Fastpacking the Loch Lomond and Cowal Way

I recently ran or ‘fastpacked’ the Loch Lomond and Cowal Way and even when running it, felt that it deserved more of a telling than a simple post on Facebook. So this is the story of my wee adventure which gives a ‘warts and all’ insight into how I approached it and hopefully it may assist or even inspire others to have a go at the Way in whichever way suits them.

There is no right or wrong way and it’s not about speed. It’s all about getting out there, doing something and creating experiences and memories.

The Loch Lomond and Cowal Way  is a long distance footpath which starts at Portavadie on Loch Fyne and ends at Inveruglas on Loch Lomond.

It was established in 2000 as the Cowal Way and the name was changed in 2018 to reflect that, as well as traversing the Cowal Peninsula, it also passes through and ends in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.

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Now one of  Scotland’s Great Trails it is waymarked throughout and is a mixture of existing footpaths, tracks, minor roads and traditional rights of way, as it winds it’s way eastward for 57 miles from Portavadie, through Tighnabruaich, Glendaruel, Strachur, Lochgoilhead, Arrochar and finally via Glen Loin to Inveruglas.

The route is undulating at times and one short section at Loch Riddon after Tighnabruaich is surprisingly rough and scrambly but it is never difficult.

Between Lochgoilhead and Arrochar there is a steep climb to the high point at 500 m and although white poles mark the route onwards, careful navigation would be required in misty conditions.

Apart from that short section, navigation via the waymarking signs is straightforward. Throughout, the views are stunning with coastal scenery, forests, hills, lochs and farmland.

The official guide book suggests that the route could be walked in about five days and is subdivided accordingly. However, as an ultra runner I have had my eye on the route as a two day run or fastpack and possibly even as a supported one day run.

As a two day self-sufficient run, I first looked at running and staying at a B&B but never really explored it too much and in the end I opted to carry ultra lightweight camping gear and fastpack the route over two days and one night.

What is ‘Fastpacking’ ?

Fastpacking is the point where ultra light backpacking meets long distance trail running and gives the ability to run long distances across any kind of terrain carrying everything needed for the run and an overnight stay. This means that beautiful, more remote countryside can be accessed without retraints.

Waking up, way off the beaten track is a wonderful experience. Obviously, weight of gear is an issue and a balance has to be struck between carrying enough to be safe, against being able to move fast with the load.

Experience and the knowledge of how to use the kit is paramount. I’ve seen a few people saying that around 7 kilos is an optimum weight but if conditions allow even lighter is possible.

A lightweight tent or shelter is essential and in Scotland in summer more often than not serves to escape from midges rather than the weather.

Next a lightweight sleeping bag and appropriate clothing including waterproofs and warm layer.

Then the decisions start …. a stove? i.e hot food or no hot food or horror of horrors no coffee first thing in the morning !  Do you carry a small quality camera or rely on your mobile phone’s camera?  …. Hmmm !

No brainers for me are my midge jacket and mitts providing a total barrier and relief and my PLB or Personal Locator Beacon.

Once the preserve of yachtsmen, modern PLBs are tiny but can summon help in a life or limb emergency. At the press of a button, official emergency services know that the beacon registered to me has been activated and help is sent anywhere in the world.

Priceless and for me, having paid £200 for a unit that will last seven years, it is reassurance. Now I would find it very galling to be lying somewhere, helpless with a broken leg, with no means of summoning help, for the sake of £200.

There are other variations such as satellite phones and other communications devices such as SPOT, which can help when no mobile phone signal is available. I don’t even notice the weight in my bag.

Carrying 7 kilos and trying to run does impact upon your speed but think more of loping all day like a wolf, than running fast for short periods like a cheetah.

Using your inner wolf, you can cover a surprising amount of ground, trotting the flats and downhills and power marching up the hills.

My rucksack weighed around 5 kilos before food and water and contained everything I needed as a bare minimum to survive one nights camping and two days running.

This increased to 7 kilos by the time food and water was added but I still hoped to supplement the food en route.

Obviously I was using water from streams but I had a Sawyer Mini water filter too which I used most times. This protects me from bacteria and other nasties.

The Adventure Starts

A window of opportunity arose in June 2019 with promised settled weather and at 0707 hours on a Tuesday morning I boarded the Citylink Glasgow to Campbeltown bus at Balloch and arrived at Tarbert, Loch Fyne  just over two hours later after a relaxing stress free journey with someone else driving.

An added bonus was that with my National Entitlement Card my fare was free. I love the fact that they give you a ticket marked “zero”.

The plan was to get the ferry to Portavadie and then run the route to Inveruglas over two days, camping in the middle and catch a bus home.

To be honest this was all a bit ad hoc and last minute and I had not over-planned and was quite relaxed about the whole thing. I did not have a copy of the guidebook but read internet versions and had the maps of the full route saved and available offline on my phone.

I don’t normally travel, particularly on high ground, without paper maps but I have a good knowledge of the route from Lochgoilhead, having been in all parts of the route there on many occasions.

Thus I was confident of finding my way in the bits that I knew. With the exception of the bit around Tighnabruaich, the rest was ‘terra incognita’ to me but being relatively low lying and with a very favourable weather forecast, I figured I could get by with the waymarking and e’maps.

A quick word on nomenclature, particularly for distances. As a confused child born in the late 50s but growing up in the 60s, I transitioned through imperial measures and metric.

Currently my whole day is measured in miles and my pace in miles per minute. However, when I navigate and talk about mountain heights and climbs, I do so in kilometres and meters because that that is how the map is. So even through I’m thinking of running 30 miles in a day, when I describe a section measured from the map, I’m in kilometres.

Confused …. try being me and don’t start me about cooking when even in the same recipe I can be weighing out ounces and then grams !  I could have standardised it for the blog but it’s more the real me this way.

DSC00436Tarbert, Loch Fyne.

Tarbert is a pretty village, popular with tourists, set around a fishing harbour which is now an important yachting harbour and marina too.

Tarbert hosts a number of regattas throughout the year and facilities have grown to service this and there are a number of good restaurants, bars and shops. A castle used by Robert the Bruce sits picturesquely above the town.

DSC00440Hypericum aka Rose of Sharon or St John’s Wort growing wild at Tarbert

Portavadie on the east side of Loch Fyne opposite Tarbert was established to build concrete oil platforms for the North Sea but was overtaken by technology as steel platforms emerged and never saw production.

The enclosed port is now used by Portavadie Marina and as well as a yacht marina it has a luxury holiday complex with a variety of accommodation types, restaurants and a luxury spa.

A ferry terminal operated by Caledonian MacBrayne connects to Tarbert and at 1015 hours I embarked on the MV Isle of Cumbrae for the short crossing. As well as cars and cyclists there were a number of pedestrians, clearly local and excitedly heading for a spa day.

DSC00445MV Isle of Cumbrae with Papa Smurf waiting patiently 

About half way across I noticed a disturbance in the water ahead on the port side of the ship and was excited to see a pod of about four or five harbour porpoises swimming parallel towards us.

They have a very distinctive and unmistakable rolling motion as their heads break the surface briefly and roll forward and down. Unlike dolphins they do not leap out of the water but nevertheless are a common sight nowadays in the Clyde.

It always feels like even more of an adventure when a boat trip is involved.

DSC00450Porpoises honestly !

DSC00465Portavadie

Day 1 – Portavadie to Tighnabruaich

On arrival at Portavadie I should have stopped to look around but was keen to get started and headed eastward, initially on the concrete road but very quickly turned left onto a track marked with the Loch Lomond and Cowal Way logo.

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I quickly gained height and the scenery was stunning looking over a small lochan to Loch Fyne with Arran in the distance to my left.

DSC00467Looking over Loch Fyne on first climb

DSC00470Small lochan

DSC00477Arran in the distance

DSC00479Wild orchid

I then passed Ascog Loch and the ruins of Ascog Castle which was originally built in the 15th century by the Lamont clan but destroyed by the Campbells in 1646 after a siege and the defenders were slaughtered after surrendering, which seems a tad unsporting.

