The story of the ‘Heroes of Telemark’ is one of my favourite adventure stories. The true story (as opposed to the confection of nonsense filmed by a Hollywood studio and starring Kirk Douglas) is told best by Knut Haukelid, one of the participants, in his book ‘Skis Against The Atom.’
Knut and a select group of Norwegian commandoes from the British-run ‘Special Operations Executive’ parachuted onto the Hardanger Plateau in Norway in October 1942. Their orders were to prepare for the arrival of a much larger force of British Commandoes, who would arrive at a later date by glider.
The plan was that these British Commandoes, guided by the Norwegians, would raid the hydro-electric facility at Vemork and destroy the ‘heavy water’ manufacturing equipment inside. It was a mission of almost inexpressible importance, as ‘Heavy water’ is a vital ingredient in the manufacture of atomic weapons. That Hitler never managed to develop an atomic weapon is due, at least in significant part, to the efforts of the ‘Heroes of Telemark’.

The original plan, however, was to meet with tragic disaster. The gliders, being towed by Halifax bombers, hit bad weather on the flight over from Scotland and crashed far from their intended rendezvous. Those who were not killed in the crashes were interrogated, then murdered by the Gestapo.
The Norwegians went on to spend the winter living high on the plateau, hiding from the Nazis. Their survival skills were tested to the maximum as they contended with bitterly cold temperatures and a severe shortage of food. Eventually, they were reduced to living on lichen scraped from the frozen ground.
At last, in the February of 1943, six more Norwegian commandos parachuted onto the Hardangervidda. This tiny band of men then carried out an audacious raid on the plant at Vemork, successfully destroying the heavy water manufacturing equipment inside. A hair-raising chase ensued and the team split up to make their escape, vanishing into the heart of the plateau they knew so well.

The story of the raid is a story that resonates with all the qualities of classic heroism - sacrifice, endurance, bravery, comradeship and humility. It is a story that fascinated me as a child and still does today. It is, perhaps, the perfect adventure story.

November 2003

I was in Sheffield and I was bored. I looked out of my window. It seemed to have been raining for months. I missed the mountains. I missed empty spaces. There were too many people here. People everywhere. I mean they were perfectly nice, as people go, but there were just too damn many of them. Too many cars on the roads, too many shoppers in the supermarket; even too many people in the bloomin’ countryside. Too many people doing too many things in too little space.
I peered again through the window at the soggy English twilight. Still raining.
The TV sat silently in the corner. There would be nothing worth watching. Five whole channels of total rubbish. My eyes swept the room and fell upon my bookshelves.
Great books, but I’d read every last one. I wandered over anyway, in case I fancied reading any of them for a second, or third, time. I ran my fingernail along the spines; it made a ‘tuk-tuk-tuk’ noise as it jumped from book to book. I stopped and peered closely at one faded spine amongst a shelf of faded spines.
‘Skis Against The Atom’ it said, and I smiled. I pulled it from between its brothers and retreated to the sofa. I didn’t read it, not properly; I just leafed through it reading short passages - reminding myself of the most exciting bits.
I looked outside again at the rain soaked, leaf strewn street, where huddled forms in long coats hurried, shoulders hunched against the cold and damp of the British autumn. The streetlights were flickering on uncertainly and cracks of yellow light shone in the curtained windows of people’s houses. I grimaced into the gloom.
“Nuts to this," I growled, "I’m off to the Hardangervidda.”

I couldn’t leave at once of course. I would have to research my destination, book flights, look out my mountaineering gear and would probably have to buy some new kit too - I’d never been anywhere quite as cold as the Hardangervidda. Oh yes… and I’d have to learn how to ski.
The Hardangervidda is a vast mountainous plateau in central Norway, indeed it is the largest in Europe, covering 6500 square kilometres. It is, in effect, another world elevated 1000 metres above our own, locked in a bitter winter for six months of the year. The famous Norwegian explorers Amundsen and Nansen both went there to train and prepare for polar expeditions. In winter, skiing is the only sensible way to get around.

I was not down-hearted, however. It was the end of November and my research indicated that the best time to visit the Hardangervidda was in spring. April and May gave the best combination of daylight hours, fine weather and good skiing. The grip of the British Autumnal Depression that held me meant I couldn’t wait till May, so I booked my flights for the middle of April. That gave me four months to learn how to ski.
I bent to the task of preparing for my little personal expedition in a manner that may (or may not) have impressed Amundsen himself, enrolling myself in ski lessons at Sheffield Ski Villlage, a dry ski slope on the other side of town. Unfortunately, a severe inflexibility in my hips (which I would later learn was due to osteo-arthritis) meant I couldn’t properly perform a ‘snowplough’ - that most basic of skiing manoeuvres. Fortunately, several seasons of snowboarding compensated for this disability and I was soon performing the ugliest parallel turns the world has ever seen.

Equipment was the next priority. The Hardanger is a harsh, unforgiving place and I could make no compromises in this regard. Luckily, I already had most of the gear I needed; the mountaineering kit I’d used in other parts of the world would also be suitable for the Hardangervidda.
The only things I really needed were snow-pegs for my tent and a new down jacket. My old one had been on its last legs for years and emitted clouds of feathers every time I moved. By flapping my arms vigorously and squawking I could do quite a passable impression of an angry chicken. A trawl of the January sales provided me with a toasty sleeping bag of a jacket made right there in Sheffield.

Despite not being a skier, I did own a pair of skis. They were a pair of monstrously long Volkl touring skis with vintage Silvretta 404 bindings, which had been very generously given to me by a friend. I bought a pair of the cheapest Scarpa touring boots I could find and was ready for action.
Finally, I sent a group email to my friends. In it, I championed the great and noble rewards of adventurous endeavour. The glory of hard won achievements, the satisfaction of demanding work in the toughest of environments and the opportunity to exhibit stoicism in the face of bitter hardship. I also waxed lyrical on the beauty of the frozen plateau and harsh purity of its frigid landscape. There were no people on the Hardangervidda and none of the vapid comforts of bourgeois civilisation. Just us, our wits and the minimal equipment in our packs. Wouldn’t it be great?
I expected a clamorous reply, eager pledges to join my expedition or die in emasculated shame. I checked my inbox daily.


Dammit. I should have promised them soft beds, good food and pretty girls. Oh well, you live and learn.

Four months later I was there, taking the tiny antique cable car that climbed about two thirds of the way to the plateau from the valley. Below me - a white zigzag among the dark pine trees - was the track that the ‘Heroes of Telemark’ had used to escape to the plateau immediately after their successful raid on Vemork Hydro. Next to me in the cable car, however, was something even more diverting. Dressed in a blue cotton parka and woollen mittens, was one of the most beautiful girls I’d ever seen.
“Hello.” I said, with a hint of Sean Connery about my accent. “Where are you off to?”
“We,” she indicated her friends, “are off to spend the night in a snow hole on the plateau.”
Good God. I had found my perfect woman.
“I shee. That shounds wonderful.”
“And you?” she asked.
“I’m planning to shpend shix days up there. Although, I have a tent.” I said, as though my tiny nylon shelter was an Aston Martin DB7.

All too soon the cable car reached its destination and the Scandinavian beauty and her friends were attaching their Nordic skis and setting off with light over-night rucksacks towards the plateau. Stepping in to my heavy alpine skis and shouldering my enormous pack I made a valiant effort to keep up, but true love soon disappeared into the gathering dusk and I was left alone, making my lonely way up into the vastness of the plateau.
This was the first time I’d ever skied on snow, the first time I’d skied wearing a pack and the first time I’d ever used my inherited vintage touring skis. In fact it was the first time I’d ever been ski touring. A lot of firsts, I reflected, for the start of a six day expedition into the heart of Europe’s largest mountain plateau.

I wasn’t completely unprepared, however. Over the years I had climbed a lot of mountains in a lot of different places and was more than comfortable travelling and sleeping in alpine environments. As long as I didn’t mess up a turn and break my leg I should be fine.
I reached the edge of the plateau just as night was falling and realised I’d better pitch my tent before it got dark. Finding a suitably sheltered spot, I un-shouldered my pack, stamped down the snow with my skis and pitched my tent. As a precaution, I also piled up a little snow in a low wall around the tent to act as a wind-break.
I was knackered. It had been a long day; a five hour bus trip from Oslo, followed by a two mile run in ski boots to catch the last cable car, then a long climb to the plateau above. Not to mention the stress of so many new experiences in such an unforgiving environment.
I forced myself to cook up some pasta for dinner then climbed into my sleeping bag. It was a calm night; the merest wind rippling the flysheet of my tent as I drifted off to sleep. I was very tired and my shoulders still ached from the unaccustomed weight of my pack, but I was very satisfied. I had made it, I was on the plateau. For the next six days I would be adrift in an endless white landscape. No particular place to go, no definite destination to head for. Just a pair of skis, a pack full of gear and a vast area of wilderness to explore.

The next morning I woke with the sudden recollection that I was somewhere special. The cold pinched at my face and a soft white light illuminated my cramped nylon world. I could hear the hiss of minute particles of ice being blown against the flysheet. I was really here! I was thrilled by the fact that I was on the Hardanger plateau, a place that had held an almost mythical status for me since childhood. It was like being in the Congo, up Everest or on the South China Sea.
The day was cold and low cloud limited the visibility a little, but I could still see a short distance through the mist. The plateau seemed to consist of a treeless, undulating landscape of rolling hills and low crags. Everything lay under a thick blanket of pristine snow. I set off north, straight towards the heart of the plateau.
I needn’t have worried about my lack of skiing ability. The going was easy, even for someone as hopeless as I was. I skied along, the only sound the clack of my binding at the end of each sliding footstep.
It was an extraordinary experience, travelling across the plateau. It was so unlike anywhere I’d ever been before. I felt so small, so unutterably insignificant and began to imagine how I must look from afar - a tiny speck in a sea of white, barely moving against the immeasurable enormity of the frozen landscape.
My route took me over low hills and along a wide valley, across a frozen lake and on into the wilderness. When I stopped for lunch the silence astounded me. There really was no noise out here at all. Nothing. Not the faintest whisper of sound. The vulgar crunch and squelch of my mastication seemed loud enough to echo from the surrounding hills.

That evening I arrived at my destination early enough to pitch my tent a little more thoroughly, as I planned to spend a couple of nights at this location. I dug down a foot or so into the snow and stamped out a flat platform. The tent was pitched as before, using my shiny new snow pegs and my ice axe and shovel to secure guy lines.
Having done this, I selected a nearby snowdrift and cut out blocks using my snow saw. These I used to construct a wall around my tent. By the time I had finished you could only just make out the top of the tent above the wall. I was to become very pleased I had taken the trouble.
Tired as before, I cooked up some pasta, read some of my book (Ray Mears ‘The Real Heroes of Telemark’ - a fine read if you are interested) and fell into a deep sleep.

