends?

Having spent an excellent night in a forest near Inverness I decided to make a tour around Loch Ness and, depending on the weather, to head as far south as I would get. Maybe in part given by the rather cloudy weather I didn't find the lake all that exciting and so I started heading south at about 11 in the morning. I wanted to go south along Loch Ness and then get to the motorway in Glasgow.

The trip was initially rather uneventful; the traffic was extremely dense, lots of tourists with motorhomes and caravans clogged the winding road. About 100 miles south of Inverness however rather strange sounds started to come from under the car. Initially thinking that these were normal noises just reflecting the road conditions, I didn't pay too much attention to them. Soon, however, the noises started to be rather persistent and loud. At that time it was just after noon and I was again in the middle of nowhere, just this time in the middle of a maybe 200 miles long traffic jam. Hence calling for help was not an option and I had to get to the nearest town myself, or at least as close as the car allowed.

When the road began to climb rather steep hills, the steering of the car became at times nervous. So I pulled over into an overfilled parking lot and suspecting a suspension failure I removed both front wheels. A similar noise was coming from a front suspension on another car years earlier after it partially broke; this time, however, all three elements of the suspension were in perfect order on both wheels, and the brakes worked perfectly as well. Since the noise only showed when the car was accelerated and the gears worked smoothly, I concluded that it must be the central differential lock of the 4WD system which does not behave as it should. Since this is not an essential part of the powertrain I decided to go ahead and head south, at least to Glasgow, the closest city at about 100 miles away.

In Glasgow it was impossible to find a VW dealer to be still open to inspect the car, and so I headed further south, with a car which always attracted people's attention given the impressive noise it produced. I decided not to wait again till Monday just to meet a mechanic who has never seen a 4WD Golf before anyway but to head more towards Germany where this car is much more common. I must admit that at times I thought that the car would fall apart, and onlookers sure thought so all the time.

Luckily, the car behaved perfectly, even quietly, once accelerated to about 80mph. Hence I had no problems on the motorways, and with a full gas tank I traveled nonstop for some 4 hours to enjoy the smooth and unexpected ride. This way I caught the 23:30 ferry from Dover to Calais. On board I ate some excellent dinner, as I haven't eaten anything noteworthy for a long time.

The French had no immigration guards of any kind at all, and since the road was so empty at this late hour (through the transfer to France I lost a hour to the timezones), I drove for some 400km further before going to sleep at one of the famous wonderful highway parkings.

Metz to Strasbourg to home or, the fighting Frenchmen

Awakened by the sunshine at about 9am, I continued my trip home. I headed straight to Strasbourg as this promised the shortest way in case the car was to break down. Just before the French/German border in Strasbourg a pedestrian and a motorist were involved in a fist fight at an intersection. While I missed the beginning, the show was rather impressive and Mike Tyson would have been pleased given the quality.

The car behaved very nicely at about 120km/h and so I tried to maintain that speed as much as I could. Once in Germany this of course meant that I was in the right lane almost all of the time and could enjoy the sight of others zooming by in the left lane at speeds around 200km/h. Usually I am in the left lane, but with this car I was glad to be on the Autobahn at all.

I finally arrived home at about 18h. The final driving kilometers were the most fun as they were over some extremely steep and winding roads which are around my town, and the car sincerely disliked anything other than straight lines. Once home I simply put the car into the garage and after taking a long & thorough bath went to bed. That was a very welcome change after a couple of weeks in a sleeping bag!

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