Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Missing link!

I had the lovely chance to meet two of the people who read my Blog and they asked me what had happened between the visits to the orphanages, and where the other mentions of these places came from. So, let me turn the clock back, metaphorically at least, and fill in those missing details.
When I was in Francistown, on my first visit, I was invited to spend a week speaking at the wonderful  Clifton School. One of the group of ladies who had been responsible for inviting me, knew that I was also interested to find out about the Aids orphans, and she took me to a wonderful Orphanage in Francistown for Blind Aids orphans. It was a very moving experience. I had a mother who had been blind when I was born, and I had also acted as a guide for a couple of St Dunstan's people (For those who don't know, St Dunstan's is a fantastic charity devoted to the care and support of blind ex-servicemen). My mother, before going blind, had been matron of an Orphanage, so I had grown up knowing about them and how important they are in certain societies. I had an affinity with them because my mother had taken me to visit 'her' orphanage when I was about 13, and I found it a very sobering experience, coming as I did from a home that never went short of anything, and love being in abundance from my parents.
To watch these children playing football with a ball containing a bell was beautiful. They ran about, barefoot, but as happy as any sighted children would be, kicking a football. I found it very moving. As I did seeing them sitting rapt in wonder 'watching' a large TV showing a Disney cartoon. They were laughing at just the same places we would have been, and quite how they did that left me staggered.
I had decided to try to help them, and left a substantial amount of money (to them, but not to me!)
for their disposal whilst I was there, and they were overwhelmed to receive it from a total stranger - although my dear friend who took me there was someone they knew well for her own work with disadvantaged people.
She had also taken me to visit a Women's Co-operative, which I found utterly fascinating. The women wove, dyed and printed fabrics, and I was able to buy a lovely table cloth from them which I use on special occasions.
When I returned to Gaborone (flying by tiny plane from Francistown airfield to Gaborone which was a great adventure in itself!) I told Vic and his business partner Geoff and his wife Di about the orphanage I had seen for the blind.  Di asked if I would like to go and see the project that she was involved in. It is called the I AM SPECIAL School. It is really very special, as it is, or was at that time, the only school for special needs children in Botswana. I did not have time on that visit to go and see it but since I knew that I would be returning if I could raise the money for the Gaborone orphanage, I knew I would make enough time on my next visit to take that school in, as come what may, I would be back within a few months.

I came home at the end of October, and was on a flight back in the middle of January. Between times I had fitted in a trip to stay with the wonderful German couple I had met on my first visit to Kasane. (Yes, another story of chance encounters leading to wonderful friendships).

I had, as you will know from an earlier posting, overheard a conversation about the lack of money for the St Peter's Day Orphanage to get on with being built. At that stage there was just two small block built structures, but big plans. I came home determined that I would attempt to raise some awareness of the plight of these children, and also see, if it could be at all possible, to raise the 10,000 Pula (£1,000) that was their shortfall at that time.
I bought myself a digital projector, as I discovered the first time I needed to borrow one that the cost of hiring such a piece of equipment was very high. It cost me £75 to hire the thing for one 1 hour talk, after which people donated craft items and pens and pencils for me to take back the next time I was going. I charged a minimal fee for the talk, to go into my 'Orphan Pot' but of course, I paid my own expenses.
Now I was better equipped, I was invited to speak to various groups of people - some more generous than others. I was asked to speak at the Monthly U3A meeting in Carlisle. The Speakers organiser was a friend of mine and she suggested that I ask for £50 fee, because many ask for much more than that. I was rather annoyed when I was handed a cheque for £35, afterwards, but of course, that was better than nothing. Many of those who did hear me, though, were very generous in their donations of pens and pencils for the children. Most of the places I went to speak at, and some were as far as 150 miles away, were very generous and I would come back with a car loaded with things to take to the children. Some gave lots of wool, so I got a very willing group of my friends together, and they knitted most of the wool up into hats for the children.
Winters in Botswana, as anywhere else are relatively cold. Even in hot weather though, the Motswana (as the Botswana people are called) they still wear their woolly hats.

This time, I had a suitcase packed with pens, pencils, embroidery silks, makeup for the stage donated by lots of my friends, in fact, you name it and you would find it in my suitcase. I had learned from experience that Nostar, Vic's maid, would wash and iron my clothes for me, so I didn't need to take so many for this 6 week trip - I didn't have room for them anyway!

Lufthansa were wonderful, and even though my baggage was way over the limit, I opened it up, showed them all the stuff I was taking and they waived the excess baggage fee! What a gift that was to me. I had expected to pay a couple of hundred pounds excess, so it was with a very happy heart that I boarded my flight from Birmingham to Frankfurt, then to Jo'burg and finally to Gaborone.