DSC00473Ascog Loch

DSC00472Ascog Castle

A short spell on a minor road followed passing Milhouse and then I crossed a field then a golf course as the way continued over and down to Kames and Tighnabruaich with stunning views over the Kyles of Bute and the Island of Bute.

DSC00480Tighnabruaich and the Kyles of Bute

Kames and Tighnabruaich have a few hotels, shops and restaurants and I had a lovely coffee and scone and then bought some food in the local shop which I ate as I trotted past the moored yachts and the RNLI shop, which unusually for me I did not stop at.

DSC00485Tighnabruaich looking to West Kyle, Bute on the left

DSC00486Wild rose

Day 1 – Tighnabruaich to Glenbranter

The way continued eastwards arriving at Caladh after a steep hill on a track. Caladh is a beautiful enclosed harbour with a small island and lighthouse which is very popular with local boats as an anchorage.

I have been there many times myself and it was a firm favourite of my children when we sailed there. There is a curious anomaly about Caladh in that it is frequently referred to, even by people who should know better, as Caladh Harbour.

Since Caladh means ‘harbour’ ….  Harbour harbour makes little sense. Catching a bit of 4G I sent a picture to my grown up children.

DSC00491 (2)Caladh

As the way enters Loch Riddon, the way hugs the shore but enters woods and becomes quite rough with steps up and down and tricky narrow, rocky paths.

There are a number of overhanging rocks and caves and as an ultra runner it is very reminiscent of the tricky sections on the east side of Loch Lomond which are infamous for killing a runners pace and average speed on the Highland Fling and West Highland Way Races.

Indeed, at times it was almost scrambling and very enjoyable except when thinking of the drop in average pace which I quickly dismissed.

There has been a fair bit of ‘engineering’ here with handrails, steps and path work but still sympathetic to the surroundings too.

Not overly difficult, just tricky and slow but still enjoyable and with great views over Loch Riddon and the East Kyle of Bute.

DSC00492Loch Riddon and East Kyle

As it was low tide, the head of the loch was dry for a considerable distance and not long before the head of the loch, the path emerged onto a minor road.

On leaving the minor road a couple of kilometres later, I joined the main A8003 for another couple of k before going onto a minor road for a while going through Glendaruel.

The main road was fine and not too busy and with room at the side to keep moving even in the face of oncoming traffic.

The minor road went on a bit longer than I normally prefer on hard stuff but to be fair was very quiet in terms of traffic and there was always something to see.

The Glendaruel Hotel was a magnificent looking building but currently not being used and I continued on the minor road at the next junction, turning left onto the West Glen Road recrossing the river by a Telford bridge.

Eventually I came to a fork in the road in front of the historic Lucknow Gates which are said to commemorate the 1857 Siege of Lucknow, India. I carried on to the left with the right path leading to the Glendaruel Camping and Caravan Park and shop.

DSC00493Lucknow Gates

The minor road continued for another few kilometres before the way turns right and follows the main road the A886 south for a short distance before turning left at Garvie Farm.

I then continued onto a land rover track rising gradually up, on the way to Glen Branter, passing through a large area of forestry plantation.

A pleasant path led constantly up, reaching a height of around 350 metres and by this time I was beginning to get weary and longing for a suitable camping spot.

DSC00495Track towards Glenbranter

I never had a fixed agenda of how far I would go on day one but around 1900 ish hours at the point where I passed 26.2 miles; marathon distance and moving into ultra-marathon territory, my shoulders were stiff and sore and by now I was only trotting the downhills and was marching the flats as well as the ups.

To be fair I was walking at around 15 minute mile pace, which is 4 miles per hour which is quite respectable.

However, as I crested a hill and prepared to trot down, there was always that moment anticipating the slight pain in my shoulders which kicked in as I began to trot and my rucksack settled on my shoulders.

I had probably always thought that 30 miles on the first day gave a psychological edge on day 2

As usual in forested areas, wild camping spots were not forthcoming and I was getting no choice in the matter of my mileage, there was simply nowhere to stop.

I forlornly hoped for a camping spot whilst still high up to avoid the midges but to no avail and before long I was trotting steadily downhill on weary legs towards Glenbranter.

I could see on the map that there was a Forestry Commission centre and car park and thought I might get something there.

Just before reaching that, I found an area of older more natural forest with woodland walks with pine needle covered paths and after casting about found a suitable spot near a river and got ready to pitch my tent.

By this time the wind had dropped and I knew it was going to be midge central and it was. Donning my midge jacket,  I hurriedly pitched the tent whilst the water was boiling for my pot noodle and coffee.

Tent pitched I dunked my feet in the river whilst the food cooled and then dived into my tent, secured it against blood sucking intruders and settled in for the night.

DSC00500Overnight camp, Lazer Competition tent 

Day 2 – Glenbranter to Lochgoilhead

I had a comfortable night and a reasonable sleep soothed by the gentle sounds of the river; is there anything better ? I got up around 0700 and could see clouds of ‘Culicoides impunctatus’ waiting for breakfast !

Ha ha not this time foul fiends and on went the midge jacket again. To the midges consternation I ate my porridge and drank my coffee from inside my midge jacket and they were impotent !

DSC00499 (2)Midge jacket

I quickly packed and was away by eight and shortly after arrived at the forestry centre which was in full sunlight with no midges.

I relaxed at a picnic table, caught up with messages relaxing in the sun and had a quick wash in the toilets before setting off much refreshed.

About 4 k of minor road with no traffic took me past a school and to the edge of Strachur but I turned off to the right before the village on another minor road past the shinty field before hitting forest tracks.

DSC00503Hills above Strachur

DSC00505No football here, this is shinty country

Strachur is famous as being the home of Sir Fitzroy MacLean who latterly ran a hotel here. Believed to be partly the inspiration for James Bond, MacLean was aristocratic, a diplomat in Russia who resigned to become a politician as the only means of joining the army at the outbreak of World War 2.

He enlisted as a private and rose through the ranks to Brigadier, one of only two people to do so (the other being Enoch Powell). He was promoted to Major-General after the war. He was a founder member of the SAS and had some amazing exploits.

MacLean is possibly best known for being parachuted behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia under the direct orders of Churchill to liaise with Marshall Tito which he did successfully, living rough with Tito and his partisans.

His life was a mixture of Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond and James Bond and reads like something out of a boys adventure book.

A Scot to be proud of and a fascinating character and indeed someone to learn more about and I am trying to order a copy of his book “Eastern Approaches”.

The forest track rose quickly then turned left before petering out and becoming a narrow path leading to the beautiful Curra Lochain nestled between Beinn Lochain 703m and Beinn Bheula 779m.

DSC00508Forest track looking ahead uphill

DSC00510The road ahead to the right of the hill in the centre 

DSC00512Looking back towards track from Strachur

DSC00519Curra Lochain

DSC00520Curra Lochain

Just after the Lochain there was a sign giving a choice of carrying on the main route or diverging to Struth Ban waterfall I followed the main route on a narrow grassy path for a short while then emerged onto wide forestry tracks.

There were now stunning views down to Lochgoilhead and beyond including to the Cobbler at Arrochar which still looked impossibly far away and I had to go past it.

DSC00522Looking down to Lochgoilhead. The Cobbler just to right of the tree just off centre

I could also see up to the waterfall which was pretty spectacular too.

DSC00524Struth Ban waterfall

I followed a diversion due to felling  and came to a curious bridge with a metal frame over it. As I crossed, I noticed some inviting pools to my right and as it was now quite hot, I succumbed to the temptation of a skinny dip which was very cold but bliss.

Rest assured I had checked as far as I could see for walkers and kept my shorts close.

DSC00529Skinny dip pool

Invigorated, I carried on trotting down the forestry roads to Lochgoilhead at sea level again.

