It wasn’t too easy to get from trains to busses to boats with all the gear and bags we had accumulated in the 6 months of travel. It didn’t help that the baggage handlers had ripped a handle off a bag we had just bought. Luckily it didn’t spill any of our things out on the baggage conveyer at the airport. It did make it harder to carry though. We had arrived in Scotland! I had been to England in 1999 but this was the first time in the UK for Christine, and the first time I had been north of London. We caught a bus from the airport to the train station, a train from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, a boat from Aberdeen to Lerwick, Shetland and then a car to the settlement of Mossbank, our home for the next week. What an awesome trip it was over on the boat! The night before we’d only had about 4 or 5 hours sleep and left for the airport at 5 in the morning so we were quite tired anyway, but the boat was an unexpected luxury. It’s more of a ship than a boat. It’s set up for overnight passage from Scotland to Orkney and Shetland. The crossing was smooth enough, just a nice gentle rocking that put me to sleep at 8 pm and I didn’t wake up until the announcement at 7 am that we were about to arrive in Shetland.
We met my Mum and Dad at the wharf who had arrived in Shetland a day earlier and were going to show us around. Shetland is where Dad’s family come from. Grandad and Grandma were born and raised in Shetland and we still have a lot of family on the islands although a lot have moved away for work and to follow other family members (to places like New Zealand). We stayed with my Dad’s cousins Alastair and Doreen who have a lovely house on what they call a croft on the northern part of the ‘mainland’. A croft is a small holding of land that was intended to provide everything the family could want to survive. Now days they are often combined or leased to farmers who run a commercial quantity of stock like any farm but there are still a few around that are run the old way and provide year-round food for the one extended family.
Shetland is the most northern part of the UK and is governed as part of Scotland. They are however quite independent and have a bit of a different culture to the rest of the UK. For a long time, the islanders were very isolated due to the rough north seas and the roaring 60’s (being on the 60 north parallel) The total land area is under 1500 km2 and the total population is less than 24,000 people. The islands have been inhabited for a long time... A very long time. The first people to settle the area did so around 6000 years ago! The more recent history (1000’s to 1500’s) revolves around the settlement of Scandinavian Vikings but it wasn’t until the 15th century that the islands became part of Scotland and a more detailed history can be traced. Like a lot of the British Isles, Shetland has a very rich history and the Shetland islands motto is Með lögum skal land byggja, an Icelandic phrase taken from the Danish 1241 Basic Law, Codex Holmiensis, (and is also mentioned in Njáls saga,) and means "By law shall land be built". One thing that the island is lacking in is trees! In the time we have been here I have only seen a few small stands of trees. This is in part due to the fact that during winter the wind can blow so hard that it often sends salt spray right over the highest part of the island and will kill the hardiest garden, lawn or trees. The trees did die out naturally around the time the climate changed several thousand years ago. Contrary to popular opinion they were not all cut down for timber by the locals, they were already gone when the locals arrived!
Back in my grandfather’s day, Shetland only really offered a few choices for work. The sea or the land. My grandfather had 2 big decisions in his early life. The first was who to marry, the second was what to do for work. (Maybe not in that order) It appears he made good choices all round. He found my Grandma and decided to go to sea, not as a fisherman but as a seaman on a cargo vessel. Later he ended up in New Zealand as a captain of a coastal freighter. Now the islanders have a lot of choice for work just like anywhere but a lot of them still move away to start great things that are far from the fishing and crofting. I think everyone will have heard of P&O Shipping Line, started in Shetland. One of the founders of Anchor Butter in New Zealand was a Shetland Islander. My own cousin is a scientist now living in Brisbane and at the forefront of her field and has recently made a breakthrough that could benefit millions of people who have arthritis, gout, type-two diabetes, Alzheimer’s, asthma and Parkinson’s. (Yes, that’s you Avril). One of the largest income earner is still the ocean and fishing with salmon and mussel farming the big industries. The oil industry employs a lot of locals but no refining is done in Shetland. It is piped to shore in Shetland and then loaded onto ships to refinery’s elsewhere.
So, anyway, here we are in this faraway place. My relations and cousins from New Zealand have been visiting Shetland ever since my grandad left the place in 1928. I feel quite lucky to be here and to see the places that they lived and worked. We went to see where my grandma was born and grew up. We were able to go to the house that is still much as it was in her day. The house now has power and water connected but otherwise it’s just the same. We could see where the well for water was (and still is) and where the outhouse was next to the shed. It was like a living history lesson from my family. We also visited the house near where my grandfather was born in 1884. This house is STILL in the family and is currently being renovated by Andy who will live in it with his partner Tanya when she finishes her midwife training in Scotland. I don’t know of anyone else that can say they have seen where their family grew up over 100 years ago pretty much as it was then. A slice of the family history that has been waiting for me to discover, it’s been great! Even my old childhood areas in Auckland have been changed so much it’s not recognisable now!
