Saturday, September 21, 2013

Caledonia (Part I)

A belated travel post


The start of my brief vacation between the archives and the return to dissertation writing began on an ominous note.  My cabdriver from the YMCA in Nairobi to the airport got so excited by our conversation about the state of her country’s historical records that she got us in a wreck within 45 seconds of leaving the building.  Well, ‘wreck’ is a slight exaggeration, but we did crunch headlong into another taxi.  A police officer came hurrying down the road, and I thought, “oh no, this is it”, but apparently the damage done was insufficient to warrant any exchange of numbers or cash.  From that point on out, it was smooth sailing to the airport, or as smooth as the sailing gets in mid-day Nairobi traffic.

From the outside, Jomo Kenyatta International showed few signs of nearly having burnt to the ground less than two weeks before, but I wound up spending three hours on the tarmac in a tent before the chaotic boarding process ensued, so it was with some relief that I watched the airport fade away below as we took off, although I was sorry to leave Kenya after a short visit.

I passed a wild night out in Dubai’s airport, indulging in a Panini and hot chocolate at 1 a.m., a truly dire hour I hadn’t seen in a very long time indeed.  It is an airport which never sleeps.

I stowed some bags near Heathrow, and the cabbie was a good left-winger, with whom I shared a healthy gripe about the moral degeneracy of the United States and the various ways in which Britain is going down the same road.  Then it was onto the tube, with all the chaos that entails.  In London, I walked around my old neighbourhood and made the mistake of visiting an Indian  buffet.  But it was too soon after Mahak (a fabled Indian restaurant in Lusaka), and nothing was going to be able to compare favourably.

At Euston station I greeted an attendant with an enthusiastic “Good evening, how are you?” when I went to pick up a pre-booked ticket, and received a frosty glare that reminded me that I would have to recalibrate my friendliness after leaving Kenya and Zambia.  In the cavernous station hall, hundreds of people gathered, all of them standing rigidly, eyes fixed on the billboard, waiting for their platform to be announced.  Whenever a new platform was called, there was a sudden stampede of people towards the ramp heading down to the trains.  Even the most wooden-gaited men and women in pinstripes break into an all-out sprint to reach their train before it departs.  I normally enjoy spending time in the station, looking at all the places one can visit as they flash up on the screens, but on this occasion I was far too jet lagged to appreciate the experience.  Gradually the station emptied out, leaving only the hard-core few who were waiting for the overnights.

By strange coincidence, I met Professor David Carpenter from King’s College, London on the platform.  Like me, he was waiting for the midnight train to Glasgow.  I’d taken his “Gentry and Nobility in Medieval England” course some six or seven years ago, and had fond memories of our field trips to the Temple Church and Westminster Abbey, and of the seminars held over tea and biscuits in a subterranean classroom of the Strand Campus.  We reminisced about old times, and I heard a bit about his project on the Magna Carta before we went our separate ways, me to the cattle car, and he to a first class berth.

It took a while for our car to get settled (there was a minor dispute about whether or not a rodent-like dog could be allowed to stay on the train), and so it was around 1 am before I was able to get to sleep, aided by the ScotRail sleeping mask.  I peeled it off around 5.30 and enjoyed the rising sun and scenery until we coasted into Glasgow, where I was able to have just a hurried look around the pleasant-seeming town centre as I walked between the city’s two central train stations.  I managed an hour or more of sleep on the three-hour ride up to Fort William, and was immersed in Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, and so only really noticed the scenery as the train pulled into Fort William, a large (by regional standards) Highland town of around 10,000 people in the shadow of Ben Nevis, the British Isles’ highest ‘mountain’.

After picking up some provisions, I walked the few miles to the hostel at Glen Nevis, literally at the foot of the mountain (which I could, of course, not see, thanks to the thick mist which blanketed its upper levels).  I went for a short walk part-way up the trail before heading back down to the hostel and settling in.  That evening I met two other hikers, a German and refugee from Southern California, and we decided to make our morning ascent together.

At six o’clock, the weather did not look promising, so when we gathered a bit later, we decided to wait a bit to see if the sun would emerge (foolhardy souls that we were!).  It didn’t, but the clouds receded slightly, and so we set off.  It was too foggy to take the more adventurous and little-used circular route to the summit by way of the mountain rescue hut, so we had to satisfy ourselves with the “Tourist Track”, an easy, well-marked path to the top.  Even in this dire weather (although by Scottish standards it was undoubtedly a sparkling summer day) the trail was full of people. 

There were people who were clearly not regular hikers.  There were people running up the mountain at a depressingly rapid clip.  There were people hiking for charity, hauling stretchers with them to the top.  There were people hiking in kilts.  Etc.  Recently, people found a piano at the summit that had been carried to the top. 

From the summit, we enjoyed the classic Scottish mountain view: mist, fog, and rain.  But we ate our lunch near the rather touching war memorial and enjoyed the sensation of being lost in the mist far above the valleys below.  There was nothing in the way of solitude, but there was ample solidarity with the other walkers who had stodgily made their way up in the face of inhospitable weather.  On the descent, we dropped below the clouds and enjoyed some nice views across the hills and down Glen Coe, a lengthy valley surrounded by mountains.  That afternoon, in preparation for a lengthy hike to another hostel at Loch Ossian, I went into town to get some supplies.
The next morning I began the 20-mile hike to Loch Ossian.  It started with a gentle incline along a road which turned into a dirt track as it wound past rocky outcroppings and dramatic waterfalls, before the ascent grew more precipitous and the track narrowed to a hiking path.  Suddenly, it flattened out in a narrow highland valley between sharp peaks, down which waterfalls coursed.  For much of the rest of the hike (15 miles or so), the way would be defined by the River Nevis, which ran along the bottom of the mountain valley.

Compared with the wilder regions of the U.S., Britain is small and tame.  But the comparative remoteness of Scotland’s open spaces, the unpredictable weather, and the danger of paths being obscured by said weather makes a good map essential.  The Ordnance Survey maps fit the bill.  They are magnificent maps, almost like works of art, showing contours, cairns, and virtually any landmark you could ask for.  The trouble is that if you’re doing a long walk you need more than one.  I used three, and I have to say that whenever I was transferring between maps I could hear the theme music of the Lord of the Rings in the background, as one elemental stage of the journey ended and the next epic adventure began.

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