The first I knew of the new day was the whip and crack of the tent shaking in a strong wind. It was bitterly cold and the inside of my tent was covered with a thick layer of frost. Every time I moved a white cascade would fall onto my sleeping bag. This was to be avoided, as I knew the frost would eventually melt and make the down in my sleeping bag wet - which would render it almost useless as an insulator.
Lying still, I listened to the wind howling across the plateau and tearing at the flysheet of my tent. Despite only a few inches of it sticking out above the thick wall of snow blocks, the tent was rattling and snapping vigorously. I dreaded to think what would be happening if I had not bothered to build the wall.
Eventually, despite the cramped nature of my one man tent, I managed to manoeuvre myself and my sleeping bag into my gore-tex bivibag. This would protect the bag from the frost, keeping it dry and warm. Having done so, I unzipped the door and took a look at the day.
It was as grim as it sounded from inside the tent. The plateau was shrouded in thick mist, reducing the visibility to a few metres, and a violent wind shrieked across the plateau. My face was battered with spindrift as soon as I stuck it out the door and I withdrew it quickly, shivering with distaste at the weather.
Retreating into the depths of my sleeping bag, I considered my position. The weather was far too foul to go anywhere today. However, I had food, coffee, a warm sleeping bag and a good book to read, so all was not lost. With a certain cosy satisfaction, I settled down to make the most of my stormbound day.

The bad weather continued for the rest of the day. The wind flung waves of spindrift over the protective snow-wall and my little enclosure began to fill up. At about 3 pm I had to get up to shovel out the snow that had collected and was threatening to collapse the tent.
It wasn’t till evening that the wind died away and the visibility improved. As the sun set it lit the clouds with a pale pink light and I felt a little more optimistic about tomorrow.
“Red sky at night…” I said to myself and ducked back ‘indoors’, before I got too cold.

Sure enough, the next day was entirely different. If anything, it felt even colder and there was still a brisk wind threatening frostbite to exposed skin; but climbing from the white horizon shone a painfully bright sun and only the faintest rags of high altitude cloud hung in the clear blue sky. With sunglasses protecting my eyes from the brutal glare and with every inch of my skin covered, I set off to explore the plateau.
Surveying the map, I picked out a peak that stood out higher than any of those around it. The undulating nature of the plateau meant it was difficult to see great distances and I wanted to find a vantage point where I could really appreciate the scale of the plateau.

It took me the morning to reach its lower slopes. It was a magical morning, skiing across a pure white landscape under the azure dome of the sky. The sun glistened from ice crystals in the snow, making it look like the Hardangervidda had been sprinkled with microscopic diamonds. In exposed places the wind picked up the tiny broken shards of snowflakes and blew them across the plateau at ankle height until they came to rest in a hollow or joined up to form long, delicate sastrugi.

None of the peaks of the Hardangervidda rise very far above the plateau and it was only a short distance to the top. As I climbed however, the wind strengthened and the cold became even more intense. I had to I stop to put on my new down jacket and a pair of thick mittens.
It was approaching 1 pm as I skied the last few yards to the summit. A rocky outcrop promised to provide just enough shelter for a comfortable lunch. Overhead the sky was still clear, deep blue and all around was the ubiquitous pristine blanket of white snow. For the first time since I’d arrived on the plateau I could see for miles. Indeed, it almost seemed like I could see to the edge of the world.
To the south, amongst a vast landscape of rolling white peaks, I could just about make out the dark scar in which Vemork and the neighbouring town of Rjukan lay. To the north lay the isolated heart of the Hardangervidda. I could see hundreds of square kilometres with a single sweep of the eyes, but I could not see a single human being.
There would be other people of course, Norwegian ski-tourers exploring the desolate heart of their most beautiful country. But I could not see them, not a single soul in all this wilderness. It was as though the Hardangervidda was mine and mine alone.
The snap decision to come here had seemed absurd at first, even to me. I couldn’t ski, no-one I knew wanted to come with me and all I knew about the place I had learned from a book about a World War Two commando mission. My decision had been made in impetuous ignorance; not so much based on a desire to come to the Hardangervidda but on a desire not to be in Sheffield on a rainy November evening.
As I stood on that wind-torn summit, however, I knew the decision had been the right one. I was in one of the most spectacular wildernesses I had ever seen. All around me was natural grandeur - beautiful, awe inspiring and severe. Despite the constant wind and the biting cold, I felt supremely comfortable here. I had travelled a long way to an entirely unfamiliar place - to suddenly find myself at home.


The Cairngorm Circuit


We had discussed heading up to Aviemore in the early morning. Neil had suggested mysterious and mythological times like six and seven a.m. I had considered explaining to him that these times only existed in the imaginations of mathematicians and physicists like Stephen Hawking, but decided to flex the muscles of my greater mountaineering experience instead.
“Mountaineering,” I said, steepling my fingers and staring up at the ceiling as though sifting through the archives of an enormous bank of knowledge, “is a gentleman’s activity – and gentlemen do not get out of bed before eight a.m.”
This was, of course, nonsense. Mountaineering is far from a gentleman’s activity, being crammed to the rafters with charlatans, bullies, wastrels and arrogant fools. Many of whom rise on the wrong side of four a.m. in order to summit some Alpine or Himalayan peak.
Indeed, in such circumstances, the wisest option is to get up in the middle of the night in order to get up and down your chosen mountain before the melting effect of the sun causes you to get killed by an avalanche, collapsing serac or falling rock. What I had meant was I am a gentleman, and I do not get out of bed before eight a.m.

So, somewhere at the back of nine on Saturday morning, we climbed into my trusty old Citroen and left for the mountains. By the time we arrived in the car park of Cairngorm Ski Centre it was approaching noon, which is, by any standards, a thoroughly civilised time to set out on a mountaineering expedition.
The packs we swung onto our backs were heavy; it was winter and our intention was to spend that night in a snow-hole. Along with the usual accoutrements of winter mountaineering, such as warm clothes, ice axe and crampons; we had sleeping bags, bivi bags, a snow shovel, a stove and cooking equipment, sachets of easy cook pasta and a packet of hotdogs.
We took the Fiachaill ridge to the plateau, passing the few skiers who had bothered to show up to take advantage of the thin covering of icy snow. The lack of snow was a little bit of a worry, in fact, in that our shelter for the night relied on us finding a sufficient thickness to dig a snow-hole in.

We strode on, however, pinning our hopes on optimism. Our outline plan was to cross the Cairngorm plateau to Ben Macdui and snow-hole somewhere nearby. The following day we would drop down into the Lairig Ghru, that most famous of passes through the cairngorms, then climb up the other side to the summits of Cairn Toul and Braeriach. If there was not enough snow for a hole near Ben Macdui, we could always drop down into the Lairig Ghru that evening and stay in the Corrour bothy.
By the time we reached the plateau, the weather had closed in and the sky had filled with grey cloud. A freezing wind tugged at our clothes and nipped our faces and the air was heavy with moisture. Before long the cloud had dropped to envelop us, reducing the visibility to a few metres. Pulling out compasses, we set our bearing and walked on it, heading for the summit of Macdui.
We entered a strange white world without horizons: no land or sky, no distance or perspective. Just us, the crunch of the snow under our feet and the soft moan of the wind. It was as though the rest of the world did not exist, like it had vanished - to leave us tramping forever through the infinite mist.
Occasionally we would cross an area where the wind had scoured the snow from the plateau to reveal the granite boulders, moss and stunted grass below. These moments were curiously comforting; reminding us that there really was a mountain below our boots.

It is in just such conditions, so the legend goes, that the Old Grey Man of Ben Macdui appears. A mountaineer will be crossing the plateau in thick mist, marching on a bearing like we were doing. At first he will simply hear the occasional clatter of stone hitting stone, which, if he thinks about it at all, he will dismiss as rock-fall on one of the nearby cliffs.
Then, with a sudden tightening of the scalp, he will realise that the sound he can hear is footsteps. Not the short, unsteady footfall of a man walking over uneven ground, but the slow, rhythmic thumping of something inhuman. The footsteps approach fast: deliberate, menacing - heavy with diabolical purpose. There is nowhere to hide. The mountain is a cold and barren place, devoid of sanctuary from the horror that approaches - and many miles from the succour of humanity.
The mountaineer turns from the sinister footsteps, hurrying away from them. An icy hand caresses his pounding heart as he realises he is being pursued. He takes to his heels, but the footsteps continue to follow, getting closer and closer. Turning, the fleeing mountaineer sees vague shapes in the mist. A bounding creature, running upright, flailing limbs casting dark shadows across the clouds. Twelve feet tall - or twenty - it gains inexorably on the helpless mountaineer.
There can be only one outcome. The pursued man is driven into a madness of fear. Panic seizes him and he careers onwards; over moss, heather and broken rocks. Suddenly he finds himself on a steep slope of scree, tumbling downwards and out of control. He digs in his heels and scrabbles in futile desperation at the rocks with torn nails and bleeding fingers. He is over the cliffs of Lurcher’s crag before he even knows it - and falling through space to his death.

“Did you just hear something?” said Neil, scratching the end of his nose with his free hand and gesturing towards the south with his compass.
“No.” I said firmly and looked down to study the map. “Shouldn’t be far now.”
Sure enough, within ten minutes a jumble of boulders indicated that we had reached the summit of Ben Macdui, Scotland’s second highest mountain. Huddled in a crude roofless shelter of drystane walls, we pulled out the stove and brewed up. If ever there was a time for a nice hot cup of tea, this was it.
It had to be said, it wasn’t looking very promising on the snow-holing front. There was certainly lots of snow around, but no-where was it very thick. Certainly, we had not found any deep drifts suitable for burrowing into and spending the night. We decided to carry on down into the Lairig Ghru and stay at the Corrour bothy. If we found a suitable spot for a snow-hole on the way, so much the better.

We did not, however, find a suitable spot and an hour or so later we were crunching up an icy path to the door of the bothy. I flicked the latch and pushed; the door opened with a dull screech and a wave of warm air. Inside, it was busy with mountaineers and alive with conversation. There were six of them in all, enough to make the small stone building feel quite cramped.
A roaring fire was crackling in the grate, however, and a chorus of friendly ‘hallos’ greeted our entrance. We were damn glad to stop walking and this was a damn pleasant place to do it. After what felt like a woefully inadequate dinner of pasta ‘n sauce accompanied with hot dogs and Cadbury’s fruit and nut (not in the same bowl) we started thinking about sleeping arrangements.
It was clear the bothy would be a warm but cramped and noisy place to spend the night. And, no doubt, some of the otherwise personable residents would be the kind of mountaineer that indulged in the thuggery of early morning starts. Crashing about making breakfast, coughing and talking in hoarse whispers at some god-forsaken hour while more civilised types were trying to get some sleep.
I stuck my head out of the door and looked skyward. The cloud had cleared to leave a broad expanse of stars stretching from one mountainous horizon to other. It was cold, sure, but that was why I’d had spent such a ridiculous amount of money on a down sleeping bag and Gore-tex bivibag.
“I’m sleeping outside.” I announced, re-entering the warm fug of the bothy.
“Good idea.” Concurred Neil, who knows one when he sees one. “Me too.”