We have been to see Eddie and Betsy at Fetlar, Linda and David at Eshaness, Kay, Iain and Frances came to visit us and we had dinner with Caryl and Graham (a 6 course meal cooked by Doreen, great fun night). We went to see Angus and Jessamine for lunch. They live just above the old house that Granddad lived in and the same place Doreen grew up in! We went to Mary-Jean’s shop for a visit, but she had so many people in the store so we had to leave. Andy and Angus came for tea too, so it’s been a busy visit. It was great to talk with Eddie who is a retired seaman. Now days he does a lot of beach combing and has an amazing collection of items that have been washed ashore near his holiday home. I did a bit of beachcombing myself when we went to see Linda and David and I found a real life message in a bottle. Looks like it has come from Canada but it had no contact details for me to reply to the message. Of course seeing the people has been the highlight but Shetland has really surprised us with the beauty and history it has to offer. It has helped that the weather has been a lot warmer than normal meaning we have been able to do some great walks too. A highlight was heading to the top of Ronas Hill which is the highest peak on Shetland. There is even a Neolithic chambered cairn near the summit! Neolithic is as old as! We visited a site that has ‘ruins’ that date back 4000 years! Quite fascinating to see.
Today is the last day here on the Island and tonight we head back to Scotland by ferry and pick up a car to drive right down to the midlands to attend the Adventure Overland Show. It’s the official start of the next phase of our holiday where we get mobile and start to travel by car. We are excited and sure are looking forward to being able to organise ourselves again although we will now have to part with some serious cash! I don’t like the idea of seeing the bank balance disappear but that’s what going on holiday is all about I guess. As with every part of this holiday, Shetland has been excellent, especially for me as it has filled in a lot of blank spaces from my family heritage. I’d like to make a special mention to Alistair and Doreen for looking after us while we have been here and providing a car and feeding us really well. Thank you and of course we would like to repay this whenever you are in New Zealand again. Thanks also to Mum and Dad for being here with us and being the tour guides. None of this would have been possible without you both. Thanks again!
Iceland. The land of fire and ice!
This trip started off really well. We had what they call 'comfort class' tickets. Like cheap business class! On the Iceland Air plane heading from the USA they only had seats for economy and first class so it was a comfortable 5 hours into Iceland. (The outbound flight was back to normal..☹️)
Our first stop was an Airbnb we had booked in the city of Reykjavik. It was an OK location near the city centre but that's where the good points stopped. Sadly the place was not as advertised and we didn't get some of the features we were looking for. I guess the Iceland experience went down hill a bit from then on...
The first thing we had to do is find a laundromat (no washing machine at the Airbnb!) we found a place that has a cafe above a coin laundry so hot breakfast as well.. OK, I had heard Iceland was expensive but I really had no idea how much outside my comfort zone it was going to be. The 2 loads of washing cost $27 NZD alone! hmmm OK. Then the breakfast of 2x eggs on toast each and 2 coffees came in... $50!! The entire exercise of washing and breakfast was over $75 NZD. We were completely gobsmacked! Holy shit you're kidding?? Well no! WELCOME TO ICELAND.
This was the first of many times we were left completely blown away by the price of things. I don't want to use the term gouging but I really do think that it was happening. A couple of examples are tent sites in large camping grounds where we would pay between $30 and $50NZD plus if you wanted a shower, an extra $6NZD each and the camp grounds were very basic. Food is pretty expensive but we had no idea how much until we went to order pizza. Of course they have Dominos pizza and our 'go to' meal is 2 x medium size pizzas. Well we didn't get them! If we are going to pay $60NZD for a meal, I want to sit down in a restaurant to eat it... Yes that's right...$60NZD for 2 medium size Dominos pizzas!
There is a back story. I think everyone remembers the volcano that erupted and closed down the European airspace due to volcanic ash. (No I don't know how to say it's name either..) Since then, people became interested in Iceland and they have had ever increasing tourist numbers and this year they expect to have more than 2 million visitors to the country. That is a lot of beds and mouths to feed. It's creating issues for the locals as you might imagine. Most of the city area (where we initially stayed) is being let out as Airbnb 'hotels' meaning property prices are being driven up by investors and local people can not rent or afford to buy in the city centre anymore. Also all of the fresh food is grown using glass houses with grow lights. They only grow grass and a small amount of organic vegetables in the fields due to the short sunlight hours and cold temperatures and this is a simple supply and demand exercise. The local population is under 350,000 throughout the entire island and it's easy to see the tourists. They are the overweight people with dark hair. Icelandic Air says they are going to increase the tourist numbers so that within the next 3 to 5 years up to 5 million visitors per year will be arriving. It's a bit of a never ending cash cow for the islanders.
