Madagascar: The Tsiribihina River


We had a 90-minute journey to the river and our boat; the first 20km on asphalt and the remainder on a dirt track. The usual departure point was out of action because the river was too low. Instead of a 1km walk to the pier, there was a longer 4X4 drive with payments to each person whose land we had crossed. Once our luggage had arrived by tractor and trailer, we set off; zigzagging through the low water. Nearby we passed a group of people with someone dressed all in white on the riverbank. We were told that this was a spirit cleaning ceremony which occurs every October. Someone who is identified as being possessed by a is cleansed in the river in a ceremony to appease the spirits. I asked how someone is identified as being possessed and was told that they may say unusual things and appear as if they are ‘in a trance’. I did wonder whether some of these people may actually have a psychosis or other mental disorder and I don’t know how this is understood in traditional communities.

Savannah gave way to forest and then we were in deeper water as rocky strata appeared. There were some small communities on the riverbank with a few wooden and straw huts and canoes moored nearby. Eventually we arrived at the sandbank near the Cascade Anosinampela. Some of us walked up to the waterfall for a cool-off and then returned to await tent erection. Our guide was advised that camping on the other bank would be better, so we moved over there and got the tents up just before sunset.

The following morning, we returned to the other bank because Red-Fronted Lemurs had been spotted in the trees.

Underway, we passed into a limestone gorge.

A little further on we stopped at a small village on the riverbank: Begidro. It was market day and school holidays so was quite busy.

The farmers here grow tobacco as well as the usual crops so somewhat surprisingly there is a large state-run tobacco warehouse.

Most people live in huts with a corrugated iron roof with a few being able to afford bricks or even concrete. We spotted to Liverpool FC shirts on the streets

and a fairly recent Mo Salah one. We visited the local state-run school which caters for ages 6-15. Apparently, NGOs only support private schools.

Back on the water we stopped for lunch near the first baobabs we had seen. There are seven species in Madagascar. Six are endemic and the other is the African baobab found on the African continent.

We eventually entered Tsirbihina Gorge, more baobabs and our destination for the night on the sandbank. We watched the sun go down over the water.

A campfire had been planned with musical entertainment being provided by some of the locals. We had singers, drummers and dancers followed by a guy with a ukelele.

The following morning, we woke early thanks to the cockerel. He belonged to one of the crew and was carried with us on the boat. We were told that he was a prize fighter and that cock fighting is not only legal but very popular in Madagascar. After saying goodbye to the boat crew, we discovered that our 4X4s were marooned on the other side of the river awaiting a ferry. Tuk Tuks were hired to take us into Belo Tsiribihina for lunch at the Mad Zebu Restaurant. This is popular with tourists. While our meal was being prepared, we walked around town passing the Kings Palace (surrounded by wood) but photography was not allowed. After lunch we met up with the cars and had to wait for the convoy to form. Since there had been robberies from vehicles on the road, police convoys are the only permitted means of getting up towards our destination. We continued through savannah with baobabs, forded a small river and then a dried up one. Eventually all the vehicles in the convoy had caught up and we could cross the Manambolo River by ferry and find our hotel in Bekopa.

Madagascar: the highlands


We had to return to the outskirts of Tana before we could take the road south to Antisaribe. A brief stop in Moramanga allowed one of our group to buy some sunglasses and the drivers to stock up on oil. The town was very busy with rickshaws. Further on, the road crosses the Mangoro River and passes a hydro-electric power station. There were road-side sellers

and whole families (including children) breaking rocks into gravel and small pieces to be used in making concrete. Closer to Tana there are rice paddies in the valleys between the hills the road winds up and down around. Occasionally large lumps of granite peep out of the vegetation on the hillside. The Tana bypass was built by the Japanese and one road is known as the Boulevard de Tokyo. This is one of the bridges:

Switching our minibuses to 4x4s, we headed south on RN7. It was very slow progress uphill in a long line of traffic through the suburbs, behind a couple of HGVs and past a broken down one. The road surface was in good condition and ran alongside a valley. Sugarcane and later rabbits were being sold at stalls. By lunchtime we had reached Ambatolamy which had a busy market.