The holiday complex of Drymsynie was looking really nice in the sunshine and I stopped in the village shop for a can of full fat, ice cold coke and some food which I consumed overlooking the head of the loch.

DSC00532Lochgoilhead looking east

DSC00535Lochgoilhead looking west

Day 2 – Lochgoilhead to Ardgartan

Further refreshed, I started the big climb to the highest point of the whole way.

It was a mixed blessing; being totally familiar with the route from now on, balanced against the fact that I knew what was coming for my weary legs, having to climb from sea level to 500 m before descending to sea level again at Ardgartan en route to Arrochar.

The good track climbs steadily but pleasantly upwards into a forest and over a river before getting steeper. The path turns right and a clear gap emerges through the trees leading straight up.

DSC00536The start of the steep climb. It is steeper than this looks

DSC00539Bench looking back west

The path has been slightly improved over the years and is now clear and obvious but still a narrow proper hill path which would sap the energy of fresh legs.

Oh well, onwards and upwards with some tactical photograph stops and eventually I reached and crossed a fence onto open hillside.

DSC00537Looking back west

The faint grassy path leads uphill following a line of white posts which have been there well before the Cowal Way and leads to a beallach between The Brack at 787m and Cnoc Coinnich at 761m.

In mist, careful navigation, even with the poles, would be required but for me it was crystal clear with blue skies and I took lots of photographs and a panorama video.

Stunning and such a joy and privilege to be there, able to do things like this.

DSC00546Emerging on open hillside looking back west

DSC00549Looking north the Brack with the Cobbler behind 

DSC00550Looking east, Ben Lomond

DSC00551Looking west from the pass

A quick romp down led to the forest and a steep descent into Coilessan Glen and I was able to trot steadily downhill to Coilessan where I joined the road that leads to Ardgartan on Loch Long.

DSC00552Loch Long from Coilessan

Day 2 – Ardgartan to Inveruglas

The road surface felt hard but made for easy trotting and I passed the car park and crossed the A83 for the first time and ran up to the track that runs parallel to Loch Long and and then down the stony track to the climbers car park at Arrochar.

Before starting the final leg along Glen Loin to Coiregrogan and Inverulglas my brain was screaming for another ice cold coke but the garage and café next door were shut.

I didn’t fancy going further into the village and finding more closed shops, so I shouldered my pack and crossed the A83 for the second time and started to make my way along Glen Loin.

Glen Loin is another lovely glen and I run on it a lot and have been coming here for over 40 years so it is very familiar. It also doubles as the final part of the The Three Lochs Way another lovely route.

DSC00553Glen Loin the last climb

By this time I had been mentally writing off the 1759 bus from Inveruglas but realised if I pushed on a wee bit, I might make it, which would mean getting home an hour earlier and more importantly getting into the hot bath that bore my name, so I pushed on a wee bit !

The final steep hill up and over and down towards Coiregrogain wasn’t too bad and as I hit the metalled road that services Loch Sloy dam and power station, I realised that I really could catch that bus.

Fortunately it was downhill on a road but I was hitting a good pace after two full days running with a pack and I was quite pleased with myself as I arrived at Inveruglas with ten minutes to spare.

DSC00554 (2)Ben Lomond and the end is in sight

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Conclusions

Job done and soon I was sitting on the bus reflecting on a great wee adventure. Strava says I did 58.5 miles and 8330 feet of ascent and around 9 hours the first day and nearly 10 the second.

Moving time was around 7 hours each day but I was in no hurry and stopped as and when I wanted. It wasn’t always easy maintaining a pace with the heavier than normal pack but again, I was pleased that I had ran just about all the bits I should have and power marched very well when that was what was required.

Bearing in mind I had free bus travel, my adventure was very cheap but even if paying for fares it would still be a relatively cheap adventure and one that I totally recommend.

In short, the Loch Lomond and Cowal Way is a thoroughly enjoyable, challenging and scenic route and whether fastpacked as I did or walked in sections or continuously in as many days as desired, it would make a great trip.

More luxury could of course be utilised and paid for, including a stay at Portavadie or at some of the many hotels and bed and breakfast establishments. You pays your money and makes your choice but I like the freedom of wild camping and especially waking up in the wilds.

The route is well maintained and waymarked and easy to follow and although there are are some lengthy periods on minor roads, that doesn’t spoil it.

To put things further into perspective; for every mile ran or walked, I ascended 142 feet which compares with a figure of around 145 for the much longer West Highland Way, so a similar height profile relatively.

This emphasises to me that the Loch Lomond and Cowal Way is a worthy long distance trail that deserves respect but would be achieveable with a moderate level of fitness.

Fastpacking the route in three days might have been a bit more relaxed but then I would need to have carried more food so the weight would have gone up and the benefits may be eroded, so two was probably right.

Those who know me may not be surprised that I am beginning to canvass friends to join me in running it all as a one day ultra.

All we need is a driver or two who can carry supplies and meet us every now and again and the pack would be much lighter.

Hmmmm ……..

 

 

 

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The ‘Bule’ Are Back in Town

According to the latest FIFA World Rankings Indonesia is placed at number 159 of 211 footballing countries. Given what we saw recently on the island of Sulawesi, that situation is unlikely to change soon, as every football pitch and any other piece of unoccupied land is being used for camps and temporary housing following the disastrous tsunami and earthquake which devastated the provincial coastal city of Palu.

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Around 1800 hours on Friday 28 September 2018, an earthquake out at sea 80km north of Palu in Central Sulawesi created a tsunami which struck the city with little or no warning. As the tsunami flattened the coastal areas, the earthquake caused havoc further inland, damaging and destroying buildings and infrastructure. The earthquake also caused the little known and unusual effect of liquefaction which causes uncompacted soil, saturated as a result of water forced up by the earthquake, to turn fluid resulting in dramatic subsidence and horrific damage.

Over 2000 people were killed, over 1300 are still missing and 212,000 people have been displaced from their homes.

Indonesia is the 4th most populous country in the world with over 225 million people living in an archipelago of 17,000 islands. The islands straddle the equator and the Ring of Fire which circles the Pacific Ocean and causes frequent volcanic activity, earthquakes and tsunamis. Despite all this Indonesia is a relatively modern and prosperous country. An Islamic country, religious tolerance is very noticeable and there are many Christians and other faiths.

As worldwide help flowed to Palu, Disaster Aid Australia, a project of Endeavour HIlls Rotary Club, deployed Team Leader Di to Palu to assess the situation and ascertain what help was required. Disaster Aid Malaysia, a project of the Rotary Club of Bandar Utama, also sent tents and Family Support Kits. Following Di’s assessment, two Disaster Aid Response Team Members (DARTs) from Disaster Aid Australia; Andrew and Phil attended and began to survey potential sites to install Skyhydrant water filters. These large filters can turn contaminated and bacteria ridden water into safe clean drinking water and can produce 12,000 litres per day and with a ten year lifespan that should outlive the disaster situation.

 

Skyhydrant receiving water from a well and potable water is fed to a holding tank 

It was also decided to send two DARTs from Disaster Aid UK & Ireland a project of Denton and Audenshaw Rotary Club and Craig and I made the 9000 mile journey arriving on 6th December 2018 after for me; two trains, four flights and a car journey. I had joined Craig at Manchester and we flew together from there to Palu. In our hold luggage we also carried fifty Sawyer water filters. These are hand sized units, much smaller than the Skyhydrants but essentially the same technology and consisting of hollow membrane fibres which trap sediment and bacteria and giving safe clean water which can be consumed with no further treatment. Skyhydrants would be typically used by a small community and Sawyers would be issued to individual families.

Skyhydrant with header and storage tanks.JPG

A typical set up. Gravity fed from a header tank, through the Skyhydrant to a holding tank

 

After arriving and dumping our bags in our guest house we decided to go for a stroll and get our bearings. We found ourselves in a totally alien environment. The streets were dusty, with no real pavements and lined with small shacks and stalls selling fried chicken and glass bottles with brightly coloured liquid, which turned out to be petrol for the armada of mopeds and motor cycles competing for space with cars and vans. It was virtually impossible to cross the road, certainly until acclimatised after a few days exposure. There were even cows and chickens wandering about in the melee.

