North by northeast

We said farewell to Etive and Nial and, in a last minute move, pointed the van toward the Caledonian Canal. This may sound like a decision, but really we just put off deciding. At Inverness we’ll have some options. We’ll figure it out later.

The drive was beautiful as we made our way along the shore of Loch Linnhe and into the Highlands.

We are headed for Glencoe, one of the most frequently mentioned places to go in Scotland. Glencoe is a nature reserve, an area of rugged beauty, and the site of the Glencoe Massacre.

It’s a vast park, mostly wild, and best appreciated by hiking, mountaineering and other sports beyond our current energy level, but we’re keen to appreciate what we can at our age-adjusted pace. The visitor’s center has a good orientation, with a topo map, a film about the massacre, and displays about the founders of the Mountaineering Club.

After seeing this photo, Jack decided he needs to trade in his baseball cap for a traditional tweed flat cap. He’s on a mission now.

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Break out the foulies

It’s another rainy day and Etive thinks a drive around her environs is a good idea. We agree, as a tour with a local is always rewarding. Taynuilt is a tiny village, with all the shops you need and everyone knows everyone. It’s the sort of place we’d choose to live if we ever settle down.

The sky brightened a bit and we made a beeline to Dunstaffnage Castle and Chapel. The castle was built sometime in the 13th century and appears to have emerged right out of the rocks.

This castle is actually open but we didn’t take the time to go in, rather walked around the grounds and admired the architecture, particularly of the chapel.

Back home again we found the midges swarming and we quickly retreated to our homes. Jack and I thought we’d warm up with a cup of coffee, only to find our propane tank had ran out while we were gone. On Escape Velocity Jack elevated Tank Swap to an Olympic event. He could get us back up and running within about four minutes, and that included disconnecting the empty, carrying it up to the foredeck, pulling the fresh tank out of the deck locker, dropping the empty in its place, carrying the full (and heavy) tank back to the cockpit, persuading it into the vented locker, hooking it up and testing for leaks with dish soap. The kettle barely came off the boil before the flame was lit.

The campervan is more of a challenge, even without the “carrying the tank 40 feet along the side deck and back” part of the event. For one thing, these are 13kg tall bottles, as opposed to the 9kg we were used to. But the real bug-a-boo is that the spare tank is stored behind the operating tank, so both tanks have to be removed and places swapped before the fresh tank can be connected. And — let’s think ahead now — when we go to swap the empty at the gas depot, the operating tank has to be disconnected and removed so we can extract the empty behind it, then secure the new full bottle in the back of the locker before the working tank gets reinstalled, hooked up and tested again. Not a quick maneuver.

But back to today. The propane locker is inside the back door, so the whole time Jack is swapping the tanks, midges are swarming his head, flying in his nose and ears, and into the van. I’m fanning the midges back out of the van, mixing up the dish soap with water for testing, and spraying our tea tree/vinegar/water mixture all over in the hope that the midges will take a hike. There may have been swearing involved.

Jack announced “no leaks!” and slammed the back door, then ran to the side and back into the van. We were pleased to see that all the fanning and spritzing of tea tree oil did the job, and there were no midges inside, although Jack’s head had taken a toll.

Later, when we related the story, we were advised to get Smidge. “It works!”

Ugh. We do have Smidge, we just forgot to use it BEFORE going out in the midges. Lesson learned. The coffee was worth it.

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Local knowledge

One of the least mentioned but long-lasting benefits of ocean cruising is that you make friends from all over the world. When our friends Seathan and Audrie on the yacht Rehua, currently in the Seychelles, saw where we are Audrie introduced us via email to Seathan’s mother Etive who lives outside Oban. Etive invited us to visit, and even offered up her driveway as a parkup. We relished the idea of local knowledge to helps us formulate a travel plan.

Etive met us at the bottom of her lane and guided us to a perfect level spot beside her house, with the kind of long-distance view we’ve grown to love about Scotland.

We spent a couple of delightful hours enjoying the company and the garden views and good conversation before Jack and I retreated to the van for a good night’s sleep. Wind and rain rolled in overnight and by morning we stayed home as it poured, lingering over our morning coffee and catching up on writing.

Finally, we dashed between the raindrops to the conservatory and found Etive trying to summon a tennis tournament on the uncooperative TV. I was happy to discover a fellow tennis fan and we had more to talk about for awhile until another brief break in the rain urged us back to the van for the afternoon.

Seathan’s brother Nial arrived later and we were treated to a sumptuous buffet dinner complete with bubbly and more fine conversation.