So we dragged our packs outside and unrolled our sleeping mats, bivibags and sleeping bags in the snow-frosted heather.
“Did you bring a hip-flask?” I asked, fingering my own, nestled in the chest pocket of my salopettes.
“Pff!” Replied Neil, who clearly did not think the question needed to be asked.
“What have you got?” he asked.
“Nice. I’ve got Lagavulin.”
“Still, the Jura is a nice, warming whisky on a cold night.”

We stripped down to our thermals, stuffed our clothes in our packs and climbed shivering into our sleeping bags. There is no feeling quite like crawling into a down sleeping bag on a winter’s night in the wilderness. The soft folds of taffeta nylon envelop you as your body heat slowly warms the bag up. Around your face the air is cold and crisp and smells of snow.
You rub your arms and legs together and wriggle your toes in your woollen socks. As the warmth of your body begins to permeate the bag you can feel the stiffness in the muscles of your legs and shoulders relax. At last you can stop working; stop moving and thinking. Stop and simply reflect upon the day. Feel warm and dry and comfortable at last.
I unscrewed the lid of my hip-flask and took a little sip, feeling the heat of it on my lips. I’d already added a drop of water so it was just the way I like it. I lay back and stared at the stars, holding the whisky in my mouth, savouring the taste.
“Beautiful night.”
“Aye.” There was silence for a while.

“Oh, look,” said Neil, “there’s the pole star.”
“Where?” For all my ‘greater mountaineering experience’, I didn’t know how to find the pole star in the night sky.
Neil’s arm appeared from the folds of his bivibag.
“See the plough, there?”
“See the two stars at the end of the… sort of square bit?”
“Well, follow those up and the pole star is the first bright star you come to.”
“Oh yeah!”
I was very pleased. There it was; a shining beacon over the crest of the Lairig Ghru, pointing the way north. This kind of learning in the field was the kind you don’t forget. Indeed, I can still see it, in my mind’s eye. The bright star filled sky and the silver, snow covered peaks gleaming softly in the moonlight. I can still smell the whisky and the heather and the frozen snow and still feel the luxurious warmth of that expensive down sleeping bag. And I remember, like it was yesterday, the sense of perfect contentment I felt as sleep overcame me.

The following morning the weather was still settled as we headed up the corrie to the north of the Devil’s Point. A pale blue sky, with a gossamer of thin, high-altitude clouds, held the promise of a fine day ahead.
A short, sharp ascent of about 450 metres took us up to the edge of the plateau. One moment, we were climbing slowly up a steep path on a precipitous mountainside, the next we were standing on the plateau; a wide vista of snow covered mountains below us. It is one of the great pleasures of mountaineering, that sudden change of perspective - from climbing below the mountain to standing on top of it.
After pausing for a while to appreciate the surroundings, we carried on, heading along the edge of the mighty cliffs that form the western side of the Lairig Ghru. It surely must be one of the finest walks in Scotland, that airy route from the Devil’s Point, past Cairn Toul and onto Braeriach.
By the time we reached the summit of Breariach, the cloud above us had thickened into a luminous blanket of rippling silver and grey. To the west, a sun of pale gold was heading for the horizon, taking its meagre warmth with it.
It was a long descent into the Lairig Ghru; my shoulders ached from the weight of my pack and my legs began to feel weak at the knees. We knew we had not brought enough food and it was now that I began to feel the consequences. I was tired and sore and wanted more than anything to be sat in a warm chip shop with a mince pie and chips in front of me. Brown sauce? Just on the chips, please. Anything to drink? Irn Bru… mmm…

Eventually, long after dark, we reached the bottom of the valley. Now, we just had to climb back out of it. Up a steep path to the Chalamain Gap, a narrow, boulder strewn defile through the hills to the east. We jumped from boulder to boulder on rubbery legs by the swaying, yellow light of our head torches.
And on, along an endless path through the heather. We could see lights now, the soft orange glow of streetlamps in Aviemore and the flickering yellow headlights of cars sweeping along tree-lined roads. We were on the home stretch. Down again, to a stream, and then up, one last time, to reach the road.
A final kilometre back to the car-park at the ski station. The asphalt road felt absurdly hard underfoot, every step a painful jolt to the bruised soles of my feet. My shoulders ached, my legs wobbled, my stomach growled for food.
There was the car, parked in lonely isolation in the middle of the car-park. Everyone else had gone home long ago. I had clean jeans in the boot, an old t-shirt and a warm jumper, even an old pair of cotton socks. Bliss.
We threw one rucksack in the boot, one in the back seat (it was a small car) and we were ready to go.
“Chips?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Oh, aye!” came the reply. “Definitely getting chips!”

The Hidden Kingdom


Kathmandu came as a breath of fresh air. Which, given that it is one of the world’s most polluted cities, is rather ironic. I had just arrived from the cloying, clamouring, deafening tumult of Delhi with its maddening touts and unbearable heat and, in comparison, Kathmandu seemed like a relaxing provincial get-away.
I was thoroughly enjoying the place - taxi drivers took me where I asked, touts left me alone after the first ‘no thanks’ and death did not stalk the streets in the guise of insane Indian motorists. By the time I had managed to buy myself some prescription glasses for the equivalent of five pounds, I had already decided this was one of my favourite cities on earth.

The people of Kathmandu seemed like a cheerful bunch - smiling, laughing and genuinely friendly. Whilst many of them would be abjectly poor by European standards, they appeared to be much happier and healthier than the people of Delhi, so many of whom had seemed haunted and hopeless - with vacant stares and troubled frowns.
The highlight, for me, was on the third day. I spent the day walking around the city on the hunt for temples. Which, to be fair, is not terribly difficult as Kathmandu is absolutely heaving with the things. The most interesting - high on a hill overlooking the city - was the temple of Hanuman, the monkey god. A long, steep stone staircase, polished smooth by centuries of footfall, led up out of the city to its tree lined tranquillity.
At the top I paused to catch my breath and survey the multitudinous forest of low buildings that was Kathmandu. To the north, a thin mist shrouded the furthest suburbs and reached out in long fingers to the foothills of the Himalayas. Turning, I examined the temple I had climbed up here to see. In the centre of the complex was a vast structure with pagodic roofs and hung with prayer flags. Around its base were lines of prayer wheels,some still spinning from the last reverential Buddhist who had passed by.
In alcoves sat, with beatific indifference, golden statues of the Buddha - each sprinkled liberally with offerings of food and flowers. Rhesus monkeys, whose temple this was after all, relieved the statues of the more flavoursome of the offerings. Seeming not realise their god-given right to this religious fare, they snuck forward with all the melodrama of theatrical thievery, throwing furtive glances like villains in a silent movie.
I walked around this structure (clockwise, as is the custom) and came to another set of stone steps that led to a grandly pillared doorway. Inside was another Buddha, like the others only a great deal bigger. About him were many garlands of flowers and in the air hung the strong scent of incense. Somewhere, from the bowels of the temple behind, rose the deep rhythmic chanting of monks at prayer. Soon, the clanging of gongs and the great, deep bellow of a horn brought the mild intrigue of the mysterious chanting into the realms of extraordinary spectacle. I stood enchanted, my hard-nosed western cynicism broken by the spell of eastern mysticism for a brief, wonderful moment.
As I stepped back outside, a sudden monsoon downpour was hammering the earth into submission. With a ‘click’ and a ‘pop’, my folding umbrella went up and I stepped into the maelstrom. I took a photo as the late afternoon sun gleamed brightly from the wet stones, statues and plinths; and then another from the walls - of the lush Kathmandu valley - glistening green and wet below. I then headed for my hotel, pleased with my days work and thinking about curry.

I woke suddenly - aware that something was wrong. What was it? I felt too hot… but then I’d been too hot almost constantly since I stepped off the plane at the airport. This was different though; my sheets were wringing wet with sweat and the room seemed to be moving. “Oh God…”

A staggering run took me along the rolling corridor to the toilet. “Oh…”



“Aaa-ha… eghh… Hack! Hack! … splut …”

Oh, man that was bad. That was real bad… wait a minute… oh God, not the other end too…

Food poisoning is pretty bad even when you don’t have to get up at 4.30 am to catch a bus to Tibet. I had to get up at 4.30 am to catch a bus to Tibet.
When I read my diary entry for that day, I impress even myself with the restraint of my understatement.

“Getting up at 4.30 am was somewhat of a trial.”

In actual fact it was a bleeding nightmare. I had stopped ‘evacuating’ approximately two hours before and was, in effect, simply eighty kilos of human wreckage. I poured myself onto the bus like a homeward bound Glaswegian at Kings Cross after a disastrous Scotland game at Wembley (only rather less self-pityingly voluble), found a quiet looking seat, and collapsed into a state of grateful unconsciousness.
The bus was a huge Tata juggernaut, with raised suspension and massive off road tyres. It looked like something one might use to find the source of the Amazon. It was to be my first clue that the optimistically named ‘Friendship Highway’ between Kathmandu and Lhasa may not be a smooth ribbon of carefully maintained tarmac.
I remained asleep for a short, glorious while, but the road was rough and soon I was shaken into wakefulness. We wound slowly upwards through hills and forests for a few hours, until we reached a point where the bus could go no further. A landslide had swept away a section of the road and there was no question that anything short of a land-rover could have crossed the debris.
So I, and the other passengers on the bus, shouldered our packs and scrambled over the jumble of rocks, mud and broken trees. There were several landslides on this section of road and we had to hike a little way before we reached a point where there was a truck ferrying people the last few kilometres to the border. It was a cattle truck, had no windows, and was pitch black inside. I couldn’t resist saying, after a few minutes of stygian silence:

“Lovely view…” in the gentle sarcasm of the British abroad.

Stepping down out of the darkness of the truck, we looked about us at the shabby collection of houses and shops which was the Nepalese side of the border. Standing around, in a rather listless manner, were the first Tibetans of my trip. They had almond eyes set in broad, flat faces which had been beaten into hard oaken lines by their environment. Their straight hair was knotted into braids and their clothing was worn and dusty, yet ornately traditional. They looked, it had to be admitted, both more serious and more exotic than my Nepalese friends.
We passed out of Nepal without much fuss, simply walking past a wooden pole slung across the road. The Tibetan side was both grander and more shambolic. Above our heads, in poorly set totalitarian concrete, loomed the Chinese customs building. At our feet flowed knee deep water. The heavy rains that had caused the landslides on the road to the border had also caused a landslide here. The falling mud and rocks had blocked a stream which had flooded the customs building. Tibet became the only country I have ever waded into.