 

As we wandered along, slightly apprehensive and also realising that we were the only white Western faces, we began to notice that people in mopeds were tooting their horns and waving at us. We were still digesting this when two young women and a young boy approached us and asked for them to have a photograph taken with us. “Hey Mister … selfie selfie” was the cry and one that we would hear repeatedly for the next three weeks.

Very 1st selfie request

Everywhere we went people wanted photographs with us. Babies were pressed into our arms and we were literally grabbed and pulled into position for the ubiquitous selfie. When we entered a restaurant, everyone stopped and stared but as soon as we looked back and smiled, they smiled back and invariably shouted “ Hey Mister” and “selfie selfie” and came over. I began to wonder if they thought I was David Beckham.

 

In those first few minutes of our deployment, the trepidation and apprehension evaporated and it was no longer alien, just different and certainly exotic. All of the sights and smells were overlaid by the sound of the call to prayer from the proliferation of mosques or ‘masjid’ in Indonesian Bahasa, the official language. There seemed to be a masjid almost within touching distance everywhere and the amplified prayer calls were entrancing and very evocative and I was smitten. Often you could hear the call coming from masjids from several directions and distances at once and somehow blending harmoniously. Even now, some two months later and nine thousand miles away, I can hear the singsong chant in my head.

The Indonesians have a word ‘bule’ which means ‘white foreigner’. It doesn’t seem to be derogatory and I often heard children shouting it in pure bravado and when I waved they would come over and become my shadows whilst I was in their village.

my shadows.JPG

My shadows.

We met Andrew and Phil from Disaster Aid Australia and quickly bonded. We also inherited their guide, translator and general fixer Ronal, a quite remarkable twenty one year old student. Our driver was Ronal’s best friend Gilbert. It would be fair to say that without Ronal, nothing could have been achieved on the deployment. Literally no one spoke English and somehow or other Ronal got us into meetings with important stakeholders co-ordinating the disaster response for a variety of agencies and got their assistance.

Ronal and Gilbert with Skyhydrant.JPG

Ronal and Gilbert

Unfortunately, we only had one full day with Andrew and Phil before they departed back to Australia but we made full use of that time and installed a Skyhydrant filter with them at a displaced persons camp in Palu. This was invaluable, particularly for me as, unlike Craig, I had only seen Skyhydrants in training.

Andrew Craig Matt Phil 2.jpg

Andrew Craig Matt and Phil

One of the things that is very important in work of this nature is to involve the local population in all aspects of the venture, both in planning and implementation. We are not giving people handouts or charity. We are giving them a hand to help themselves. This particular installation was memorable in that regard, when we needed a large water tank to be re-purposed and turned into the holding tank for the filtered clean water. The tank was very dirty with sediment inside but two young boys got inside with the tank on it’s side and an adult sprayed a hose and the boys scrubbed the interior of the tank till it was sparklingly clean.

 

They had the time of their lives and really enjoyed themselves and more importantly felt useful helping their community, help itself. This involvement extends to offering our services and allowing the affected population to be fully involved in the planning and implementation of the aid. On a number of installations, the residents actually did the hands on installation under our watchful eyes and this is crucial for their self-esteem, knowing that they helped in their own recovery. This principle underpins everything that we and other responsible organisations do.

F locals installing SH themselves

Locals start assembling Skyhydrant

As we finished the installation, we were treated to our first of many, instances of hospitality and were given coffee and snacks. People who had lost everything, including in some cases, loved ones, were giving us food and drink. Very humbling and although our first instinct is to refuse, to allow the people to keep their limited supplies, this is unthinkable and the hospitality freely given must be accepted. Hospitality is a feature of the Muslim world and Indonesia is no exception. My guidebook had prepared me for this including the fact that often as the honoured guest, you would be given food and drink but your hosts would not partake. We were given such hospitality on a number of occasions from rich and poor and the banana fritters given at a number of camps tasted just as good as the food at a lavish banquet we were invited to, because of the circumstances in which it was given. I have rarely felt so humbled yet privileged.

 

Hospitality after installations.

All too soon Andrew and Phil departed for home and we were left to continue the deployment on our own. Using Ronal’s indispensable services, we had numerous meetings with stakeholders usually involving hospitality of at least water and always involving photographs, smiles and handshakes at the conclusion.

 

During these meetings we would be provided with leads of locations for our filters and we attended a number of camps to assess their suitability for installations. At this point in the timeline of the response to the disaster, many people were still living in camps, some makeshift and fairly basic, whilst other camps were more organised but essentially still under canvas. A number of organisations and NGOs including Rotary Clubs from all over Indonesia were constructing temporary housing camps and these were springing up at an incredible speed. Constructed of a skeleton of light aluminium bars, not unlike Meccano and then cladded and divided into basic rooms, these ‘Huntara’ are intended to house families until proper housing can be constructed, perhaps up to a year.

 

Huntara skeleton then completed with tents in front under Indonesian flag.

Our strategy was to try and install our Skyhydrant filters in the areas of greatest need to have the maximum impact of the health of the people. As well as health, clean water impacts on wealth, as boiling is no longer required, saving fuel and there is no longer the need to buy expensive and wasteful bottled water. Again, given the temporary nature of the camps, we felt comfortable installing filters in tented camps, knowing that they would be transferred to more semi-permanent Huntara camps when required.

There is clearly a strong entrepreneurial spirit in the people of Sulawesi and as the camps and temporary villages sprang up, so too did ad hoc facilities and we saw numerous stalls selling fried chicken and small glass bottles of petrol. Some of the food stalls had even enlarged enough to be titled ‘warungs’ which is more of a restaurant and seating was being provided. Often self-help is the best help.

It is important when deploying that we do not become ‘disaster tourists’ but equally for a small charity relying on donations, it is important to document the horror and be able to use this to solicit funds for the current and future activity in a crowded market and the immediacy of modern communications whereby people can become inured to tragedy. According both Craig and I took many photographs, some of which were circulated immediately on social media and in time will support articles and presentations.

 

 

The damage was horrific and each image represents at least one human tragedy. The damage was most notable on the coastal areas. Palu is essentially at the southern end of what at home I would call a sea loch and the tsunami devastated this area and flattened everything. Ships were thrown ashore, hotels, houses and shopping malls completely destroyed. An important road bridge on the coastal road was severed and a beautiful masjid or mosque actually built above the water with a walkway from the shore wrecked. The very limited tourist infrastructure, such as it was, disappeared.

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In the town the earthquake damage was sometimes less obvious and to my untrained eye it sometimes appeared as if the damage was caused by narrow waves of seismic activity. One street could have most buildings destroyed or badly damaged, while a parallel street nearby had little or no obvious damage.

 

The most horrific and upsetting damage that we saw however, was from the liquefaction as we stumbled accidently into a small village to the south of Palu and the road ended in a twenty foot drop. The road was buckled and twisted and the houses on either side grotesquely distorted with huge deep holes and craters in the ground. One can only imagine the horror of trying to protect and keep your family together during this … and many lives were lost in the area. As we left, we saw gravestones being prepared and all were dated 28 September 2018, a truly poignant and haunting sight.

 

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Rotarians from all over Indonesia had gathered to construct the Rotary Camp, south of Palu, where they had organised the construction of several Huntara and we worked closely with them and erected the tents that Disaster Aid Malaysia had sent. As we were leaving, the accommodation was virtually ready and families were beginning to move in and we demonstrated and issued our Sawyer water filters on a family basis.

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Demonstrating and teaching how to use Sawyer water filters.

In total, along with Disaster Aid Australia we installed eight Skyhydrant water filters to camps and communities in the Palu area. We made a point of doing follow up visits on a number of occasions and it was obvious and very gratifying to see that the people were using the filters and enjoying the benefit of drawing clean fresh bacteria free water and no longer having to boil their drinking water.

