Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Calum’s Guide to Round the World Packing

Being away from home for 12 months will be an odd experience. One of the oddest things will be carrying all my worldly possessions around on my back. However, while I may be resigned to looking like a snail, I don’t want to move like one. So packing selectively has become an obsession of late.

I had a look at the Lonely Planet recommended packing list for round-the-world travellers. And then I threw it away. While I could see some sense in it’s preoccupation with health, safety, cleanliness and avoiding indecent exposure, any book that suggests you can survive in a foreign environment without a jar of peanut butter is not to be trusted.

Coming at it from a different angle, I wondered whether I should perhaps try to draw up a list of the things that are most important to me now and see how many of those I could squeeze into my bag.

Obviously I’ll miss family and friends. But being quite sharp, I quickly realised that there is an obvious problem with trying to fit your family and friends into your rucksack – whom to choose??? With a limit of 70 litres, I think I would struggle to fit in anyone other than my nephew, Rowan, and niece, Colette. And I don’t think Kirsty and Gordon would appreciate being without them for such a long period of time. So family are out – I will have to rely on taking some photos with me instead.

The old proverb says that you can choose your friends. But that doesn’t help you fit them in a rucksack. If you are to prevent the size problem popping up again you would clearly have to draw the limit at one (or possibly even half of one). And while ‘choosing’ might get the thumbs up on proverbial grounds, in practise it raised a number of troubling questions. Firstly, I worried that many of them might insist on bringing a spouse. And then I could think of a few friend-specific problems on top of that. Stuart would require a few dozen guide books, Graeme would need to bring his extensive prog-rock tape collection… not to mention a number of friends who would find it difficult to survive long periods in the dark without alcohol. And there would be nothing worse than hiking up a Peruvian mountain to find that someone has drunk your carry-out, from the inside so to speak. Again photos will have to do.

Other favourite things seemed on first inspection much more do-able. A bottle of nice red wine and some cheese. But then I would need crackers, margarine and of course a knive to do the necessaries. My reading of the news at the moment is that planes can be diverted if a 90 year old granny is overheard mentioning that she has a spoon in her suitcase never mind a knive, while I think even margarine is now banned from hand luggage. And you can probably cause a nasty abrasion with the rough edge of a broken cracker.

Hobbies and pastimes were even more hopeless – amongst other cumbersome items, I own a piano, a telescope and a snowboard. It’s not much fun lifting any of those on their own, nevermind as part of a sack-load of stuff.

The last most important thing I could think of was my bed. As my rucksack was already on top of the bed when I thought of this, and the bed was patently visible on all sides of the rucksack, even I was able to tell straight away that this wasn’t a goer. At this point, I went back to the lonely-planet list in despair. It did at least have a section on ‘sleeping systems’. Unfortunately, without even mentioning duvets, mattresses or pillows, this section went on for several pages describing various types of sleeping bag and cheerfully weighing up the pros and cons of millimetre thick foam mats versus ultra-thin inflatable ‘therma-rests’. Just depressing. Aside from anything else, the one single thing that I had been able to decide on and pack was inflatable and it seemed overkill to add another one. I wouldn’t be seen dead on a pacific island without my beach-ball.

So reluctantly I went back to the lonely-planet list again and, for the record, here’s what’s in the bag.

You could have a rather interesting game of trying to identify each item. If anyone can tell, using logic alone, the one item I’ll be taking that definitely isn’t in the picture, they will win a jar of peanut butter.

One other item is absolutely essential. The Point It guide to universal communication. Until they really do invent a multi-lingual translating fish that you can stick in your ear, this thing has to be the handiest travel invention since the toilet roll.

It’s an ickle little book! And all the pages have things on them like this! Just point… and go!

…and when you want a roast chicken, served on a dinner plate by a man wearing a smart shirt and jacket, you don’t even need to open the book.


Another of the big treks I wanted to do was to walk the length of the Forth & Clyde and Union canals, from Glasgow to Edinburgh. I’m doing this in sections. On the very first day of the 500 mile walk, 8 weeks ago now, I covered the stretch from Linlithgow to the Falkirk Wheel. Last week I did Edinburgh to the Bypass. Having little time left and a lot of walking to do, I’ve been trying to fill in the gaps.

With feet more than a little blistered from the river walk, the craziness continued on Sunday. I drove to Falkirk station in the afternoon, dumped the car and ran 13 miles along the canal to Croy station. Hadn’t intended to run the whole way, but misjudged the distance and needed to get the 18:12 train back to Falkirk (Scotrail aren’t exactly generous with their Sunday service) to pick up the car.

On the Monday night I drove to Broxburn and dumped the car again and walked along the canal back to Edinburgh for another 9 miles.

In the flightpath. In the current climate, it’s surprising that I didn’t get lifted for loitering under the main Edinburgh airport approach. Then again, the canal has some pungent aromas in places and it’s amazing how easily you can throw sniffer dogs off the scent if you can find a suitably thick thicket close to the canal.

The only island on the Union Canal?