The road which led on into Tibet was blocked and we had to detour through the surrounding forest. It was a hard scramble up a tiny track on a precipitously steep hillside. We pulled ourselves upwards, slipping on the mud, and hauling ourselves hand over hand through the undergrowth. It took us nearly two hours to reach a point where the Toyota Landcruiser that had been booked by the tour company could pick us up.
Finally in the transport that would take me to Lhasa, I relaxed a little. After hardly any sleep and a night of vicious food poisoning, the journey had taken a lot out of me. A little way up the road we came to another Customs building, where we were given our visas. Soon we were driving up a spectacular road into the heart of Tibet.

The ‘Friendship Highway’, as the main road between Kathmandu and Lhasa is called, was little more than a rough track through the mountains, but the surroundings were truly spectacular. Our road lay on the mountainside like a ribbon dropped from above. Thick, dark green vegetation clung to the steep cliffs that dropped thousands of feet to the valley floor and climbed thousands more above. The white water of powerful streams tumbled noisily down boulder strewn crags and fell in long, drifting waterfalls that roared endlessly into oblivion below. Tibet, I reflected, was the most vertical country I had ever seen.
The valley, our entry-route into this mysterious land, was filled with wreathes of pale mist that obscured the mountainsides. As we drove higher, darkness fell and the country was hidden from us completely. All we could see under the dark night sky, were the hulking silhouettes of high mountains. Coming into Tibet had not just been the toughest border crossing I’d ever done, it had been the most dramatic, the most atmospheric and the most tantalising. The Hidden Kingdom awaited.

After spending a restless night in the tiny, flea-blown hamlet of Nyalam, I piled into my Landcruiser with the other tourists who had bought their tickets for this journey. We were a pretty sorry looking lot, most of us already suffering from altitude sickness. However, we were at 3500 metres above sea-level, a respectable height for an alpine mountain, so perhaps it was not surprising.
This was, nevertheless, far from the highest altitude we would reach that day. Our road seemed to wind on through an increasingly dry and barren landscape, gaining height continuously. It seemed absurd that after several hours we were still going up. After some time we eventually reached the top of the Lalung-la pass. There was no view, unfortunately, just a thick grey mist which obscured everything. We got out of the Landcruiser anyway, glad to stretch our legs and try to clear our heads of the altitude induced fug. A pole stood here, marking the top of the pass, strung with hundreds of prayer flags. They hung limply, jewelled with tiny dew-drops; resting before the next high altitude winds that would beat and tear at them and try to rip them into the heavens. We were 5050 metres above sea level - and still not the highest we would be that day.
As we descended from the Lalungla, we began to see some traditional Tibetan homes squatting by the roadside; tiny collections of square white buildings with flat roofs and painted with thick red and dark blue stripes. Soon, we drove into a slightly larger collection of buildings, but still no bigger than a hamlet. This was Tingri, the famous starting point for expeditions heading for Everest.
We stopped for lunch here, crowding into the darkly cosy interior of one of the buildings that lined the main road. The walls were hung with fabric and low seats and tables formed a square around a cast iron stove in the centre of the room. Small, wide-eyed faces of children appeared at the windows, noses pressed against the grubby panes, then disappeared in fits of giggles as we smiled and waved at them. They ran off into the dusty street; off in the direction of fun, adventure and mischief.
After Tingri the road got worse. The same rains that had caused the landslides at the border had turned the road here into a sticky quagmire. Nearing the top of the Gyatso-la it became almost impassable; indeed two of the army style trucks they have here had found it so and their unfortunate owners stood around staring disconsolately at their immovable bulk. Eventually the road got so bad that we had to get out and walk for half an hour as the driver tried to manoeuvre the landcruiser along the muddy ruts.
Night was falling when we reached the top of the pass, the highest point we would reach that day - indeed the highest point of the journey - at 5220 metres. I would like to be able to say something like - ‘I looked around me at the high mountains and felt balanced on the cusp of two worlds; that of the high places: wild, savage and unspoilt, and that of humanity: the fragile communities huddled in sheltered valleys’, but in reality I just stared into the darkness and felt sick.
By the time we reached Lhatse, and found a guesthouse to spend the night in, we were all thoroughly exhausted. We collapsed into bed; eating nothing, washing nothing, thinking nothing. It had taken us fourteen gruelling hours to cover two hundred and eighty five kilometres.
The following morning, after some Tibetan bread, jam, a boiled egg and several cups of coffee, we were a much happier bunch of travellers. We were starting to get used to the altitude and become hardened to the constant bumping and rolling of the land cruisers on the uneven roads. Tempers shortened slightly after about thirty minutes when we got a puncture and then discovered our radiator was emptying itself over the road, but it was a minor inconvenience and soon we were moving again.
The road soon became much better and save for a few spots where the outer edge had collapsed into a ravine or where a new river was flowing through it, it was actually in quite good condition. We crossed over the Yalung-la and down into an ever widening valley. Suddenly Tibet became far greener and the road travelled straight and fast towards Xigatse, where we were to spend the night.
Sharing the road were just three types of motorised transport: trucks, tractors and land cruisers. Everything else was equine powered - donkeys or ponies pulling medieval looking carts. Surrounding the valley, hemming it in, were tall, dark mountains. The steep, jagged barrier encircled us, making us feel at once cut off from the outside world and yet privy to a fabulous secret.

The following day we arrived in Lhasa. After another long drive we rolled into the city’s outskirts at about 6.30 pm. The outskirts - modern and Chinese - were a disappointment after the crude rural idyll through which we had passed. Once we entered the heart of Lhasa, however, the architecture became older and more genuinely Tibetan. Suddenly, as we turned the corner of a city street we saw it: The Potala Palace.
The Potala has been called one of the great wonders of the world and, in that mesmerising moment, I would not have argued. It’s high walls rose in exquisite white majesty above the prostrate city. Resolute, unassailable and eternal - yet beautifully and divinely proportioned. I had travelled a long and difficult road to see it, and my tired eyes felt duly rewarded.
I spent the next eight days revelling in the extraordinary city of Lhasa. I wandered into the dark interior of the Jokhang Temple, where dozens of Buddhas sat enshrined in alcoves. Thousands of candles threw their flickering glow over the gold statues and their smoke hung in flat mist-like layers near the ceiling. In the main hall monks were praying - the familiar reverberating chant I had heard in Kathmandu. The noise resonated extraordinarily in the claustrophobic room; a chaotic maelstrom of sound that, nevertheless, had a richly harmonic, rhythmic quality.

I explored the city too, walking the streets with my camera. I meandered through the markets - markets aimed at Tibetans not tourists - and looked at the items for sale. Stainless steel cook-ware, plastic buckets, food and drink, votive candles and prayer flags. Occasionally a lady selling trinkets would approach and wave her wares in my direction. “Lookee, lookee, cheapy, cheapy… how are you? … I love you!”
I went to a nightclub, which was an interesting experience, and bought myself a Chinese watch for a couple of pounds. The food was a tricky one, as all the menus were in Chinese. Sometimes I’d just point at something at random on the menu. Other times I’d be taken into the kitchens, where I’d point at various things, mime a little stir-fry wrist action and waited to see what I got. It was nearly always extremely tasty, although I confess I could not manage more than a couple of mouthfuls of sheep’s lung.

And, of course, I went to the Potala. The Potala Palace is one of those structures that seems to seep history from every whitewashed stone, every polished cobble and every ancient timber. Climbing the steps to the entrance I could not help wondering what tumultuous events had occurred here - and what were still to come.
The steps carried on into the palace itself, up into dark passageways that came at last into the sunshine of the main courtyard. Like all the Buddhist monasteries I have ever seen, the Potala is incredibly colourful. Here, in contrast to the white walls and blue window frames of the exterior, the colour scheme was bright orange and deep black.
The rooms of the palace were no less vibrant. There were ochre yellows and burnt oranges, blue and red stripes running along the walls, floral patterns on the woodwork and bright purple ceiling rafters.
Perhaps the most impressive room was the main hall. Pillars, swathed in red fabric, rose high into the dusty light that seeped through windows set high in the roof above. This light dropped, as though pulled by gravity, to the floor in the centre of the room, leaving the extremities in dark, mysterious shadow. In these extremities were huge, dark doors that led into further rooms - lit by candle and arrayed with golden statues of past Lamas and, of course, of Buddha himself.
The Potala is enormous. There seems to be an endless number of rooms, filled with statues and stupas and memories of vanished devotion. This was, after all, the home of the Dalai Lama in exile. It was fascinating to walk through these empty, dusty rooms; to see the art and the architecture and the culture of the Tibetans. But this was a museum only, a glimpse into a past that had been. The Dalai Lama was elsewhere, and his home stood empty. Far below, in the Jokhang temple, Tibetan Buddhism was alive and well, but the Potala palace was a shell. A sad reminder of freedom lost.

At last, after what seemed an age, I came out on the roof. Above was a sky as blue as I remembered it and below was stretched out the city of Lhasa. I drank in the view, looking across the city at the vast mountains that enclosed this hidden kingdom. It was easy to forget that Lhasa was a city under occupation. There seemed, save for a few Chinese soldiers, so few of the trappings of oppression.
But the oppression was there all right. I had talked to the Tibetans and heard their stories. Heard of prison and beatings and summary justice. These mountains, these Himalayas, that had protected Tibet from invasion and colonisation for so long, had now become a liability. Their isolation meant they could be ignored. The Chinese could do what they liked here and no-one would ever pay any attention. Their plight was concealed from the world by their seclusion from it. Tibet was a beautiful, mysterious and subjugated land. A Hidden Kingdom indeed.