The town is host to an aluminium smelting and recycling facility. Aluminium from car parts and other items is melted down and made into marmites (cooking pots) and other useful items. They can make up to 50 pots per day. It is the only place in Madagascar that the earth and charcoal are suitable for making handmade moulds. The work was very dusty but none of the men wore masks.

Pétanque was being played in the town centre. RN7 continues through the crowded main street and uphill out of town. Zebu-drawn carts are a frequently seen means of transport. Many brick houses are being built in the highlands to replace the single-storey clay and thatch homes we had seen on the plains. There are very few large cemeteries in Madagascar. Instead, most people are buried in tombs on the edge of tribal land. The larger, well-decorated tombs are those of well-off people who must sacrifice a zebu to be buried there. This is expensive and has led to thefts of zebu. Less well-off people just have a concrete mound paupers grave. It is fady (taboo) to point at a person or tomb.

Every time we stopped at the roadside; children appeared to beg. Potholes reappeared after Ilempona; being a Route National is no guarantee of a good surface. Like many other African countries, Madagascar is a graveyard for old trucks from Europe and we saw many familiar names on the roads here. We continued to Antsirabe where we spent a night. The town grew up around thermal springs discovered by Norwegian missionaries in the late 19th century. The spa is still in use and owned by a Norwegian. It is the third largest town in the country. The station was quite close to our hotel but there is now only one freight train per day.

There is a large boulevard with a memorial to the 18 tribes in the country. The Hôtel des Thermes has a slightly faded glamour inside.

We looked inside the Catholic Cathedral and some of the small workshops around town. One in particular: Chez Mamy Miniatures makes small bikes, cars and taxis from recycled cans, wires and IV tubing. The Atelier Cornes du Zebu produces goods made from zebu horn. We took a pousse-pousse (rickshaw) back to the hotel and then left town heading west on RN34. We passed the Star Brewery whose beer we had been drinking and then through a fertile valley before heading uphill and over a pass. In one river the locals were panning for gold in gravel rejected by the nearby gold mine.

At various times today the surrounding landscapes were reminiscent of other dry places in the southwest USA or the Canary Isles.

Multiple potholes appeared in the road before descending to the plain and Miandrivazo, our destination.

Round Britain: John O’Groats to Dunnet Bay


After dinner at the Seaview Hotel which has an extensive menu and was very busy, I wandered around the now quiet seafront. There was no-one standing next to the milepost (there had been several coaches earlier).

Many people think that it is the northernmost point of the mainland. It is the furthest from Lands End on the road network but Dunnet Head is the most northerly point. There is a sculpture nearby entitled ‘The Nomadic Boulders’. Two Scottish environmental artists Dalziel & Scullion created it when it was discovered that huge boulders are moved long distances along the seabed when it was being surveyed for use by turbines. This is a small part of the sculpture which was made with three boulders that appeared on a local beach:

I then watched the sun go down.

In the morning I had a quick walk along the shingle beach looking for the cowries called Groatie buckies and are said to be found here. I did not find any. We left, heading west past the vehicle ferry harbour at Gills Bay which crosses the Pentland Firth to St Margaret’s Hope on Orkney. On a day with high winds we passed a house called Windy Ha. After the Castle of Mey we took the coastal route via Scarfskerry. The old telephone box here is now a book exchange. At Ham there is a disused mill

a rocky beach and old harbour constructed from slabs of the striated rocks.


At Brough, where the most northerly café on the British mainland was closed, we turned on the road to Dunnet Head. There are several lochs on the headland.

There is a lighthouse with foghorn.

A viewpoint on the summit and overlooks to the cliffs. It is an RSPB reserve but the high winds made it difficult to spend more than a couple of minutes looking at the cliffs.

In World War Two a large encampment and wireless station was built on the head and a few concrete buildings remain.

We carried on to Dunnet Bay and had a good walk on the beach before settling in at the campsite before rain arrived. The bay had a Viking settlement and farm which had been buried by the blown sand dunes. When the current road was built, sheep on the slope rubbed themselves against it and exposed traces of a wall and a rubbish heap. In 1995 archaeologists found more evidence of the Viking farm.