On a personal note, I felt that our greatest individual success was when we visited a camp for the second time to talk about installing a Skyhydrant water filter. The camp manager was fairly despondent because the trucked water supply was falling short and like other camps they were short of water, never mind safe drinking water. A well had been dug but there was no electricity or piping to take it where needed and he didn’t know when they would be installed.

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I was appalled that, for the lack of an electrician and a plumber, people were needlessly suffering and we managed to persuade important people to get power and piping in and we would install a Skyhydrant as soon as possible. We had a bit of luck in finding the right man of action with enough authority but two days later power and piping were in place and we installed our filter. The camp manager was delighted, there was immediate acceptance and use of the water and for once I didn’t feel just as guilty when we were presented with banana fritters and fruit.

filter handover best success

 

The Australian DARTs Phil and Andrew discovered a children’s orphanage in Palu that was badly damaged in the earthquake and the conditions the 60 children live in are simply appalling. Despite this the children are all well fed and dressed and healthy and happy.

The Australians helped by providing a well for water and we made a number of visits and gave out food, sweets, cakes, small toys and footballs. We also gave them coloured pens and paper so that they could reply to messages of support from children at Ashgrove Academy in Macclesfield. We collected their reply pictures and later delivered them. Some of the pictures are quite detailed and graphic and hopefully will stimulate further conversations between the children 9000 miles apart. I have arranged for a friends son to become pen pals with the children.

 

Before leaving, having been offered a donation from home, we bought enough mattresses for the children to sleep on but roll away during the day and their reaction is a moment to be treasured forever. The conditions are heartbreaking but the children are astonishingly happy and loving. We had met another visiting Rotarian from the UK, John and we introduced him to the orphanage and he is working to try and establish a project to help.

 

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On the morning of our departure 23 December 2018 we awoke to the news that Anak Krakatua had erupted with more tragic loss of life. As the results unfolded on local TV, I had to make some hurried messages home to panicking friends and family, particularly my wife. Having re-assured them that we were fine and 2000 miles away, but not enlightening them that were about to fly much closer on our first flight to Jakarta, we checked out of our hotel. What I still hadn’t mentioned to anyone back home (for obvious reasons) was that there had been a number of minor earthquakes whilst we had been in Palu which we had been oblivious too and to the point that I was vaguely disappointed that I had missed them. Be careful what you wish for ! We asked Ronal and Gilbert to take us to a market to fill in some time before going to the airport and we ended up in a modern three storey supermarket.

I was on the first floor with Craig nowhere to be seen, when suddenly the whole building shook and there was a massive rumbling noise. It felt as if the floor rippled under my feet and things fell off shelves, adding to the cacophony and people started screaming.

“Ah .. so this is what an earthquake feels like” I thought, realising that a multi storey building was not the best place to be at that time !

Interestingly there was no feeling of panic and everyone walked down and out of the building. I walked down the ‘up’ escalator which was stopped and went outside. As people milled around they began to smile and giggle with nervous relief as did I and I was even more relieved when Craig came out and it became apparent that it was just a minor tremor.

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The aftermath of our mini quake.

So, I got my earthquake but you have to feel for people who live with this all the time. They personally had a bad one in September, then woke up that morning to another disaster in their country and then had another of their (no doubt to them) routine ones. Traumatised but resilient and stoic all at the same time, the price of living in the Ring of Fire. Gilbert said it was simply Palu saying goodbye to us. Goodbye indeed !

Another hugely satisfying deployment with Disaster Aid UK and Ireland working with our colleagues from Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia. People often talk to me of ‘giving’ when engaged on activities such as this but such giving results in a form of ‘receiving’ that others can rarely have the privilege of obtaining.

Indonesia seem very unlikely to win the FIFA World Cup in the near future but as the loveliest, friendliest people, that can still smile despite everything, they are very nearly top of the league.

 

 

Why Enter the Original Everest Marathon?

I’ve tried to celebrate my big birthdays with suitable adventures. For my 40th I walked across Scotland through the mountains from coast to coast. For my 50th I treated myself to running 50 miles on the West Highland Way, solo and unsupported from just short of Crianlarich, to Fort William.
On retiring four years ago, I pondered LEJOG or JOGLE; walking or cycling Lands End to John O Groats or the reverse but in the end had a great couple of weeks walking the Cape Wrath Trail.

a mile a year

50 miles for 50 years

So what to do for my 60th birthday in 2019 ? I thought about an ocean voyage in a yacht or a tall-ship, UTMB Race (Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc) or walking it over a week or so and any number of adventures but kept coming back to Nepal and the Everest Marathon.

Since my late teens I have been fascinated by Nepal, Tibet and the Himalayas. I read all the books by climbers and explorers like Bonnington, Scott, Haston, Messner and even further back to Hillary, Tenzing, Hunt and on to Shipton, Tillman, Mallory and Irvine to name but a few. I had the iconic picture of Doug Scott on top of Everest on my bedroom wall. As my own hillwalking and climbing progressed into adulthood, I harboured vague notions of one day climbing Everest or Chomolungma; Goddess Mother of the World to Tibetans.
It was never to be and I eventually settled down and lived the life of a wage slave, climbing mountains and running ultra marathons in my spare time and although reality kicked in, the lure of walking in the footsteps of giants is still there.

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Everest and Nupse – by Colin Harding.

And walking in the footsteps of giants is exactly what the Original Everest Marathon is for me. It is the best of everything. A fifteen-day acclimatisation trek to Gorak Shep near Everest Base Camp (EBC) from where the expeditions start their epic climb and then a full 26-mile marathon back to Namche Bazaar. The names just roll straight out of the expedition books: Kathmandu, Tengboche Monastery, Khumbu Glacier, Namche Bazaar.

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Tengboche Monastery and Ana Dablam – by Colin Harding

Some folk said just do the trek and even independently but I quite liked the idea of the Marathon too, the world’s highest starting at 17,007 feet or 5184 meters and for me I’m getting a trek and a race all in one. I thought I’d better get it done for my 60th as who knows if I’ll be able to do it for my 70th? My friend Colin Harding did the same race in 2009 and recommended it and gave me a disc of photographs for inspiration, some of which he has kindly allowed me to post here.

Pumori #2

Pumori by Colin Harding

So here we go, game on. I’ve paid my deposit and my GP has signed my Medical Form stating that as far as they know I’m fit enough to do it. It is more than a year away and I can’t wait. Who knows what acclimatisation will bring and my plan is just to go very easy on the trek, take plenty of stops for photographs and just relax as much as I can and enjoy it. The same with the marathon, it’s not a race! Well actually I suppose it is but as usual not for me and I’ll just go with the flow and hopefully finish.

I’ve more or less always ran and ran my first marathon in 1982 and never stopped. Sometimes trekking is to the fore and I run to keep fit for that and at other points, as in now, it’s all about the running for it’s own sake. I’ve had a very good last couple of years training and have been much more consistent than previously and feel great. In 2018 I achieved the coveted West Highland Way Triple Crown of the three West Highland Way Races all in one season. That is; the Ron Hill West Highland Way Race, 95 miles long and 14,000 feet of ascent along with the first half; the Highland Fling and the second half; the Devil of the Highlands Footrace. I already do loads of hill training, my mantra is “hills are your friend” and I will do even more. In 2017 my height gain was 6.25 x the ascent of Everest which is 29,050 feet and in 2018 I am aiming to exceed that. Nowadays I don’t even to try to be fast but just slow and steady, more loping like a wolf than sprinting like a cheetah.

Will I succeed in finishing the Original Everest Marathon? Who knows? But, will I give it my best and once again be ’The Man in the Arena’? I think you know the answer to that one.

Watch out for my posts as I chart my progress and document any new toys that I get to buy. In truth I think I’ve got most of the gear I need but it’s a great excuse to buy more.

Oh and a final reason to do the Original Everest Marathon if further reason is needed, to quote George Mallory when asked why he needed to climb Everest “because it’s there”.

