30 October 2012

Autumn in Peterborough

There's always time for some pretty pics on a fieldwork. Enjoy...

The Cambridgeshire fieldwork: the social aspect

One measures the success of a fieldwork on how well its scientific objectives were met. But how one looks back at it depends more on the social aspect. Fieldwork often means long days of hard work with a small group of people. And when the work is done you spend your leisure time with the same people. It’s not hard to imagine how that can go either very well or very wrong. And with the Durham-Plymouth sea level team it always goes very well. So I looked forward to this fieldwork, even though it was in unspectacular Peterborough. And then it almost didn’t happen.

We thought that Peterborough wouldn’t be that much of a sought-after destination in late October. But when we tried to book accommodation, we realised we were wrong. Everything was booked up! And we are quite specific: we want a self-catering cottage; not only because cooking ourselves keeps the cost down, but also because we use the kitchen as an improvised lab. We really want to be able to check our sediments in the evening. And in a hotel room that can be a bit of a challenge.

When we were already despairing, Tasha found a place in Nassington, just west of Peterborough. We just couldn’t book it for the full period we had kept free in our diary. The day was saved!

The cottage turned out to be quite nice. Not too social on a larger scale; there was hardly any phone signal, and the internet connection was rather slow too. It was fast enough, though, to show each other geeky Youtube videos on the first night; Tasha and I were quite impressed by the scientific Lady Gaga parody. But the big hit of the night was a LMFAO spoof (not the NASA one): the Fossil Rock anthem. It would turn out to be very inspirational...

The kitchen of the cottage provided a stage for culinary excellence; since we had brought Rob along on the last Isle of Wight fieldwork, the standard of cooking hadn’t been the same. This trip the menu included chicken and leek pie, stew, and risotto. Very good! But the kitchen had more uses; it functioned well as an improvised lab. Plenty of space for two microscopes, and an assortment of beakers and sieves.

Butternut squash, spinach and goat's cheese risotto: not bad at all!

The social aspect of a fieldwork does not only involve the living and cooking together; the work itself also has a strong social component. Coring is team work; it takes two to lift the heavy percussion unit onto the core barrel, and it takes three (it can be done with two, but that’s both hard and risky!) to jack the barrel out again. Sampling a core also takes two. And the better we work together, the nicer it all is. We were used to coring with four, but that does involve quite some standing around. With three, we soon were a well-oiled war machine. And the well-oiled was evident in how smoothly we worked, but it also was a bit more literal than it should have been: the corer drooled oil wherever it went. And Tasha and Antony don’t tend to wear gloves. And this time, our coring moves were spiced up by increasingly skilful renditions of the “fossil rocks” dance. Every day I’m shovellin’...

The drill and its excretions

And where all that oil ends up

The coring is quite heavy work; all the material is heavy, and this time the sediments were stiff, and really hard to get out of the barrel. And on top of that, it was late October. That can be quite cold. So after a day spent coring in a windy field one has deserved a snifter. The first evening we just enjoyed a drink in the cottage, but the following days we tried two pubs. On the first day of coring Harry, the local expert, visited us in the field, and suggested going for a pint when the work was done. He suggested some barge-turned-pub; we were quite obliging. It turned out to be a good suggestion! It was a nice pub, with nice beers. The next day we wanted to visit a pub in Nassington itself; it boasted a history going back to 1674, and that caught our attention. It turned out that quite many of the visitors’ history didn’t even go back a decade. Quite a noisy pub! But we didn’t want to stay long anyway; Tasha had prepared a stew in the morning, and it was waiting for us in the oven. We wanted to get back before it would boil dry and start billowing smoke!
The barge annex pub in Peterborough

The barge on the inside

The ancient pub at the edge of Nassington

On Saturday we wanted to go for dinner; our kitchen crew deserved a day off. The pub we had our eyes on, though, didn’t have space for us, so we decided to postpone that event to the next day; on Sunday restaurants would likely be less busy. So that day we got out of the field in time, had a wash, and tried our luck. Our thought of absence of crowds in the restaurants proved true; unfortunately, that also had something to do with the Nassington pubs not serving food on a Sunday. We instead had a pint in the first pub. And then one in the other one. One has to be sure, right? On departure, Antony and I did the shovellin’ dance for Tasha, and then we were ready to head home, for an improvised dinner of whatever-was-left-in-the-fridge. Somewhere along the road, where we passed a church, Tasha shouted: “there’s a benchmark here!” So we all ran like madmen to it. We didn’t find a benchmark. We did find a slug. And a badger. Scientists always serious? Nah…