We peppered them with questions about where to go and when to go there, which direction of travel is optimal, and what to skip. They offered up suggestions we hadn’t yet considered, and we noted the relative level of enthusiasm for places we thought we’d like to see.

We were disappointed to learn neither has been to Shetland, a place that has called to me since I was a child. I don’t know why, especially since I love trees and Shetland doesn’t have any. We want to visit the Hebrides, too, and the Highlands and Edinburgh. There’re so many places to go in this small country, and talking to Etive and Nial hasn’t helped us formulate an itinerary at all. The list just keeps getting longer. So much for local knowledge.

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Westward ho! Maybe

With our fresh water supply dwindling and no way to fill the tank, it’s clear we have to leave Loch Lomond and The Trussocks National Park and find a shop that might stock a water hose. It’s time to go west.

I booked us into a campground for the first time since moving aboard near a shop that supposedly caters to the backpacking and motorhome set. The shop failed us. They had midge nets, midge spray, and a folding water carrier, all of which we did buy, but no hoses. We resigned ourselves to filling the tank with the folding water carrier. Jack was not amused.

The campground was exactly as you might picture an RV park in America, and why we prefer to wild camp. It was admittedly a very nice campground, but you give up privacy and pay handsomely for the convenience and services. We’ve agreed to a campground stay once every week or ten days so we can do laundry, have long hot showers, give our batteries a good charge, especially in rainy weather, dump the gray water and toilet cassette, and fill up with fresh water.

Jack checked us in at the office and came out grinning and carrying a brand new hose with a variety of fittings. Eureka! We’re in business. While Jack sorted the electrical connection and filled the water tank, I started gathering the laundry.

I took my bag of loose change to the office to see if they could give me the proper coins I needed for the machines. When I presented my collection the two hosts jumped into action with glee.

“You’ve got quite the collection of shrapnel there,” said the man, and he and the woman dumped the coins onto the counter and set to work. As a former bank teller, I’d have happily counted it out for them, but they seemed to enjoy sorting and making stacks. I walked out with enough one-pound coins to do what amounted to three loads of wash.

The next day, charged up, fully watered, dumped, laundered and freshly scrubbed, we set off toward Oban, the gateway to the Hebrides.

Oban is the first sizable town we’ve come to so far in the camper, and we’re learning that parking is a challenge in any vehicle bigger than a car, even though we are a smallish van and allowed in regular parking lots. We know now to look for municipal lots, or car parks adjacent to supermarkets or big box stores. We got parked and walked a few blocks into town for lunch.

We didn’t have much of a plan for Oban, and drove back out of town and into the woods. Trees are my happy place, and a walk in this quiet mossy forest soothed my soul.

We aren’t sure where we’re going from here. We can go west to the Hebrides, we can go east to Edinburgh, we can go north. We need a plan. We need some advice. And we know just who to consult.

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We need a hose

We are well accustomed to water conservation after living on a boat. Escape Velocity had a reverse osmosis watermaker and we generally never wanted for fresh water, but there were a few times during our cruising life when we had to reduce our consumption, either because the watermaker wasn’t working properly, or the seawater we were in wasn’t optimal for running the pumps.

In the campervan, we’d gone two weeks on our 110 liter freshwater tank. That was just for washing up because we started out with a lot of drinking water in big jugs. No matter, we need water. And for that, we need a hose.

Jack was convinced a garden center was our best bet, but we’re in the Loch Lomond and The Tussocks National Park where there are few shops of any kind, and definitely no garden centers or hardware stores. This is going to involve a trek.

Google Maps showed us a garden center just outside the park area, 15 miles in the wrong direction. We reluctantly left the beautiful banks of the loch and set off through another breathtaking landscape.

There was roadwork all along the way, and no place to pull off to take proper photos, but we were both dazzled by the rolling hills and wide vistas, not to mention the perfect weather.

We found the garden center. They sold plants. That’s it. Plants. No garden implements, no hardscape materials, no hoses. They did, however, have a very nice cafe, which of course we had to try.

That out-of-focus thing in the foreground is a walnut caramel tart. Delicious but oh so sweet. I took half home for later.

There was nowhere to go for a hose from here so we drove back to Loch Lomond and found yet another gorgeous parkup along the water.

Besides the trees and the water and the weather, we’ve also been enjoying the many wildflowers we see everywhere. We’re here at the perfect time of year to see all these plants that are familiar to me from where we lived in Pennsylvania, but that we haven’t seen during the years we were mostly in the tropics.

I think we’re going to continue our conservation scheme and enjoy Loch Lomond for a bit longer. Who in their right mind would want to leave this place?