Map

Map courtesy of Colin Harding.

Thoughts on being immobilised in the wilds.

I have been hillwalking and running for over 40 years and currently run Ultra Marathons and train a lot in the hills, often alone, combining my love of hill walking and running. I also marshal at races and have taken in part in a number of events, including multi-day, weekend and single day events. I have performed a variety of roles often in high remote terrain and working solo. It has to be said that I am rubbing shoulders with some very experienced and skilled outdoor professionals, which is adding to my skillset.

Having gained this experience, I am well aware of the dangers inherent in the outdoors and how to minimise this. I am fully supportive of Race Directors when they impose Mandatory Kit but am being increasingly frustrated when I see negative comments about Mandatory Kit on online forums and other places. I have read many comments complaining about having to have such things as waterproof body cover, spare warm top and Bivy Bag/foil blanket. Some people seem to spend more time trying to circumvent the Mandatory Kit, than considering that it may potentially help them. Mandatory Kit is of course the race version of what we carry ourselves when out on the hills and will vary from person to person but hopefully see us through any difficult times.

At Skyline Scotland in 2018 it became apparent during the Vertical Kilometer Race (VK), to the top of a Munro from sea level, that competitors were arriving at the summit and the race finish, already hypothermic and without the skills or safety kit and clothing to allow them to adjust and return safely. A large number of people had to be treated for hypothermia as mentioned in the Race Directors report and MRT had to be called for one participant. Fortunately, there were no serious escalations but there could have been.

In September 2018 I marshalled at an event and at a static CP made some observations and came to some conclusions which seem to me to be pertinent, if not exactly new or rocket science.

The CP was near the summit of a hill near Perth at a height of about 180m and with approximately 5 miles distance remaining to the finish of both the 30 mile and 50 mile Ultras. The location was heavily wooded and thus slightly sheltered but it was very windy with some wind getting through. It was initially sunny but still fresh and later got cold although it stayed dry. I was in position for about 5 ½ hours from 1415 to 1945 hours and darkness fell around 1900. It was not particularly cold, maybe just less than 10 degrees C and dropping but never near freezing.

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I was warm from running uphill on arrival and allowed the sweat to dry away while I got my CP organised and then took up my duties. As time wore on I put on most of the clothing that I had with me viz : breathable t-shirt , Paramo Velez Adventure Light Smock, Paramo Pasco Jacket, boxer shorts, Berghaus trousers, Paramo Velez Adventure Over-Trousers, Hilly Twin skin socks, Hoka Speedgoat 2 shoes, two buffs, Montane Mountain Hat, liner gloves and ski gloves.

Eventually as darkness fell I got into my Bivy Bag as well; Terra Nova Moonlight and was careful to use my Montane 55 L rucksack to sit/lie on and insulate me from the ground.

I had other equipment including a Bothy Bag but as usual if I had used the Bothy Bag I would not have been able to see, direct and encourage competitors at a point where they needed a friendly face. It was for emergency use only.

I also ate fairly constantly and nibbled away at high calorie food, giving my body something to work with, to help to produce heat.

Observations
With all of that I was comfortable but not overwarm and was quite happy to be stood-down at 1945 hrs to run off the hill.

Had I been in running gear it might have been a different situation entirely:

The two Paramo jackets separately would be warmer than most lightweight running jackets. I was wearing both.

Would a runner have had a warm insulating layer?

Would a runner have had any insulating leg-wear?

Would they have had an insulating hat or gloves?

Would they have had a Bivy Bag or much less effectively a foil blanket?

They certainly wouldn’t have as big a rucksack to insulate them from the ground

The weather was windy but dry and it would have been worse if wet and particularly if wet at the point when forced to stop.

The only reason a runner would stop in these circumstances would be if injured or exhausted and the injury, exhaustion, distress and shock could make all of the factors worse and mean that their emergency precautions could be totally inadequate.

In a race situation, unless off course, someone should hopefully trip over the injured runner and help but if running solo in the wilds, help could be a long time coming.

The Bivy Bag kept the wind off and kept me reasonably comfortable and would have been far better than a foil blanket. However, it was not perfect even with the additional items I had, which I wouldn’t have if running. I am now in the process of re-evaluating my whole strategy for a situation where I become immobilised, whether alone in training or as part of a race. This of course extends to companions or people I come across in the wilds.

I am going to research and look at alternative Bivy Bags, some of which have heat reflective properties, along with things like much more lightweight Bothy Bags that could be easily carried whilst running and any other easily carried items which could increase my comfort and ultimately my ability to survive. I do have an ace up my sleeve in that I already own and carry a very small and light Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) which would summon help at the press of a button but only in the direst of emergencies.

What are the chances of needing this or being so prepared? I don’t know but it only needs to happen once ………

When running in the wild I do carry the Bivy Bag but have sometimes left it behind in favour of a foil blanket at races. I also carry an insulating layer which tends to depend on the weather and could be a very lightweight down jacket or a synthetic fibre gilet or even just a long sleeved t-shirt. However, even with this I do think it could be very uncomfortable if forced to be immobile for any length of time.

Wearing running gear and being forced to stop and wait for help is not an attractive proposition. If someone had the appropriate kit they would be uncomfortable whilst waiting but would have a good chance of surviving. Without appropriate kit, disasters are waiting to happen. In a race, Mandatory Kit should be seen as the bare minimum and many competitors may wish to carry more. No rules apply when out training but again a carefully thought out strategy for what to carry and more importantly knowing how best to use it, could be very useful.

I’m on a journey and happy to share. Join me and add your thoughts

My Disaster Aid Deployment to Dominica Part II

My Disasteraid Deployment to Dominica Part I

http://disasteraiduk.org/

 

On Saturday 11 November 2017 Suzie and I went with Hans in his car to collect Tore from the Charles Douglas Airport in the north-east side of the island. As we left an abolo lizard was next to the car and Hans said that a family of iguanas lived in the hotel grounds.

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We drove into Portsmouth and into a poorer part of town by the sea, really just wooden shacks and shanties and Hans pointed out the home of Wayne Abraham the Ham Radio operator who became the voice of Dominica and the only point of contact to the outside world in the first few days after Maria

En route to pick up Tore we visited villages and spoke to people and tried to ascertain levels of water filters given out. We saw lots more damage including saddest of all a house where five people died. It was now a concrete square beside a river with debris piled high to the right. The people were warned about the danger of the river rising but thought they could get out in time or would hear or see it coming. They and the whole house were swept away as the uncontrollable raging torrent swept through.

 

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We visited the villages of Paix Bouche (literally hush your mouth), Anse de Mai, Calibishie, Woodford Hill and Wesley and spoke with locals and discussed a few ideas that we might be able to help with. On the way we passed some famous and spectacular beaches including Thibaud, Batibou and the romantically named Number One Beach.

As we continued round the island we saw lots of people washing themselves and particularly clothing in rivers. However, as there were often cars nearby these people were possibly not the totally impoverished and it may just have been the easiest way in the circumstances. From what I could see as we swooped past on the narrow twisty roads, the chore was being turned into a wee bit of a party with lots of fun.  How to turn a negative into a positive, Caribbean style.

We met Tore who was waiting for us having just arrived and drove back to the Hotel. Suzie and I updated Tore on our findings so far and that night over dinner we had a meeting with members of Rotary Club Portsmouth; Ezra (President), Ann, Hans and Lise. We shared plate after plate of different pizzas and although I like to try local food most of the time, the varied pizzas were brilliant and perfect for sharing during a meeting. The meeting was very productive and I was very impressed with everyone and how they were trying to help others.

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Almost all our communication was via Whatsap with no voice calls. I occasionally managed to get some internet and started posting on Facebook to keep Dominica and fundraising to the fore. Suzie turned out to be a brilliant exponent of Whatsap and soon had groups made up so that everyone knew what was going on.

