wilderness


st kilda

‘Three points of contact at all times. And if anybody falls overboard, just throw them a ring and scream.  Don’t go running for’ad to get us because the chances are we won’t find them’.  Ex Royal Marine and RNLI, Jock was a health and safety man to his branded anorak and shiny boots. ‘None of you have got your life jackets on properly.  ‘If your crutch strap is too loose, the jacket will ride up around your neck and strangle you.’  This was suddenly serious.  

St Kilda is about 90 miles away from the Isle of Skye and the only way we could get there and back in the same day was in the GotoStKilda speed boat, a modern sea going capsule with a small afterdeck from where we could watch the birds, the whales and the dolphins.  

‘If people don’t come on time, they’ll get left behind’, scowled Jock. So on the stroke of 7 o’clock, Willie, the skipper, a stocky, shaven headed man, who had bought land to farm in Tennessee, fired up the engines and soon we were all heading west, racing across The Minch and through The Sound of Harris and out into the Atlantic, Harris and Lewis receding into the mist behind us on a glassy sea.  A pod of dolphins came out to investigate, arcing above the reflective surface. The sun was bright on the sea, in contrast with the western horizon, which was a wide smudge of dark grey with the evanescent angular shapes of islands.  

Borarey is about 4 miles to the north and east of the main island of Hirta and includes the magnificent sea stacks, An Armin and Lee, home to the largest gannet colony in the North Atlantic.  We watched as, like large prehistoric seagulls with sulphur yellow heads and sharp pointed bills, they folded their wings and darted into the sea at 60 mph to spear the shoals of herring.  Gannets can live for up to 30 years, but after a while the accumulated impact of hitting the sea at 60mph causes them to go blind and dislocate their necks.  Returning with their catch, they are mobbed by Bonxies (Great Skuas), also known as pirate birds, which force them to disgorge their catch.  The people of St Kilda relied on nesting birds not only for their staple food, but also for the oil and feathers which they would trade.  The young men would scale the sea stacks late at night to catch the gannets.  It was dangerous work.  They would have to catch the sentry bird and wring its neck before they could harvest the other birds. 

Hirta, the main island, is formed from part of the rim of an extinct volcano and has the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The islanders would let each other down on horsehair ropes to harvest the fulmar petrels that nested on the ledges. It was such dangerous work, but only two men were known to have died, when the anchor man at the top of the cliff lost concentration and did not take up the slack while his climbing partner missed his foothold, fell about forty feet and catapulted him 600 feet onto the rocks below.

We docked in the sheltered harbour of Village Bay, clambered into the rubber Zodiac and went ashore, where we were greeted by the resident archaeologist.  He was a shy young man with glasses and baggy jeans, who informed us that St Kilda had been occupied for 3000 years. The names of the islands, however, are derived from the Vikings, who built the black houses for people to live in and cleats (stone huts with a turf roof) to dry and store the feathers and the birds.  The St Kildans lived in their black houses up until the eighteenth century.  They burnt peat in a central hearth, but, as there was no chimney; the smoke hung just below the roof and deposited a thick layer of tar, which functioned as a disinfectant.  They also had their own form of central heating.  A cow or sheep occupied the same space, separated by a partition.  The dung was collected and stored together with human waste and refuse in a large heap inside the doorway and then spread over the floor.  The rotting refuse provided underfloor heating, but was very smelly.  

The St Kildans did everything together and met for morning ‘parliament’ in the village street to decide what they would do that day.  Survival was a full time job. The men collected the birds, built the houses and cleats, while the women tended the vegetables, plucked the birds and cooked the meals.  The community shared all the work and the harvest, but they sent feathers and fulmar oil to the landowner on the mainland in return for materials for their houses and any provisions, which they did not have on the island. 

People continued to live on St Kilda until 1930 when the combination of disease, emigration and poverty forced their evacuation.  The last person to have lived on St Kilda died just three years ago. An epidemic of smallpox killed off half the population in the 1870s, then flu took its toll in the 1920s.  Many children  died of infertile tetanus, probably caused by the habit of anointing the umbilical cord with dung or fulmar oil.  The newer houses, constructed in the 1880s, had tin roofs which let the rain in, but these were not an improvement: the tin roofs would blow off and the storms blew the windows in.  They may have been cleaner but they were not as warm. People suffered, became ill and increasing numbers of survivors took the opportunity to leave.  