The pub where we would have liked to have a meal

Even though it wasn’t how we had envisaged it, it turned out to be a worthy last night. We had beer, we had Spotify, and Antony turned out to be the master of improvised food. His chicken and leek pie had not used up all the puff pastry, and there was pesto, tomatoes and cheese: that means pizza! He even managed to make a lovely dish out of rice, celery, and some more tomato and cheese. His attempt at a dessert was somewhat less fortunate; oatcakes and strawberry yoghurt may look fine together, but somehow the flavours don’t blend very well. But who cares! In good spirits we started packing the microscopes and what came with it after dinner. The fieldwork was over…

Unexpected pizza

If you ask people if they want to spend their time handling a smelly, noisy, heavy percussive drill in a neglected Peterborough field in late October, the response may not be all too positive. But if done with such company, it is so much fun it makes one look back in nostalgia! Where shall we go next? I’ll practice my dance moves…

Seeking the sea in Cambridgeshire

Metres and metres of sea level change. Timescales of hundreds of thousands of years. Our project is really spectacular! Unfortunately, our field sites aren’t. So far we had visited Norfolk. It just looks like the Netherlands. The sediments were great, though! And this time we would look for very elusive sediments in nearby Cambridgeshire. Since the 19th Century scholars had been writing about the Woodston Beds; deposits, about 400.000 years old, from environments such as rivers, ponds, marshes and the sea. In other words: deposits from near shore environments, reflecting fluctuations in sea level. Exactly what we want! The problem was that these beds had never been very extensive,  and a lot of them had already been eroded away in the meantime. And what Nature had left, Man had had no mercy with; the region is famous for its brick production. One third of UK bricks seems to originate from the Peterborough area. And these bricks are made of Jurassic clays; in order to get to these, you have to dig away whatever lies on top. Bye bye Woodston beds.  And if there was anything left, it had a good chance of having been built on, as Peterborough is a rapidly expanding town. This would not be an easy fieldwork!

Our field area - one can see some difficulties here. From Google Maps

It was going to be the usual team of four: Antony, Tasha, Roland and me. Then Antony and Tasha found a local expert at a conference, and he was interested in getting involved. And then Roland fell ill. So in the end it was just me taking the train from Plymouth, and being picked up from the railway station by the Durham crew, and Harry the local expert. We first would visit the headquarters of the company on whose land we were allowed to core: O&H Hampton. They were most welcoming, brought out all kinds of aerial photographs, and talked us through what the region had been through. The changes were spectacular: from arable land to clay pits to lakes to fly ash dumps to residential areas. Not easy to find an undisturbed site in all this. But if it's there, they know where. Then we went to the site we had picked: just some empty field. Not much to see! We did find clay with oyster beds in it; Woodston beds? It looked promising!  But the next day we would have a look inside, and find out more.

Oyster beds!

The next morning we wanted to start coring. For these sediments you need a percussive drill; by hand you never get through the gravels. In Norfolk we had quite a nice one with us, but in the meantime this one had been helped to its grave by a PhD student. So we had a slightly dodgier model. When we had a look if we could make it work we saw the pull cord was about to snap. So we started the day with impromptu mechanical repair! Luckily, there was a spare cord, and we managed to put it into place, and screw the whole thing back together without being left with some enigmatic bits of which we couldn’t remember where they belonged. We could start coring!

Fixing the pull cord

Over the next four days we turned that field into Swiss cheese. The first core we took struck Woodston beds! They still exist! Even though they turned out to have nothing to do with the oyster beds of the first day - these were Jurassic. But then the next cores only struck gravel. We got the impression we had struck a channel where the beds had been deposited. Core outside the channel, and you only find gravel. We tried to trace the channel so we could find the place with the best sediments. This would have been easy with ground penetrating radar; the plan had been to bring that, but only Roland had ever used it before, and we figured it wasn’t worth me coming by car with that thing in the boot, if we would be stuck at the first moment the machine gave us problems.

And coring!