I had told Di that I would love to see the I AM SPECIAL school so she arranged to take me. I took with me a supply of my Sunshine yellow caps (bought in Gaborone from a very generous Chinese importer who let me have them - and everything else I bought - at cost price because they were for the orphans!)

Working and having fun at the same time

I was very impressed with what I saw there. The age group is vast! Ranging from 6 or 7 to 30+ and simply because there has never been a facility like this before. I had asked what happened to these children before the founding of this school and was shocked to hear that any child with any form of disability would be sent to the cattle ranches way over on the west side of the Kalahari, literally miles from anywhere - hundred of miles not just a dozen or so - and basically, forgotten about and ignored. No education, no care, no hope. This wonderful school is showing that a lot can be achieved with the right care and tuition. The little boy in green is severely autistic. With the help of a wonderful piece of equipment provided for the school by SwissAir, he is now smiling and just starting to communicate - and that is after only 5 or 6 months. The staff are hugely dedicated, as indeed are the staff in any school of this nature anywhere in the world. I take my hat off to them.

Class Room at I AM SPECIAL School

They have been loaned this range of buildings by a local organisation which was no longer using them, but ultimately, their dream is to have their own buildings. The Government has donated land for the building of such a school but of course, the work to raise the money for the actual construction is a long hard slog - particularly in the global climate as it is at present.

Using the equipment to help Autism and this young man is benefiting greatly from it.

The exercise classes are never a problem in the Botswana sunshine - indeed, the search for a shady tree often takes a greater effort than anything else.

Exercise Class at I AM SPECIAL School
Another way in which they try very hard to be self-sufficient is in growing their own vegetables for their mid-day meal. The children all love the chance to help in the garden, and it is hoped that some of them will one day be able to work for people as gardeners.

Tending the cabbage patch.

Of course, some of these young people are no longer children, but are young vulnerable adults, but the care and consideration and education they receive is second to none and they all consider themselves very fortunate to have a place at the school.

When I left the I AM SPECIAL School, I gave a large amount of money (again, by there standards it was enormous - some 4,000 Pula) which I hoped would help them with their wonderful work.
I was soon on my way back up to Kasane, again in a borrowed car that dear Terry had provided for me. If it were not for the unrivalled kindness of Vic and Terry, the people they have introduced me to, and the hospitality Vic has given me, I would never have been able to do half the things I have been able to do.


This time, I was able to find the Orphanage at Mahalapye. It was indeed a case of taking the last turning after the village (no sign posts, of course, just a dust track!) and with fingers crossed, I drove on, until I came to a magnificent building adorned all over with Disney characters. There, on the front of it, was painted the internationally recognised badge of the Mother's Union. So, my friend in Elgin would be happy - at last, I had found her orphanage that had set me on the path of finding the one in Gaborone by chance. I had a huge haul of goodies to deliver to them too. As Mahalapye is a very small town (little more than a village by our British standards) it was an enormous shock to find that they had 109 orphans being cared for.  The place is beautiful.

The Mother's Union Orphanage, Mahalapye

I left a large amount of goods for the children, and each one had to be entered carefully, by hand, into a large ledger. This took an age, because it was painstakingly accurate. Every pencil, crayon, eraser, cap, toy all was entered, and my name written beside it! It ran to pages of things, but apparently it is to make sure that nothing is taken by any helper that belongs rightfully to the children. I was impressed, even if a little delayed in my departure. The children had all sung a lovely thank you song to me, which I found very moving and had to pretend that I had dust in my eyes once again. I am always emotional at these outpourings of thanks for something so tiny and insignificant as a set of coloured crayons!

Soon, however, I was on my way north and heading for Francistown and my lovely friends again. This time I was staying with the lady who had shown me the orphanage for the blind children. She is married to a lovely man who originates from Preston.  She herself is a descendant of one of the first settler families. I asked how long her family had been in Africa and she said, very matter of factly, 'Oh, they arrived in 1620 with the first settlers'. My head was spinning after that. This is a photo of their lovely house. Originally built on stilts, the ground level has been  'filled in' with walls and french windows, effectively doubling the size of the property. She and her husband are both geologists, he in geo-physics and she a geologist.  Both fascinating people to talk to and lovely warm people I am very proud to call friends. They have been to see me here in Scotland, which was so special.

Martie & Jerry's lovely house

I had a lovely few days with Martie and Jerry and Josh, their son, who I had met before at Clifton School, but now it was time to take to the high road again, for what, to me, was always the best part of the journey because once I left the confines of Francistown, it is very common to see Elephants browsing by the side of the road.

