The Tomaselli Salami

The Ferrata Tomaselli is a well known Via Ferrata in the Dolomites, and also possibly one of the hardest. It also gives its name to an award given out at an annual meeting of two outdoor sports clubs for what they call “endeavour”. This yearly award was given out on Saturday night past and I’ll tell you a little more of the context later.

In the meantime, I met Gav at the Old Bridge of Tilt car park on Saturday morning with a vague plan to walk to the Allt Sheicheachan bothy, drop our stuff, continue to the peak of Beinn Dearg, then return to the bothy for some whisky and slumbers. We assumed we’d probably have the bothy to ourselves. Although we did have a back up plan in case of weather etc, with a return to the vans if necessary and a drive to Loch Rannoch for some loch side rest and recuperation.

It was clear on the road north that it was snowy, Ben Vrackie above Pitlochry had on a full white coat, so it was a safe bet the bothy would be snowy, which was quite exciting. With our gear packed, we moved off up the icy tarmac road, an indicator of how wintery the road up to Allt Sheicheachan would be.

We cleared the woods and we walked higher into the open moors. Quite slowly, as the track was quite snowy where the white stuff had drifted across it. Soft and deep in places, hard and flattened in others, but more often the former, making heather jumping a quicker and more energy efficient way of moving forward.

The cold and accompanying breeze meant little time to stop and enjoy our surroundings. I’ve been up to this bothy a few times now, but the landscape had never looked so monochrome, other than the roaming red dot of Gav’s waterproofs.

I can normally get to the bothy in a couple of hours. This journey took us three and a half, weighed down with kit and fire wood as we slipped and stepped our way through the snow.

When the bothy finally appeared, at the last minute as usual as it’s tucked down in a natural, river created gully, our smiles reappeared and we reached the door thankful to have completed our journey. By this stage it was too late to head for Beinn Dearg and the snow higher up looked quite deep so we opened the front door, got our lunch ready and made a hot cuppa.

After eating, we explored the area a little, threw snowballs and tried to find the deepest snow. We met Sam, a walker from Greenock, who had tried to walk up Beinn Dearg but the thigh deep snow had won and sent him back down the hill. I felt pretty happy that we hadn’t tried to do the same.

Sunset was due at 3.30pm and the three of us hunkered down and got the fire going. A hot chocolate and some flames soon warmed our soaking wet feet. Sam had brought wood too so we had fuel aplenty to last the night.

The door opened again and in walked a pretty wet looking chap called Raymond. He had coal, which was great. And he then told us his ten pals (yes 10!) would also be coming with fuel.

Each snow or rain flurry brought another small group of people out of the darkness through the bothy door and each looked more relieved than the last that the fire was on and roaring. More chairs were brought in from the store next door. More wet socks were squeezed onto the drying line above the fire. More wet boots were uniformly placed on the hearth to dry. And more and more whisky was passed around, offered and gladly accepted. The atmosphere was as warm as the fire as it blazed on, the centrepiece of our growing commune.

Another couple, not linked to the big group, arrived around 6pm, bringing the total number of bodies to seventeen. I’ve never been in a bothy with more than a couple of other people, more usually I’ve been on my own. It was amazing that such a large group were so far from civilisation and yet feeling completely at home in this cold and remote glen.

After speaking to a few of the big group, it turned out they were on their yearly outing. Two outdoor groups who travelled Scotland and the world searching for adventure. Each year they gathered in a bothy and celebrated their “endeavours” through the giving of an award, the Tomaselli Salami, named after the Via Ferrata route I mentioned earlier. You can see the trophy below.

Yes it’s an old salami and it’s looking well passed it’s best, but it’s well sealed. And as trophies go, I’ve seen few more entertaining or beloved. Engraved on the trophy each year since 2005 was the name of the recipient and the reason for the award and it was clearly awarded to the individual who had cheated death in the most thrilling way possible.