On Hirta, we took the opportunity to explore the island alone.  We only had two hours to explore the island alone and the cloud was too low to go to the tops of the hills. I went up to the gap – the low point between two hills below the cloud base and ate my lunch while watching the fulmars glide along the side of the cliffs past their nesting sites.  Then I traversed across the heather and tried to get some photographs of the resident Bonxies, which were intent on dive bombing me.  The whoosh as one dived within inches of my head was alarming.  Down in the village, some Fulmars  nested in the turf on top of the cleats while St Kilda Wrens, greyer and much bigger than the wrens we see on the mainland, nested in the walls, sharing the nooks and crannies with starlings.

The time passed too quickly and I wished I had opted to camp there for the night, but as we left, Jock said he had an extra treat for us. He took us  to the place near where the puffins nested and saw thousands of them floating on the sea,  their clown like faces incongruous in their black habits.  Puffins dive for sand eels which dangle on hooks set on the inside of their comical beaks, but they are also victims of the skuas, who fly in and delicately grab the dangling sand eels.  

We could not dawdle; Jock and Willie were keen to get back, but Jock had an announcement.  ‘Now just go on your Facebook and Twitter and tell all your friends about ‘GotoStKilda’. We need to have a full boat every trip so we can put food on the table.’  At £236 a shot, this was hardly the same privation as the original settlers, but we said we would. 

A breeze had got up while we were on land and as the boat bucked and dived through the swells, we staggered to keep our three points or more in contact.  But that just added a certain frisson to what had been an amazing trip.  

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0645 GMT  07/12/10

Successful expedition.  Grytviken basking in balmy zero.   Back on shelf at minus 14, well stocked with lamp oil, whalemeat, blubber, pickled cabbage and two bottles of aquavit!!  Freezing fog.  When we speak, the words stay in the air and hang around outside the tent.  Voice message from Oates there last night.  Unrepeatable, poor chap! 

Scott

0610 GMT  04/12/10

Minus 15 with precipitation!  Visibility 200 yards.  Ice! 

Transport held fast.  Frost forming on rigging. 

Troops down in mouth.  Fog freezing on beards!   Try to encourage.  ‘Chin up!’   But supplies low.  Half rations. Last banana.  No brandy.  Fear mutiny.

Radio contact no reception.

If no improvement, will try dash to base camp tomorrow

Scott, i/c expedition.

0755 GMT 2.12.10.

Snow flurries overnight but pressure rising.  Blizzard yesterday made transport impossible; even sledges didn’t run.  By 6pm, snow tractor got through.  Now stuck in drift. Troops digging out.  Mount Sheffield completely cut off.  No radio contact. 

Supplies will last another week.  Plenty of logs for oven.  Bags of flour, so can make bread.  Half a cauliflower and a few potatoes, two cans of chick peas, pasta and rice and lots of spice.  Oates gone, but lots of muesli.  Huskies hungry – don’t like the way they stare at me and salivate.  Must let them go.    

Please arrange air drop of skis, brandy, tomatoes and onions.    

Predicted minus ten tonight, breaking out winter duvet.

Chin up, as always. 

Scott

PS. Who needs the Gulf Stream anyway?

The following was in response to a note left in the vistors book.

20.11.10

For the attention of The Dunny Monster.

Although I was  amused by the perilous account of your travails in this wild and desolate spot,   it was less hilarious to find the shippon full of the emotional residues.  The shock of it inhibited all bowel activity for 24 hours.  They clearly don’t call you ‘Dunny Monster’ for nothing!      

This morning, I did the dirty deed, pulling aside the heavy lid of the cesspool and pouring the contents of the bucket in, holding my breath all the while.  So far, so good!  But when I opened the Elsan cupboard, there was  only one  bottle left and it was empty.  I know you warned me not to go there,  Dunny Monster. 