Some of the objects I saw on the beach might be turned into an abstract painting. I had hoped on this west-facing beach to see the sunset and the full moon rise in the east but clouds came in and destroyed my hopes. Tomorrow we have 500 miles to drive home. On this leg of the journey we have travelled 237 miles; taking our journey at a much slower pace than some of the people doing the North Coast 500. Our total so far, from the start in South Queensferry; is 3072 miles. This is more than Route 66 but not quite as far as the Lincoln Highway.

Round Britain: Tarbat to Wick


On Monday we awoke to a wet and dull day. It was too wet for the forest walks in the hills above Tain, so we decided to explore the Tarbat Peninsula. A minor road from Tain passes a disused airfield and a moor which is still designated a military bombing site. During World War Two, many of the villagers of Portmahomack were evacuated so that landing exercises in preparation for D Day could be carried out. The village was quiet when we reached it. Its name means the Port of St Colman, an early Christian saint.

The Discovery Centre is based in the old church and covers the area history from the Picts to more recent events. Many of the local archaeological finds are displayed. The church is dedicated to 7th century St Colman and has had many incarnations from the earliest monastery and Pictish church to the Church of Scotland. In 1948 it ceased to operate as a church.

In the old churchyard is a baptismal well. It is said to have been sanctified by St Rule on his way to St Andrews and is still used to baptise the eldest son of the Earls of Cromartie to this day.

A statue entitled ‘The Pictish Queen’ sculpted by Leonie Gibbs sits near the church.

Quite a few of the local towns have a cast iron fountain dating from the second half of the 19th century when piped water reached the community. Portmahomack also has an old streetlamp dating from 1900. It is one of the first erected which used paraffin. They were extinguished during the First World War but electric light did not arrive until 1949.

Before we left the village I noticed a house on the shore. I have seen gardens with gnomes in before but these were all ensconced inside.

Three miles beyond Portmahomack is Tarbat Ness with its lighthouse. There is a walk from the village I had found on the Walkhighlands website and might have done it in better weather. The area on the Ness is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is visited by birds migrating from Scandinavia. The lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1840 and at 40 metres, is the third tallest in Scotland.

When we arrived, a robot was mowing the lawn: some modernity in the midst of all the history.

The path continues to the end of the peninsula

and we saw one seal briefly. The stone stackers have also been here at some point. Returning to Tain, we joined the A9, crossed the Dornoch Firth

and entered Sutherland. Before reaching Dornoch we also crossed the River Evelix. Dornoch Cathedral is Scotland’s smallest and was built by Gilbert de Moravia who became bishop, beginning in 1224. Two hundred years later, a Bishop’s Palace or Castle was built and is now a hotel. There is a crowd-funded distillery start-up there. We could not see inside the cathedral as a funeral was in progress.

However, we did have a browse in the nearby independent bookshop:

Afterwards we took a minor road north out of town and then along the south shore of Loch Fleet which is a National Nature Reserve. We paused just after the ruins of Skelbo Castle

spotting a grey heron and a curlew in the distance.


Back on the A9 the cloud was low. Near to The Mound, there was a ‘Caution Otters’ sign and hordes of people were down by the bridge looking for them, so we carried on passing through Golspie and Brora. We had previously visited Dunrobin Castle and Clynelish Distillery so pressed on to our destination for the night: Helmsdale. The rain had eased when we arrive there so we had a short walk around up to the Telford Bridge and the old harbour. The town has been a port since 1527 but the first harbour was not constructed until 1818. In 1832 a fishing boat brought cholera to the town but it was rescued from decline when other fleets brought herring in.

Timespan is the heritage and arts centre.

Before dinner we walked down to the modern harbour where sea birds were lined up on a wall as the tide came in.


The following day we were back on the A9, entering Caithness north of Helmsdale. A little further along is the site of the abandoned village of Badbea. People were moved during the clearances in the early 1800s when landowners decided that the glens where most people lived would be better places for sheep farms. Some people were living at Badbea in 1793 but most arrived in 1802 when Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster decided that Ousedale, a fertile glen on his Langdale Estate required clearing for sheep farming. He tried to encourage people to engage in the coastal industries. At least twelve families lived at Badbea. It is said that the winds on the cliffs were so strong that animals and even children had to be roped together to prevent them from being blown over the cliffs. Eventually it became impossible to continue and people left; the last resident departing in 1911. The short walk from the carpark leads to a memorial and the remains of a few homes.