So, we went off to collect the rental car to see this amazing country. We had to decide where to go as we didn't have enough time to do the full circle of Iceland. We chose the south east area as it had the largest glacier in the country and some hot pools as well. Seeing the big glaciers up close is quite amazing. We have seen a few glaciers in New Zealand but these are the monsters of the world. The only place to see larger glaciers is in Antarctica. We went on a few short walks and did a lot of sightseeing along the ring road. The scenery is beautiful to say the least and it's often hard to capture it by photo although I drove Christine a bit mad by stopping every few miles for photos anyway. Some of the farms were just amazing to look at. Usually at the bottom of a cliff or above a valley they stand out against a deep green background. They are mostly sheep farms but we did see some good looking dairy farms and everyone seemed to have a horse or 2. We understand Iceland is very proud of their houses and they are unique in that they can trot or gallop differently to other horses? Never been on a normal horse so these extra features would have been wasted on me for sure so we didn't do the horse riding tours.
We did do a glacier tour. Unlike New Zealand, here we could pretty much get out of the car and step on the ice! No long walk up a valley chasing a retreating glacier here! They are however retreating like all the ice on this warming planet but oh wow, they are totally massive! It was a great experience and we were the last tour group for our tour guide. She is an Iceland local and is off to see the world and wants to ski and rock climb in some of the best places on the planet. I expect she will have to visit New Zealand to tick that list off. When we finished the tour, I joked that seeing as this was her last day she should go for a swim in the small lake at the edge of the ice. I mentioned it to her colleagues too and when they asked 'you too' I joked 'only if you do it as well'
Not a word was spoken as they casually stripped off for their swim. Our guide and 2 others got down to the basics and just like that, in they went! So... I had made a promise and now I had to follow through. The best thing is to not over think things so I did the same and stripped off. I didn't even bother to wade in but just dived right in from the shore. I have been in some cold water before but never this cold. This is Iceland and I am swimming in a glacier lake. That's all kind of crazy right there. I wasn't the last one to get out and our guide did some swim strokes, but it was all over in 60 seconds. I think I gained some respect from the local guides that day even if the other tourists thought we were all completely crazy.
We also went to a nice hot pool that day. We really were expecting to find more hot pools than we did. One of the things with Iceland is Icelandic! They speak it and we don't! You might think that as tourism is the number 1 earner for the country, some of the signs would be in English? No. Even the road warning signs that had an alarming big warning triangle that is trying to get our attention is only in Icelandic. As were all the tourist roadside signs! We went to a visitor centre and we were trying to make out the different attractions from the brochure. We asked the attendant what it all meant and he politely offered to sell us an English version. We declined. (Even the 'visitors centre' sign was in Icelandic..) so we think we missed some good hot pools along the way we would have visited had we known they were there. (The hot pools were $35NZD each..)
So we have 'done' Iceland. It was nice, beautiful and scenic. The city of Reykjavik is a nice modern, clean and safe city but we felt like we were charged way too much for most of the things we did and bought. Iceland is rated the 4th most expensive country in the world (New Zealand is 7th..) and the tourist services are still basic. I guess it's a credit to the people that they remain the same and can show off the culture the way they do. Anyway, we made new friends and had new experiences and we feel much richer as we depart. I think that's the important thing eh.
We headed down to Tennessee and into familiar streets. It was time to visit our friends Dave and Sarah. Dave is the famous hiker Huckleberry that we hiked with in 2000 and who gave me my trail name Cowpie. The last time we stayed at their house in 2000 we were half way through our 1600 miles on the AT and as I recall we sat around for a week and did nothing!! This time we did much the same... haha. It was really great to catch up and we sure did have a lot to talk about. We especially liked the time we spent at the cabin they have in the woods, not too far off the AT. We went for a nice walk on the trail and reminisced about good times 16 years ago. I can say the one thing that has changed with Dave and Sarah is they have new cars... Check out the photos 😀 We did promised them that we would return and we did...