However, this time, I met something else browsing by the side of the road. Traffic Cops!! Yes, I had been 'gunned' speeding. My heart sank. I was very nice to the cops, and said that being a total idiot, I had not seen the speed limit sign. They heard my British accent (now, Yorkshire means nothing to them, just being British was exotic enough for them). They were going to fine me on the spot, 600 Pula (£60). I said of course I would pay, but it would mean that the children in the orphanages would get less. This worked the oracle. I opened the boot and they could see dozens of sunshine yellow caps, lots of coloured pencils sets and various other children's toys.  'Are you really going to give those to the orphans?' they demanded of me. 'Of course, I bought them for the children in the orphanage in Kasane'. 'Well, if you will give me a cap for my little boy, and some coloured pencils for my little girl, you can go on your way' I am all for a bit of bribery in situations like that - so I gave both policemen their treasures and off they went as happy as could be - and I was back on the road north.

I love the way the name of the lodge is carved into the Thatch at Nata Lodge.

I stopped for a bite to eat at Nata Lodge - the magnificent hotel/Lodge Vic and Terry had taken me too on my first trip north with them.

Soon I was on the really interesting leg, because there is little mobile phone cover for about 200 miles and not a lot of traffic, but I love every yard of that drive. There are animals galore, from elephants to giraffes to zebra and of course, the ever present baboons and warthogs. Magic does not begin to describe this leg of the journey. However, it is imperative that I get to Kasane before dark, and I was just going down the hill towards Kazangula, where the Zambesi forms the border between Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, when I got stopped again. This time I was not speeding, it was just two traffic cops who were bored! So, two more caps and two more sets of coloured pencils lighter and I was on my way. I managed to get to Garden Lodge just as dark fell. It falls like a brick there, with little twilight, but just sudden and total darkness. You dare not drive after dark because with 120,000 Elephants roaming free in Botswana, sods law dictates that at least one is going to decide to cross this one and only road north to south at the very moment you want to use it.

It was wonderful to see my friends again, and we talked and laughed well into the night.

I had known there was a little orphanage in Kasane from a notice Gabby has on the reception desk, asking that any loose change be put into a dish for this little place. A couple of days later it was arranged that the owner of the orphanage would come and pick me up and take me on a visit to it.

I was not prepared for the sheer numbers of children I was to see there. I had taken 100 yellow caps with me, and about 20 pink sunhats. (Those, because by now I had exhausted the supply of sunshine yellow caps in the whole of Botswana!)

It is housed in a few little buildings and has a series of classrooms for children from babies of about 1½ years up to 5 years when they go to the primary school.

In each little classroom the children sit on the floor around the room but they are happy, because they are also fed whilst they are there.

Proudly wearing their sunshine yellow caps, but the wee girl was not going to be persuaded to let me tighten the laces on the back of her hat to make it fit!

This little orphanage was started by a wonderful lady who herself is HIV positive. She was infected by her husband, who promptly left her when she tested positive. She keeps going by taking the free Retrovirals that are available to all sufferers in Botswana, and is determined to make a lovely orphanage for her charges. The Government has given her land to build one on, but again, as with other similar projects, it is up to her to raise the funds to do it. It is totally independent, without the backing the the Mother's Union one has at Mahalapye or the St Peters one has in Gaborone. It is a huge challenge, but she is determined and is very deserving of the help that everyone tries to give her.

Again, I was delighted to be able to leave a load of equipment for her, and also to give her some money to help her keep the place going. The money I have given to each of these places has been from my own pocket - the money I raised specifically for St Peter's was given to them in full.

I think this has now filled in the missing links to the other Orphanages I try to support in my own little way. There is this one at Kasane, the Orphanage for the blind children at Francistown, The Mothers Union one at Mahalapye, the St Peter's on at Gaborone and of course, the I AM SPECIAL school also at Gaborone.

My philosphy is that whilst I know I cannot feed and clothe all the children, at least I have more than I actually need to stay alive, and I feel that the only reason any of us had more than we actually need (not to be confused, ever, with want!) it is on condition that we use that little surplus to help those who don't have the most basic necessities in life. I have no desire to be the richest woman in the world but if I should just continue to have the chance to help someone else along this rocky road we call life, then that is sufficient reward for me.  I am just a pensioner, but my husband was a saver and I think he would be happy that I am using some of those savings to bring a few smiles to the faces of children who are growing up poorer than any child we have ever seen here in the UK.  I have been truly blessed with the wonderful friends I have been lucky enough to make, and those are my real and abiding riches.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Tale end of the Highlands May 2012 - Click on photos to see the full size

-I had waved off Jean & Bob, and my car was packed and ready to leave after them. I had decided to stay on for a couple more days because I always find it very difficult to tear myself away from the Highlands. I had been able to book a room at The Priory Hotel, Beauly, where we had eaten High Tea the day before, but they would only have a room available for two nights.