Desert Island by Bicycle


I found myself in Brisbane early one December; killing time between winters in New Zealand and Canada. I’d just flown out of New Zealand (without breaking my back) and was staying with friends in their large, timber, porch-laden house along with the three other young bums they had opened their endlessly generous doors to. The difficulty was that while Brisbane is a nice place; it is hardly thrilling. In fact the most interesting thing about Brisbane is the beach resort of Noosa - a two hour drive up the coast.
I spent a couple of weeks tooling about, running on the sea-front, riding pillion on a friends Vespa (we even went to Byron Bay on it), eating burgers with the works in Aussie cafés, going surfing up the coast and generally doing nothing in the sun. But a couple of weeks in and I was getting itchy feet. I had decided that I was going to spend Christmas with my Brisbane buddies, but was railing against the prospect of another three weeks of inactivity.
One day, while poking around my friend’s garden shed, I found a bicycle; an old, yellow road bike, with drop handlebars and ten gears. Buried under several centimetres of dust and cobwebs, with flat tires and rusting wheels, it looked a far from promising steed.
As I stared at it, however, a plan began to slowly formulate. Before I had decided that my life’s calling was that of a snowboard bum, I had worked as a mechanic in a bike shop in Sydney. Casting an expert eye over the beast before me I realised that new tyres, gear and brake cables, some fresh handlebar tape and a rear luggage rack would transform this bike into a vehicle that could carry me hundreds of kilometres. Away from the middle-class civility of Brisbane and on to new and unexpected adventures.
After a brief consultation of a road atlas, I had my plan. I would cycle the 450 km to Bundaberg, stopping en route to walk round Fraser Island for a few days. When I reached Bundaberg I would get a boat to Lady Musgrave Island - a tiny jewel of a desert island at the southernmost tip of the great barrier reef.
It sounded like a grand plan indeed. Little did I know it would show me an Australia that a whole year of living in Sydney had merely hinted at. It would show me its rural heart and its natural beauty. It would show me an Australia that went beyond surfing and smoothies and burgers with the works. Of all the time I would spend in Australia, the next three weeks would be the most inspiring, the most challenging and the most vividly memorable of all.

“You want to what?”
“I want to borrow the bike in your shed to cycle up the coast.”
“That thing? It’s buggered mate. Hasn’t moved in ten years. And you realise it’s the height of summer and this is Queensland? You wouldn’t get me riding a pushy for miles and miles in that sun for all the bloody tea in China.”
Simon indicated the baking afternoon outside the window with a jerk of his thumb.
“Ah, she’ll be right.” I said. Living in Australia for a year had taught me how to negotiate with Australians.
“Well, if that’s what you want to do, you are more than welcome. Where do you want us to send your bleached skeleton?”

A couple of days later I set off; wobbling uncertainly down the road as I got used to the big wheels, drop handlebars and skinny tyres of a road bike. I was a mountain bike man and this was a new experience. I had solved the luggage problem by simply tying a 30 litre daypack to the rear luggage rack I had bought in a bike shop in town. New tyres, tubes, cables and bar tape, along with a good wash, made the bike look quite respectable. I was pleased - for kindly lending me his bike, Simon would get it back fully serviced and ready for action.
I got a little lost on the way out of Brisbane but soon found my way by asking directions. Before long I had picked up a steady pace on the road north and was cruising along with the sun on my back. A little cloud ensured that I was broken into the heat gently. Soon I had arrived at what I had decided would be my destination for the first night - Beerburrum.
Beerburrum was only a short distance from Brisbane but I had decided to stay there for two reasons; firstly, because it is always wise to make your first day a short one and secondly, because the place had ‘beer’ in its name. I believed this could only be a good omen and I had been picturing long, slender glasses, clouded with condensation and filled with golden nectar, for most of the ride. However, I arrived there in the early afternoon, brimming with energy and eagerness and decided I could not stop. Coloundra, therefore, became my first overnight stop of the trip.
The next day gave me a clearer idea of what to expect from cycling in Queensland in December. It was baking hot and football humid (110%). The sweat poured off me as I pedalled resolutely along the simmering tarmac to my destination. As the cars and trucks passed by, they threw up clouds of dust, which stuck to my sticky arms and legs. I got gradually filthier as the day wore on - a feeling I would have to get used to.
I did, however, catch momentary glimpses of Queensland’s beautiful coast. Brief vistas of cool blue water broken by fresh, white surf. It appeared so close, yet so impossibly distant. The sweaty, sticky feeling in my cycling shirt and of the ‘chammy’ inside my shorts cried out to be relieved with a swim in that beautiful ocean. But the road went ever onwards - on to my destination, on over sweltering tarmac and under punishing cobalt skies.
My destination, however, made up for the trial of the journey - it was Noosa, the pretty resort town that lies not far north of Brisbane, on an achingly beautiful stretch of coastline. I camped at ‘Sunrise Beach’ with the door of my tent overlooking the sea. The moon was so bright that night it seemed almost like daylight. The moonlight sparkled on the black water and as the waves foamed on the beach they glowed as though possessed of magical luminosity of their own. Sharp, black shadows from the trees surrounded my tent, quivering as the nocturnal breeze rustled through the leaves that cast them.
I fell asleep to the sound of the crashing surf - a restful roar as infinite as nature and as timeless as the billions of glittering stars above me. My tent door hung open to allow the gentle onshore breeze to cool and caress my muscles, still aching from a day in the saddle. I slept like a man who has travelled a long way - and found the perfect place to rest.
The road north from Noosa to Hervey Bay, where I was to get the ferry across to Fraser Island was, as one would expect, long and hot. I would get up early, as soon as the sweltering sun hit my tent. Each night I would try to pitch it in a place where it would get a little shade in the morning, but soon enough the great yellow bugger would find me - hiding on the westerly side of a hedge, wall or caravan. Within minutes the interior temperature of my tent would rise to gas mark 6 and I would wake, sweating like I was malarial and croaking “Water… water…” It is the only thing that has ever proved unfailingly effective in getting me out of bed in the morning.
Setting off I would suffer those painful few minutes familiar to all cycle tourers, before the bum goes numb again and the aching legs decide to stop complaining and get on with it. By mid morning I would be soaked in sweat and drinking like a fish in attempt to recoup my losses.
Several times I was dive bombed by some unknown bird of prey. Some kind of hawk I think, that seemed to take offence at me being in its territory. They would swoop down on me, crying in anger, and follow me for a couple of minutes, before wheeling off to disappear into the trees.
I don’t know what it was about me; perhaps it was the bicycle, perhaps it was my silver helmet gleaming in the sun. Whatever it was, they hated me. One even sank its claws into my helmet and I rode an erratic course for a hundred yards, the enraged bird attached to my head and huge lorries full of sugar cane roaring past, steering with one hand while beating fruitlessly at my avian attacker with the other. I came very close to looking like the only kangaroo I saw in my entire time in Australia. A huge adult male, it must have measured eight or nine feet from the tip of its tail to the point of its snout. It was also about an inch thick and lying in the middle of the road. It had clearly been hit by a very big truck indeed.
In a tiny place called Tiaro, I camped out the back of the petrol station. That afternoon had been especially hot and humid. The sky, a low grey ceiling of heavy cloud, became darker and more menacing as the day wore on. Some primal instinct told me that a big storm was coming - not the usual heavy rain and occasional clap of thunder - but a real hoolie. A proper end of the world, God is furious, we’re all going to die, Wagneresque meteorological reckoning. I pitched my tent in a sheltered spot and looked up at the darkening sky with trepidation. It was coming - there was nothing I could do but hunker down and wait it out.
I was reading a book by the soft glow of a candle when it came, rolling thunder announcing its arrival. Suddenly the interior of my tent was thrown into sharp relief by a flash of white light. I counted the seconds… one, two, three, four…


The sound subsided slowly, rumbling reluctantly into uncanny silence, followed by the patter of the first rain on my tent.

A second flash floodlit my tiny nylon cell. One, two, three…


Here it came.

The rain became a downpour; the heaviest rain I have ever experienced. It hammered off the tent, battering into the flysheet as though it was trying to tear its way through. I was grateful I had bought a good one, and that it was only a couple of weeks old. Any weakness would have become instantly apparent in the onslaught it was now exposed to.
The lightning became more and more frequent, a flash of white light exploding across the sky every few seconds. The thunder seemed to roll on unbroken - each crackling explosion merging into the next. And all the time the rain came down, an unending torrent of water pounding into the ground, hissing and bubbling in the ever expanding puddles and gurgling noisily in the guttering of the petrol station. Soon, I could feel it pooling under my groundsheet and wondered how long it would take to soak through. I figured I was in for a long and uncomfortable night.
The violence of the storm, however, soon abated. A couple of hours after it had started, the rain petered out and the clouds began to part. An occasional star could be seen amongst the clouds and a fresh breeze blew across the wet grass. Snug in my wonderful, waterproof, storm-proof tent, I fell fast asleep - at least till the sun found me in the morning.

I stepped off the fast ferry to Fraser Island in a town called Kingfisher and walked straight into the bush. A thick green mass of verdant growth bordered the sandy paths that ran through the forest. There was no wind here, under the trees and it was (I can think of no better way of describing it) - stinking hot. When I finally reached Lake McKenzie, the relief of stepping out of the trees and onto a narrow beach by the shores of a cool blue lake was wonderful.
Thick grasses grew in scattered tufts, their tips bent downwards to touch the ground. The wind had jostled them backwards and forwards so that they left perfect arcs described in the white sand. Amongst the grasses, tiny red flowers grew. The water of the lake was such a deep blue as to be almost black and the surrounding foliage the most vibrant green.
That night I lay in my tent and listened to the wind sighing through the trees and the crickets chirruping their unending symphony. I lay a candle on my folded map of the island and read by its softly wavering light. Before long I felt my eyelids droop and leant over to blow out my candle. I was asleep, as they say, before my head hit the pillow.
The following day I walked down past Lake Wabby and through the forest in the direction of the beach. I was about a kilometre from the beach when I walked into the spiders web. I flinched as soon as I felt it cling to my face and shoulders - it seemed absurdly large - as though it was stretched right across the path. But that would make it about four feet wide…


Something was on my face!

A black shape - all articulated legs and fat, shiny abdomen - a wriggling horror from an arachnophobic’s nightmare - it clung to my face over my sunglasses… seemed to be clinging to my forehead and chin at the same time! It must be HUGE!

“AAARGH!” I said again.

With a deft flick, I swept both sunglasses and Shelob off my face with my open palm. Manfully fighting off the desire to clench my hands together under my chin and scream like a little girl, I peered down into the undergrowth at my attacker. I was pleased to see that she was every bit the monster I had suspected her to be when she was wrapped around my face - no doubt milliseconds from sinking her poisonous fangs into me.
I shuddered at the thought that, had I been a little slower, she might have succeeded in biting me. Given her size, ugliness and general demeanour; my distant O-Grade in Biology and a childhood spent engrossed in Willard Price books; I knew that if she had, I would have staggered 10 feet, let out a bloodcurdling scream and expired instantly in tortured rigor on the forest floor.
At last I regained my composure and carried on, a little more slowly now, towards the beach. In the next couple of days I would walk over sand dunes, along a vast beach, see a three foot long guana, sandy coves and clear blue seas. I’d see Lake Boomanjin where the water is the colour of tea and other lakes named Birabeen and Jennings, then wander around Wanggoolba Creek and back past Lake McKenzie to Kingfisher. Twists and turns and ups and downs, beaches and forests, sea and sky. In all I would walk 100km in four days in a pair of old skate shoes. It gave me a blister the size and juiciness of a ripe watermelon - and an overwhelming sense of relaxation.

