Call of the wild

Assynt, Canisp, countryside, Cul Beag, Cul Mor, geology, hill walking, Monroes, mountains, Scotland, Scottish Highlands, Suilven, Sutherland, tourism, travel, VisitScotland








‘We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” 

Henry David ThoreauWalden: Or, Life in the Woods

I HAVE indulged in an illicit love affair with north west Scotland for decades.
Every year, when family and friends are taking planes to far-off sunny climes, living lavish temporary all-inclusive lifestyles on a tropical beach, the solitary voice of the cold wilderness calls me to return.
In response, I pack the tent or, more lately, the camper van, and head north to reunite with my soul.
There is nowhere in the world like the north-west Highlands of Scotland, where deer and eagles are more profuse than people; where humankind has learned to endure rather than prosper; and where contemporary society is a condition that other people are forced to live with.

Bothy in Drumbeg, looking
out to Eddrachillis Bay

When I was a child, I believed the Highlands began at Dumbarton Rock in the Clyde: the giant sentinel stone marking the gateway to the snow-powdered peaks of the Trossachs.
The further north I travel, however, the further the perspective of remoteness moves. The brooding mountains of Glencoe and sweeping Caledonian forests of Glen Garry no longer hold the same heart-thumping thrill.
The Highlands, for me, begins on the sun-bleached rocky shores of Loch Lochy: this is where I get that surge of excitement that I have actually reached that ‘somewhere’. It carries on through Ross and Cromarty and ends in the most spectacular landscapes in the United Kingdom and, to me, the world: Assynt – a magnificent wilderness of rock and water and one of the oldest places in the world.
The mountains in the picture – from left, Canisp, Suilven, Cul Mor and Cul Beag – were squeezed out of the earth in, what geologists call, the Moine Thrust and some of the rocks that have carved this spectacular landscape are over 800 million years old.

Eight hundred million years ago, the world was just ocean and one big super-continent called Rodina. It was five hundred and fifty years later that the continent broke up, drifted apart and formed the world as we know it today.
Although Glaciation and warming have further sculpted the mountains around Planet Earth, the hard bedrock of Sutherland is as thrawn and inclement as its climate. This is a place that, over the millennia, has refused to be sullied. Although this land has been frequently studied, surveyed and explored, it remains unfathomable; its impact on the soul, immeasurable.

Safari njema

Africa, Diani, holidays, Kenya, Malindi, Mombasa, Nairobi, safari, travel

THERE’S something about Africa that gets into the soul.
It’s not just the beauty of its natural environment, its culture and its people, Africa is an ancient spirit and, once you’ve heard it, its song never leaves you.
A trip to Kenya is possibly one of the most gentle introductions to this far-flung continent for the uninitiated.
A hot climate, miles of game reserves, leagues of sandy beaches and a clement welcome, all help to make visitors feel safe and comfortable travelling through the country as well as providing plenty to do and see.
There has been a lot of recent hysteria over the danger to tourists going to Kenya. With election troubles; a fire which gutted the arrivals building at Jomo Kenyatta airport; the Westgate Mall siege; the threat of kidnapping by Somali pirates; and the acid attacks on Christians in Mombasa, the country’s tourist industry has taken a heavy blow and, as usual, it’s the little people who are suffering from the shortfall of feet from the west.

BEACH BOY: Diani beach

Along the eastern coastline lies Diani beach, an exotic picture paradise painted white and azure blue with warm sands, coconut palms and a seascape of breakers gently rolling across a coral reef.
Here can be found some of Kenya’s most opulent hotels where guests can relax and enjoy all the luxurious hospitality, together with its excessive trimmings, East Africa has to offer.
But Kenya also has a dark side.
At the hotels, the same staff will serve you breakfast as well as dinner and breakfast the next day. Working hours are long and one waiter told me with a smile: “You have to be strong to survive these shifts.”
Between the complexes and the beach, a narrow strip of vegetation creates a divide as wide as the Great Rift Valley.
While overweight, over-pampered, scarlet-faced guests sip their cocktails in the shade of a midday sun, poor traders are forced to peddle their wares under the full force of the African heat. They target tourists in the hope of selling their colourful kangas (sarongs), carved wooden animals or even a king coconut.
They know their place and never step across that tiny strip of green that separates them from potential punters. They’re not beggars; they don’t want something for nothing. Although often annoying, but always warm, happy and exuberant, the “Beach Boys”, as they are affectionately known, are just trying to earn a living like everyone else and they’ll stand for hours on the beach trying to catch an eye.

NOT FOR SALE: on the Malindi road

And it’s not just a few plants that separate the rich from the poor in Kenya. In Nairobi, 60 per cent of the population occupies just six per cent of the land: most of them contained inside the dark confines of Kibera shanty town – the second largest slum on the continent next to Soweto in South Africa.
Fifty per cent of Kibera’s inhabitants are unemployed, despite its proximity to the booming industrial area of the city and, as with many poor parts of town, alcohol and drug abuse is rife; health and sanitation poor.
Along the coastline, there were stories of whole villages being uprooted (some allegedly at gunpoint) and moved out of their traditional homes to make way for new luxury hotels and apartment complexes. Between the millionaires’ havens, the road from Ukunda to Malindi is fringed with tiny villages of mud huts with corrugated iron roofs: the real Africa and the places where its true spirit lies.

REAL GIRAFFE: Nairobi National Park

It is true to say that comparisons are odious and it’s wrong to attribute western values to the lives of those who are untouched by it. But it’s difficult to believe that almost half of the people living in one of the best developed economies in Eastern Africa survive in poverty and lack the basic necessities for human subsistence.
It’s not my intention to paint a bad picture of a beautiful, vibrant country. Whenever I visit a new place, I like to look below its surface and normally veer away from the spots where tourists are herded.
I did go on a small safari, because I wanted to see with my own eyes animals in their natural habitats that I would otherwise only see in a zoo. The sights were spectacular and I would love to return and visit the Masai Mara some day to do it properly.

CAMELS and fishing boats in Diani

Kenya’s tourist industry is struggling at the moment because we in the west feel that it is unsafe to travel there.
Terrorism, however, is a global problem and it’s doubtful that there’s anywhere truly safe in the world.
There’s a big military presence along the coastline, all eyes looking out to sea, and security has been stepped up in the cities in order to protect people from harm.
Kenya is a magical place, bursting with spirit, dynamism and contradiction. It is a place where everyone should pay a visit to at least once in their lives to recognise perspective at the very least.