I stopped just before leaving the village and looked back across the fields at the houses and the snow capped mountains. Despite Jean & Bob having left some 15 minutes before me, they passed me as I was taking the photo, so must have taken a wrong turn and had to turn around to get to Inverness.

Beauly is only a few miles from Kiltarlity, so I decided that as I could not check in until after 3pm, and it was then only about 9am, I would go to Inverness and fill up with fuel, and have breakfast.

There is a good view of Kessock Bridge from the road to Inverness, beside the Beauly Firth (it becomes the Moray Firth beyond Chanory Point where it is almost met by Fort George from the south bank of the Firth) .

However, this view is from a tiny track to the north of the bridge looking south.
I had decided to get fuel at Morrison's, and as I waited at the traffic lights, Bob & Jean came out of Morrison's Filling station - and took the wrong turn again. This time there was nothing I could do about it, so they would end up having to go round the city again to get to the A9 and their road home.

I had decided that since the weather was still being kind, I would try to go over the Pass of the Cattle again, so I set off for Applecross.  It is a wonderful route, through some lovely lonely country and beside some lovely lochs - but then, to me, all the lochs are beautiful!

I stopped to take a photo of Dulnain Bridge, as I am always in awe of the men who built these lovely bridges with very little by way of mechanical help and would have only had hand tools and horse drawn transport to get to and from their work and to carry the lovely granite they used to built them.

Dulnain Bridge

Soon I was beside the Loch Luichart, and it was a blustery day so the water looked decidedly choppy.

Loch Luichart - the railway track to Kyle of Lochalsh runs beside this Loch

There was still a fair amount of sunshine around, so my fingers were firmly crossed as I headed down glorious Glens towards Lochcarron along the A890. It looks much wider in the photo than it is, as it is single track with passing places. Happily there are plenty of passing places, but occasionally some fool will park in them and make life difficult for other motorists.

Driving down to Lochcarron, through the Coulag area

Loch Carron just before entering the village

Strathcarron came into view and the delightful village that is strung along the northern shore of Lochcarron. The Clouds were now building up, but the patch of sunlight through the clouds sparkled on Loch Carron. I was planning on stopping at my favourite sea-food restaurant at Kishorn. I have rarely had such wonderful seafood as they sell there. Normally I have Squat Lobsters, but today I was to be very disappointed. They had not got enough and wanted to keep those they had for their version of the mixed seafood platter. At £27.50 I was not going to be buying that! It is designed for two to share anyway, and being on my own it was definitely a no-go area! Instead I settled for the most delicious bowl of Cullen Skink soup it was my good luck to taste. Followed by smoked salmon what more could I want? Well, really I wanted Squat Lobster, but I was very happy with what I did have.

Bealach na Ba - Also called The Pass of the Cattle

The road is one of few in the Scottish Highlands that is engineered similarly to roads through the great mountain passes in the Alps, with very tight hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside and gradients that approach 20%. It boasts the greatest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 626 metres (2,054 ft), and is the third highest road in Scotland.

The weather decided to be difficult now. Whilst I was in there, chatting to a lovely couple who joined me at my table as the place was packed out (there are only 7 tables!) it started to rain. There is no point at all in driving over the beautiful Pass of the Cattle (Bealach na Ba) in poor weather, as I had found out on the last time I went over, about 3 years ago. The incredible view back over Loch Carron and out over Skye are denied to you in poor visibility. It is the highest Pass in the UK, but to enjoy it at its best, good visibility is really needed.
Reluctantly I decided to turn around and head back to Beauly. By now the rain had arrived in earnest, so it had been a good decision.

I got to the Hotel, and although normally all the parking area around the hotel is full, I was my usual lucky self, and managed to park right outside the door. In fact, I got the same lovely bedroom I had had last time I was there, which overlooked the square, and now that there was free Wi-Fi as well, the picture was complete. In no time I had downloaded the photos I had taken that day and caught up with all my friends emails and my other friends on Twitter.

I had been tempted to have another High tea, but having had a good breakfast, then a sumptuous lunch, decided that just a simple main course would be fine that night. I had ordered the Dover Sole Meunier, but the waitress came back and told me they had none left (it was all of 7pm!!) and would I care to have the haddock instead?
I really don't think I have ever had a greater contrast between two meals in my life! It was dreadful. Dry beyond cardboard, and coated in some anonymous coating that was neither batter nor breadcrumbs. My guess it that it had been gathered from the bottom of a bird-cage! I resolved not to fall for that again. The restaurant was crowded with about 20 golfers there for a weeks golfing holiday, plus various other guests, so I really felt a bit nervous about complaining, but complain I did. I am a firm believer that if you don't tell them if something is bad, they have no chance to correct it. I do always compliment them on the good service they give, so I feel quite justified in complaining when things are bad.
I was back up in my room, now grasping a nice large glass of red, and onto my laptop, where I spent the next few hours happily tweeting.
I did wonder what the breakfast was going to be like and have to say it was superb. I could not have wished for more choice and it was all beautifully cooked (perhaps the breakfast chef is not the same one as had been on duty the night before)!