Back on the mainland I picked up my bike again and set off for Bundaberg. Two more days of riding and I’d be at my destination. This part of the trip took me into areas more run down and fly-blown. Small outback villages crouched by the roadside like lampreys, feeding from the scraps of the passing trade. Each little village had its own pub, with a corrugated iron roof to magnify the sound of the rain. Roof fans sliced the humid air into descending waves of sickly heat.
Outside, in the baking streets, rusting Holden pick ups sank slowly into the dust and men with the sleeves torn off their cowboy shirts swore at their enormous wives. Car loads of ‘yahoos’ would shout unintelligibly at me as they roared past, like feral dogs barking at a bicycle. The ‘campsite’ I stayed at the night before I reached Bundaberg was in reality a trailer-park. When I asked how much it was to pitch a tent the guy at reception didn’t have a clue, so he went through the back to ask. A disembodied voice shouted back:
“Pitch a tent? I dunno. Ten bucks?”
I was clearly the first person who’d ever actually wanted to camp there. Later on I found out why, as a wild mêlée of screaming arguments and barking dogs kept me awake into the small hours.

I stepped from the catamaran which had brought me from Bundaberg onto a small aluminium pontoon moored about 50 yards from the white coral beach that circled Lady Musgrave Island. A small motor launch would take me the final stretch. As I sat in the launch while it chugged slowly to the beach, I thought about what the man in the Tourist Information office had said about the place.
“Lady Musgrave is a beautiful spot, mate. We allow a maximum of 50 people on it at any one time, the only building is a toilet block, you’ll have to camp… you have got a tent and all that?”
“Good. There is no fresh water… don’t worry, I can lend you a couple of jerry cans you can fill up and take with you. The place is totally unspoilt and completely beautiful.” There was that word again. “Its pretty small though, you can walk round it in 45 minutes.”
“Sounds great. How much is it to camp there?”
“Three bucks fifty.”
I nearly laughed. To think there were people who’d spend hundreds to sleep in a silly room in a posh hotel. OK, the catamaran trip was 100 bucks, but the island was two hours from the coast. It sounded like my perfect island.
The white beach was made up from small lumps of broken coral that shone blindingly in the sun. A little way from where the aquamarine sea lapped and gurgled, palm trees hung limp in the noon-day sun. Underneath their fronds was a gentle covering of shaded greenery - enough to make the place feel like a verdant tropical paradise, but not so much as to get in your way.
I pitched my tent next to a few others that were already there and went exploring. The man in the tourist office had been right. The place really was beautiful. I couldn’t help feeling that it was the limited human impact that made it so. No billionaire’s private island with its steel and glass designer home, helipad and manicured gardens could ever come close to the natural beauty of this tiny, lonely island at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef.
Impatient to get in the water, I returned to my tent and picked up my hired snorkelling equipment. The island proved as beautiful under the water as it was above it. A myriad of colours in fish and coral. Endless varieties of marine life cruised, darted and wafted before me. Suddenly, a few metres to my left, a huge ray, easily four feet across, flew majestically past. How could this day get any better?
That evening, after a basic dinner cooked on a camping stove, I decided to go for a walk round the island. Some of the other campers, a marine biological expedition from Sydney University, had said I would be able to see giant Green and Leatherback turtles coming up the beach to lay their eggs. Indeed, the purpose of their expedition was to study them. I admit I was a little sceptical. Giant turtles laying their eggs? That kind of thing was surely reserved for the David Attenboroughs of this world.
“No mate. Seriously. Take a walk about sunset. You’ll see loads.” Said one muscular Australian youth with leisurely hair and lifetime tan. So I did. As the sun set (a few clouds appeared, just to accentuate the gorgeousness of the moment - they would be gone before the stars came out), I set off around the island. I got about halfway round without seeing anything, and was starting to think I was being wound up, when I spotted a large dark shape disappearing into the surf. Running forward I saw that it was a huge leatherback turtle, almost four feet long. Its bulbous shell was speckled with barnacles, giving it an aura of great age and enormous mileage.
Soon it had gone, however, and I hurried on, hoping to catch another turtle in the act of laying. And sure enough, just a hundred yards away, I saw what I had been hoping to see: a turtle in the act of laying. She had dug a deep hole in the sand and was now filling it with sticky white ping-pong balls. I watched mesmerised, realising I was incredibly lucky to be seeing this extraordinary moment in nature. I wondered how far this turtle had swum to get to this spot. What adventures had happened to her on her journey. I wondered how many years she had been coming to this island and whether she would make it back next year. As she began to slowly and inefficiently fill her hole with sand, I left and returned to where I was camped.

The marine biological expedition from Sydney University were having a fancy dress cocktail evening and invited me to join them for some slightly fruity and extremely alcoholic drinks. As I sat in a folding chair, sucking something vaguely pleasant, but no substitute for cold beer, out of half a coconut, I reflected on what a perfect day it had been. I was in a beautiful place, had seen some extraordinary things and seemed to have made some great new friends in these Aussie marine biologists.
A unsteady lad with a few days growth of beard, badly applied lipstick and wearing a cocktail dress several sizes too small for him, collapsed heavily into the chair next to mine.
“Alright mate?” He said.
“Yes, very. This is, um… interesting stuff.” I waved my coconut in his direction.
“Yes.” He regarded his own coconut as though seeing it for the first time.
“So, you’re with this expedition from Sydney Uni?”
“Must be great. I went to Inverness on my university field trip. My name’s Matt. What’ s yours?”
“Me?” He grinned at me through his lipstick. “My names Sasha.”
“Ha ha ha! No really, when you're not dressed as a woman?”
The grin vanished.
“No. My name really is Sasha.”
Oh well, I was in a beautiful place and had seen some extraordinary things. Two out of three wasn’t bad.

When Adventure Attacks!

It is, perhaps, the defining element of ‘adventure’ – the possibility that it could all go horribly pear-shaped at any moment. The chance that one’s jolly wilderness escapade can turn, in the fraction of a second, into a ghastly Touching The Void/Franklin Expedition/The Worst Journey In The World horror story lurks like a hairy ogre over any adventurous endeavour; baring its teeth in a terrible grin and rubbing its hands with anticipatory schadenfreude.
There is, perhaps, something slightly worrying about that part of human nature that makes us seek out such situations. As a young boy, a significant factor in the attractiveness (for example) of canoeing a river in the deepest wilderness, was the remote chance that I might end up lost in the back of beyond, equipped with nothing but a big knife and my wits, and having to supplement my diet with the slower and more succulent members of the boating party. Indeed, as a youngster, I was to be regularly disappointed by the monotonous predictability of a world where our Scout Troop always returned from camp with the same number of small boys it had left with.
As an adult, the often long and intricate fantasies of childhood have become condensed to fleeting moments of whimsy where, for example, the plane I am on crashes and I, and the shapely raven-haired beauty in seat 16C, become stranded in the wilderness below with nothing but the fridge from business class and our wits to sustain us until we are conveniently rescued one week later.

Whatever the daydreams are, they are still a feature of my imagination and I believe they reveal a latent desire to be in a situation where one’s mettle is tested to the maximum, preferably in the close company of raven haired beauties, fillet steaks and a plentiful supply of a finely balanced merlot. What’s more, I believe that most people who search for adventure have the same secret longing to prove they are made of the right stuff, even if it is only to themselves. I like to believe Ray Mears occasionally thinks to himself, "Bloody Hell; thirty years of survival training and not one air-crash, ship-wreck or otherwise transport related marooning. Even a winter’s day power-cut would be something. Some people have all the bad luck."
The good (or bad, depending on your point of view) thing about adventure is that if you look for it often enough it will eventually, and inevitably, rear up and bite you in the ass. There is a well-worn expression, involving jugs and wells and the relative likelihood of those jugs of higher mileage becoming shards of pottery on the kitchen floor, that sums up the situation very nicely. Essentially it boils down to this: the more you go to the well, the more likely it is you will have a ‘Touching The Void’ moment.
Even my own, relatively pedestrian, pursuit of adventure has resulted in a fair collection of bangs, thuds, screams and whimpers. I’ve fallen out of things, into things and off things. Been hit by things, bitten by things and been given diarrhoea by things. I’ve been lost in the Thar desert equipped with only a bath towel and a roll of toilet paper; nearly drowned in an Australian rip-tide; been chased by a pack of murderous dogs in Bulgaria; charged by sacred cows twice; fallen through a cornice; caught in an avalanche; attacked by a parrot and had a spider the size of a labrador puppy crawl across my face.
I’ve had to fix my car in the Moroccan wilderness while suffering from a catastrophic bout of the skitters; been ripped off in eight different languages; lost nearly three stone to an un-named malady picked up in India and had to prematurely end the trip of a lifetime because the local warlords decided they hadn't shot anyone in a while.

Motorcycles seem to be a particularly rich source of adventure related catastrophe. I’ve had more breakdowns than I care to remember and one cruel commentator has suggested I've had more motorcycle crashes than girlfriends. Although, to be fair, I have crashed my bikes into a Norwegian ditch, a Romanian van, a Moroccan car, Saharan sand-dunes, another Scottish motorcycle and verges of multiple nationality. I once had to push 200 kg of broken-down motorcycle for 13 kilometres under the Turkish sun with only half a pint of water to slake my thirst. All those stories I read as a boy; of tongues swelling up like potatoes and ringing sounds in the ears, turned out to be true.
Now, it might seem that all of the above could be explained simply by a predilection towards haplessness on my own part, but I have lots of friends who’s lives are a similar litany of calamity and carelessness. They have broken their ankles, arms, ribs and even their necks. They’ve torn ligaments and tendons and smashed in their teeth. They’ve been stretchered off mountains, plucked from the sea by the RNLI and rescued by RAF helicopters. They have crashed things, smashed things, bashed things and mashed things. They are, in short, equally as accident prone as I am.
And here’s the rub: none of my friends are idiots. None of them are guilty of being ill-prepared or inexperienced in their pursuit of adventure. It’s just that they are the jugs that go most often to the well, and so suffer the risks accordingly.