I had a night off and a few jars on Tuesday. I then took the train to Linlithgow on the Wednesday evening and met up with my karaoke partner, Jackie. We walked from Linlithgow to Broxburn, which was 5.5 miles as the crow flies but 9 miles with all the meandering the canal does. Picked up the car from Broxburn and drove back into town.

Dr Doolittle strikes again. He may look like broon breed but Jackie and I found this little critter to be very much alive and well and furreting about on the path. What is he? Is he a wee mole? Answers on a postcard.

In between all this, I walked for 4 miles round Bellisle Park in Ayr on Sunday morning, did 6 miles along a leisurely route to work and back on Monday, 4.5 miles on Tuesday morning and another 7 miles on Thursday along an even more unlikely route to work. I can count walking to work as long as I don’t go along a route I’ve done before. With only 10 days to go and 100 miles + to do, I’m taking some fairly circuitous routes. Praise be for flexitime.

All this meandering took me up to 377 miles.

ASIDE: Never let it be said that walking is always an easy or dull sport. (It’s certainly not chuffin easy at the moment!) After my close scrape with the bull, I was interested to see that at least I had been luckier than this poor blighter:
A HILLWALKER was in hospital last night after being bitten by an adder while walking on Goat Fell in Arran on Saturday. Robert McGuire, 44, suffered a severe allergic reaction to the bite and had to be taken to hospital by air ambulance.
The snakes have a distinctive zig-zag pattern down their backs and, unlike other UK snakes, have a broad, angular head with an upturned snout.
Must watch out for those snooty adders.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

From Source to Sea (part 2)

At the 25 mile mark I was relieved and cheered-up to be joined by my very good and very old friend Stuart. Stuart buddied me along for 10 miles, and insisted on a couple of pub-stops in Failford and Stair.

In contemplation of an Ayrshire hostelry. After leaving Stuart at the Stair Inn, I had another 10 miles to go to the sea.

Walking the whole distance in one day gave me a pretty amazing perspective on the river, and I guess on all rivers. At the start of the day I could literally step from one bank to the other.

At the 35 mile mark, much larger contrivances are needed to cross the same river. Having never hugged a tree, it was a much more moving experience than I’d have expected. Seriously, I was quite emotional, though I might have been slightly delirious from exhaustion and the ibuprofen I was taking for my ankles…

Left - first view of Arran. Nearly, there.

Right - racing (crawling really) against the sunset. Nearly, nearly there.


Ayr beach. Done it! The walk was officially opened in June. I won’t be the first to have done the walk in a day, but maybe one of the first few.

So a big bite out of the target clocking up 43.5 miles. (I also managed to lose my way at one point but lets gloss over that.)

I'd already covered 12.5 miles round the Braid Hills in Edinburgh on Tuesday night and another 7 miles round Corstorphine golf course and Murrayfield stadium on Wednesday night.

So the ‘big’ big walk took me to 324.5 miles.

From Source to Sea (part 1)

When I set out to do 500 miles, I didn’t just want to clock it up on a treadmill, or go round and round Holyrood Park (I think you can get lifted for that). To keep things interesting, I decided I wouldn’t do the same route twice. Also, if possible, I wanted to do a few ‘big’ walks. This hasn’t gone exactly to plan – a sore foot put paid to the West Highland Way weekend – but I did knock off the biggest challenge last Saturday.

And it was a bit of a monster. The River Ayr Walk is 41 miles from the source of the River Ayr in East Ayrshire to the sea at Ayr harbour. I hoped to test myself by taking my GPS and my skinny ankles along the whole route in a day.

The wee dot at the end of the arrow is Glenbuck, the start of the walk (and birthplace of Bill Shankley).

Once again, I was surprised at how few people were out walking the route. There were a number of locals on the parts of the path immediately around towns and villages – identified by pipes, dogs and knowing looks (no rucksacks) – but otherwise the route was deserted.

As the day went on, I decided this might have had something to do with the unfinished nature of several stretches of the walk, which other potential walkers had perhaps gotten wind off. As well as one 3-mile stretch that had hardly been started - requiring a frustrating detour - a lot of the walk was in a partially completed state.

I can’t help but feel that Scotland does a lot of this. I’ve noticed the same thing at our Science Museum in Glasgow and at Edinburgh’s show-piece Museum of Scotland. It’s almost as if we think that the energy and resources that have gone into these things won’t be appreciated if we don’t illustrate the effort involved by leaving it in a deliberately unfinished or partially operative state. (I won't even mention the parliament…)

At one stage I had to surface a considerable stretch of the walkway myself.






I encountered plenty of wildlife, including this oystercatcher, who flapped around and made some rather plaintiff squaking sounds. In contrast to last week’s encounter with the sheep's heid in the fence, there was nothing I could do for this pitiful little fella.




This was one local who was keen to make a stretch of the River Ayr Walk his own private domain. I didn’t contest the point.



I was bold enough to get a good close-up… after I’d put a hefty barbed wire fence between us.