From the top of the Struan, looking East over the Dornoch Firth & bridge

Sunday morning and I decided that after the abortive trip to the Falls of Shin on Friday, I would go there instead. The weather was pretty bad, but since the Salmon would not be running for another couple of months, I would not be going down to the see the Falls, but just having a wander around the Harrods of the North. 

The River Shin, above the Falls of Shin

After a pit stop for a sandwich and a drink, and with rain falling gently all around, I decided to go onto some roads I have not been on for about 5 years. I headed toward Lairg, but instead of turning right into the village I turned left across the moorland. It was wonderful. So empty and as someone once said, if the weather is good, you look at far distances, but if the rain comes, you look in much more detail, and I did just that. I rounded a corner, and noticed this lovely little Bridge over the Cassley river that tumbles over Achness Falls. They are lovely, and in the rain looked to have a good amount of water coming down.

The River Cassley tumbling over the Achness Falls

The River is down in a deep gorge here

Primroses in bloom on the banks of the River Cassley
A small bridge below these falls carries the road I was driving, and the banks of it had lots of wild primroses in bloom on it. It was like seeing dots of sunshine captured for anyone to enjoy who took the time to stop and look.

My next turn took me toward Oykell Bridge, as I had rented a cottage near there a few years ago, so it would be lovely to see it again. The views of the Kyle of Sutherland are breathtaking, so I have got to include a couple of photos of them. In spite of it being misty, and giving everything the look of having been painted in watercolours, it is still very lovely.

The Kyle of Sutherland looking West

I was fairly high up by now, and on a back lane which leads from Invercassley to Achnahanat.

 The Kyles of Sutherland looking East, where it goes down and empties into the Dornoch Firth at Bonar Bridge.

I had hoped to get some photos of Carbisdale Castle but it is shrouded completely in scaffolding at the moment, so is obviously undergoing extensive restoration. It is currently some sort of Youth Hostel, but I am not sure if it is the property of the YHA but it has a fascinating history.

Carbisdale Castle
The castle was built between 1905 and 1917 for Mary Caroline, Duchess of Sutherland, the second wife of George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 3rd Duke of Sutherland, whom she married in 1889. She is better known as "Duchess Blair" because of her first marriage to Captain Arthur Kindersely Blair of the 71st Highland Light Infantry, who died in a hunting accident in 1883 near Pitlochry. The marriage was not well liked in the Sutherland family. When the Duke died in 1892 his will, in favour of the Duchess, was contested by his son and heir Cromartie. In a court process that followed, the Duchess was found guilty of destroying documents and was imprisoned for six weeks in London.
Eventually, the Sutherland family came to an agreement giving Duchess Blair a substantial financial settlement. Furthermore, the family agreed to build a castle for the Duchess, as long as it was outside of the Sutherland lands. The Duchess employed a firm of Ayrshire builders and work started in 1906 just outside the Sutherland lands in Ross-shire. It was located on a hillside to be visible to a large part of Sutherland, especially the main road and rail line which the Sutherland family would have to use to travel south. Thus it became known as the "Castle of Spite" as it was widely considered that the Duchess located the castle there to spite her husband's family and the settlement agreement. This is further supported by the fact that the castle's tower only has clocks on three of its four faces - the side facing Sutherland is blank, supposedly because the Duchess did not wish to give the time of day to her former relatives.
My route now took me through Ardgay, and then back over the Struan to Dingwall and Beauly. There is a wonderful Viewpoint on this road of Dornoch Firth, and looking back up towards Bonar Bridge

Dornoch Firth looking toward Bonar Bridge

This viewpoint is usually quite busy, but on a windy and, as the Scots so descriptively call it, a dreich day, there was just one couple on a motor cycle. They turned out to be French, so having offered to take a photo of the two of them together, we had a few minutes chat. It was their first time in this part of Scotland, but they had fallen in love with it completely, even in the rain. It just goes to show, no matter what mother nature decides to give us, she never hides her beauty of her own accord unless she decides to cover her face with her veil of mist.
I had enjoyed a wonderful day, and arrived back at my Hotel in perfect time to get ready for dinner. I decided that I would give them another chance, and had a splendid dinner which more than made up for the dismal meal I had had the night before.
I was on the road home after a good breakfast, this time of a great mmoist Finnan Haddock and 2 poached eggs, and as I had promised to prepare a practical quiz for the Women's Rural Institute that night, it was just as well that the hotel was full for the rest of the week or I would have been tempted to stay, regardless of what the weather forecast said.
I had had a wonderful holiday, and as soon as I got home I have already booked the same delightful holiday home for next year and Jean & Bob are as keen to join me as I am to go. They are wonderful friends, because holidays together can mean the end of friendships if there are any chinks in them, but ours is very strong and I cherish them both.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