Preparing the sediments for being taken out of the barrel

When we cored, we did take samples from time to time, to check them for microfossils back at the cottage. That started out promising; we found forams galore. But something was odd. The forams we found high up, which would be the most recent ones, looked pretty and pristine. The ones further down, so older, looked more battered and etched. So far so good. But then the very oldest ones, from the Jurassic Oxford Clay, turned out to be the prettiest, glassy, pristine forams of all. What was going on there? The Oxford Clay is more than two orders of magnitude older than anything that is lying on top. And what was strange too: the species I found in there weren’t what I expected. They were unlike anything that had been described as belonging to Oxford Clay before. Had my sample been contaminated? That would have been one hell of a contamination, as we are talking Very Many forams. Maybe this wasn’t Oxford Clay? But if we got that wrong, what else would we have interpreted wrongly? Back in the lab I’ll have to have a good look at how I can sort out how all of that fits together. No scarcity of puzzles!

If we understand the sediments that these forams came from correctly, then the ones on the left are ~100.000 years old, and the ones on the right ~160 million years old... if that's really true I'll sell their secret to l'Oreal and get rich!

We had started out using the so-called “window corer”; it works well, but the only way of getting the sediments out is by cutting them out, in pieces, through the windows in the barrel (hence the name). Not only does that give you disturbed cores; it also is a hell of a lot of work. Stiff clays are especially hard to get out. So this time we had also brought another system: a closed barrel, with plastic liner. The idea is that you pull the liner out of the barrel, and have a beautiful, pre-wrapped, undisturbed sediment core. But it doesn’t work on all sediments. That’s why we had brought the tried window corer, so we knew we were guaranteed sediments.

A sneaky picture from the previous fieldwork, showing the sampling with the window corer.

It was time to try it out. We cored, with the widow corer, to such a depth the next drive would catch the Woodston beds. We lowered the closed barrel, already renamed “Roland’s condom machine”, into the hole. And hammered it all the way in. So far so good. But now came the harder bit; first we had to jack it out of the hole. And the condom machine came with its own rods, which were connected by sleeves. And these sleeves didn’t fit through our jacking system. We did manage, but we had to move the jacking system from its normal position to resting on the ground, and back, for every 1m rod that came up. Without dropping the whole core into the hole. A lot of hassle.

The new corer! Notice the big thread on the rods, that needs a sleeve around it to connect them. And notice the cool big spanners; there was nothing they fit on, strangely...

When we had it on the surface we were faced by the challenge of getting the sediments out. Tasha knew how it should work; you remove a metal bit, then take out another metal bit that has the sleeving attached, and hop! Out comes the core. Or not. When the metal bit came out without any sign of sleeving we knew we had a problem. We then tried to screw the barrel open on the other end. But to no avail. The technicians will have to solve this one, probably with a pressure cleaner! An unglamorous end for the exclusive Woodston beds.

Plop! The metal thingy Tasha has just pulled out should be attached to the sleeving... and pulling it out should  pull the sediments out too. Well, it clearly didn't work that way!

When we had all the sediments we wanted, we surveyed in the core locations. And then it was a wrap. But it will take quite some effort to find out what it really is we found! Stay tuned...

Goodbye to autumnal Peterborough

27 October 2012

New friends (of a kind...)

I’m making new friends! They’re a bit small, and they’re dead, but it’s nice to meet them. The Norfolk sediments are yielding all sorts of little critters I had never met before. They’re older than any other forams I have studied, and they are also mid-latitude marine dwellers, which is new. I so far had only done tropical deep-sea, Arctic shallow sea, and mid-latitude intertidal beasties.

It is a hassle to get introduced; the university surely doesn’t have the likes of these in the (very small) reference collection. And it doesn’t have that many books that contain a who’s who of the foraminiferal world. I basically rely on documentation I have brought from Norway, which is digital. So I spend quite some of my time first drawing the bugs in the lab, and then scrolling through the documentation in my office, looking for something familiar. And if I have a suspicion of whom I am faced with, I can try to verify this with the Ellis and Messina encyclopaedia, which one of geology’s retired professors has; it’s not easy to access, though, as the gentleman isn’t too eager to answer e-mails, and I can’t just pop by his office as it is located in a corridor I don’t have access to. So it’s not necessarily straightforward, but hey, building a friendship takes time...

