Sunday, 3 June 2007

The great Nessie hunt

After Alien Wally and Mags had finished doing the dance of joy because of Alien Wally's job offer, their faces fell. Oh dear, they realised... job means responsibility means no holiday for at least a little while. So, with the few days left before Alien Wally had to start work, they decided to take A Trip Up North.

The trip started off with an experience demonstrating that wishes do get granted, just not always in the way one imagines. Upon arriving at Edinburgh airport to collect their prepaid rental car, Alien Wally and Mags were informed that there was a problem... no cars! Yup, they agreed, definitely a problem for a company whose business is renting, well, cars. Now how were they to get the free upgrade that they had wished for? They would be lucky if they ended up with a bicycle at this rate. But wait! The rental agency manager had A Plan - Alien Wally and Mags would go to another agency to rent a car, and get their original rental money plus any difference between the rentals refunded. And indeedily, this is what happened. And verily, although the new rental agency charged them for a small car, they gave them a big one. A pretty big one.... Who knew that a car labelled "sport" could turn out to be a cross between a station wagon and a van (combi, for those of you in SA)?! Luckily, it was just about big enough to carry all the whisky supplies that Alien Wally intended to gather along the way....

Said whisky-gathering started at Dalwhinnie, a beautiful distillery in the highlands. With snow still on the surrounding mountain tops, Dalwhinnie showed why it is not only the highest distillery in Scotland, but also the coldest. Alien Wally and Mags were forced to down a dram of whisky to keep warm. Forced, they cry! Otherwise frostbite would have set in. They were moments away from impending loss of ears, noses and fingers. In such a situation, survival mechanisms kick in. Just in case the cold persisted, Alien Wally and Mags were forced (forced!) to pile some stocks into the car.

With some time to spare before they had to check in at their guest house in Inverness, Alien Wally and Mags then decided to take a detour past Knockando. No, they didn't suddenly jump countries and end up in Johannesburg at Alien Wally's old university residence. This was the real deal - the distillery after which the residence was named. With her superior navigational skills, Mags pointed the way to the most direct route to the distillery. It looked like a narrow road on the map, but then everyone knows that maps exaggerate these things a bit, right? Right? Um, wrong, actually... the road was tarred at least, and very pretty. But after some close calls with some famous grouses (grice?) along the narrow and sharp twists and turns, Alien Wally and Mags were glad to return to a road that could at least fit two cars comfortably side by side. But after all this effort to get to the spot on the map that said "Knockando Distillery", where was Knockando? Alien Wally and Mags played hide and seek for a while along the myriad of beautiful lanes, locating every distillery but the one that they sought, until finally, a sympathetic Tamdhu employee pointed them in the right direction. And there it was, with a welcoming visitors' centre... not. Alien Wally and Mags were not going to be rebuffed after all this. They were going to see the stills, darn it. So, although the distillery appeared deserted, they started plaintively knocking on door after door. Eventually, the lone employee on duty appeared, and explained patiently that Knockando was no longer open to the public. But, he relented, seeing the crestfallen look on Alien Wally's face, he would let the two explorers look at the stills from safely outside the doors. Ah, things of beauty they were. But could Alien Wally buy a commemorative bottle from source? Unfortunately not. But he could (And did) buy a bottle of Knockando from the shop at Cardhu two minutes up the road. Close enough!

At this stage it was getting late, so Alien Wally and Mags decided to call it a day at the distilleries and head for Inverness. There, they discovered that their rent-a-car had the amazing feature of fold away side mirrors. Very handy when you need to get the car through a driveway between two buildings and the space you have to negotiate is only about 5 cms wider than the car itself. To assist Alien Wally with this task, Mags emulated the Cape Town bergies who have so ably helped her park her car in the past, standing outside the car and using copious hand gestures to guide Alien Wally through the narrow space.

The next day, the great Nessie hunt began! Alien Wally and Mags took a boat ride out on the loch to Urquhart Castle. But just as mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun, it appears that only mad cat owners and Scotsmen go out in the noon day drizzle. Nessie was having no part of it, and stayed hidden in the deep dark waters.

The afternoon was spent walking around Culloden Moor, scene of the great battle between the Highlanders, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the English. Sadly, an hour was all it took for the English to slaughter most of the Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charlie ran away....

Day two, the final full day of The Trip, was spent with the dolphins! Well, mostly. Alien Wally and Mags started off the day with a trip to Black Isle Brewery, home of delicious organic ale, reached by driving through fields of beautiful yellow flowers. Alien Wally and Mags did a tour of the small but prolific distillery and became customers for life. (Indeed, upon returning to Edinburgh, they visited the Saturday morning farmers' market to renew their acquaintance with the master brewer, who offered them a job behind the bar at next weekend's Rock Ness festival. Sadly, they had to decline.)

After depleting brewery stocks, Alien Wally and Mags then took a high speed boat out into the Moray (pronounced "Murray") Firth, to see the dolphins in their natural habitat. They saw quite a few, who were very unconcerned with all the attention they were getting and more concerned with eating their lunch. Seeing these dolphins was a beautiful experience. And Mags loved the high speed trip there and back. Alien Wally looked a bit green after the skipper did a last figure of eight loop-de-loop, but then he was never able to handle the teacups at the fair like Mags could....

On the way back to Inverness, Alien Wally and Mags stopped off at a point on the coast where dolphins are known to congregate, and sure enough there were a few playing in the strong current just off a sandbank. Again, the dolphins were oblivious to the multitude of cameras pointed their way. As it should be....

Happy, Alien Wally and Mags left Inverness the next day to drive back home. But Alien Wally wasn't done just yet - there was still some space left in the cavernous interior of their car. A stopover at Strathisla Distillery, home of Chivas Regal, was just the thing! Here, Alien Wally and Mags took some time to take a tour of the distillery and enjoy a dram of the whisky, before moving on to Glenfiddich. Alien Wally was just going to look, he claimed, but you all know what happened.... In his defence, Mags will concede that it is very yummy stuff and she is happy to have a bottle in the house.

Sated, Alien Wally and Mags finally reached home, where Sunday was spent recuperating before Alien Wally's early start at work on Monday morning.

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