Skye 2

I wake up around 7 to a grey sky and the sound of rain on the grass outside my window. I’m curious to follow the politics back home. It seems like a watershed moment for Australia but as I finish the toast and jam and tea with an expected shift left, Anthony Green calls a shift to the right. Texting Bri we both begrudgingly resign to another 4 years of political torture.

‘Haha fucking Labor. They blew it.’

                                          ‘I am so disappointed.’

                                          ‘Are you at the Harry Potter train yet?’

‘Nope. I’m going to stop in Fort William for lunch then head over there.’

By 10, I pack up my laptop, check out and drive out of Oban.

Arriving into Fort William I find myself conscious of time. I squeeze the Mini into a tiny parking spot, that I discover later turns out to be reserved for residents. In a vegan café I eat a sandwich and confirm how long it’ll take to the Viaduct and what time the train passes through. I must time it right. Light rain is still falling. The coffee tastes nice. I pick up a ‘Vote Greens’ sticker from the cafe and considering the irony, apply it to the back of my iPhone.

Having never watched Harry Potter it’s a little hard to appreciate what this means to a whole generation. It wouldn’t be for another four months from this moment with Bris insistence of watching the series that I’d come to appreciate how formative this train, this viaduct, this scene would be for so many people.

The same year the fourth film came out was the same year that The Phantom Menace collectively disappointed an entire generation sowing the seeds for the next 20 years of media disappointment and cynicism. As the train passes through, I wish Harry Potter meant something more to me than the disappointment of not experiencing it. It toots, again and again. People on the train are waving at the people waving on the hill. I wave back. Steam shoots up like a geyser. It cuts through the mountain side, sometimes getting obscured behind hills as it gets further away. The steam can still be seen. Everyone’s eyes follow the train until they know for sure it can’t be seen again. Rain is still falling.

It’s gone, and like the sunset last night, too quick for me to appreciate it. The crowd begins its trek back to the carpark, and mine, towards Portree. 

Time for some quick maths. 50 miles less by taking the ferry. 30 minutes shaved. This all makes perfect sense. If I can make it to a town called Mallaig in time for the last ferry I’d be stupid not too. I check the timetable and confirm I can get there with one hour’s buffer.

As I pull into the port at Mallaig a queue of 4 cars is ahead of me. It’s two hours until the ferry departs. A portly man with a bald head in an orange high-vis jacket has his head poked into the window of the lead car. He takes a ticket and checks his clipboard, instructing the car to go ahead. My eyes narrow and stomach only slightly drops as I realise that there are limited seats on this ferry. Rain is still falling.

‘I don’t have a ticket.’ I say as confidently as I can with my arm on the window ledge

‘Eh? No ticket?’

‘Yeh… what do I do?’

‘Okey. The ferry is fully booked, go to the ticket booth and ask to go on standby but ya can’t do that for another 40 minutes and I can’t tell ya if you’ll get on.’ He asserts.

‘Cool.’ It’s the only thing I can think of saying with my stomach now is on the floor. Quick maths tells me that I might have just fucked up but I’m too invested now. I must wait.

I drive back out the port and find the co-op. I buy some crisps and a banana. The town itself is bare. It seems rarely appreciated, but a place where entire lives have been lived, far more interesting and rewarding than how I feel about my own. Boats bob up and down and the wind is the dominant sound.

‘What are my chances?’ I quiz the portly man.

’50-50’ He replies, with a slight grin looking up at me. I recognise this answer not as a genuine belief, but one made to avoid disappointment if I don’t make it although it doesn’t reassure me at all. ‘Okey, pull up in the line over there.’

I thank him and pull up behind 4 cars ahead of me. 2 cars pull up behind me as I’m leaning on the bonnet of the Mini. To the left, 20 or so other cars were lined up on the dock. The hood of my raincoat echoes the rain drops and is somehow relaxes me.