Today is Sunday.  The nearest source of Elsan is Windscale; the liquid glows in the dark!  Frustrated,  I did at least manage to regain a semblance of decency with the last blue dribble from the bottle and four pints of water. 

This afternoon, the farmer told me that a strange dunny creature had been sited crouching in the snow on the slopes of Harter Fell.  Tomorrow I will be coming for you. 

Be afraid!  Be very afraid! 

 

21.11.10

It was a cold night and I slept poorly, preoccupied with thoughts of you out feral on the fells.  Something was spooking the sheep.  Once I looked out, and saw a flock  of about a hundred or so running in panic from one field through the gap in the wall to the far corner of the other.  I fancied I saw a faint blue glow behind the last few animals.  I went out, locked and secured the door to the shippon and returned to bed.  

 The farmer didn’t seem too surprised  about the way the sheep were rushing about.  The dogs were  restless too’, he said.  They were up well before it was light, barking like mad. This morning I found the barn door unlatched. I always close it last thing at night but I guess it might have blown open.  

There were splashes of blue on the trail leading up the Lingrove Valley to Bow Fell and some of the sheep bore marks of the same Elsan hue.  Once or twice I thought I  saw you up by Cringle Crags, but  the cloud rolled in and veered south down Mosedale, losing my way  among the bogs and swamps.  You could hide here for weeks, Dunny Monster,  but what would  you do for food and how would you get your magic potion.   

As if in answer, I encountered  a group of men in the yard of Black Hill Farm.  A few had shotguns under their arms.  ‘A ewe has been killed and butchered up by Peathill Crags’, they told me.  The carcass is still up there. 

From the top of Hardknott Pass, I wound down to the ancient Roman marching fort at Mediobogdum.  I sensed a presence and explored the ruins of the commandants house, the granary, the barracks, the sauna, but it was getting dark and I left.  

Later , looking out of the cottage, I fancied I saw the flickering light of a fire up at the fort, but perhaps it was a car coming down the pass in the mist. And was that a whiff of Elsan on the wind?  You are beginning to get to me.            

 

22.11.10

It was not quite light when I spotted somebody in the field across the valley.  He had cornered one of rams, turned it over and was daubing dye from a large blue bottle on its nether regions. Later I saw the same figure heading west  on the slopes of Harter Fell. I reached for my binoculars and saw an unusually tall man, about seven feet I would guess, and dressed in a shabby brown three-quarter length waterproof coat and a woollen  balaclava helmet with the ear flaps hanging loose.  A sack was slung across his shoulders.  But, strangest of all, it seemed to me that he was enveloped in a bluish aura, like a force field.  

I dressed and ate a hurried breakfast, then packing a flask of coffee and some crackers,  followed the figure, whom I guessed must have been you,  down river, stopping briefly to read the notices pinned to the door of St Catherine’s Church, that offered  counselling.  I then sped on through  Boot and turned north across the sweeping grassland of Eskdale Moor.  From the top of the rise, vistas of Wasdale and Great Gable were revealed and I spotted a tall figure  moving towards the foot of Sca Fell in  great rolling strides. Then I understood.   You were  going to double back to the cottage. How I wish I locked the door to the shippon.  I broke into a trot and followed as, with what might have been a wave of your hand, you disappeared into the cloud.   

I wasn’t going to pursue you in the mist and snow, so I decided to keep low and take the direct route back,  crossing Quagrigg Moss to the foot of Slight Side and then descending  Cow Cove to just below Bull How, skirting round Hare Crag and coming out on the road by Wha House.  All seemed well, but when I opened the door to the shippon, there, scrawled in capital blue letters on the whitewashed wall above the chemical toilet, was the word DUNNY and an arrow pointing down. 

 

23.11.10d

I needed to get away and before midday, I was up in the snow at the top of Yeastyrigg Beck.  I followed the prints  of size 12 Vibrams up to the ridge.  Ravens performed aerobatics above the snow and chuckled knowingly, but the cloud came in on a nor-easterly  east and I had to descend.  Once or twice I fancied I saw a hint of blue and a cry of ‘Aa-aw Jee-ee-eez ’ seemed to hang in the wind that rushed between the rocks.  But the mind plays tricks and I had spent too much time alone.