A Week in the Highlands

I booked on line, and it can always be a bit of a risk. I have had cottages that have been, to put it mildly, 'tired', others that were superbly situated but lacking in equipment, and yet others that were a bit of a disappointment. This one, through Cottages4You, was indescribably beautiful. Only 11 miles from Inverness for shopping, but very close to some of the most magnificent scenery Scotland has to offer.
I had arranged with my friends from Scarborough, Bob & Jean, that they would go up in their car, and we would rendezvous at Perth. We were going to meet at Morrisons, as I would want to fill up the car with fuel and that is where I always fill up.

I arrived at least 2 hours before them, so having filled up, I decided to do a bit of shopping at Aldi and Lidl, and then meet instead at Tesco, where they would want to fill their car up. I tried Jean's mobile phone. Switched off! I tried Jean's 2nd Mobile - also switched off! Knowing that Bob would also have his as he usually leaves it in the car, I tried his. Switched off! Eventually I drove to Tesco and sat in the cafe with a view of the car park entrance. My phone, my new phone rang. and rang. And rang. I could not figure out how to answer the darned thing! I pressed everything that could be pressed, but no. Nothing worked. In the end, I looked for the call log and found their missed call. I rang them! They were at Tesco, Perth. Not the same Tesco Perth as me! Transpired there are at least 3 Tesco's in Perth, and we were sitting in two of them. Telling them to stay put, I asked in the store I was at for the post code of the other one. After many strange looks, I was eventually given the post code. I was all of 5 minutes away. Theoretically at least. Obeying the voice of my Sat nav, I turned right when she told me to. I had Tesco diagonally opposite me as I sat at the traffic lights. Sat Nav told me to turn right so I did, expecting to see the entrance to the car park.
Wrong! this took me on a slip road behind Tesco, and before I knew where I was I was heading south on the A9. Drat - now I had to drive to the M90/A9 interchange a few miles south, go round the roundabout and back north, leaving where I had got on! Now it was easy to go into Tesco's car park, so I found Jean sitting laughing in the cafe. Bob had gone walkabout, but he too had a good laugh when I told them of my slight detour!

Soon we were refreshed and on our way up toward Inverness. We called off for a comfort stop, as the coach drivers so delicately put it, at Ralia, the only Rest area with a cafe on the whole of the A9, and one I had always used when I was towing the caravan with my husband on our annual trip up to the Highlands.

We found the bungalow very easily, as Bob had looked at Google Earth, and traced the lane from the main road to where he assumed the bungalow was. At least, it was an assumption, as when google Earth took their photos, the bungalow had not been built.

Going inside it was a revelation. What a superb property, and beautifully decorated. The owner had even put fresh flowers for us, and there was milk and tea and coffee there too, so we were able to have a drink quickly. Jean had made a casserole, and before long that was heated up and we were sitting down to a wonderful evening meal, before setting about getting our laptops working.

The bungalow had Wi-Fi, and after a couple of phone calls to the owner, she arrived and sorted out the WEP key for us and we were happily tweeting and emailing all and sundry. This was luxury at its best as far as the three of us are concerned.

Sunday morning dawned with blue sky and wall to wall sunshine. The cows were in the field next to us, curiously looking over the fences at us, with their calves at their sides. We could not believe just how quiet and peaceful this place is and had all slept like logs.

Setting off for Inverness, and the Black Isle, I turned the wrong way, and we were halfway to Drumnadrochit, on Loch Ness, before we knew it. As we were passing Urquhat Castle, where there was some event on, and looked very busy, Jean asked how far it is to Skye, as she had always wanted to go there. No sooner had she asked than we were on our way there. Turning right at Invermoriston, and stopping every few miles to take photos, we thoroughly enjoyed the journey. We had a little stop at Eileen Donan Castle to take photos, then again a few miles further on to take the first photo of the Skye Bridge.

Where we stood to take this picture there is a lovely memorial seat to a young man, and I am always moved by the wonderful words engraved on the plaque.

After crossing the bridge we were getting ready for some lunch, so we stopped at Broadford at a restaurant I have used before, and had a good lunch, and a little rest, before setting off back. I decided to take them to see Plockton, as it is a pretty village, but very busy on the weekends. It is where Hamish McBeth was filmed, but since neither Bob & Jean, nor myself had seen the series it really was not the reason I wanted to take them there.

As we left there, we came to the tiny village of Duirinish where we stopped and admired the superb herd of Highland cattle grazing freely on the village green. I love Highland Cattle, and to get so close to them as this was something of a real treat for me. They seemed totally at ease with people and indeed came almost nose to nose with us.

