A day on Rousay, Orkney Islands

It was a case of a proverb being lived out in real life. As I stood with the bright hot sun shining on my face, I watched the hay baler wrapping up the cut silage like a spider wraps up a fly. Even from this distance you could hear the black plastic peeling off its spool. 

The liquorice log plopped onto the field and the tractor moved on. In the neighbouring paddock, the slasher was busily mowing down the long stalks of green and leaving them in neat trails behind. A mass of seabirds wheeling above catching any insects that were trying to escape the blades of the tractor. A case of out the blade and into the gulls mouth. 

I had seen this process back in Australia and in Canada and the US. The only differences here were that the bundles left behind were black rather than pink or green and the birds trailing behind were a different species. I surmised the black was to allow greater absorption of heat and hence faster fermentation of the silage.

Same same but different. 

Walking on a little, we moved out of the way of the tractor carrying four bales to the ever growing pile that was up against an enormous stone farm shed. The shed was an impressive structure with a curved roof. Rich farmers I thought to myself.

I was surprised when our guide took us into the shed and we discovered it was filled with another stone building. A much older one. The outer more modern building was there to protect the crumbling ruins from the elements.

The Midhowe Chambered Tomb is surrounded by gantries so you can look down into it rather than walk through it. These types of ruins are in as much peril from scrambling humans as they are from the fierce weather. The interpretive sign gives you context and the deduced purpose of the building. A burial chamber with individual stalls and shelving for the bodies. Twenty five skeletons were removed and taken to XYZ Museum. (Research needed! 😃) Your mind can make a good picture of what it may have been like 5,000 odd years ago.

A few more metres along the shore line is a broch – a circular dwelling with rooms, dividers and built in cupboards! The ancient story continues with a Norse dwelling and a very ruined medieval church.  

“They say if you kick the ground in Orkney, it bleeds archeology”  our walking guide tells us as we look over the trail of ruins behind us.

Ahead, are much more modern buildings, the actual farm sheds and the tents of an active archaeological dig at Swandro . The lead archeologist greeted us at a big sign board which showed an aerial view of the dig. She explained to us in detail, what they were doing and what they had found, before taking us to view the shovel wielding, brush dusting students and volunteers who were doing the actual digging. They too were basking in the lovely sunshine and light breeze. This dig is a race against time because it is right on the beach and is being rapidly eroded. The site is of particular significance because of the metallurgical evidence they have found which shows the Smithy was using zinc. This was well ahead of the expected time frame for zinc use in these parts. Her talk ended with a plea for much needed donations to continue their work.

In the afternoon we walked across a patch of typical Scottish moorland with the heather just beginning to bloom. The boggy ground caused a few slips and falls. The descent brought us back to the ferry wharf, a tea house, Orkney Icecream and a much needed toilet! 

Perhaps because the walk had not been so physically challenging, I decided to push myself by ordering Haggis and Claptrap for dinner at the Ayre Hotel. Claptrap is a mash made from potato and turnip. Haggis, well you know what haggis is. I have a violent aversion to offal but decided to step up to the plate and be a brave old chook! I’m afraid it was a challenge too far. After 3 – 4 mouthfuls the offally flavour became overwhelming and I could go no further. I should be content in the knowledge that at least I gave it a go and it was a one in a lifetime occurrence. 

The Claptrap on the other hand? Quite good!

Small group tours

These days I do much of my travel “solo”.  I plan my own itinerary and book my own accommodation and activities.

Whilst I enjoy solo travel, small group tours, that is those with less than 16 people, are also a good vacation option.  I have been on four small group tours, three with Intrepid Travel (Italy (2007), Thailand (2012) and Vietnam (2015)) and one with Peregrine Adventures (Myanmar (2006)).  I have booked a small group walking tour with About Argyll Walking Tours for my upcoming (2019) trip to Scotland.

Intrepid and Peregrine are run by the same parent company and while I have nothing to compare them with (yet) I recommend them both as tour operators. (BTW this post is NOT sponsored by any of the tour companies mentioned.)

Small group tours are not for everyone, but in my opinion, they offer a good balance and as you can see from my pros and cons table, the pros outweigh the cons.

Pros and cons of small group tours

Pros Cons
  • You don’t have to organise anything except getting there.
  • The tour company sorts everything out in regards to local travel and activities.
  • You get to visit the highlights of a particular area efficiently
  • The accommodation has been well researched and is good quality
  • The tour guide has great local knowledge and knows the best restaurants, bars and attractions.
  • Smaller groups means access to more places that you could not visit with a big coachload of people.
  • The tour often includes some sort of social payback to the area you visit such as a visit to an orphanage, school, social enterprise or charity.
  • It’s a safer way to travel in places which may be otherwise a bit risky. This may be especially so for women
  • You meet new and interesting people but you are not overwhelmed by 30 – 40 people on a larger tour.
  • You don’t have to organise anything! As I said in a previous post I LOVE the planning!
  • You mostly stick to the tried and true pathways visiting the same tourists spots everyone else does.
  • You can’t make detours or stay longer in a place that you find interesting.
  • You have to spend a lot of time with the “new and interesting” people you meet and not all of them may be people you want to spend time with.
  • They are probably more expensive than sorting things out by yourself or going on a bigger group tour although it’s likely they get some sort of discounts for repeat bookings.

