Sunday, May 21, 2017


Scotland has hills and mountains, lots of them in fact.   There's a formal classification system too, based on height with Munros the tallest, Corbetts the next and then Gordons.

We tried ascending Ben Lawers in April reaching only Beinn Ghlas due to the wind, snow and lack of preparation.

However the weather is improving and i find myself kicking my heels from time-to-time so I decided to self-assess my fitness.

To start with I picked the southernmost Murno, Ben Lomond on a warm sunny Spring morning.  Ben Lomond is probably the most walked mountain in Scotland and it proved so as i met perhaps half a dozen people on the way up and three or four times that on the way back down.

You park at the end of the road at Rowardennan in a forestry commission car park for the princely sum of £3 for the day.  It has loos and everything.   The car park is alongside Loch Lomond affording very pleasant views:

As does the initial ascent, through woodland rich with the song of Wood Warblers, Willow Warblers, Blackcaps, Song Thrushes, etc.  Soon you head out of the woodland, still keeping the spectacular views:

The scenery is consistently beautiful in fact.  Although the stuff right in front can appear less pleasant:

I reached the top and was doing well until i looked back, the sky-path on my right was in fact the edge of sharp cliff-face:

In front the path narrowed to the short ascent to the summit, i reckon i was 50 metres from the trig point, i could see the two hill runners (!) who had passed me just minutes before taking pictures.   That was as far as i could take myself so I took in the landscape before heading down:

I reached the car park in 4 hours 35 minutes, having completed 8 miles there and back, all either up or downhill.  I ached for two days afterwards but also had a real sense of achievement.

The following week I decided to head out again.   My ideal ventures include a drive of roughly an hour, accessing the Southern Highlands, and a hill that is not considered either very hard to navigate or indeed ascend, my vertigo suggests actual climbing is a non-starter.

Anyway for my second trip I settled on Ben Venue or the 'small mountain'.   To reach the car park at Loch Achray (again Forestry Commission) you pass the beautiful Loch Venachar:

As you can see i'd picked another still slightly over-cast day for my walk.   I was the only car in the car park at 9 am, gulp!.   Again the hill starts in woodland alive with bird song, which makes for a very pleasant environment:

The first third of Ben Venue is steep paths through growing woodland, before you reach a section of felled woodland, this landscape accounts for the next third of the walk and while continually ascending it's very moderate.

Then you turn a corner and hey presto mountain scenery including waterfalls (it had rained heavily for the previous two days) and it is spectacular:

At one point after a scramble I turned around to look back into the valley i'd walked up:

As you get up to the top the landscape opens up and the walking becomes a combination of steep climbs, scrambles, crossing small bogs, etc:

 But it is worth it, the views are spectacular, particularly over Lock Katrine:

The tops are inhabited by Meadow Pipits and Northern Wheatears and you hear the odd Raven fly-by.but it definitely gets quieter the further up you go.

This time I got to the final climb to the trig point before turning around and heading back.  As I descended i heard voices, the first in three hours and finally encountered a small  group of walkers.  I met a further six people on my descent, nine in total.  I'd walked 8.75 miles in 4 hours and 3 minutes, a notably faster rate than the previous week.  I'd learned and taken two walking poles, which proved essential for some of the steeper parts of the descent.  The high waterproof boots were a boon too.   I do however need map, compass and GPS as evidenced when I realised I was on the wrong exit path and had to cross unmarked bog to make the main path again.

There aren't that many hills that will fit my specific criteria, but I intend to locate and ascend as many of them as I can, ideally with company too!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Spring catch-up

It's been a hectic start to Spring, so much so that i find myself fully 2 months behind with the blog!

Time for a catch-up post then.

Our first visitor to our new home in Falkirk was a nephew and his friend, who he'd visited at Edinburgh University.  Helen was at work so I dragged them first to the Falkirk Wheel for lunch and then on to Stirling, this is the view from the Castle on what proved a cold but sunny Spring morning:

Having visited the Castle and Museum we walked back to the car.   This chap was PM apparently:

And then did an Andy Scott tour, taking in the sculptures on the roundabouts between Stirling and Falkirk (via Alloa) and on to the highlight, the Kelpies, back in Falkirk.   A winter shower was about to blow through, all wind and sleet, but briefly the Kelpies were lit by the sun with the dark clouds behind, I really like the effect:

Shortly after that visit we journeyed to York to spend a weekend with friends there.   Spring was definitely Springing further south, it too was enjoying the unseasonably warm weather:

York is outstanding for architecture and history both:

We really enjoyed the weekend, meeting friends, eating out, exploring and the sunshine helped too.

Next-up a visit from Helen's sister which saw her attending the Saturday morning run in Callendar Park, so we had a wander around there while she completed the hilly version of her regular timed run:

Then it was time to head to the coast at Aberlady, again we were very lucky with the weather:

The next day was a washout however.  We drove all the way to Anstruther expecting the rain to stop but it just got heavier, so a long morning spent in the car hoping for a walk that wasn't to be.

We did get out again the following day though, visiting Killin, on our way to the NNR somewhere up towards Ben Lawers:

It turns out the NNR was dormant but hey we were on a foothill of a Munro, so what else to do but try the ascent!