But this year The Tomaselli Salami was being awarded to Ian, a member of both outdoor groups who had recently died, which had clearly added a somber note to this years gathering. It was remarked on a number of times through the night how tame the evening had been. But Ian was clearly missed. His sons were present and it was lovely to see the different generations supporting each other in what was an emotional trip for all.

As the night wore on, I thought about my own boys. Would they follow me into the outdoors world? How would our relationships change as the years go on? Would they be so well supported after I’m gone? I can be quite unemotional sometimes about family, a reflection of my own family life as a child, but I looked at Ian’s boys and for a few minutes they were Sam and Robbie and I was gone. Trying to pinpoint one particular part of our collective future. It was a sobering few minutes but reminded me how strong my love for them is, despite their joint efforts to make parenthood as difficult and stressful as possible.

Gav and I had a great night. Unexpected but in the best possible ways. We met some lovely people and they were all very gracious in including us in what could normally have been a very private event. I climbed the ladder to our sleeping area around midnight, leaving the revellers to burn the other ten bags of coal they brought and maybe talk about the stories they couldn’t tell with strangers in the room.

We were up early the next day and decided to head out for home before breakfast.

The weather was clearer on the Sunday than the day before and the sunrise looked gorgeous as we headed East. The monochrome was shattered.

Belnahua Bound

When the chance came along to visit the abandoned island of Belnahua, on the west coast, my immediate response was an unambiguous YES as the exploring nerves in my body all went into overdrive. A friend is writing a book partly based on the island and she was chartering a boat to go over and do some research. Belnahua in Gaelic means “mouth of the cave” and is one of the Slate Islands. Slate was taken from the shores of these islands and slabs of the rock were used to cover buildings and as grave and hearthstones. There is surprisingly little online about the island but you can find out a little more about the islands here: https://slateislands.org.uk/belnahua/.

After speaking to Young Johnston about a possible boat trip, he was in. And Dave decided to come too. So along with Katie, who organised the boat, our merry band of adventurers were looking forward to stepping from 21st Century Mainland life to 19th Century island life.

We left early on Saturday morning and arrived in Ellenabeich, a gorgeous village about 20 miles south of Oban, from where our boat would depart.

From the village you can see the Slate Islands as they stretch south over the Firth of Lorne. We went higher to get a better look. If you look near the top left of the photo below, you can see two islands, one in front of the other. The one at the front, that looks a bit like a submarine, is Belnahua.

Getting our buoancy aids on.

Our boat arriving to take us out to sea.

The trip over only took about 10 minutes but in that short time we saw some stunning views of the surrounding islands as well as some porpoise. Young Johnston was on GoPro duty and took some cracking photos. In my head, the soundtrack to the trip was “The Island” by Skippinish.

Our tropical weather was probably showing us a side of the island that slate workers wouldn’t see in mid-Winter storms. The island still has the remains of some of the quarry workings as well as old machinery and some of the old housing.

Not only were the rocks on the island great for slate, but they were peppered with fools gold.

We’d come prepared to swim so before lunch we got our trunks on and tested out the water. The similarities to the Caribbean continued as the fairly warm water lapped our legs.

The water in the quarries was so clear and a pleasure to swim or even just float in.

After a last walk around some of the old buildings and another swim, this time in the sea, waiting for the boat to come back, we took our last selfie and headed back across the water into 21st century Ellenabeich. We booked into the Aire/Airidh, walked up the hills behind the village and ate fish and chips and ice cream, enjoying the sunset and talking about the day we had just enjoyed.

If you’ve never visited the island of Belnahua, or any of the Slate Islands, I’d absolutely suggest you should. Whether for the walking, history, swimming or to see a different part of the country, this won’t disappoint.

Building a Den

Recently there have been a lot of weather, snow and wind and rain, but you might never have known it walking down the quiet wooded path. The only evidence of rain was the absolutely sodden ground we moved across. The light breeze moved the trees in the sunshine, throwing shadows across our muddy footsteps as we made our way to the spot I’d found a few weeks earlier.