I had half thought we may be able to drive over to the Applecross that same day, but the weather and time were against us, and since the whole point of driving over the Pass of the Cattle or Bealach na Bà as it is called in Gaelic, is to see the glorious views both back over Loch Carrann, and over Skye and Raasay and Scalpay, so we decided to leave this for another days treat.

Monday and the weather was again superb, so it was a good day to go up Glen Affric, only a few miles from where the bungalow is. It is a beautiful Glen, with the winding single track road, and heavily forested with lots of birch and of course, the ubiquitous pine trees. The river Affric runds down the length of it, tumbling over Dog Falls near the bottom end of it. There had not been a lot of rain, so the falls were not as dramatic as I have seen them many times, but during the winter of 2010/11 there was tumultuous water which had washed away the supports to the bridge carrying the footpath to the other side of the Glen. This has been replaced, but still looks like a raw scar - time will, no doubt, soften it so that it does not look so unsightly, but at least it has been mended, so it is a tribute to the maintenance work of the Forestry men to care for such important structures.

These information boards are so well done that it is always worthwhile photographing them because I always forget what I read a week or so later!

Last time I went up Glen Affric it was possible to drive right to the top. Now there is a car park, and the rest of the Glen is only accessible to those on foot. Fine if you can walk, but not funny for those who are now denied the pleasure of seeing that bit further up such a glorious Glen. Oh well, I suppose some people just don't see things that way, so I am glad I had the chance a few years ago.

It is Chisholm Country, and the clan sold most of the timber for use in the shipbuilding trades. From the top, there is a trail called the Chisholm Trail (or at least it was when I went up there a few years ago).

Coming back down Glen Affric, it was still early enough in the day to show my friends the wonderful Glen Strathfarrar. This is a closed, private Glen, and is unsignposted. There is a sign to Piper Major Willie Ross's Cairn, but that is all. The story of this wonderful Piper is to be found here http://www.pipetunes.ca/composers.asp?pg=Details&composerID=22 and is well worth reading. I love the sound of the bagpipes, and even though I was not born a Scot, my paternal Great-Grandmother was, so I reckon some of her blood must run through my veins too.

Glen Strathfarrar is one of the most peaceful Glens, mainly because you have to get a permit from the gatehouse to drive into it, and it is stunningly beautiful.

Further up the Glen we saw our first deer. What a lovely sight they make. About 40 of them all grazing together, a few young stags amongst them.

We came across this tree with its rather curious mishaped branch and I was trying to work out exactly how it had grown into a circle without any apparent need to do so - you can usually see why trees have grown into certain shapes by the objects that have obstructed their normal straight growth, but this?

We had had a wonderful day, and still the weather was holding up, but it was getting colder, and of course the mountain tops still had snow on them.

Wednesday dawned and although a little cooler, it was still fine. The forecast was for showers later, but there was so much to see, that we were determined to make the most of it. A little shopping in Inverness Tesco, and we were ready to set off for the Black Isle. The view of Kessock Bridge is always one which sets my pulse racing, being, as I see it, the gateway to the North, and all the wild country I love to see up there.

I had seen Dolphins in the Kessock Bridge a few years ago, so decided to drive down to where we had seen them first. there is the Dolphin & Whale watching visitor centre there, near the new RNLI station, but it was closed until June. This should have reminded me of something, but didn't.
Whilst driving down to the shore line, we saw lots of lovely blue bells, and Jean got out to photograph them. A man in a van stopped and told her that if we drove down a very narrow track beside the Firth, we would see lots more than those. Of course, we just had to do it! It was indeed a narrow track, but the reward was well worth the effort.

We hoped to see Dolphins, and a friend had told Bob that the best point to see them is off Chanory Point. I stopped just in a layby to get a photo of Dalgetty Bay, as it looks so lovely.

 We sat at Chanory Point for quite a while, but alas, there were no dolphins to be seen, and I am sure it is because it was a little too early in the season for them, as I seem to recall that they come from about June onwards, and this was May, and a cool May at that.

On to Cromarty, that village famous for its name being given to a Shipping Area, and one most people know, even if they don't actually know where it is. It is a delightful village, and has a very interesting history. One of its most famous sons is Hugh Miller, the Geologist. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Miller and anyone interested in Geology is likely to have heard of him. His birthplace, a lovely heather thatched cottage, is now a museum and stands near to the Courthouse, which has also be restored to provide an excellent visitor experience as a tableaux, with sound effects, of a Victorian court room bears witness to.

Leaving Cromarty behind we drove along the north side of the Black Isle, where we could see the Oil Rigs being worked on at Invergordon, with the backdrop of Ben Wyvis with snow on her tops.