My own ‘Touching The Void’ moment occurred in 1999. I was in Wanaka in New Zealand for the winter season, engaged in the constructive pursuit of being ‘un vagabond du surf’ ( a snowboard bum). One night, towards the end of the season, some friends and me were in one of the two pubs that the town boasted, discussing a hard day on the slopes. It had been a good season, if not a great one - there had been just enough snow to keep the piste in good condition and the off-piste fun. For those willing to hike, there had been great snow out the back of Treble Cone.
As we sat there, nursing our beers and talking about what we would do and where we would go when the winter ended, the rain began to fall outside. A light drizzle at first, it soon coagulated into a steady downpour - gurgling down the drains and splashing off the pavements.
"You think it’ll be cold enough to be falling as snow on the hill?" someone asked.
"Dunno, what’s the temperature here? About eight or nine degrees?"
"Well, they reckon you lose a degree for every 100 metres in altitude, so yes, it must be dumping up there."
We looked at each other and grinned; the season wasn’t quite over yet! As the night wore on, the rain became snow and fell thickly in big, soft flakes all over the town. Gradually, the pub started to fill up. People who had decided to spend the night watching TV, reading or otherwise saving their pennies, had decided they must go out. The heavy snow that was falling in a constant swirling mass was something to be shared. You couldn't stay in on a night like this - you had to go out and meet friends and talk about tomorrow. By midnight the pub was packed with laughing, excited people. Skiers and boarders who knew that tomorrow would be epic. Tomorrow would be a day to remember.
We were on the hill early the following day, desperate to be the first on the untracked snow. Each lift we took opened up new areas and we seemed to be getting endless fresh tracks. The hill was busy, to be sure, but there seemed to be enough freshies for everyone. It was a wonderfully heady, exciting experience.
At last, the moment we had been waiting for finally came: ski-patrol opened the top T-bar. A whole new area of fresh, steep off-piste was opened up and we jumped at the chance to rip it up. As we dismounted the T-bar at the top, we looked down on crisp, open fields of untouched powder. There was a blue sky above and perfect snow at our feet. All caution was forgotten as we took off - flying figures tearing up long rooster tails of snow behind us. I was out in front feeling as strong and confident as I've ever felt. I was the master of my situation, the best rider I had ever been - the best I would ever be.
The problem with convex slopes is you can't see what's coming. The problem with being young and dumb and brimming with confidence is that you think you are the master of any situation. I can still see it - that fraction of a second. The brief moment of realisation as the killer appears. You can't do anything. You try, but it's pointless. Fate is coming for you, come what may - open space where there should be mountainside.
The next thing I knew I was lying face down in the snow. Unspeakable pain raging up and down my back. I couldn't move; partly because of the pain and partly because I was securely fastened to 162 cm of Burton snowboard. There were people around me - voices I recognised, but I couldn't tell you who they were, I still couldn't. I don't know if that's because I was drifting in and out of consciousness or because my mind has blanked out the memory.
At last I was shuffled carefully onto a sledge which was attached to the back of a snowmobile. That journey back to the ski centre seemed to last for an eternity. They were probably taking it extremely slowly, but it felt like they were hammering along over the bumpiest parts of the piste. I fought the desire to tell them to slow down.
In the ski-centre the resident Doctor pumped me full of drugs and told me everything was going to be OK. He pinched my toe.
"Can you feel that?"
"I don't know."
I couldn't feel anything but the butcher's knife currently twisting and turning in the small of back. I fought the desire to tell the Doctor I was scared.
The drugs took hold. the pain didn't go completely, it just became manageable. It was a half hour helicopter ride to the hospital in Dunedin. All I can remember is staring up through the window at the sun flickering in the blades of the rotor and thinking: "I'm not insured. This is going to be expensive."
Suddenly I was in the Emergency Room, lying on a stretcher bed. They needed to x-ray me, they explained. It would invovle rolling me onto my side. I nodded. That sounded OK. They rolled me. It wasn't OK. A sudden, savage surge of pain bit into my back causing me to vomit. As I vomited the muscles in my my back went into spasm causing another surge of pain - which made me vomit, which made the muscles in my back spasm... a horrible circle of agony. All the time I wondered if at any moment my spinal cord would finally tear, leaving me paralysed. It was, without a doubt, the most frightening moment of my life.
When they had finished I felt like crying. Would they let me go now? Could I just go and sleep? I was incredibly tired. However, I had one last question:
"Do you think my spinal cord is damaged?" I asked a man in a white coat.
"Can you feel your feet mate?"
"I think so."
"Then I reckon you'll be fine."

And I was. A week later, securely trussed in a back support and hobbling on crutches to keep the weight off my vertebrae, I was ready to leave the hospital. I'd had my fill of mince and tatties and ice cream and jelly and morphine enhanced Tom and Jerry. My Aussie mate Stuart had come to pick me up and I was ready to go home.
I stopped at reception and told the nurse I was leaving.
"Do I, um... owe you you anything?" I asked, nervously thinking about half hour helicopter rides and week long stays in hospital.
"I dunno." She said. "Hang on, I'll just go and check..."
As she dissappeared on the hunt for someone who might have a bill for me, Stuart looked across at me.
"How fast can you move on those things, mate?"

It was six weeks before I could fly home, and even then I had to lie flat for the duration of the flight. It was five months before I was fully recovered. Six months after breaking my back, I climbed out of the cable car at Brevent in Chamonix. On my first run, a sharp twinge of pain shot through my back at the point it had been broken. But it was a reminder only, a little warning from my subconscious not to go to hard, not to be too confident - not to ride too fast when I didn't know what was coming.
A little while later someone asked me-
"So, when did you decide you were going to ride again?"
And I had to answer honestly.
"You know, it never occured to me that I wouldn't."
Because, no matter what we do, no matter how modest or extreme our personal adventures might be, danger is a significant factor in their appeal. To try to avoid all risk is to miss the point of adventure itself. Indeed, to give up doing something you love because the risk has become unavoidably apparent, is to admit you hadn't properly assessed the risks in the first place. As anyone who is partial to a spot of adventure will tell you, with risk comes enormous reward. While breaking my back remains the most horrible experience of my life, it was worth it.
It was worth it for the numberless days of waist deep powder, the steep descents of tight, cold couloirs in the mountain's shadow. Worth it for the nights in snow-holes and the freindships earned. Worth it for the deep blue skies over blazing white snow-fields. Worth it for the days of my life that are etched in my memory forever.

Alladin's Couloir


It was one of those mornings where getting out of bed seems like an almost impossible task. I was warm and comfortable and still half asleep. "It’s still dark." I said to myself. "Only postmen and cat-burglars get up in the dark." What’s more, it was unpleasantly cold outside of the duvet. I thought about the freezing run to the shower over cold floorboards. I thought about the unholy, shivering purgatory of drying myself in the arctic chill of my unheated bathroom.
The day’s planned activities had entirely lost their attractive glamour of the night before, when I had been discussing them with Scott. I toyed with idea of phoning him, but what could I say? "I’m sorry Scott, I know I was all bristling machismo and reckless bravado last night, but now that I’m all cosy under my TOG 24 duvet and its slightly chilly in my flat, I don’t want to go extreme snowboarding anymore." Hmmm. It sounded pretty damn feeble, even to me, and would undoubtedly elicit the withering contempt one of Scott’s infamous raised eyebrows. Should that eyebrow be accompanied by the offer of a half of shandy or some kind of fruity cocktail… well, the shame would eat into me for months.
No, I would just have to grit my teeth and brave the elements. Just leap out of bed and jump in the shower. Get it over and done with. No time like the present… Come on, like ripping off a plaster… Although, if I don’t brush my teeth that will give me another two minutes in bed…
By the time Scott had arrived, I had somehow dragged myself vertical, ingested a quantity of Shreddies that would have killed a lesser man, sucked up a pint of coffee and presented myself on my doorstep with a hastily gathered collection of sports equipment. Scott slotted my snowboard into the roof-rack and turfed my pack into the boot of his rusty old Volkswagen. Soon we were rumbling up the A9 on the way to Aviemore – his skis and my board humming musically in the slipstream above us.
I was awake now, slowly coming to consciousness as the dawn broke over Fife, and I felt a renewed enthusiasm for our venture. The plan was to ride Aladdin’s Couloir in Coire an t’Sneachda in the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms. A steep, sinuous gully which often holds a good thickness of snow, we felt it would be a great descent on skis or board. Many years ago, it had been one of the first winter climbs I had ever done. It occurred to me belatedly that Aladdin’s was a popular route for many novice winter climbers and that this may cause us problems. Trying to ride down a route that somebody was trying to come up would not be fun – I didn’t fancy trying to ollie someone’s climbing rope halfway down an extremely steep descent like Alladin’s Couloir.
By the time we arrived at the car-park at Cairngorm Ski Resort, the morning had blossomed into a bright, sunny day. A few heavy white and grey clouds hung in the blue sky, suggesting that the weather could go either way, but we chose to be optimistic and threw on our rucksacks enthusiastically, eager to get onto the mountain and away from the ski-lifts.
We took the well trodden path that heads west to the Northern Corries. Quite soon, however, we left the path and headed up the Fiachaill ridge, which forms the eastern side of Coire an t’Sneachda. This corrie, unlike its neighbour Coire an Lochain, lies hidden on the approach until you get quite close. As one climbs, the corrie slowly reveals itself, the sheer black and white cliffs rising upwards as you draw closer - a gradual unveiling that never ceases to enchant me.
About an hour and a half after leaving the car we had reached a point where we could get a good look at the couloir. I felt that familiar stirring of butterflies in the gut as I gazed across at it. I hadn’t remembered it looking that steep, perhaps it was our viewpoint that was making it look so precipitous? At least the run-out didn’t look too bad. There was just a chance that, if I messed up, I’d slide to a halt before I hit those rocks at the bottom.
At this point, there was enough snow for Scott to put on his skis and start skinning across the plateau. I followed in his wake, cursing this disadvantage of snowboards and promising myself I would learn to ski. Fortunately it was not far to the top of the couloir from here and by the time Scott had pulled the skins off his skis, taken a swig out of his water-bottle and had an initial peek down the couloir, I was standing next to him, un-strapping my snowboard from my pack.
Before putting the board on my feet I climbed down the gully a short way, to see how steep it really was and to check out the condition of the snow. I was relieved to see that the gully didn’t appear quite so absurdly vertical from this angle, and looked like it would be within my abilities. The snow was reasonably good too; soft, even spring snow that had formed into a well consolidated pack. It should provide a predictable descent.
A predictable descent is very definitely a good thing – there’s nothing like suddenly hitting a patch of ice in the tightest part of steep gully to remind a chap of the fragility of his mortality. I smiled briefly to myself as I recalled such a moment off the back of the Grands Montets in the French Alps. That had been a very hairy moment indeed; but as with most hairy moments that end happily – it was nothing but funny in the rosiness of retrospect.
Stomping back up to the top of the couloir, I returned to where Scott was stepping into his skis. I strapped on my board and stood ready.
"After you."
"No, no, after you."
We both wanted to go first, but courtesy meant we both had to offer the privilege to the other. My graciousness eventually crumbled, however, and I edged closer to the lip of the couloir. Fortunately there was no cornice to negotiate, but it was still very steep and the view down to the rocks below was unsettling. The first turn in these circumstances is always a nervous moment, but the predictable quality of the snow gave me confidence and I’d soon linked some nice turns into the narrowing of the couloir. Fortunately, there were no climbers on their way up.
Lower down the snow was not quite so well consolidated, and little white slabs sloughed off, trundling downwards until they broke up into fragments. These slabs were only a couple of inches thick, however, and presented little danger to the skier or boarder.