23 October 2012


I thought I was going to have a quiet evening after the helicopter adventure. But the evening before all suddenly changed; a 40th birthday party of a colleague (another one!) fell out of the sky onto my plate. This time it was Will, with whom I mainly have interacted by running, but who also is the geographical man in the CORiF lab, so he's also the one that pointed me in the right direction regarding radionuclide dating. And he works closely with Hugh. An honour to be invited, though it came somewhat abruptly!

It was a masked event, so on the way home from the royal marines base I met up with Hugh at a fancy dress shop to equip us. Then I unpacked, had a shower, changed, and left home again.

Once in Totnes we were greeted by the hosts, and by their very special guest: a pig on a spit. It had been there since 1PM! And it was turned by a spiffing construction made of en electric engine and a bicycle. Brilliant! The host, who had the best, though not the most practical, mask of all, explained the party was just some side effect of the roast; if you have an entire pig for dinner you better have some people to help you eat it.

It was a good party! Good to see our colleagues have nice friends. And a party with a full size keg of ale, a pig, an additional fire, lots of pork-accompanying food, silly masks and whatnot is always nice. I just wish I had known in advance it would all be outside... in mid-October such is relevant information!

As we were both knackered from the week that had passed we left as soon as the dessert was devoured. That way we managed to be home at midnight... I hope the party continued well into the night! Congratulations Will! To another forty!

22 October 2012


What are the chances of the cave rescue team being deployed by helicopter? Very small. And what are the chances of the cave rescue team seizing the opportunity if they can get a ride in one, just for in case it ever happens anyway? Very large!

Theoretically, it could happen that there is a big mining disaster (let's face it, a large cave disaster in the southwest is much less likely) somewhere quite far from where DCRO is concentrated (but still within our area), and that they want a batch of people and equipment to arrive on the scene quickly. In that case, the RAF could fly some of us out there. And the helicopter may not be able to land on site; we need to be able to cope being winched out. And most of us are quite happy with dangling from a rope, but few of us are familiar with dangling from nothing more than a loop under our arms. So that was something that we should work on.
An RAF Sea King

Of course I volunteered for a helicopter practice. Yes these things burn enormous amounts of fuel per minute, but hey, sometimes can be excused for jumping to an exceptional, though environmentally-unfriendly occasion. So obediently I read the RAF "working with search & rescue helicopters" handout, and on the day itself got up really early to get to the air base.

We were warmly welcomed, and were briefed on the do's and don'ts. We would be winched into, rather than out of, the helicopters. That way they didn't have to worry about us twisting an ankle upon touching ground, but got us acquainted with the winch anyway. And then, if we would ever have to be deployed by helicopter, they would just have to hope for the best regarding our landing.

We also signed some documents on that we were physically fit to fly, and had understood the briefing, and then we were ready for the first batch. Which included me!

Helicopter briefing

We put in the earplugs we had been handed out. And as the helicopter took off we were glad for that. A RAF chap walked us to near the helicopter; blimey, it indeed takes quite some effort to stay upright in the draft! And the guy gestured at the first two people; one of them was me. The other one was one of our veteran members (he got a medal, a few months ago!). We got into the strops, and up we went! No time for pictures. And just a strop under your arms actually feels perfectly secure. I suppose they wouldn't use them, otherwise... Once inside, we were gestured to the two seats in the back of the aircraft; the observer seats, next to concave windows that indeed provide a good view.

The airfield seen from the helicopter

Me and my humble shadow!

Minutes later the other two couples were winched in. And off we went, for a little bonus flight, over the north Devon coast! Very nice.
The next two have been winched in too, and the last two are on their way

The last two are hauled in - we were told to "play dead" during that process

All inside, and flying!

Once back at the airfield we were ushered out again; all non-verbally, of course, because of engines, rotors and earplugs. And then the helicopter went into a low hover for the second batch. Altogether I think only for half an hour the helicopter was airborne for us, but for most of us this was the most helicopter experience we ever had! And we all loved it. A lot of driving for little flying, but I think all of us would do it again, given the chance!

The next batch gets ready. Notice the distance to the helicopter, and the grass flying around!

That's how you approach a helicopter - with difficulty! Notice the strops already being lowered.