The ferry pulls in and the gate drops down. I return to my car and start the engine. I turn the radio off and wide down the windows. It’s cold and still raining. I’m gripping the wheel with both hands. My knuckles are white. One by one the other vehicles drive up on the boat. Another man in a high-vis vest points at the lead car in my queue, then points at the boat, like an air traffic controller. It rolls forward and onto the boat.

The next car is pointed at. It climbs aboard and I’m starting to see there isn’t much room left on this ferry as the sailors keep instructing the driver to move forward.

‘C’mon’ I say under my breath.

The white Alfa is next. It goes forward and after heavy instruction by the crew also manages to make it on.

The orange Vauxhall. A dog in the backseat is looking at me as it goes forward. I can feel my heartbeat. I can’t see if there’s space for me. There doesn’t seem to be any. No one is looking at me except the dog.

The man walks towards my car. He quizzically drops his shoulder and leans in to look at me. He points at me, and then points at the ferry.

‘Am I good?’

‘Aye.’ Is all he says as he points at the car behind me and instructs him forward too. As I drive forward and look in my rear vision, he pokes his head into the final car. It turns around and leaves the port.

‘It’s a good thing you’re in this small car.’ The sailor on the ferry mentions. ‘You’d be fucked otherwise.’ I laugh.

He keeps pulling my car forward. I can’t see how close I am to the car in front. There can barely be half a metre as I’m still inching forward. Suddenly he throws his arms up and instructs me to stop.

I’m about 3 cm from the bumper of the car in front, and about 10 cm from the closing ferry door. But I’m on. My shoulders drop. I take a deep breath and feel the cold air in my lungs. I’m allowed to relax.

I sit down inside. The boat is loud as the diesel motor powers along. Out the window the grey low hanging clouds cover the hills around Loch Hourn. It’s hauntingly beautiful and empty. I try and sketch it in my journal. A solitary man is sitting 6 rows ahead. Everyone else must be outside in the rain but I’m exhausted. I need to reflect.

When I arrive on Skye, in Armadale, its stopped raining. It’s only a 30-minute trip but after such a dramatic evening the blue sky is welcome. I have 40 miles to Portree, but it’s already late and the roads are twisty. For the first time, I run my hand on the gear shift and gun it.

I’m rushing, but I have to check in to Portree and I’m starving. I want to stop, constantly but I can’t. I blast up the peninsula towards Broadford. As I pass Heast, the landscape takes a dramatic turn. It becomes outer worldly. People live up here but it’s hard to believe. The hills look eons in the distance. Making mental notes of what I pass I promise to come back on my way back, but also know I’ll run out of time to.  The houses that face the Lochs are mostly white and pristine from a distance. The tarmac is smooth and I am speeding. I don’t see anyone for 30 minutes. The roads sweep off ahead of me and each time I approach the sweep, another one lies ahead. 

‘Gosh.’ These are beautiful roads.

I’m in Portree and the night ends with a pair of brothers from Greece and America who didn’t grow up together. We speak for hours at the pub and drink a few beers. It gets dark and I cannot wait to sleep. Tomorrow I head to the northernmost point of this trip. I sleep well.

Skye 1

Really, I should have taken the train up. Why I thought flying would be the best idea seems to escape me in moments like this. Did I really want those Frequent Flyer Points? I’m never going to make Silver and the benefits suck anyway. The train would have been a better option. Faster too and less inconvenient than this delayed flight, worrying about luggage weights and crying babies. Anyway, I’m on this tram and Edinburgh Castle is to my right so I’m here. I’m on my way to pick up the car that I’ll drive 500 miles. Up to a town called Portree and then back.

Portree and back. Skye and back. As far north as I’ve ever been on this planet and back. And I’m going to do it in a Mini Cooper S, thanks to BMW Edinburgh who found one for me. Am I mad? 5 days, 500 miles, in the smallest car available. Nah. This trip is a blast North through the grey Isle on Turbo. It’s going to be fun even if my back won’t be thankful.

