There are holidays where taking a pre-breakfast dip in the sea just yards from your accommodation to free dive for treasure in sparkling clear waters would signal the sort of luxury break most of us can never ever actually afford but often dream about. Unfortunately, those holidays don’t normally involve a stay at Tobermory youth hostel where the sparkling clear waters are also freezing cold and the treasure in question is my friend’s iPod, chucked over the harbour wall by her fifteen year old son, my godson.
My godson is autistic, and if you’re thinking ‘Rain Man’ or that chap at work who’s a bit odd sometimes, then think again – he’s not just on the spectrum, he’s slap bang in the middle of it: a mixture of a ginormous toddler and a teenage boy – which of course he is – who talks constantly but rarely makes any sense (echolalia) and who is obsessive, liable to frustration, distressingly fond of cheesy 80s Christmas pop music* and only really truly happy when he is on a train. Or at a pinch a bus or a ferry or a coach, but only if there’s no train available as we found out to our cost in Oban when we attempted to fob him off with a city link bus taking two hours to Fort William when there was a perfectly good train going to Crianlarich and changing there and taking several more hours to do the same journey. If the paralympics ever introduced the sport of ‘finding the nearest transport hub in any town or city’ he’d be a shoo-in for a gold medal. We had a minor meltdown on the very last day when he discovered the Glasgow underground (I mean, who even knew Glasgow had an underground?) and was disgusted we weren’t willing to use it. So, instead of the normal approach you might take when planning a break in the Western Highlands and Islands – keeping the travel simple and to a minimum, allowing plenty of time to take in the beautiful scenery or have a leisurely lunch on arrival – got turned on its head. Fortunately the trains, ferries and buses in the region all go through spectacular scenery because we spent the trip maximising the amount of travel we did each day. That way, my friend and I could chat, godson was happy, and the lochs and mountains and moors unrolled past outside the windows for our delight.
As well as scenery, the trip made a good viewpoint for observing human behaviour. I’m sure there were plenty of people who wished we weren’t sharing their train, bus, youth hostel or ferry but there was very little tutting done on the whole; the British habit of simply ignoring anything that doesn’t fit in to the normal run of things stands you in good stead when travelling everywhere with a teenager who shouts ‘Get OFF me! What are you DOING? Naughty boy. Bye bye elephant …’ more or less on a loop. And the kindness of strangers came out in force too. A low point came early on in the trip in Mull when we missed the bus to take us to the ferry. My friend had gone to retrieve something from the hostel, not realising her watch had stopped and the bus driver wouldn’t wait and left without us. With the next bus two hours away we were looking at an expensive taxi ride if we weren’t to be stranded on the island. And then, miraculously, the bus came back to get us after all, a grumpy knight in chugging diesel armour, but a knight all the same.
I won’t give you a blow by blow account of all six days, you’ll be relieved to hear, but here are some points should you be planning something similar, with our without an autistic teenager of your own:
- The Highland Rover is incredible value. Just over £78 gives you four days travel over 8 days on all the Highland trains including the ridiculously scenic Fort William to Mallaig line and the only slightly less scenic Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness line, ferries to Mull and Skye, and the city link coach between Inverness and Fort William and Oban. I think we’ve probably squeezed every penny out of it too. I’d recommend not trying to cram the whole thing into four days though…
- Smidge is the business. You see why they recommend testing it by only coating one arm and leaving the other arm bare because it’s so effective at deterring midgies that you start to wonder (at dusk, on the shores of Loch Ness) whether maybe there just weren’t any midgies out. It’s only when you leave a patch uncovered that you realise that yep, the wee biting beasties are still around.
- Fort William has the most incredible setting – right at the foot of Ben Nevis, on the shores of a loch, with the highlands looming all around. It’s quite an acheivement, then, that it still manages to muster all the character of Slough, only with a bit less charm. What we saw of Oban and Mull and Kyle of Lochalsh were all pretty lovely but we didn’t see much of them unless they were on the route march from one transport terminal to another. We’ve vowed to go back and see them properly, although we’ll probably give Fort William a miss.
- You can get to some really remote spots by public transport, particularly by bus, but you have to plan ahead (Traveline Scotland’s journey planner is pretty brilliant at this) and you have to be prepared to wait – rural buses are pretty infrequent and apart from on Mull just don’t seem to join up with other forms of transport. The only bus from the Skye ferry terminal at Armadale left an hour and a half after the ferry arrived – and ten minutes before the next ferry got in. It was the last bus too. If I did the trip again, I’d definitely take my bike for the last leg. And I wouldn’t be persuaded off the bus at Drumnadrochit for an emergency cup of tea, however parched my friend was. There’s a two hour wait between buses there and there’s approximately half an hour’s worth of enjoyment to be had in Drumnadrochit, once you’ve exhausted the amusement to be gained from Nessie-related tat. It wasnt just my godson who wanted to shout ‘what are you DOING?’ as she dragged us off the bus.
- I believe – but have not tested the theory – that you could probably survive the whole trip cooking only the ‘free food’ left behind by other travellers in youth hostels. Although you’d have to be pretty inventive and fond of pasta and reasonably resistant to scurvy. Still, I offer it up as a challenge to anyone who wishes to try.
So that’s it. I hope my next holiday will involve going nowhere, and doing nothing, in perfect peace and quiet. Fortunately that more or less describes the rest of my life, so I expect I shall recover, given time. And my friend and I – having done some growing up in the last 20-odd years – are still speaking to each other to boot. Although that cup of tea in Drumnadrochit still rankles a little…
And what did you do in your summer holidays?
*in retrospect, my failure to retrieve the iPod might have been the making of the trip