I think it’s the “new and interesting”  people that puts most people off small group tours. If you are travelling alone and you don’t pay the single supplement, you end up sharing with someone you don’t know. Luckily, this has only happened to me once as most people travel with a friend and I have been the odd one out on all but one of the tours, so I get to listen to my own snoring and not someone else’s! 🙂

I suggest that you make careful choices about the tours you book and the companies you travel with, so that you end up with the “right” sort of people.  The price will dictate the sorts of people you share your time with so don’t expect the jet-set on a budget tour.

Also make sure you pay attention to the ratings the tour company makes in relation to physical activity and the theme of the tour (family, active, foodie etc, Peregrine’s themes are here) . In my albeit limited experience, high levels of physical activity and the active themes puts me with “my tribe” more closely than those with lower levels. It will be different for you.

Burma with Peregrine Adventures

It’s hard to believe my first small group tour experience to  Burma (Myanmar) was more than a decade ago. Back in 2006, the country was only just starting to embrace tourism and things did not go smoothly, even for the tour operators.

A scheduled overnight train trip from Rangoon (Yangon) to Mandalay had to be substituted at the last minute by an internal flight because of some undisclosed problem.

The tour leader was on the phone for hours trying to sort things out. It would have been difficult to manage this as an independent traveller. He also warned us about where we could and couldn’t take photos. His entreaties not to take photos of certain buildings seemed very genuine.

 

Intrepid Travel Walking Tour – Amalfi Coast

I wrote about the interesting dynamic that developed on my trip to Italy in my post about “Footpath to the Gods”. In this case, an international group of eight – comprising three husband-wife couples  from Scotland, America and New Zealand and a single Aussie female and myself, joined up for a walking tour of the Amalfi Coast. Although the trip was rated for very high levels of physical activity, the two Americans were morbidly obese and not regular exercisers. They struggled with the walking  and this caused issues. They clearly did not heed the advice about the activity level. While most of trip was harmonious, tempers flared on the last night, almost resulting in a fist fight.

Tribal Thailand – Intrepid Travel

The Tribal Thailand tour included a 3 day trek through the jungle near Chiang Mai. Slashing vines, clambering over fallen trees and hearing the lonely calls of gibbons made it a truly enjoyable experience. The combination of heat, humidity, the weight of our packs and biting insects made it a physically challenging  experience. Sleeping on wooden floors and eating with local families in their simple kitchens made it a humbling experience. Despite the fact that, on reflection, I am pretty sure we walked around in circles not far from a main road for the three days, I would heartily recommend it! I was the second oldest on the tour (but not the least fit I am pleased to say). I still keep in touch with two younger women from this group via Facebook. We even had a reprise trip the year after, where 6 of the 7 of us did a hiking trip along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia.

Vietnam – North to South with Intrepid Travel

The trip to Vietnam had six people – two couples and a single, elderly man. It was rated with low levels of physical activity and the people were much older than the Thailand tour. On this trip I was the second youngest and at 52 that’s saying something! It was still fun and I spent most of my time with Debra and Phil from Wales. On this tour, the “interesting person” was a barrister from the UK travelling with his lovely wife. Even though he was probably the wealthiest amongst us, he owed us all money by the end of the trip because he didn’t ever seem to have “the right change” when he needed to pay his share of the taxi/hotel/restaurant bill. It was funny at first but became a bit of a sore point by the end of the 12 day tour. Debra and Phil, by the way, run a pub in Wales. It looks pretty good and one day I’ll visit them!

All these these small group tours have given me great memories and photo books full of images. Overall, they have been very positive. Even the negatives are positive, in that they give you some great dinner party stories.

My advice is to keep an open heart and open mind, know that it’s only for a short period and be friendly and easy going. Don’t sweat the small stuff and if worse comes to worse, treat it as an interesting social experiment. That way  you can sit back and learn about the world both from the country you visit and the people you share the bus with.

 

Travel values

a red watercan nailed to a white fence

I read an article about how the rise of the global tourist is killing Europe. It described how locals are being isolated and alienated in their own cities as bus loads of tourists arrive with their selfie sticks and cameras. Fresh off the cruise boat they don’t spend much, but they strip the place of its ambiance like a horde of locusts.

Am I a travel locust?

It was a slap in the face that I could not ignore.

A painterly photo of vineyards set in hills.
Winter vineyards in drought

It made me sad to think I could be part of a global problem, after all I have Do Iceland on my bucket list! Am I going to make it harder for the inhabitants? Will they get kicked out of their homes so I can rent a place on AirBnB? Will I be welcome? I have always felt that my tourist dollars were welcome. But at what cost? Sure I add to the local economy, but if it means the locals are unable to enjoy the amenity of their own home to the extent described by this article; I don’t want to be a part of that!