The following day, Tore went with Hans and Lise to procure buckets for the water filters and I got on with some admin creating forms. Later Tore, Suzie and I went to meet Sari, a Rotarian in Portsmouth to view some houses she had identified.

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Most international relief organisations try to prioritise the needy and we are no exception. In most survival situations the strong can grab what they need and the vulnerable can be overlooked. So, whilst not ignoring the capable, we look at the vulnerable and needy. Elderly, disabled, mothers with children and so on. We will also try to get to geographically more difficult areas in case people there have been missed.

We had funds to carry out worthwhile projects to help people but we wanted to spread the impact and help as many people as we could, with water filters and repairs to roofs being the main identified need. The main thing with the roofs was to build them back stronger so they had a chance of standing up to the next Hurricane.  However, the basic house also needed to be sound, there is no point of putting a new roof on a house that was too badly damaged.

The first roof we looked at summed this up exactly. A totally needy family in fairly basic housing anyway but Maria stole their roof. Everything looked great from the needs assessment point of view but the rest of the house was so unsound that we could not put a new roof on it.

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We surveyed some more roofs and met some lovely people including Christian (77) and his son- in- law Errol, who had been a prison officer in Wormwood Scrubs and was now retired. Errol showed us his house next door which survived well because the roof was well built. He was present during Maria and the French doors blew in and he had to jam them shut. When he went to close them, Maria threw him across the room onto his back. Flood water damaged the flooring and there were some cracks under the ceiling but he was lucky. Tore and Ezra had a good look at his roof to learn how it survived when others didn’t. Two master builders immediately bonding.

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On Monday 13 November 2017 we travelled down to Roseau, the capital and went to the Fort Young Hotel which had been completely taken over by the relief agencies as their base. We attended a UN Cluster Meeting on WASH (water sanitation and hygiene). As standard practice, the United Nations co-ordinates relief activity and humanitarian effort and hosts meetings in various sectors such as WASH, Shelter, Health and Food security and Nutrition. My first UN Cluster meeting was very interesting and informative. I had been wondering what professional relief workers would think of amateurs but we were warmly welcomed. There were representatives from a large number of NGOs from all round the world. After the meeting we had a training session on how to access a database to record our activity. I ended up taking charge of this for us and over the deployment added our activity in handing out water filters which was then represented on a map.

By the time all these meetings were finished it was dark as we drove back to Hotel the Champs in Portsmouth. All the advice, even before Maria, was not to drive in the dark because of the condition of the road and landslides over precipitous slopes into the sea. However, being used to Scottish roads definitely helped and we were fine. Any time a local came up fast behind me, I just allowed them to pass and we got back with no issues.

On Tuesday 14 November 2017 we followed up a couple of leads given by local Rotary Club members for houses that we could try to help with. The first house was in Sineku in the Kalinago Territory in the east of the island.

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As explained earlier, the Kalinago are the indigenous people and although some people call them Caribs, their own preferred term is Kalinago. The standard of living is possibly a bit poorer in some ways but the people seemed happy. We eventually managed to find the house we were looking for, although the elderly lady owner was not at home. A helpful local man jumped in our car and directed us. The house did seem suitable for us to help with. Whilst there, another local man from nearby asked us to look at his house which had a damaged roof. We did and it looked like another possible project.

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Running a bit late now, we made our way to Wesley to demonstrate and distribute Sawyer Water filters. Hans had arrived ahead of us and everyone had gathered at the police station, having been informed to attend by the local councillor and the Environmental Health Officer.

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The Travelling Medicine Show

All the demonstrations followed a similar pattern and we all took turns at being lead after Tore did the first few. We would explain about dirty water, bacteria and stomach issues. Then we would fill a bucket with water sometimes from pipes sometimes from a river and ask the people if they wanted to drink from it. They would shout “No”. We would then grab a handful of dirt, throw it in the bucket, swirl it around and ask if anyone wanted to drink it now. You can imagine the response!

We would then attach a Sawyer water filter to a bucket and transfer the dirty water to the bucket with the filter attached. The filter is attached to a plastic fitting screwed into a pre-drilled hole in the bucket. A short hose is attached and the other end connects to the actual filter. When the filter is held below the bucket, gravity takes effect and clean, bacteria free water comes out and can be collected in a clean container.

We collected the clean water in a clear bottle and it was obvious that it was crystal clear but there is still a leap of faith that it is bacteria free, so we would take a big swig and you could hear the gasps.

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Then we would ask who wants to drink it now? The braver ones would try and all of a sudden everyone wanted to drink it and then be trained in and receive a water filter and bucket.

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That’s the magic moment when your audience is hooked and we individually trained the recipients to make sure they knew how to assemble, use and clean the filter.

We had some real fun doing this all over the island and because there were no language difficulties it was simplified and we could really get the message across. We were also able to joke about a bit and threaten to pour dirty water over kids’ heads etc and it was all taken in good spirit.

It struck me early on that when Tore was doing his demonstrations he was like the travelling medicine man from the Western movies, selling alcohol as a cure all.

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“How much is your health worth?  Is your husband bald ?  Give him this !  Do you have headaches Maam ? Take this !  Is your husband too frisky Maam ?  Give him this !  Is he not frisky enough …… Cures rheumatism, diabetes and bad breath. Natures true remedy and only $1 a bottle.”

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Professor Tore’s Travelling Medicine Show was all very entertaining and the locals loved it but more importantly we got the message across about the importance of clean safe water.

 

A Very Dubious Character Hands Out Sweets to Kids  

One of the bits of advice I had been given prior to deploying was to take wee daft gifts for the kids. The person advising me had taken loom bands and the kids loved them. I thought about pencils and things but in the end bought 300 foam smiley faces and about 150 packs of Parma Violets sweets.

All my life I have been told never take sweets from a stranger and all my adult life I have been careful not to break that rule as well. But here I was in the Caribbean 4000 miles from home, handing out sweeties to weans.

They loved it and their mothers seemed to like the gesture too and invariably told the child to say thank you and to be fair most of the time they already had. They loved the Parma Violets but what surprised me was the stickers. I thought they would put them on their t shirts or take them home and put them on the wall. Nope, they all invariably put them on their forehead and I went from village to village getting my photograph taken beside children with smiley face stickers on their foreheads. Some of the stickers had sad faces and understandably they were not as popular but some had eyelashes and the boys were adamant that those were for the girls. Hilarious!

We surveyed another house in Woodford Hill and the picture of the lady taking us into her house says it all. She was bent near double walking with a stick. Her house looks as if has a roof but it is just salvaged sheets put on by neighbours,  which leak and will not last the next breeze never mind a hurricane.

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We then went to Calibishie and did another demonstration and distributed filters. A grandmother was there with a baby and Suzie ended up holding the baby which seemed to have a fever. Suzie said she had never felt a child so hot and was quite worried about her.

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My First Ever Rotary Club Meetings

We returned to Portsmouth after issuing about 100 filters and went straight to a meeting of the Rotary Club of Portsmouth at Anne’s house which was interesting and illustrated just how committed and public spirited these people were. Anne’s house had spectacular views and some lovely plants in the garden.

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The following day Wednesday 15 November 2017 we upped sticks and left Hotel the Champs to stay a couple of nights in the capital Roseau and work with the Rotary Club of Roseau along with their President Aylmer

Before leaving we met Ezra at an isolated cottage at Borne and assessed it for a new roof. Everything was wet inside and although the house was uninhabitable it was sound and was given the go ahead by Messrs Ezra and Tore Building Contractors Ltd, Established 2017.

 

We then had a quick visit to a coffee plant being developed by another resident of Hotel the Champs; John. John is an American/Canadian who I could only describe as a coffee magnate and what he doesn’t know about coffee isn’t worth knowing. A fascinating character very passionate about coffee who travels all over the world dealing with coffee, setting up processing plants, training Baristas and anything else coffee. We were lucky enough to be drinking his coffee at the hotel and it was great. John had taken over a coffee processing plant which had been started by Venezuela but had never got off the ground. It was then damaged and flooded by our friend Maria.