It’s almost a year to the day since coronavirus closed schools for the first time and the opening up of business and leisure is keenly anticipated by all of us. Schools have just reopened after the second lockdown in Scotland and there is genuine excitement at being able to go to school and back to work.

But our world still feels very small and so Young Johnston and I decided to create a new world. Not very far flung of course, just far enough to give the impression of being far flung.

I’ve been watching far too much YouTube lately while napping Mini Johnston and I’ve come across a couple of channels that are totally absorbing, partly through the personalities involved and partly through what they get up to. The first channel is called Simon, a Bloke in the Woods and the second channel is called Kent Survival.

But undaunted, and seeing this as a first “draft”, we continued to build.

Inspired by their first class bush rafting and my own live if the outdoors, I located a nearby woodland, and found a spot just off the beat and track. Or so I thought until I saw all the dog walkers who use the field next door.

We started by building a skeleton, a sort of double lean-to.

More shell was added ready to tarp over and a wall/fire reflector was added at the front.

We found some Y branches and created some hooks that allow us to keep our bags off the ground. I also created a special mallet for Young Johnston. So he could hit things.

And hit other things.

The tarp was added to the roof, attached with cable ties, gaps filled with bracken and logs placed to stabilise the bracken.

We decided we need a bench, again to keep us off the ground.

You don’t go out with a 5 year old without taking a bag of snacks.

Young Johnston worked on his own little projects, like an extra seat and a flag pole.

We also added more fencing. Although there is more fencing to be done.

Our little homestead is really coming together. We have a back door into the den, we’re still discussing whether to close it off or not.

The view from the inside.

Looking up.

And where we have got to so far.

After all of that, we were shattered. Thank goodness we had a bed to lie down in.

More fencing is needed, especially if the back door remains, as that is the side the wind usually comes from. More bracken could go on the roof and there are also a couple of holes needing filled in the tarp.

It’s one of these projects that will probably never 100% be finished. Young Johnston is pretty proud of his efforts and rightly so. And today it was announced the “stay at home” message and national travel restrictions will go by April. It’s great to have a wee local outdoor base, but we’re also keen to get back into the van and go off exploring.

Extra Shelter From the Storm

The lockdown is almost three weeks old. We can’t go out unless absolutely necessary. As a family who loves the outdoors, we stand and stare out the windows, dreaming of potential adventures.

But it would be wrong to say that it’s the end of the world. We have stiffened our upper lips and embraced what we can do, rather than tearfully sob at what we can’t. And we’ve remembered that we have so many reasons to be happy, even if our freedom is restricted.

We have learnt new skills such as how to create a remote teaching and learning environment. We have dusted off some older skills such as baking (there’s been a lot of this…). We have spent time as a family, which has been amazing (and only occasionally fraught!). We have taken our daily exercise around the village which has allowed us to get to know our new home and what it has to offer. Young Johnston learnt how to ride his bike just today! And we have another child on the way, due for delivery in July. (Although hopefully not by Ralph the Hermes guy who has been at our door almost daily since lockdown life began.)

We’ve built Sam a rocket den in the garden, made fires, drawn on the street in chalk and made elephants out of old milk bottles. Our spare room is now ready for Ralph to deliver our next package (a baby chair, not a baby!) and the house is cleaner and tidier than it has been for weeks.

And I’ve moved on to my next van project, an awning. Before I even bought the van, I knew it needed somewhere to sit, cook or shelter in outside. So here’s what I did.

Lockdown has meant I haven’t been able to test the awning anywhere other than in front of the house. The pictures would look so much better on a beach or other remote green space.

But it’s just after 8pm, and the clapping in the street reminds me though that we are in strange times, a phrase I’ve heard so often lately. As soon as we can go further afield, we’ll be off on a Bernie adventure. But in the meantime, there’s plenty more adventures to be had close to home.

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