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Bonny, bonny banks

We loved our parkup at Dumbarton Castle, but we don’t want to get stuck in one place so soon. And we’re ready to venture further afield. We set our sights on Loch Lomond, and it sounded like an expedition until we checked Google maps. Five miles. Five. Miles. My goodness, we are pathetic. At this rate we won’t see much of Britain before our bones turn to dust.

We skipped the busy tourist area at the southern end of the loch, especially since it was Jubilee week and we assumed it might be crowded, despite the lack of official events in this “non-Royalist” region. It was a four day holiday after all, and families were out for a long weekend of fun.

We parked up right on the shore of the loch. There are many of these little car parks, one after the other, that can accommodate anywhere from five to ten vehicles. We passed a few sites and chose one that was further off the busy road, with nice flat spaces and a wide beach. We had the joint all to ourselves for a while, but later in the day more and more people arrived.

We parked in the corner again, now our preferred spot, so that at least on one side we can see and appreciate the scenery when we’re inside. A family pitched a couple of tents on the beach in front of us, but it was still a lovely spot, with a pretty path along the shoreline to explore. We can’t believe our luck in finding spot after spot to enjoy this beautiful country. It’s like moving from anchorage to anchorage on the boat. We’re comfy in our own home, but with an everchanging view. It’s just what we envisioned. We stayed two nights.

I saw on our parkup app that just a little north of us there is a larger car park that not only allows overnight parking, but also has toilets, a gray water and toilet dump, and a fresh water tap. We don’t really need those yet, but we’ve been advised to take advantage when you see them. We knew it would be more crowded, but we’re keen to experience that too, and besides, it’s still free, with a donation box onsite for the services.

We’re the little van inbetween the bigger motor homes, right behind the rubbish bin.

Once again we chose a level spot beside a small grassy area so on one side at least we have some space. The lot was quite busy as you’d expect on a holiday weekend, with day use people as well as motor homes. It’s the dock for Loch boats and ferries and tour buses came and went all day too. We actually enjoyed all the activity.

On Sunday while Jack sat in the sun, I watched the men’s tennis final at Roland Garros, streaming Channel 9 in Australia via a VPN logged in at Perth. It’s a source I’ve used for tennis for a couple of years no matter where we are. We found it more challenging to watch Formula 1. Most recently we VPN’d to Luxembourg to get the stream, but the commentary is in Luxembourgish, so we do BBC radio for the audio, which is of course out of sync. It’s better than nothing though.

Monday morning we walked up the road to a food kiosk for breakfast rolls. Our glorious weather continues, much to the surprise of the locals.

As we prepared to move on, Jack emptied the toilet cassette and checked out the fresh water tap. That’s when he discovered that the water hose we have is missing the proper fitting and we can’t fill our tank. We’re in the middle of a national park with no large shops anywhere nearby. Luckily our tank isn’t empty, but we’ll need to find either a new hose or the proper fitting before long.

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A castle in the sky

Flush with the success of our first two parkups we decided to venture further and start driving north. This required retracing our steps back through the traditional boatbuilding center of Port Glasgow and across the bridge over the Clyde.

Along the northern riverbank is a 240 foot high volcanic basalt plug called Dumbarton Rock that has served as a fortress since at least the 5th century. Our parkup app told us we could spend the night at the base of the Rock. That sounds good to us.

We turned toward the river and inched our way down a residential street and past a construction site before we spied the rock. We both leaned forward to peer upward through the windscreen, seeking the top. Holy cow! There, almost in the clouds, we could see the battlements of the stronghold perched so close to the edge it almost seemed cantilevered.

Our pitch for the night was directly beneath the sheer cliff wall. We quickly locked up the camper and headed toward the entrance. There was extensive fencing which became more dense the closer we came to the entrance. It gave us that sinking feeling.

Sure enough, closed again for masonry inspection. This one hurts. Joiners were chiseling a mortise into massive timbers right on the other side of the fence where intricate scaffolding reached up to the sky.

We walked along the river for a better view of the fortress.

We had a quiet cozy night, all the while wishing we could get inside the castle, and especially climb the rock to see the view from the top.

The next morning I glimpsed a man with large pads strapped to his back disappear around the back of the rock.

“I think they must do rock climbing here,” I said to Jack, and we jumped out of the camper and tried to follow where the man went. That lead us past a football club, through the woods and around the land side, all the way to the river on the other side, giving us a few more tantalizing peeks at the fortification at the top.

We found a couple of men bouldering, then a man and his father with their dogs, just shooting the breeze enjoying the view on a beautiful day. We stopped to chat, got a few tips on places to go, and they told us there was a break in the fence at the riverfront where we could see the castle better. They also said there were a few women climbing further around the rock.