As the blocky crag to our left dropped away, the couloir opened up and became less steep. Pulling out onto an unexpectedly large slope of untouched snow, I let rip - carving out sweeping, exhilarating turns on its smooth surface. I failed to supress a laugh as I tore over the pristine snow, free from all thought but the pure joy of speed and skill. It was the best moment of the day... Hell, it was the best moment of the last six months!
Reaching the jumbled rocks that lurked so menacingly at the foot of the slope, I popped a joyful ollie 180, slammed to a halt and turned to watch Scott follow me down. By this time he had exited the tightest part of the couloir and was coming down fast in that "comin’-to-getcha" stance that skiers seem to have when they are charging over beautiful unspoilt snow off-piste. He pulled up hard in front of me. The goggles went up, the grin cracked.
"Ha, ha! Pretty good, eh?"
"Pretty good." I agreed.
"Worth getting up in the dark for?"
"Definitely worth getting up in the dark for."
Indeed, the very next weekend, I would be up in the dark again and heading for ‘The Couloir’ in Coire an Lochain.

Canoeing Kolovesi

Ray Mears made me do it.

There I was, minding my own business – sitting down to my dinner after a hard day at work, I flicked on the TV and started the usual hopeless progression through a succession of talent shows, reality shows and house-doing-up-and-selling shows. Then I found it.
“Ooh! Ray Mears!” I said, through a carefully engineered forkful of sausage, mashed potato and baked beans. “Exffellent!” (partially ingested sausage and mash is not helpful to proper enunciation). Ray was in the wilderness again; this time paddling his canoe over the smooth evening waters of a Finnish lake.
Having parked his boat on an island he leapt out, prepared a Salmon (which he’d presumably caught earlier in the day using a hook of thorns and line made from elk-gut) to Michelin Star standards and shared a bottle of malt whisky with an old friend over the warming embers of an open fire. By the time the programme credits were rolling I’d made my decision – by hook or by crook, I was going to Finland.
To be fair, this time I was relatively well prepared. I had taken up canoeing the previous summer, having built my own boat in a brief period of unemployment, and used it about half a dozen times. Compared to my cross-country skiing trip to Norway, I was a seasoned exponent of the art.
I sent a group email to my various adventurous friends, promising a mixture of beautiful Finnish girls, glorious sunshine and high adventure; none of which I was sure I could provide. However, I did get a positive response from my old mate Col, who is partial to a bit of all three. Some internet research later (mostly performed by Col, who is more suited to these things) and we had flights, hotels in Helsinki and Heinavesi, and a man with a canoe who was willing to rent it to us for a week. What’s more, he was willing to drop us off in one place and pick us up in another, so we wouldn’t have to back-track.
Col had only ever been canoeing once before and it was clear he hadn’t quite got the grasp of its peculiar pleasures. A phone call not long before departure went along these lines:

Col: “I’ve got all the gear I need. I’ve packed it all into a small hold-all. I thought I'd travel as light as possible.”
Me: “Really. Why?”
Col: “Um, well.. you know... I don’t want to weigh down the canoe.”
Me: “I suppose. How did you get your chair into a holdall?”
Col: “I’m not bringing a chair.”

Not bringing a chair? The man had clearly gone barmy.

Me: “Not bringing a chair? You’re barmy.”
Col: “Well, we are going into the depths of the Finnish wilderness.”
Me: “Yes. In a canoe. The whole point of going in a canoe is that you can take everything with you – including chairs, hardback books and duty free whisky... I hope you’re not going to try to restrict the cargo of beer and crisps?”
Col: “Good God no! Some things are non-negotiable.”

And so, towards the end of August, we found ourselves in the arrivals lounge at Helsinki Airport; Col swinging his holdall like a handbag and me staggering behind under the weight of my monstrous 80 litre dry-bag and luxury folding chair. Helsinki was nice, but we had wilderness to be in and early the following morning we were on the train to Heinavesi.
Finland, it would appear from the admittedly limited viewpoint of the top deck of a train (Finnish trains have two decks; they are also clean and punctual – it’s quite staggering), consists entirely of a vast forest punctuated by lakes. It bode well for our intended activity of paddling round lakes in a forest, but made for an extremely tedious railway journey which, if memory serves, lasted for fifteen days (Col insists it was more like five hours, but that doesn’t fit with my recollection at all).
We stayed overnight in Heinavesi, having arrived too late to set off that day. Our hotel was nice and clean, the staff friendly, the restaurant served tasty food and Col got chatted up by an utterly plastered woman of advanced maturity and admirable persistence. All in all, the perfect evening.
It took us most of the morning to sort out the canoe and supplies, although a significant proportion of this was getting fishing permits arranged. According to the guidebook, we needed no less than three separate permits if we wanted to go fishing. One would assume that these would be readily available at the local fishing shop, but no, the Finns take their fishing so seriously that they keep their permits in the bank. So we queued up with all the people cashing cheques and arranging mortgages and scored ourselves one fishing permit each. Apparently we were supposed to have another permit as well, but we couldn’t understand where the teller was saying we should buy it. We did try the petrol station and the off-licence, but they just looked at us as if we were crazy to want to buy a fishing permit anywhere other than a bank, so we gave up.
By lunchtime we had everything we needed for six days on the water and had loaded up the canoe. As we pushed the boat out onto the gently lapping waters of Lake Kermajavi, the sun was shining, the sky was blue and we had six days and hundreds of square miles of lakes and forest to explore. It was a great feeling.
The first day’s paddle was purposely a short one. Time to get used to the feel of the boat; work out roughly how far we could expect to paddle in a day; to decide where to store the camera, lunch and the other things we might want while out on the water. We were headed for an island just a few kilometres from our starting point on the far side of the lake. The map said it had an ‘official’ camping spot and we thought this would be a good place to start our adventure.
This part of Finland is simply a vast area containing millions of interconnected lakes and millions of acres of birch and pine forest. It is wonderfully unspoilt and incredibly wild. The silent passage of an open canoe through this ancient landscape is as serene an experience as can be imagined. In the week ahead we would travel through tight channels between broken cliffs, across wide lakes and on the sheltered waters amongst countless islands. And always, to our left and right, ahead of us and behind us, we would have the forest – endless, unbroken, wild and beautiful.
We arrived at our island in the late afternoon, with the baking summer sun still hot on our shoulders. The gentle breeze that had cooled our faces on the paddle over had died away and the water lay smooth and calm, with the cool clarity of a pool in a mountain stream. As Col would say, some things are non-negotiable and soon we were floating in the water in our board-shorts and life-jackets, supping our first cold beer in the wilderness.
The ‘official’ camping spot surpassed our expectations. Situated in a sheltered clearing amongst the trees, it even had a few facilities to make life more comfortable – a place for an open fire, a shed full of logs, and a long drop toilet. There were enough clear spaces to pitch perhaps three or four tents, but we had the place entirely to ourselves.
At sunset we did some fishing with the lures we’d bought at the fishing shop in Heinavesi. It wasn’t long before I had a perch wriggling and writhing on my line and he was soon reeled in and released. He was lucky that I was unaware that perch are edible, or he might have found himself in a sandwich. It was getting dark and I was just packing up my gear, when Col shouted over, indicating that he’d caught something.
“Uaargh!” He said, not quite managing to retain his composure.
“Ooh! Have you got something?” I asked.
“UUAAARGH!” He repeated, indicating that he had caught something rather more impressive than my 6 inch perch. Running over I saw his rod bent in tight curve, pointing like a twitching finger at the dark water of the lake. Col was playing something very large indeed. Unfortunately, neither Col or myself are experienced fishermen and we were at a loss to know what to do. We had only the most basic of equipment with us; just travel rods, reels and a few spinners – and we had no landing net.
Whatever it was, it was big and strong but was fighting a slow, heavy fight, completely unlike the wriggling of the perch or the vigorous thrashing of the trout I’d caught in Loch Awe earlier in the summer. I tried to see what kind of fish it was, but the dark shape remained resolutely below the surface, pulling relentlessly on the line and keeping its identity anonymous. It seemed to tire quite quickly, however, and within ten minutes Col was reeling it slowly in.

As he dragged the fish ashore, it suddenly exploded in a new burst of energy – a final attempt to regain its freedom - and began to thrash violently across the rocks. It was a huge thing, easily the biggest fish I’d ever seen caught - and it was a pike, meaning it had a set of razor sharp teeth to contend with.
“UUAAARGH!” said Col one more time, skipping back to avoid the wildly snapping jaws. “What the hell do we do now?!”
I had to admit, I was momentarily stymied. The only fish I’d ever caught were small things with small teeth which seemed to know when they were beaten. Landing this monster was a completely different experience - dealing with it would be much more like picking on someone our own size. Fortunately, I had not only seen a few Ray Mears programmes in the last few months, I’d also caught one or two of Steve Irwin’s. I dropped to my knees, grabbed Moby Dick behind the gills and, using all my strength, managed to hold it still.
“Right.” I said, in the manner of the noble huntsman, “Bash its brains in with a rock!”
Col ran off along the beach and had soon returned with a boulder the size of a basket-ball.
“That should do the trick.” I gasped, between gritted teeth.
“Move your hands back!” said Col, “I don’t want to smash your fingers!”
“If I move my hands back the damn thing will have ‘em off at the elbow. Just be bloody careful!”
“Are you sure? I could get a smaller rock…”
The pike was twitching and snapping, straining at my grip. It’s thick, muscular body was covered with slime and threatened to slip from my grasp at any moment. In fact… was I imagining it… or was the vicious brute actually growling at me?
“For God’s sake! Just kill it, will you! I’m going to lose my grip any moment and if that happens it’ll probably grab me by the legs and pull me into the lake! Remember that bit in ‘Jaws’ where Quint gets dragged off the boat? It’ll be like that, only I will be screaming like a girl…”


A pause…


Another pause…


“I think it’s dead old chap.”
“Just making sure.”
“Looks smaller now its dead, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe its swim bladder has deflated.”
“Possibly. Anyway, let’s see what it tastes like.”

We had soon gutted it and carved off two long fillets of its white flesh. These we wrapped in foil with a bit of butter, before pushing them into the heart of our campfire. A little later, with a clear sky of stars visible through the branches of the surrounding trees, I sat by the warming embers of an open fire, sharing a bottle of malt whisky with an old friend and eating the fish he’d just caught. It was the perfect start to one of the best adventures of my life.