It is a big country so why not have a Capitol the same. Maybe not completely big as in size, but rather Larger Than Life.. DC has a swagger to it. Young people would say it has 'swag'. I am guessing this has come from hundreds of years of hosting the country's leaders. The movers and shakers! When I think of it that way it's hard to understand why most of the architecture is all in an old Roman/Greek style, you know big pillars and all the old stuff. When they were building this place that design was already 1000s of years old. Could it have something to do with the feeling of permanence to the system they created? It wasn't thousands of years old but they built it to last thousands of years and were showing it in the style of buildings? Don't know but it appears to be something that is on going even with newer buildings (although a few modern buildings are around the place). One thing for sure, they are impressive.
It was pretty good to be able to go back to the same place each night after being on the move for months and months. I started to think of the hotel as 'home' which is pretty bad really considering it's a room not much bigger than the king size bed we slept on. Maybe good practice for living out of a car in months to come. The hotel is well positioned next to a subway station, McDonald's and a restaurant row. What more could a visitor want? DC is very different to most places we had visited in the USA. It has had a unique creation being born out of farmland owned by George Washington who had slaves to run it. It is still a city that has an abundance of contrast with the homeless people living right on the doorsteps of the nations most wealthy and influenceable people. When I thought about how much time and money has gone into creating some of the fabulous buildings and monuments here it's a shame that more cannot be done for the down and outs. It's more likely an accurate reflection of a normal free market economy at work. In DC we can very clearly see the very bottom of the structure.
We have spent the last 3 months in New England. Generally, full of educated middle class people. We have on occasion had people struggle with our accent but nothing like the folk of Washington, D.C. I think the city's have a slightly different accent to the suburbs and regions. The subway system here is great with the exception that the language spoken by the driver over the PA is an as yet to be deciphered dialect known to him and the city dwellers. We actually thought it was a private joke until we tried to order food and talk to other people on the street and realized that they really didn't understand us at all! I wondered if it was because DC was a place that had people from all over the country and the city accent was a giant mash up? You would think it make it easier!
The old part of the city is really a series of buildings dedicated to the founding presidents. They are pretty cool. Even as a visitor, I could understand the pride they feel from these places. Growing up in New Zealand, bring part of the British Commonwealth, all the stuff like this that mattered was in England and it didn't instill a 'national pride' thing in me than the Americans can get visiting these places. We had a look around on national Labor Day so the place was chokka. (We were on the steps of the Lincoln memorial with 1000's of people everywhere and Christine spots Rocky, the kiwi we met in Vermont hiking with his wife Ripper... crazy eh! )
Any president these days tries to do a good enough job to have a building named after them. Only 8 or 9 have! (conflicting info on that..) and I think you really have to be popular with the people and the cCongress as I understand they are the ones with the money! The newest one of these buildings is the Ronald Regain building. It too looks old....
So we had a morning to ourselves to do what we wanted. Well to go to a museum of our choice actually. Christine went to the natural history museum and I went to the national spy museum. A slightly controversial choice as her one was free, mine was not. I can tell you, we both learned some things we didn't know before. Who learned about Iceland and the Cold War?
The trip out however was still fun for us both and we went for a wander around before going back to the hotel. The DC subway is a really great system! Backed by by a bus network above ground that takes the same card, getting anywhere is easy. ALL of this made possible because things like Google, hotels.com Trip Adviser and the like are set up to work the best right here in the USA and where best but right in the heart of this place, DC... But really, using google here has been a bit of a revelation. Every building and business is mapped and every street and road is monitored. We used it everywhere we went and often commented to each other how much easier if was to use than in New Zealand or Australia. We are hoping the UK and Europe will be as good!
We did lots of things while we were in DC. The only thing we did again and again though was swim in the hotel pool. Most days the temperature was around 30 degrees and above. Not sure on the humidity but it was hot and uncomfortable for most of the day until we jumped into that pool. The hotel was a Marriott but an older one and not for leisure, but more for business customers. It had an entire exhibition hall in the middle of the 2 wings. Having said that, it was Labor Day weekend so it was full of families taking advantage of the special deal that got us to stay too. It was nice, really nice even though we had to dodge food trays and empty champagne bottles in the hallway all weekend. Even hotel staff have time off?
Then without warning we had to go. Not just to the next town, city or shelter... but we were leaving the USA. Actually we did have warning but I chose to ignore it. The last thing we chose to do in the USA was go on another hike. This was a small one compared to the last two... Just an hour or 2 along the Potomac tow path with our hiking buddy Lumberjack. It was great for a couple of reasons. Good to be hiking, good to catch up with Lumberjack but it was sad to be leaving the US all the same. We have really enjoyed the US and absolutely plan on returning...soon!
it's Our Epic Trip...
David & Christine are from New Zealand and are embarking on a trip around the world the slow way, on foot and by personal vehicle. This could get interesting!