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Great Britain
Wednesday October 21st, 1998 to Friday October 30th, 1998

I arrived in Edinburgh fairly early in the morning on the overnight coach from London. The hostel wouldn't let me check in before 2pm, and they wouldn't keep my pack, so I got a pretty good workout climbing one of the city's rocky hills with it on my back. Dominated by the Edinburgh Castle, full of medieval buildings, and dotted with bare hills, Edinburgh is a place that wears its history on its sleeve: it's very easy to imagine the city 500 years ago. I visited the castle and walked along the Royal Mile before returning to the hostel, where I found a walking tour just about to leave, and hence chanced upon a reasonably thorough introduction to the city's history.

I was planning to spend a few days in Edinburgh and then hitch north to see some Scottish countryside, but I stumbled across a promotion by a local coach company that would allow me to purchase a 3-day, unlimited travel coach pass for relatively little money. I decided to take advantage of this offer right away, see some of rural Scotland, and return to Edinburgh a few days later to finish my visit. The next morning I caught a coach to Portree on the Isle of Skye, about half-way up the west coast of Scotland.

The scenery through the Grampian Mountains on the way to Portree was among the most beautiful, and the most rugged, I have ever seen. The mountains are completely bare of trees, and are enormous (a few are large enough to be snow-peaked in October); their size is made particularly apparent by their setting — rather than a conglomeration of mountains, crags, hills, and valleys, the Grampians seem to be a bunch of large lumps on otherwise flat terrain. Eventually the coach arrived at the sea and crossed the new bridge to the Isle of Skye; the terrain here is also quite mountainous (the range is called the Cuillins), but rather than plains the mountains here rise out of the sea; throughout the trip and on Skye the scenery was relentlessly spectacular.

Skye is apparently a pretty touristed place in the summer, but in cold, wet October there were very few people around. Climbing Skye's reasonably manageable +3000' peaks is known as "Munroe bagging," and on the first full day of my visit I walked several km in the rain to the Storr, the highest peak on the island, climbed out of the rain to the top, and walked back to Portree (thoroughly soaked and exhausted, needless to say). The next day I climbed another hill on the other side of the town. The whole time I was surrounded by scenery beautiful enough and rugged enough to ensure that I'll either go back one day or spend the rest of my life wanting to do so. In the evenings I visited local pubs and sampled some genuine Scottish culture (including some authentic impromptu bagpipe playing) with others from the hostel.

Although I could have happily stayed for weeks, my 3-day coach pass was about to expire, so on the evening of my 3rd day at Skye I caught a coach heading north to Inverness on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. I arrived in Inverness fairly late and accompanied some Australians I'd met on the bus to a nearby hostel, where they had made reservations. Not having made a reservation, I was quite fortunate that they had exactly 1 empty bed.

The next morning I saw a little of Inverness, but my primary intention was to hitch a ride back south through the heart of Scotland to Edinburgh. After a couple of long hours at the side of the road, a truck pulled over. The driver (Dougie, as I was to learn) asked me where I was going, and I told him. He answered that he wouldn't make it to Edinburgh until some time the following afternoon, but that I was welcome to come with him for as far south as he was going that day. Considering the trouble I was having getting a ride, I was happy to accept. Unfortunately, he actually had to leave the main road to Edinburgh about 20min after he picked me up, and thus I was suddenly heading east instead of south, and not really toward Edinburgh at all. He soon realized that he was taking me off course, however, and offered to let me stay in the cab of his truck that night in Dundee, continuing on to Edinburgh with him the next morning. I had no schedule, and it was an opportunity to visit more of Scotland, so I was more than happy to accept. I spent the day helping him to deliver plants to various stores down the east coast of Scotland; in the evening he pulled into a truck stop in Dundee, and, after a couple of beers, he climbed into the bunk at the back of the cab, leaving me the two front seats for a reasonably comfortable night's sleep. The next day, after a few more deliveries, he dropped me little ways north of Edinburgh, and I caught city bus into town.

I spent another couple of days in Edinburgh, visiting the various historical sites and learning its fascinating history (old Edinburgh is divided into 2 sections, the old town and the new town; the new town is about 600 years older than Canada). The National Gallery has an impressive collection, and features the nicest public washrooms I have ever seen (and, of course, like all galleries and musea in the UK, admission is free). In the evenings I sampled some of the local culture with a friend I had met up at Skye, an Australian working as a speech therapist in Edinburgh.

I was starting to get a little cocky on the hitching front, and I was ambitiously planning to get from Edinburgh to Newcastle in a day in order to catch a boat to the Netherlands. Edinburgh is several hundred km from Newcastle, the ferry was scheduled to leave at 6pm, and only it runs every 48hrs, so I was pushing my luck a little; I figured that the worst case scenario would see me spending a couple of days in Newcastle waiting for the next ferry. Fortunately, however, I made it with time to spare (lots of time to spare, in fact, since the ferry was running about 6hrs behind schedule due to bad weather).

The ferry ticket was a little on the pricy side, but included all the food I could eat over the course of the 20hr trip, so I spent many hours in the dining room making sure I got my money's worth. The dining room was a fairly entertaining place, as it was crowded with very drunk British people (alcohol was not included in the price of the ticket, but there was a duty-free shop on-board) who, I suspect, were just travelling over to the Netherlands in order to turn around and head right back again; they were not really interested in the destination, their vacation was the ferry trip itself. I shared a tiny cabin with a couple of Dutch guys in the bowels of the ship (one level below the cars), but I spent most of the trip (when I wasn't eating) out on deck. The highlight of the trip was looking around and realising that I couldn't see land in any direction. We arrived in Ijmuiden, about 25km from Amsterdam, in the early evening of the following day.

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