After coffee at the River Bothy in Berriedale (where the mobile library was parked up outside) it was time to head north. The next stop was Dunbeath. Very little remains of the monastery which once sat slightly upriver from the village. It was washed away in the 18th century. There is a heritage trail which goes along the river and up a hill to a broch and some old stones.

The village street was constructed between 1840 and 1850. One of my friends from Aberdeen University told me that her grandfather worked at the mill by the old bridge. Just outside it we met an elderly man who remembered him.

Neil Gunn the author was born in Dunbeath in 1891. I read his books many years ago. There is a memorial sculpture down at the harbour.

Looking across the water there is a cave accessible at low tide and the castle which is not open to the public.

Back on the A9 we took the A99 to Wick at Latheron passing through Lybster, Ulbster and Thrumpster. The coast is littered with ancient remains of brochs, castles, cairns and standing stones. There are also the ruins of abandoned crofts and large wind farms stand offshore. Soon we were settled into our riverside campsite.

Diversions on the road to Edinburgh


Something we had been thinking about for a while was a slight diversion on our route to Edinburgh. This week we finally got around to it. After topping up the caffeine levels in Moffat we took the A708 towards Selkirk from the south end of the High Street. It is a quieter road than the A701 Edinburgh road but there are a lot of forests on the hillsides so large forestry trucks laden with wood are not uncommon. There are passing places where the road is narrow. The road follows the Moffat Water and then the Little Yarrow rivers through the valley. Our first stop was 10 miles up the road at The Grey Mare’s Tail Nature Reserve. It is one of the highest waterfalls in the UK, dropping 60m from Loch Skeen which is the home of a rare fish, the vendace. It is apparently a relic from the ice age only found in a few freshwater lakes in southern Scotland and Cumbria. There is a 2.75 mile walk up to and around the loch but it began to rain heavily so we contented ourselves with looking at the waterfall (while I tried to remember when I had last been here), views of the valley and the heather which was flowering.


There are a number of ancient sites along the valley including, at Chapelhope, the site of Rodono Chapel. Further on the road reaches the Loch of the Lowes and following a short stretch of river under the bridge lies St Mary’s Loch. At one point there was only one loch but stones and gravel washing down from the hills separated them.

There is a café next to the Loch of the Lowes car park and a sailing club on St Mary’s Loch. Nearby is the Tibbie Shiels Inn which used to provide accommodation for walkers, including those on the nearby Southern Upland Way and was named after a widow who ran it between 1824 and 1878. Sir Walter Scott was a regular visitor. The inn closed in 2015. A statue on the hillside is of James Hogg born in 1770: the Ettrick Shepherd who became a writer. His work was admired by Thomas Carlyle and Walter Scott who introduced him to Edinburgh publishers but he never really left his work of sheep farming.

There is a circular walk round St Mary’s Loch which we might do at some point in the future.

A minor road to Tweedsmuir leaves the A708 at Cappercleuch.

It passes two reservoirs. The first, Megget Reservoir was finished in 1983 and supplies Edinburgh with water.

A mile from Tweedsmuir is Talla Reservoir which was opened in 1905. Construction began in 1899 and a railway was built to transport the materials. It is still possible to see some of the rail route and some of the bridges alongside the A701. The railway was dismantled in 1912.

Along the roadside were rowan trees laden with berries and many wildflowers including rosebay willow herb. Talla and Gameshope along with two other sites nearby are restoring the landscape to its previous wilderness state and providing a haven for wildlife. Where the forests are being regenerated, grazing sheep are excluded. The 4.500 acres includes blanket bog, moor, heath, rocky screes, lochs and burns.

At Tweedsmuir we re-joined the A701 and were soon in a very busy Edinburgh.

The new wheels


Before collecting our new wheels, we spent 10 days in Edinburgh. There were 2 Six Nations rugby matches on consecutive weekends which we attended with friends. The first one took place while there was still some snow on the Pentland Hills.