Descending across Pieck Beld Moss, I spotted a large dog fox run up the opposite hill.   

 

24.11.10

 Woken at 4am  by a rattling of the schippon door.  I went down with a thumping heart.  Was that a faint emanation of blue below Wha House Bridge.    

 I had no more sleep that night.   At first light, I ate a hurried breakfast and escaped the clinging aroma of Elsan to the freshness  of the fells.  My feet crunched on the frosty ground and cracked the puddles as I ascended the track to the vastness of Great Moss.  I was completely alone.  I went swiftly up the gully between Sca Fell and its Pike and down the precarious path on the other side.  By lunch time I had reached the Wasdale Inn.  ‘You come down from hills?’, the landlord asked.  I replied that I had.  ‘Somethings been killing the sheep up there.  Another ewe was found butchered this morning’. 

 

25.11.10     

Today I went to the stores in Windscale to buy some more Elsan.  The shop keeper, a plump lady in her forties, eyed me suspiciously.  ‘What d’you do with it?’  she enquired sharply. ‘You bought a whole box full of double strength last week. You cleaned me out’.

 I said nothing;  she would never have believed me, anyway! 

 

The U boats lay in wait for us as soon as we rounded North Cape.  There was only a narrow passage between the tundra and the ice, and as they closed in on the convoy underwater,  Stukas from their Norwegian bases, dive bombed us from above.  It was hell!   The sea was always rough and water washed over the guns froze immediately.  If anybody fell overboard, they didn’t last more than 3 minutes.’

I listened but couldn’t identify with Ron’s experience. It felt disloyal to do so. Hadn’t Dad been sent up to Orkney to risk his life protecting the Arctic convoys?  Hadn’t he crashed and nearly died up there?  Did he deserve to have his wife stolen, his family disrupted by one of the sailors he protected?   So I suppressed my curiosity. 

Many years later, I grew to love Northern Finland.   So when I spotted  ‘Running with Reindeer’, that described an exploration of the Kola Peninsula,  the destinations of the Russian convoys, over 10 years in the nineteen nineties, I had to find out more.  

But it was the author, Roger Took, who intrigued me.  Why on earth would a sensitive, rich middle -aged man, an art historian and museum curator, an establishment figure, want to spend so long in  what he described as one of the most unfriendly and inhospitable places on earth? 

But Took was a man obsessed.  In just one month, he learnt to speak Russian well enough to get by and arrived alone in the derelict port and abandoned goods yards of Murmansk with its grim government buildings and decrepit five story apartment blocks.   His stated purpose was to find the remnants of the Saami, the Lappish peoples, still living in the far north of Russia, and to discover how much of their culture still survived.  

But there was more to it than that.  Took went out of his way to court suspicion, discomfort and danger.  There was little that was uplifting in his book.   He trudges across the tundra in freezing rain with inadequate shelter and food, he falls up to chest into bogs, he spends a night in a filthy cabin where he witnesses a drunken homosexual gang rape,  he visits restricted inlets where decommissioned  submarines rot, their reactors disintegrating and turning the sea radioactive, he sees mountains devastated by open cast mines and  he records a landscape blasted and polluted by nickel smelting.   He does finds isolated pockets of Saami, but realises that their traditional way livelihood of reindeer herding, hunting and salmon fishing was ruined collectivisation, their culture corrupted by alcohol and prostitution. 

His is a grim tale with no redemption.   So why wasTook so attracted to this, the most devastated and corrupt aspects of civilisation that he returned again and again.  That question bothered me increasingly as I persevered with the turgid academic prose of his punishing narrative.  What was it about this guy?  There was an unrelenting darkness about him.  But why?  I had to consult Google.  

I was shocked to discover that Roger Took is in prison.  There is a long article, written for The Spectator in 2008 by Carol Metcalfe.   He had bragged in his blog about being part of a group of men, who raped and murdered a 5 year old girl in Cambodia.  Although Took dismissed this as fantasy, there were scores of incriminating images on his computer and he had been paying his step grand-daughter to have sex with him.  Wikipedia lists difficulties in his marriage, another woman he could not forget, sexual frustration and a fragile, sensitive personality.  Any review of his book, which was nominated for an international prize for travel writing, has been removed.           