Up they go

20 October 2012

Hike aftermath

A hike doesn’t leave your life as soon as you are back. It lingers until the bag is unpacked, the laundry is done, the left-over food eaten, the repairs performed… And, of course, the finances are dealt with, the pictures distributed, and the blog posts written. This time I actually started with bringing my disappointing jacket back to the shop. They gave me a voucher in return. I will have to wait and see what I get for that; not another jacket anytime. They have nothing that’s up to the task. They may sell these again in spring… now they focus on tat that can function as Christmas presents. I will probably have to go to Cotswold for a proper jacket. Trying Black’s was perhaps a mistake… but at least they were chivalrous with taking the jacket back.

The laundry followed soon after. And the unpacking. And the pictures and blog post. I struggle a bit with hanging things out; the tent had to hang in the bathroom at night, but make way for myself in the morning. And I decided to wash my sleeping bag. I chose the setting “hand wash”; strange setting for a machine, but hey, I’m not complaining. The sleeping bag came out weighing around 10kg. Where to hang that? But to my delight, the laundry rack fits inside the bath! Problem solved. And now all I have to do is wait, and hope the filling indeed doesn’t get lumpy.

The last remnant of the hike may be the meal I brought, but which we didn’t use as we ate in a gastropub instead. And I still have Maaike’s analogue pictures to look forward to!

ps a few days later I can confirm the sleeping bag hasn't gotten lumpy!

19 October 2012

From swamp to marsh

What do you do when you get back from a hike? You get all soggy things out of your backpack to avoid them getting even more disgusting, and then you go to bed. And the next morning you get back into your waterproofs for some more mud. At least, that’s how things worked out this time. By coincidence, we would take the students into the field for the annual sea level module the day after I would get back. And I wouldn’t be home before 10PM.

Luckily, all travel went well, and indeed I was home at 10. But 11 hours later I was already supposed to jump into a minibus with the students! So I had already dug out my fieldwork waterproofs. The wellies followed soon. So the next morning I only had to prepare a thermal flask of hot water, and off I was. Rob had offered to make me lunch! That was really kind.

All went well. Quite in contrast to my expectations we had good weather. And the students were switched on (though that was in line with my expectations!). I had heard rumours we wouldn’t have very many students, but that turned out to be wrong. We had two minibuses full.

Roland gave his introduction, and soon I had a group under my wing to get started. We would start coring; as last year, we let Marshall, the driver of the second minibus, do that, for otherwise he would be twiddling his thumbs all day. And that is tense business; he tends to be unneccessarily rough with sediments, and I don't want the students to think that's how they should go about things. So when he either jerks at the barrel so the core breaks, or he scrapes off the core top, or something like that, I comment on it. And I know it's not appreciated, but you don't want your students to be educated to be careless sediment-handlers. But at the same time, you do want to give them the impression all staff are capable and comradely. It's a fine line between letting the student be taught the wrong things, and presenting them with staff fighting things out in front of them. I think we managed. 

When the core (not broken, this time) was wrapped and labelled we could get started on the surveying, mapping of plant zonations, and then the surface sampling. The students went to work like they did such things every day, and in no time we had a beautiful transect, lovely samples, and information in all field books. Good job! The only thing left to do now was wait for the other groups to be finished too, while having lunch in the sun. Isn’t life tough. And next week they’ll start processing the samples. I actually look forward to that!

17 October 2012

Hiking the swamp II: Scotland

“Hadrian’s Wall, that’s in England!” Last year there had been a hike with some of my oldest friends on Dartmoor, and they had enjoyed the rain and the pubs. So they wanted more. A plan had been made to have a sequel in Scotland; as much rain there! Someone had suggested Hadrian’s Wall. Hugh, however, had been invited too, and he’s not very gullible; he figured immediately that you can’t go to Scotland and follow this wall at the same time. He wanted some Scotland, and preferably some wild tough parts of it. So he suggested the Cairgorms. And after some mailing up and down, and some checking of logistic possibilities, the die was cast, and Cairgorms it would be. To be entered from Aviemore.

Two days before we left I checked the weather forecast. A weather warning for heavy rain! If it’s heavy by Scottish standards it must be ghastly. Oh well. We don’t go for comfort.