Joining the Cromarty Firth, and the bridge across to Dingwall, we hoped to see the seals hauled out on the rocks near the bridge. As we were also near to the Storehouse of Foulis, it seemed a good place to have a break and look at the shop there. It was by then almost 6pm, as we could see from the sundial in the grounds.
 The shop was closing, so with one last stop to look for seals, felt it was time to head back to the bungalow for dinner.

 We had done a lot of travelling in the previous four days, so decided to wait indoors to see if the weather would improve. We each had our laptop, and so I got busy with sorting out photographs and straightening them up - and missed this one! Digital photography is simply magic in that it is possible to straighten photographs after they have been taken, but I don't change anything else. Colours remain as they were taken, and on dull days, it means that they are not such bright photos as would otherwise be the case.
These ladies and their children were our daytime visitors - it being still too cold to let them say out overnight, they would emerge about 9am and be called back in about 7pm. It was funny to watch them, because their field surrounded the bungalow, and we would suddenly see one of the 'girls' head off in a different direction, and in no time at all, they would all have followed. Talk about sheep keeping together, well we now know that cows do exactly the same thing. The black & white cow was washing her calf for quite a while - it was lovely to watch the way he would turn round for her to make sure she got to the whole of his face!

Friday came along, and there was no improvement in the weather. However, Bob had decided that he had enjoyed his day indoors, so was more than happy when Jeanie & I went off out for a few hours. We were going to go to the Falls of Shin, but first decided we would go and see the House of Beauly nearby. This was originally called A Taste of Scotland, and sells exclusively local made goods and is wonderful. It has been expanded a lot since the days when it first opened and we would call in for a browse and a snack. We wandered around for a while then made for the cafe for morning coffee. I don't eat cakes, but I am a sucker for Paté, so as it was almost lunchtime, that is what I had and it was stupendous! Home made and simply superb, served with a lovely side salad too. Sitting in the cafe, I noticed this sign in my line of vision in the shop, and on closer inspection of it, just had to take a photo as it is without doubt one of the nices 'Graces' I have seen in many a long year.

I only had my phone camera, so if the words are not as clear as I would like, they are: For Food that stays our Hunger, For rest that brings us ease, For homes where memories linger, we give our Thanks for these.

After our pleasant time at Beauly, we set off for the Falls of Shin. I know the way. I've been there lots of times. Carry on at Garve as though going to Ullapool and it is about 3 miles after the village that you turn right. WRONG! We did, however, notice this waterfall, so managed to pull the car onto the side of the road to get a photo.

After a few more miles I felt that we might be on the wrong road. Arrival at Loch Glascarnoch confirmed this! This place is often cited as the wettest place in Scotland on the Met office reports, but today it was just grey. On a lovely day, the water looks like sapphire, today it looked less than that.

We turned around there, and headed back to Dingwall and since the weather was just not improving at all, and indeed there was a hint of snow in the showers, it seemed that our trip to the Falls of Shin was not going to happen on this trip.

As we headed back south, we were to the north of Ben Wyvis, and she had even more snow on her tops than the view from the south, which is the one we usually have.

I wanted to show Jeanie a particularly interesting monument in Dingwall, which is by the Station. We had a coffee in the Station Cafe, a beautifully decorated establishment, that has divine home cooked food.  Like most of the wonderful cafes and restaurants in Scotland, soup is unsurpassed anywhere else in the country, and here was no exception. However, as I had booked a table for 6pm at the Priory Hotel, Beauly, there was really no chance to sample the food for ourselves as it was now 4pm.

After leaving there we took these couple of photos of the Memorial to the Seaforth Highlanders.

The journey back to the Bungalow was done in less than half an hour, so we had time to change and be at Beauly in good time for our High Tea. I have been going to this Hotel for High Tea for more years than I care to remember and is one of the few places I have found which still serves a traditional one, with toast and preserves, a hot course, then a cake stand filled with wonderful selection of home made cakes and goodies.

After our meal we could not manage to eat all the cakes, so the Hotel very obligingly packed the ones we could not eat ready for us to take with us. They were home made meringues, Chocolae brownies and scones.

Back at the bungalow we had to get our packing done as we all wanted to be on the road early the following morning. I had decided to stay on for a couple of days longer and had booked into the Priory at Beauly after we had had our meal, so I only had a short distance to travel to go there.

We had had a wonderful week together, and our friendship is still strong. I had never more a moment thought there would be a problem, as we have spent many weeks in total in each other's company, and the fact that we had out laptops with us meant that we could stay in touch with everyone we want to and I could keep tweeting, which is something I love doing.

We were all up early the following morning, and with the house now back immaculate as we had found it, we locked the door, put the key where we had been asked to put it, and I waved them off on their journey home.

My couple of days I shall write about in my next blog.