 So were Took’s expeditions deliberately punitive or just an escape from the perversity of his privileged lifestyle?   Was his book an attempt to purge himself of some dreadful shame? 

What made Took a paedophile?  Did an unduly close and controlling relationship with his mother make committed  mature relationships with women seem too threatening.   Did the difficulties he had in his two marriages instigate the need for the kind of controlling sexual relationships, he could procure only  with emotionally needy and vulnerable children?  Did his celebrity and privilege create a sense of entitlement; the feeling that he could indulge his perversions?  

His book fails to provide any answers to these questions, but the final chapter does allude to encounters with teenage prostitutes in Murmansk in 1998.  Ron had also mentioned picking up Russian women in Murmansk; the Winston Churchill House of Friendships catered for the needs of foreigners,  but few sailors ever realised the terrible price the women would pay for friendship.

Certainly not in the north in late winter, they don’t.   How on earth would a mosquito survive temperatures of -10?  

But this illness was strange.   I know it’s cold here, but shivering that starts when you are sitting in  a warm room; the shaking that won’t stop despite going to bed in a balaclava and polar gear and covering yourself in layers of blankets; that’s not right.  And the headache, not so much a tension that twangs the muscles at the back of your neck or the throbbing nauseous pounding above the temples, but a persistent dull ache that makes your scalp so sensitive you can’t bear anyone to touch it. Then the sweating starts, the covers come off, and you have to get up in the middle of the night and wring out your cotton top and put it on the soapstone stove to dry.  

I’d been ski-ing the previous day.   A lot of falling over, frustration and swearing, but it’s a steep learning curve.  Did I really expect it to be any different on the first day?  I got very cold but lit the stove and put the heater on in the sauna.  Ah, what bliss to sit in the hot moist heat up until the temperature  was unbearable and then run outside, roll in the snow and then pick up handfuls and scrub down before returning to the hot room.   But is that what started it?  Did the exhausting day travelling, the frustrations and cold of learning to ski and the physiologic stresses of the sauna,  light up some lurking infection?  I was already harbouring a crop of cold sores.  Had something else lit up? 

It was still snowing when we awoke, light powder, blown by the wind into sharp edged slopes.  I cleared the veranda, relit the fire and generally tidied up before settling down to write.  Eero had cleared the tracks but it didn’t look inviting enough to go ski-ing.  Then about 11 o’clock, I started to shiver.  It was warm enough in the house, but my body felt cold.  The only thing to do was to get into bed.  The sweating came later that evening.  By the middle of the night my top was soaked.  What is going on.  There is nothing obvious to explain it. 

The next day I felt better enough to go ski-ing again.  I accomplished the push and glide movement and was even able to go downhill without falling over.  I skied down to the hut in the woods – such a special place.  Eero had skidooed a track along the river but the water was coming through in places.  Ice got into the ski clasps.  More delays.  I cooled down, but a simmer in  the sauna followed by a roll in the snow and another spell in the sauna  did the trick. 

It was not a good night.  My headache wouldn’t clear and I had a had to get up several times. In the morning, the shivering returned, followed by sweating.  It was late afternoon by the time the headache and fever receded, but I felt very tired.  So what was going on?  Why did the fevers seem to be coming every other day.  My God; it couldn’t be Malaria, could it?   The periodicity of the illness would fit and I didn’t taking the Malarone all the time in Indochina. I put the thought to the back of my mind and carried on.

I felt better the next morning and the outside temperature had dipped to minus 10.  The skis ran well though I was a little clumsy and fell a few times.  Upon reaching the Russian border, the headache and shivers returned.  I could not get back so phoned for a skidoo.

The paramedics were perplexed but agreed it might be Malaria, but it was Easter, I wasn’t unconscious and they wouldn’t get tests and treatment in north eastern Finland.  They left a bag of Paracetamol and advised me to drink plenty of fluid.  My urine was a very strange colour – fluorescent orange. 