It got me thinking about my “travel values” and my “value as a traveller”. I generally travel solo although I have joined in on small group tours run by the likes of Intrepid and Peregrine. My impact must be lower than a cruise boat which docks with 2500 passengers for a few hours. It must; mustn’t it? I try not to exploit the locals by acting like the rich tourist who barters over the equivalent of 50 cents. That makes me an ethical traveller? Doesn’t it?

A cartoon person with one eye is painted on an old abandoned building.
Abandoned house

It’s time to examine my travel values. Here is an interview with my right shoulder guy (Reggie)  and my left shoulder guy (Louie)

Why do you want to travel Louie? To experience new things and to learn about the world. To increase my knowledge of and therefore acceptance for, people different to myself. To decrease the boundaries between myself and “the other”.

Is that the only reason: Ok so there is a little bit of one-up-manship in there too. Also a bit of vanity publishing as evidenced by this blog. Listen Reggie we want to be famous! This is our fledgling side hustle here!

We don’t have to fly somewhere on a jet and add to carbon emissions to experience something new? That’s true. Perhaps we  don’t. But we have our reputation as a budding photographer to consider here Reggie.

Ahh yes maybe? But Australia is an amazing place! Can’t you take fabulous photos here too? Yes we could but to travel for two weeks around Australia would cost us as much as four weeks in Asia and….

See there you go you are a hypocrite! It’s all about money!  NO! It’s not! I want to be a mindful, thoughtful, considerate, intelligent traveller….

Yeah sure sure you do!

But I actually do.

A green oil drum sits on top of a tree stump and is used as a mailbox.
Roadside mail box on the Mudgee Road

What ARE my travel values?

  1. To do no harm
  2. To meet and talk to the people who live in a place as people not as photo opportunities.
  3. To pay a fair price, not the lowest price.
  4. To take time in one place. Quality not quantity of adventures.
  5. To be active. Walk more, fly/drive less.
  6. To add value by taking less than I give.
  7. To get to know places well.
  8. To make friends.
  9. To reciprocate.
  10. To be a good ambassador for my own culture/country.

My travel slate is clear for 2019 at this point in time. With a serious drought affecting all of my own home state, I think I might make it a year to travel local and see more of this Wide Brown Land. My dollar will do more good here than abroad.

A road sign warning of kangaroos has been altered to show the kangaroo skiing.
Road tripping!

 

Footpath of the Gods

Snap-03

My attention was suddenly snapped out of the pleasant conversation with the Kiwi’s and flew to the other end of the table. Angry words were flaring loudly around the pizzeria. The New York wife trying unsuccessfully  to damp things down but it was too late.

The Yank couple and the Scottish pair were at it.

“…ya shouldna hev come then! Dinna ya read the brochure? This isn’t a gastronomy tour! If ya wanna  feed yer face you should’a picked a diff’rent package!”

This was the conversation we all had wanted to hear but in the confines of a shared “small group tour” it needed to wait till the last night. When we could burst out and show our true selves without having to be polite. Without compromising. There would be no tomorrow for “us” as a group, only the “us” we came with on Day 1. Rosemary, the other Aussie and I as singles and the others as three couples. Tensions had been building. It was now or never.

Leah and Nathan were clearly not walkers. They had been an anchor on the group for the whole seven days of our walking tour of the Amalfi Coast. Slowing us down; baulking at the stairs every time. Wanting to get a bus instead of skirting around the scenic cliff face. In an effort to keep up, Nathan had fallen heavily and twisted his knee and this slowed us down even further.

Snap-15

The travel brochure had labelled it as three stars for physical activity with  ‘a reasonably good level of fitness recommended’. Leah and Nathan would have  struggled with half a star.

Snap-08

Nathan’s pushed his chair back and he pulled himself up to his very ample height. He bristled; his belly quivering. He was tall. But he was nearly as wide.

‘If you were all not such cheapskates we could have done both! There are plenty of good restaurants around here!’

Snap-01

“I am sick of paying for your extra tasting plates!” Eric shouted, standing a full head shorter than Nathan.

I had to admit that on the inside I had hoped to eat a bit better than the pizza and pasta we had usually settled on. The menù turistico – cheap and filling with some Lambrusco or beer to wash it down. Maybe gelato at the end. But I was sick of splitting the bill; especially since they always ordered enough for four.

I am not sure who pushed who first. An awkward pause followed. An imaginary spotlight shone on the two main actors; the orchestra came to a crescendo. The whole restaurant was focused on the misbehaving tourists as we waited for it to either subside or turn into to an all-out brawl.

Snap-09

My money was on Eric. He might have had 20 years on Nathan but he was nimble and fit. He was used to tramping. Laurie stood up and moved between them. The spell broken by his quiet presence – they stood down. Leah and Nathan left and we spent the rest of night gossiping about them.

Then the bill came. They had gone without settling-up.

Touché Nathan!

Well played!