We met up with several friends and did some trip planning. One other thing I did manage to squeeze in was a trip to the City Art Gallery which had a couple of photographic exhibitions I had wanted to see for a while. The first was Robert Blomfield’s Street Photography which continues until 17 March 2019. He was a doctor but managed to pursue street photography from the 1950s to the 70s. It was only brought to an end when he suffered from a stroke in 1999. His son spent a lot of time sorting out the huge amount of film his father had at home.

The other photographic exhibition was ‘Scotland in Focus’ which included the galleries collection of Scottish photographs from the mid 19th century to the present day.

The final exhibition we saw was ‘Another Country’ which explored contemporary immigration to Scotland, including themes of integration, nationality and identity.
It included work by eleven leading artists from distinct ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds, all born or currently living in Scotland and using different media.

As photography is not allowed in the galleries, the images are from the gallery website. The exhibitions are free, and the gallery is very central and close to Waverley Station. The adjoining café provided an opportunity to top up the caffeine levels.
On our last morning we were up early to take the train to Leuchars and then a taxi to Anstruther where our vehicle, a van converted to camper was made. We then drove home and for once there were no major motorway problems. The seemingly eternal SMART motorway works on our nearest stretch of the M6 and are due to be completed soon. At last we could see some parts completed since the last time we drove back in early January. At the moments we are kitting out the van and will probably have a trial run in March before starting to tour the coast of Britain. This will be done in stages, fitting around other commitments but we will set off at the beginning of April, starting in Fife and travelling anti-clockwise.

Around Australia: closing the loop – Wollongong to Sydney


Today was our last driving day of this trip. Before we left Wollongong, we decided to take a look at the lighthouses. It is the only place in eastern Australia to have two lighthouses in such close proximity. The oldest is the Breakwater Lighthouse in the old harbour. Construction began in 1871 and the light first shone in 1872. It was deactivated in 1974 and later restored as an historic building. It now at least provides a good fishing spot.

The second lighthouse was built in 1936 on Flagstaff Hill and was the first fully automatic lighthouse in Australia.

We then began our slow route to Sydney. First we drove along the Lawrence Hargreave Drive (B65). It continues up the coast through several small communities. There were several surfers hoping for better waves at Stanley’s Beach.

A little further north is Seacliff Bridge. It was opened in 2005 and built to avoid the constant landslides and rockfalls which beset the old road which ran right against the escarpment. There are car parks at both ends of the bridge (although those at the south end are a little nearer) and there is a footpath along the entire span. Today was brighter than yesterday but there was a lot of haze.

Today was the first time we have seen this sign

and people seemed to be respecting it as we did not see any padlocks. Someone has been painting letters on the piers but I could not see all the piers and the whole word.

Below us, a man in a small boat was putting lobster pots out. We had coffee at Stanwell Park which is the largest village on this section of the coast and has two cafes. Afterwards we stopped at the very busy Bald Hill Lookout which has views out to sea and down the coast and is very popular as a launching place for hang gliders.

We then drove through Royal National Park and had our lunch by the Hacking River in Audley. Several Purple Swamphens were eating on the bank.


Afterwards, the minor road joins Highway One, the Princes Highway and we followed this into the city, continuing on another road to avoid the motorway. We had to drop the hire car off at an office at the bottom end of Pitt St near Circular Quay. My navigation system suggested a route for the last few miles but major road works and ‘no right turn’ notices kept foiling us. Fortunately, the traffic was not too busy. After being re-directed several times we saw a police station and James was given a route which avoided all the problems and via a very small lane, got us to our destination. We thought that we would soon be installed in our hotel. Not so. As the car hire office is next to a hotel and taxi rank, it should have been an easy task to hail a cab and jump in for the short journey. Many of the taxis in Sydney run on gas and have a tank in the boot, reducing the space for luggage. As we have a fair pile after such a long trip the first guy refused to take us and there was a prolonged discussion between the drivers. I spotted an estate car across the road and when the drive appeared, asked if he would take us. He was reluctant as he was the last taxi to arrive at the rank but eventually was persuaded to take us. Today we only drove 92 miles and the final total for the whole trip is 11, 584. We now have a couple of days in Sydney to relax, see friends and get ready for our homeward flight where we will be planning our next journey.