A bus trip to the dealership, a scan of my Licence and the keys of this 2019 Hatchback are in my palm. 5 miles on the clock. Dark Grey. GPS. Spotify. Podcasts. Weekender bag in the boot. A steering wheel and myself. Gripping the wheel with both hands, running my hands along the dash in the carpark, I’m grinning. As childish as it sounds, I can almost recall this feeling as the same one I had driving Matchbox cars around my parents living room, dodging and weaving through the legs of the couch as if it were the mountain roads ahead of me. This is the grown up version of that.

I had a rough guide to get up to Portree and stop at some places along the way, but I left myself open to my whims. On the highway out of Edinburgh I discover Glasgow is an hour away. I spend that time on the train from Eltham to Melbourne CBD. ‘A doddle’, I say in my best British accent and set the cruise to 60. 

When I was 15 and started playing Soccer I picked Celtic as ‘my’ team. I don’t know why because when I my mum found out, she told me my Grandfather would be turning in his grave. He apparently trailed once at Rangers as a kid. When I drive past Ibrox and Celtic Park, my grin gets wider.

I stop in the middle of town and find somewhere for lunch. Glasgow is quainter than I thought, at least this part of town. I walk up and down the street and notice that I’m in the college district. I settle on a cafe that looks out of an episode of Friends, called Offshore. It has the most college vibe of any cafe I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Low boxy vinyl couches, once bright colours now muted by decades of sun. Coffee, about as bad as you could imagine, but I drink the whole thing and order another.

College students funnel in with bright faces and foreign accents. Baggy flannelettes and track pants and conversations about political science. Humph. I think about if I had my time all over again, what I wouldn’t have given to be experiencing this at 20.

I sit in Kelvingrove Park for a while. I come across a little notebook on a bench. It’s filled with doodles of peoples faces. Someone has spent a long time capturing the faces of people he has met along the way and carelessly has lost all that time. All those faces. I contemplate ways to return this notebook to its owner. I Google the closest police station but it seems like a waste of police resources. I decide to leave the notebook for someone better equipped to make decisions and return the book where I found it.

I leave Glasgow towards the first planned stop, Glengoyne Distillery, an hours drive. I get a tour, buy a 12 year old bottle of whiskey to toast this trip in the future and kick stones up and down the drive contemplating the history housed here.

The roads through here have been nice. Mostly rural with a strong sense of civilisation. Large plots of land with traditional English houses with pristine gardens and lots of trees. I realise it’s past 3 and I’m meant to check-in in Oban before 7. Two hours away with unfamiliar roads I decide to get a move on, especially if I want to see the sunset. I don’t have much time to stop and take pictures.

I reach Oban with about an hour before sunset. I check in to a local BnB, grab my camera and journal and walk downhill into town looking for the localist of local pubs for a meal and a whiskey. The town is home to about 9,000 people and it shows. There’s a silence hanging in the air that you only get in towns this small. The town was built around the distillery which opened in 1794 and still operates today.

A ukulele is playing Sweet Child of Mine. Laughs and cheers are coming from the front of a small pub called the Markie Dans. The sky is starting to turn a shade of orange closer to that of an apricot and I’m taking considered sips from a glass of whiskey that is sitting on a ledge as I write in my journal. I’m looking over the inlet and small boats while the sun begins to drift lower.

The sound of the town silents even further as the evening drags on. The ukulele has stopped and been replaced by an occasional bell from an approaching boat. It’s about 8pm as I start to walk towards the foreshore and the sky begins to turn violently orange. 

A man on the foreshore ventures towards the water to get a better photo. It’s a cliche thing to say but words do escape me. A thousand generations of poets would have described it better than I ever could. All I think is a prettier sunset I could not imagine.

It gets dark and the moment is gone. I head back to prepare for the next day. Australia’s federal election will occur overnight. I’ll wake up to the results. I have to be in Portree by tomorrow night. 150 miles. It’s going to be a long drive.

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