We met at Edinburgh Waverley ticket office. It was great to see everybody again! The Dutch contingent was the same as last year. And that’s a very good contingent. And when the tickets were purchased some of us went into town to buy the last supplies: bread (which is best bought as late as possible to preserve freshness) and fuel (which we couldn’t bring by plane). Viking and I volunteered for keeping an eye on the luggage while enjoying a pint. And a sandwich later we were in the train, seeing the sun set and the rain fall. We reached Aviemore where a cab awaited us, and brought us to the campsite, where we were greeted by disapproving grunts by the off-duty warden. He objected to us arriving after dark, apparently unaware this had been OK’d by the proprietor. Feeling somewhat indignant we pitched our tents, cooked pasta, and enjoyed the beers the shopping party had spontaneously added to the shopping list. And we turned this into a musical-style hike. Nothing you can say that can’t be sung! “The pan won’t hold all of the pasta” will surely soon be a chart topper.

The next morning it rained, but not very hard. After breakfast we left, to start our marvellous hike. We were forced to start on asphalt, but soon we found ourselves on cute, well-maintained little paths through impressive autumnal terrain. Slowly the rain got heavier while the terrain got wilder and the trees sparser.
During our first break the trouble started. Both Maaike and I had to conclude our brand new, rather expensive GoreTex jackets were not at all waterproof. Some of the other jackets were not up for the local conditions either. This could become a rather wet hike!

The start, on asphalt

Soon replaced by a cute path

The very autumnal landscape

The trees soon vanished

Soon after this break we reached a saddle in the valley. The terrain got blocky, the path vanished. We managed to scramble over the slippery blocks, but not entirely without problems; Roelof slipped, and scraped his hand and wrist along the jagged rock. That was only a scratch, but this terrain could easily inspire heavier injuries. We had to be careful!

The blocky terrain; somewhat treacherous when the rock is all wet

After the saddle we found a swamp, and then a valley, largely hidden in clouds. Somewhere in this valley we had a cold and uncomfortable lunch. The rain hadn’t stopped for even a minute! And there was no shelter.
At around four o’clock some people were suffering from sore feet and similar ailments. And we were all cold and wet. We walked past a small field that wasn’t too swampy or bumpy, so we decided to take no chances, and camp there for the night. A waterfall provided drinking water; small lakes offered the option for a bath, but strangely enough nobody was keen to take up the invitation.

Packing up after lunch

The weather is bad, the mood is fine!

Many of the lakelets we passed were probably dry land under more normal circumstances.

We pitched the tents. As mine is the biggest, I offered to pitch only the shell, so we would have maximum space inside. After all the tents were pitched, and several people had gotten into something dry, we gathered in it. We all fit, including Hugh’s and my backpacks. And then we managed to light a stove! Roelof surprised everyone with making fresh and multi-coloured krupuk inside the tent. We had two Trangia’s and one MSR whisperlite; it’s not recommended to light a whisperlite inside a tent (even though I admit I have done it), but a trangia is rather harmless. I never had green and pink krupuk, let alone freshly fried; I didn’t expect to have my debut in my tent!

Colourful krupuk in the tent! Made by Roelof, who keeps his hood on, to be sure...

This was the view (or what passes for it) later in the evening

With all seven in the tent, and a lit stove, it got very steamy inside. But better steamy than rainy and cold, as it was outside! It was actually quite snug, although the population density lead to some sleeping limbs and cramping muscles.

While we were gathered anyway we talked through the plans for the coming days; my suggested route was clearly too ambitious. And the fuel was running out faster than anticipated too. We decided to turn back the next morning, and at the first opportunity where we could escape this valley we would decide on what to do next.

When dinner (rice with quorn and gado-gado) was eaten all dispersed. This was our cue to pitch the rest of the tent, and to finally get into something dry. I hadn’t dared change much more than my shirt, as I feared everything I touched would make my until-then dry clothes wet too. But now we were inside the inner tent, and the microfleece trousers could appear. Snug! It was a nice night with lots of listening to the wind and the rain chastising the tent. But when I woke up I heard no wind and rain.

Our camp in the morning

I got out. It was a bit hazy, but dry! I was very glad. I immediately seized the opportunity for a bath – I like bathing on a hike! But not the night before.

The bathroom!

We had pancakes and coffee for breakfast. While we were enjoying that a red deer came majestically walking past on the hillside above us. What a start of the day!