The women told us this was the place for climbing and bouldering in the Glasgow area, and that on most days we’d see many more people there on the various walls.

We asked about the Queen’s Jubilee and if there were any events planned nearby. They looked at each other and shrugged.

“We’re not really royalists here in Scotland,” one of them said. Fair enough.

The path around the rock came to an end at the water’s edge, passable only at low tide, and we retraced our steps back to the parkup.

We found the break in the fence the father and son told us about (how had we missed it?) and finally got a better perspective on the castle and the fortress. It made us want to explore it even more, but I guess our record of closed castles will remain unbroken for now. You can read the history of the place here.

We walked into town to a place called Bangin’ Pizza for takeout and all the employees threw out their favorite places for us to visit. We’re acquiring quite the list of destinations to add to our already numerous Google Maps flags.

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The first part of waking up

We woke to our stunning parkup after a peaceful night. The view over the river Clyde was just as beautiful in the morning light as it was when we arrived and we had to pinch ourselves that the Instagramable moment we’d hoped for was achievable.

Part of the dream was having our morning coffee-with-a-view and we bounced out of bed, dug out the Aeropress, put a pan of water on the hob. That’s when we realized the burners don’t have a sparker. What? We checked the little grill/oven. It has a built in sparker and fired right up. But the burners? No. We need a lighter, which we have not got.

This, for the Schulzes, is a disaster. Morning coffee is more than a habit for us. It’s a ritual, a long process of waking, savoring, planning, and most of all, taking the beginning of the day to appreciate what we have and contemplate what lies ahead. Ok, it’s only coffee, but we panicked.

“We could twist a piece of paper, light it on the grill, then light the burner with that!” suggested Jack with enthusiasm. I was reluctant to risk a fire on our first day out. Besides, we had a “no open flame” policy on our boat and I prefer to continue that policy while living in a big tin can with limited egress.

“We need a lighter,” I said, and I looked out the window to see if any cars were approaching our roadside overlook. The night before several carloads of young people had gathered for a few hours, enjoying the evening, sharing a few beers and a smoke. They were gone by about 9pm and didn’t bother us, but it made me think this little lot could be a place where people come with their takeaway breakfast, or just to enjoy the view. And a smoke.

“Fat chance,” said Jack. “It’s Saturday morning.”

A few minutes later a car pulled in. It was a single woman, and I leapt out of the van and approached her with a smile. She rolled down the window and I told her we just bought the van and can’t make coffee because we don’t have a lighter for the hob. She instantly handed me a disposable lighter and I asked it I could borrow it.

“Keep it,” she said with a smile. I thanked her and skipped back to the camper. Within minutes we had coffee in our cups, breakfast on our plates, and all was right with the world again.

We watched as the nice woman got out of her car and appeared to be digging around in the boot, in the backseat, all over the car. After a while she knocked on our window. “This one’s got more in it,” she said, and handed us another lighter. This clearly was a woman who understands the importance of morning coffee, even in a country of tea drinkers.

So ok, we’re missing a few essentials. We made a list, but we were reluctant to leave this gorgeous long distance vista, especially after spending much of the last month in cheap hotel rooms with views of the parking lot.

The other thing we learned on that first night is the importance of a level parkup. We were only tilted a few degrees, but we had to call up our dormant sailing skills to navigate the inside of the camper without incurring the hip and shin bruises familiar to most sailors. We moved the van across the lot to a more level space in the corner, then pulled the wheel ramps out of the “garage” and experimented with placement. We got it closer to level, and vowed to be more mindful in the future.

We stayed another night at that first place, learning how the heater and refrigerator work, moving things around for convenience, adding to our list. On Sunday we drove back down to the big retail park and once again went from store to store to store, this time with a little better idea of what we need to be comfortable and functional.

I found another parkup that looked promising, this one down along the riverbank, with a cafe across the street. We can’t believe our good fortune. We know we won’t always be able to find free places to spend the night, but we’re glad we held out for a camper that’s set up for off grid wild camping. We know we can last a week or two before we have to find services like fresh water, gray water dumping, and toilet cassette emptying. We have just enough solar power to keep things working, so far. Life is good.

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We get the keys

I woke up and immediately had one of those where-the-hell-am-I moments. The room was missing most of its furniture, and pulling aside the blackout curtains didn’t help much. It was sunny but cold with lots of traffic. I picked up the plastic room key and everything but the lack of furniture fell into place. Today is Campervan Day, and we’re in Glasgow. Unfortunately, the mechanic doing the servicing on the van was hungover from a football game and apparently he was moving kinda slow. We scheduled official handover for 1900 hours hoping maybe the frenzied Glasgow rush hour traffic would be a bit more kind at that hour. We booked another night in our sparse room because we weren’t ready to hit the road and the hotel said we can park our van in their lot.