Ok we weren't really prepared, Helen didn't even have gloves with her.  We did get as far as a plateau with a small cairn of stones but it had started snowing, the wind was blowing strong and we would have had to ascend a path on a steep half-ridge to reach the summit of Ben Lawers so we stopped to take in the scenery:

Fresh snow on the Munro:

Before heading back down and home to defrost, drink tea, etc.   Further research however showed that the plateau we'd reached was in fact our first Munro, Beinn Ghlas!   I was somewhat forgiven for the lack of clarity in terms of our destination given what we'd all achieved.

It proved a beautiful spot even in the tail of winter and one we intend to visit again.

On another grey day we decided to visit the forest at Aberfoyle.

The waterfall was pretty but overall we didn't feel the need to come back again, it's more of an outdoor park for families:

April rolled into May and we found ourselves in Cornwall for the second week out of four, this time on holiday though rather than a working visit.   The holiday itself proved very busy and we ended up visiting North Cornwall and Devon for a break within the break!

Spring was much more advanced here than in Scotland, not surprising given its mild climate and being 500 miles closer to the equator, as we soon discovered:

We parked and walked the short distance to the top of Kit Hill for some spectacular views:

And visited Calstock to see the viaduct there:

We fitted a lot in including the Buckfast Benedictine Monastery (in homage to Buckfast Tonic wine, a favourite in Glasgow) and Castle Drogo which was a very different place.   The walk to and from the Castle from Fingle Bridge was a particular highlight, though all week the weather was against us (and we eyed the wall-to-wall sunshine in Scotland with some envy):

With the holiday done it was time to head back to Scotland and hopefully the extended sunshine we'd been observing from the South.

With Helen back at work i was under instructions to get out and about, so i surprised us both by booking the ferry from Anstruther out to the Isle of May NNR, a place i'd wanted to see since our first visit to this area some ten years previously.

On the trip out we encountered a pod of Bottlenose Dophins:

The island itself is a haven for breeding seabirds:

The Gannets don't breed there, they use Bass Rock further down the Fourth:

The island hosts Puffins, Gulls, Razorbills, Guillemots and Shags:

Alas the swell was too much and the winds too strong for us to land, so we circled the island before heading back to the harbour:

This was only the third time in five years they'd set-out but not been able to land.   I was surprised to be told i'd get a 50% refund.  Decent approach that, i'll be back.

So that's the catch-up.   Spring is now in full swing even up here.  Time for some more exploring....

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Dominican Republic - Santo Domingo and Home

We spent the last few days exploring the colonial heart of the city, getting food poisoning from the only vegan restaurant (has to have been personal hygiene by someone preparing the food)

DR has a long and bloody history thanks to Europeans and slavery, both sides of which are preserved in Santo Domingo:

There are various national museums, embassies and other buildings in the colonial centre of the city too:

So in a final tally we had seen 90 species fully half of which were lifers however we saw the majority of these on the first morning in the botanic gardens.   It was worth the drive up the mountain though everything could have been done better and with more care and consideration.

Time then for home, and a very scenic flight from Santo Domingo to Miami:

I think this is part of an enormous and submerged volcanic caldera, the sight from the cockpit must be amazing:

We left DR in 35c heat, we landed in London at a chilly 3c to find we missed out flights connecting to Glasgow by a day.   The trip back on a BA 747 had been very bumpy almost the whole way as they took advantage of the unusually strong jetstream.  So after no sleep we then had to deal with sorting out a flight, which we eventually did, paying a lot as captive customers.   Oh and they'd broken an 'unbreakable' hard case bag too, but we couldn't report that until Glasgow and they were only an agent and couldn't help.   Thanks BA, we won't forget that trip in a hurry - we pay for premium flights as it's an important component of the holiday we choose and it's not the first time we feel BA have really dropped the ball, there's no point complaining though, we've tried. 

Anyway enough grumbling, Panama was fantasic we saw more than we anticipated and really enjoyed our visit to the country.   We're now on over 2,650 species of bird, so over 26% and counting!   Time for a pause on the long-haul stuff and to explore our new surroundings in Scotland...

Dominican Republic - Villa Barrancola to Pedernales

It was a relief to leave Villa Barancola behind and head on to Pedernales, via a stop at some drying ponds near an old bauxite export terminal (on the best quality road in DR built by the mining company to take the ore down the mountain to the dock).

The wetlands itself were quite dry:

While mooching around looking for new species we disturbed some White Ibis:

And in the mangroves we saw the residential Yellow Warbler or Mangrove Warbler as it is also known:

We got to the hotel to find we weren't expected for a few more days.  At this point the guide conceded the whole tour was a mess and he didn't know any more than we did.   So be warned steer well clear of Tody Tours of the Dominican Republic!

We'd also been promised this hotel would have wifi, so we could check hotel availability back in the capital as we'd also established we didn't actually have a reservation anywhere for our last night.   But no, no funciona.

Anyway the following day we made an executive decision to head up to the local hills to see the two target species we were here for and then to be taken back to the hotel in Santo Domingo to try a walk-in reservation.  With that in mind we set off early packed and ready to go.

Along the road we did some good species including Antillean Mango:

Greater Antillean Pewee:

Narrow-billed Tody:

We also saw the two targets, namely Palm Crow and the Antillean Piculet:

We stopped a couple of times to admire the landscape on the way back to Santo Domingo:

I had to ask the driver to slow down a few times and was close to taking over but he finally got the message.  We were lucky the hotel was able to accommodate us for the remaining three nights, so we got a clean room, hot water, wifi and red wine.   We relaxed.

We'd seen some good species and sort of enjoyed our visit to the Dominican Republic but we were also looking forward to going home in a few days time.