The deer in the mist

Only lightly sprinkled with rain we walked back down the valley. Even though we walked through a negative gradient of landscapely roughness it was beautiful. And this day we even came across other walkers; first a British couple going the opposite way, and later a solitary Dutch bloke, who immediately recognised us as (largely) Dutch too, by the four pairs of camouflage GoreTex trousers…

The relatively dry second day

Viking and Roelof

At the point where we had to decide on the route we simply decided to keep following the river. It would lead us into the woods near Aviemore. At first it lead through swampy heathland, but slowly the trees returned. And finally, also the sun. When the first ray hit us we met a ranger, who commented on all these Dutch (and other non-UK) people that seem to like hiking in autumnal Scotland. Hmm yes, we might be a bit strange…

Where to go?

Into the valley

I was there too!

Erik being theatrical

Lunch with mackerel in tomato sauce!

The terrain got woodier

I met this little chap only days earlier in Finland!


Soon afterwards we found a perfect camping spot. One could tell it was in use more often! Henco and I kept an eye on the bags (and a hand on the whisky) while others checked if there was an even better place, but we stuck to this one. This evening we had a curly kale with death-by-sausage feast. And lots of whisky! This trip was showing its opulent side.


Vain attempts to dry some kit in the tree underneath which we were cooking

And opulence reached a peak the next morning. We couldn’t bring fuel back, so we had to finish it all. The slogan was: coffee and pancakes until the fuel runs out. A dream come true! The next morning I jumped out of bed. Pancakes and coffee until the fuel runs out! The thought alone had me outside the tent before the morning pink had left the sky.

Pink morning sky!

Our camp in the morning

It WAS great! Even though we ran out of syrup (the best thing on pancakes!) Erik decided to use “sour faces” instead. I can tell you, these melt in heat. And draw sticky threads. Brr!

Pancakes! With syrup!

Erik makes his dubious "sour faces"-pancake

Just when everybody was satisfied the last stove went out. Brilliant! So we packed up, and headed for town. We planned to not take the straightest route, but be in town in the early afternoon anyway, and then first check out the Old Bridge Inn (I had checked their website during the preparations); and the ranger we had met the day before ad also said something about a bunkhouse. That may come in handy…

Just before we got to Aviemore we got a goodbye present from the weather gods...

As soon as we reached town we reached the inn. Excellent! We enjoyed a beer and lunch while the bunkhouse decided whether it had space for us. Fortunately it did, but unfortunately not all together; we were spread out over two rooms, and both rooms also had additional guests. We would not make us popular with them… We were a world of dubious, damp smells. And we saved the worst for the drying room (yay! A drying room!) but we did have enough left to infest the sleeping rooms too.

When we had all showered and changed we went back to the pub, for more beer, and a meal. The meal was excellent! Amazing deer, and ditto chocolate mousse. This trip had turned from hardship through opulence to luxury. And after dinner there was more beer. And a pub quiz. Roelof was disappointed in the questions on philosophy, and I was disappointed in my answers on 80’s lyrics (though I had extensively practiced! “A path to walk on, without hurting your ankle, oh baby, don’t look any further”...). And we all disagreed with the booklet that claimed Snæfjell lies on the Isle on Man.

View from the pub! We were snugly inside. 

With my reputation shattered by recognizing lyrics from “Rent” (Pet Shop Boys) we called it an evening and went home. We were just in time to witness that Erik wasn’t feeling very well, in a rather noisy way. Poor girl sharing the room with us… but apart from that, the stench, and Roelof’s snoring, all was well. And the next morning everybody felt fine again! We just turned the bunkhouse’s kitchen into a cloud of smoke by finishing the pancake batter at record speed, and then we left the place to its own peace.

We all caught the same train, but in Perth Hugh and I had to change. Our flight form Edinburgh had been cancelled, and we had to go back over Glasgow. We said goodbye in haste on the platform. This was the end of Zomphop II! It hadn’t gone according to plan, but I had had a lovely time. I suppose I even would have if we would have crouched in sewers all the time; these friends are special and splendid. But getting their company AND beautiful landscapes AND bonuses as pancakes, deer and beer really can’t go wrong. Next year Snowdonia? Lake district? I can’t wait!