Next order of business was breakfast. Nothing was open for blocks. Finally we settled for a place called Julie’s Sandwiches, no waiting, no chairs, just across the street. At the appointed hour we Ubered over to get the final instructions, got the keys and I climbed into the driver’s seat.

The 6 speed manual transmission Fiat Ducato drove nicely. It’s amazing how many vehicles have manual transmissions in the UK; it’s got to be around 70%. We made it back to the Travelodge despite the rain, safely parked for the night. Heavy sigh of relief.

Running errands in a twenty foot long camper van is a little nerve wracking at first but that’s exactly what we needed to do this morning. We knew that we’d have to do it before leaving Glasgow where you can find a concentration of shops where you only need to park once. What we really needed was an IKEA new homemaker startup kit. Two of everything, throw it in to a big blue tarp bag. We made do with stops at Tesco, B&M, Marks and Spencer, some kind of Home Center, and TK Max. We felt pretty well equipped.

In the meantime Marce found a parkup in what Europeans call wild camping, in America its called boondocking, meaning no services, self contained vehicles only. We hoped that the 180 watt solar panel on our roof would keep us in power over night. There were two routes up to the small car park, high above the Clyde. We chose the less steep route, pulled in and gaped at the view.

Our first wild camping and we get to wake up to this view. Not bad.

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A nice relaxing train ride

First dear readers, you’re going to want a little back story. When we arrived at Heathrow back in April we decided to keep luggage handling and missed connections to a minimum so why not keep everything on rails? We spent an hour on the tube to King’s Cross station, where we’d catch a train all the way to Sheffield, then pick up a cheap rental car. All things considered, an excellent plan. Not as comfortable as you might imagine, nevertheless it worked very well until an unintelligible message delivered at breakneck speed (people of Europe, please slow down) came over the intercom on the train. We’d been talking to a nice young man who reacted negatively and stood up frowning.

“Here, I’ll help you with all your bags, we’ve been terminated!” he said.

The loudspeaker continued to emit garbled noise and our friend could see we were spent and uncomprehending. He told us to stay put and he’d find out what to do. It turns out there was a jumper down the line and we were going no further on these tracks. We were rerouted to another train and our friend and another young man helped with our luggage, got us settled, and stayed with us until they were sure we’d be alright.

After a long day of traveling we finally made it to our destination and come to think of it, we nearly always do.

Four weeks later we planned the reverse: return the rental car and hop on a train. On paper it looked easy.

Car Return Day found us approximately one hundred miles away from Sheffield with a nice relaxing plan. My goodness, things were going swimmingly. With over 2,000 miles driving under my belt I expected nothing less.

Full English in the morning, easy car drop off, Uber to the train station with luggage, coffee and a Danish, and soon we were relaxing in our reserved seats on a clean and comfortable train. We were heading north to Glasgow and our campervan, soaking up the scenery as it glided by.

Somewhere before Manchester I heard a familiar message over the loudspeaker. The train stopped and out we tumbled with all our luggage onto an elevated platform cold enough to be New York in January. Another jumper, incident under investigation and the tracks to Glasgow were closed. What are the odds? Two trains, two jumpers. Our fellow passengers shrugged. I guess it happens a lot.

They must teach their loudspeaker announcers how to garble any message but we think we heard “platform 9.” The magical thinking was that, sure we’re going North to Glasgow but York, in the wrong direction, has a bigger station and you might have a better chance to catch a train maybe all the way to Glasgow.

Just as our feet hit the platform in York a railroad employee yelled, “Passengers to Glasgow, please hurry to platform (garbled.) The train is about to depart.”

It’s a large grand station. We tore off with the rest of the dispossessed Glasgow passengers, gasping as we dragged our luggage. Up the stairs and down the stairs and we might be heading for platform 9 and 3/4 for all we knew.

Finally Marce ran ahead and found the bloody thing. I didn’t care any more. I chucked the luggage into the train and climbed aboard as the thing started to move. Wait, we’re going East! Not North! We were heading East, all the way to the coast, then north following the sea, stopping at every small town up to Edinburgh, then west to Glasgow. And no cushy reserved seats.

I’m a little unclear about the rest of the trip. Something about an Uber, a Travelodge and a room that looked like it had been robbed of most of its furniture, dinner out of a vending machine in the lobby, a bed.

Tomorrow we pick up our new home and that’s all I could think about.

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