Another sleepless night with headache and fever and I’d had enough.  At Kajaani District Hospital, they plated out a blood film and confirmed the diagnosis, but had to send me further across the country to Oulu University Hospital for treatment.

But Malaria? How?  I came back from South East Asia six weeks ago.  Why did I not get it out there?  Why has it come on now?   And how did I get it when I was taking prophylactics.  The last is easiest to answer.   I had agreed with the practice nurse that I only needed to take Malarone in the high risk zone and since it was not the rainy season, this was Laos.  But I also went to the jungle in Cambodia – down near the coast in the Cardamom Hills.  And there I know the buggers got me!   So was I just too fit and eager for them to get a hold then?  Did they lurk in wait somewhere in my reticulo-endothelial system until that unique Finnish combination of exhaustion and physiological stressors made them sit up.  ‘Hey, guys, it’s the sauna again.  Now’s our chance!’    

What did I know of Malaria before this?   I had learnt about it during the medical students course on Tropical Medicine I took at the London School in Keppel Street, but that’s book learning – absolutely no substitute for the real thing.  And then there are all those films where the hero, crossing Africa, gets Malaria but is saved by the care of the local tribes.  Mind you, travellers in Africa were given a concoction of Senna, Cascara and Julap, called Livingstone’s Rousers , to take for ‘everything’.  This was commonly acknowledged to be the source of the term, ‘The White Man’s Burden’.  But Malaria isn’t a romantic or even a humorous condition.  It’s a multi-system disease.  The little bastards get everywhere.   They invade the blood cells then explode them.  This releases haemoglobin which can clog up the counter current system in the kidneys and encourage the platelets to aggregate in the blood.  These mini-clots can then lodge in small blood vessels particularly in the brain where they can cause oedema, tiredness, psychosis, dementia and coma.   The parasites invade the spleen, the liver the gut, the lungs and everywhere they and their destructive debris lodge they set up inflammation.  So Malaria can result in multi-organ failure.  They used to say that a normal healthy person could stand only five bouts of fever before systems would decompensate, mechanisms run down.  That’s why I became so anxious when on my fourth bout, they kept me waiting in Oulu Triage for 7 hours before seeing a doctor.     

It might seem strange that for one of the most serious diseases, we are still using traditional treatments.   Quinine, in various derivative forms,  is still the classic treatment for Malaria.   It comes from the bark of the Cinchona tree, which grows in the Andes of South America and is named after the Duchess of Cinchon, the wife of the governor of Peru, who became ill with malaria 350 years ago, but who, after drinking a sample of infusion of drink of tree bark in water, made a full recovery.  The Jesuits spread the name of Cinchona’s healing properties throughout the tropical world, but it affected the ears causing slight deafness and tinnitus – the song of the Jesuit.   The Indians used to take quinine as tonic water.  Englishmen still enjoy a G&T on hot summer evenings. 

 Artemesinin comes from a Chinese tree.  In the year 341 AD Mr T Heng published a book on the treatment of medical emergencies in which he recommended the use of the medical herb Qinghao  from annual or sweet Wormwood for the treatment of fevers.  But it wasn’t until 1972, when Chinese scientists extracted an active principle with considerable anti-malarial activity called Qinghaosu.   

In Northern Laos, they use the tuber of the Tarot plant.  They boil up the milky flesh and drink it.  At first, it tastes sweet but when the mouth starts to itch, they know the parasite is gone. 

Each to his own.  They gave me Quinine intravenously then switched it to Artemesininin, which seemed to do the trick.   

Today, the pieces of this puzzle fell into place.  The consultant arrived in some state of animation.  ‘We have the answer.  You have Vivax Malaria.  Plasmodium vivax can have an incubation period that can vary from 17 days up to as long as a year.   It is a milder disease than falciparum but cannot be completely eradicated.  It can lurk in the liver for years, though apart from a tendency to tiredness,  does not cause undue debility and any flare ups can be promptly treated.   The enlarged spleen is a bit of a risk but should go down.

Bloody ‘ell!

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