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John was working hard to get the plant operational and processing coffee. The first strand was to import the beans from other Caribbean countries and process them. The second strand was to establish coffee plantations in Dominica and start producing high end coffee. Another hugely public spirited person, John was trying to create jobs and wealth, kick-starting the Dominican economy. He could probably walk away and make far more money doing other things but he does what he loves and helps people at the same time. Did I mention he makes great coffee?

 

We then drove down to Roseau to attend the Rotary Club of Roseau meeting and we were a bit early so had a walk around the town. As people saw our logoed t shirts they stopped to shake our hands and thank us.

Walking down by the sea front, benches were bent and mangled and we saw the ironically named Safe Haven Real Estate.

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Mid-afternoon the rain started and soon became Biblical. The gutters at the sides of the roads went from bone dry to about a foot deep of fast flowing water in minutes. The Rotary Club meeting was at the University and we stopped in the nearby Botanic Gardens which had not re-opened after the storm.  There is an African Boabab Tree there which fell and crushed an empty school-bus during Hurricane David in 1979. This has been left as a monument.

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We travelled up the River Roseau valley and saw some horrendous devastation and  some of the most graphically damaged houses we saw in the whole visit.

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The rain had stopped and we went into the University for the Rotary Club meeting. Again, I was impressed by the commitment of everyone led by their President Aylmer who took time away from a very important job to assist us. There was also a bit of humorous banter by a couple of members behind us and the meeting was enjoyable. Early on everyone stood and sang their national anthem “Isle of Beauty” which was not only beautifully sung but was my kind of anthem celebrating the beauty of the land, the rivers and mountains. It was more akin to the beautiful Welsh National anthem “Hen Wladfy Nhadau” (Land of my Fathers) than some of the xenophobic dirges that abound.

During the meeting it began to rain again and got heavier and heavier. When we left it was a mad dash for the car, getting soaked in the process but at least it was warm rain.

A New Addiction is Born

We stayed over the next two nights at Ma Bass Guesthouse. The owner recommended a takeway food shop for breakfast and suggested we might want to try cacoa tea and bakes. Hmmm. We joined the scrum of locals at the front of the tiny shop frontage, not really sure what we were ordering and I ended up with a chicken bake (delicious) and a small cacoa tea.

It took us the rest of the trip to get a proper explanation of what the chocolatey nectar with a hint of cinnamon was. It appears to be dried, fermented and ground cocoa beans which are then formed into sticks. A drink is made of grated cacoa stick boiled up with water and then milk or condensed milk and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Stunning but earthy street food as opposed to cuisine. Funnily enough we went back the following day and the day we left.

We distributed more filters in Giraudel and Eggleston which were quite high up commanding more fantastic views.

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The search for buckets was a continuous and sometimes difficult task but we eventually picked up some on behalf of both Rotary Clubs. We then left our guesthouse and it was all a bit of a rush and I was sweating buckets never mind buying and drilling holes in umpteen of the things.

We drove to an even more remote village Bellvue Chopin to distribute filters and on arrival the difference between the towns and the rural parts became even more pronounced. In the towns there was food to buy by the roadside and in the shops. Out in the country there were large queues of people patiently waiting for food at the community centres. It was very hot and umbrellas were much in evidence as parasols.

 

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Several people spoke to us as we were setting up, wanting filters and buckets and a couple could have become quite threatening. Its easy to see how violence or riots could develop when people are really needy and they don’t think they are going to get any of the aid. As usual good humour and a bit of banter got us through.

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I had a nice conversation with Wanda an off-duty police officer and we compared notes which were surprisingly similar. There were lots of kids and I temporarily ran out of Parma Violets. We had some stunning views on the drive back down and later did another demonstration for Rotary Club members.

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As we drove back to Hotel the Champs, tired but happy I asked the others if anyone else felt as if we were going home and they agreed. Lise was so pleased when I told her.

By this time, I had managed a few posts on Facebook showing our activity and they were also going on DAUKI and DAUSA pages which all began to generate a lot of messages of appreciation and support. That feeling of support when I was 4000 miles from home was one of the most special parts of the deployment

I meet Mr Iguana

On Saturday 18 November 2017 I organised filter kits and drilled holes in 40 odd buckets while Suzie made arrangements for us to go to Paix Bouch to distribute filters. Just before leaving I saw the hotel iguanas. Firstly the big black male about 4’ long climbing up a tree in the hotel garden. Then a bright green one slightly smaller on grass. I went quite close to the tree and if that iguana had jumped, Mr Usain Bolt would have been behind me but I was pleased to finally see the iguanas.

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Well Hush My Mouth

Paix Bouche was a bit chaotic and having met the village councillor Annette we ended up doing about four demos at slightly different locations which meant things went on a bit longer for our 32 or so filters issued. At some points the villagers were quite rowdy and loud but it was all extremely good natured and celebratory and it genuinely was fun for us. There were loads of kids as usual and more stickers on foreheads.

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As we left we had fantastic views of the mountains and ended up driving home in the dark again.

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The Caribbean Meets the Atlantic

The next day, Sunday 19 November 2017, Suzie and I went to help Rotary Club Roseau deliver food and other items in the south, while we distributed more water filters. We helped to load a lorry then drove first to Soufriere and then Scott’s Head at the south west tip. This was also the day that Prince Charles was visiting the island and we just missed him a couple of times.

Large crowds were receiving the food aid and filters at both locations and the crowd was very noisy and boisterous and very close packed, again illustrating how easily distribution could get out of hand and turn troublesome.

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At Soufriere we spoke to a lovely 8 year old girl; Nyia. She had apparently been on the BBC in the UK describing Hurricane Maria and she did a wee video for us and was just lovely.

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At Scott’s Head, I was demonstrating and issuing filters from the back of the lorry and the crowd were so enthusiastic that they were jammed right up against me, literally. It was all very good natured but my goodness, talk about personal space. I was actually laughing when I was trying to get them to move back and they would move back an inch then move forward two and were pressed against me. The Rotary Club members, under the direction of Aylmer, were very enthusiastic and clearly were very committed and enjoyed what they doing and achieving. Another great advert for Rotary.

 

Scott’s Head is in the south west corner of the island with a spit of land leading to a small peninsula. The south side of the spit is the Atlantic Ocean and the north side is the Caribbean Sea and I couldn’t resist touching the Atlantic Ocean then running to touch the Caribbean Sea some 20 seconds later. The beach was very stony but Aylmer said it had been sandy before Maria.

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There was some more very graphic damage to houses here and on the way back towards Roseau and the area looked quite impoverished even before Maria.

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We stopped briefly at Canefield Airport and were part of a sizable crowd waving cheerio to Prince Charles as we watched his plane take off before returning to Portsmouth in the dark. Hopefully his visit would help keep Dominica in the public eye and keep donations coming.

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Homeward Bound

Suzie had originally booked a ferry from Dominica on Thursday 23 November to take us to St Lucia for our flight to Gatwick at 2040 that night. However, having assimilated ourselves into the Caribbean we realised that the laid back relaxed lifestyle meant that we might end up late. I was reminded of a Scottish Gaelic joke:

An elderly Gaelic gentleman from an island on the West Coast of Scotland was talking to a visiting Spanish man. The Spanish man asked what the Gaelic word for manana was. To this, the Gaelic gentleman contemplated for a while before replying in a soft lilting accent

“Och do you know, there is nothing quite in the Gaelic that conveys the urgency of the word manana”

The Caribbean is just the same, so we re-assessed our travel. There was no ferry on a Wednesday and the booked Thursday ferry might run late and at the very best induce stress, never mind cause us to miss our flight home. The decision was made that it was safer to leave on the Tuesday ferry and have a couple of days in St Lucia

 

On Monday 20 November 2017 we drove Tore to the Airport and on the way passed the house at Borne and workmen had started repairing the roof. Tore was up the ladder tout suite making sure it was being done properly.

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Later that day when Suzie and I were returning the roof was quite far advanced so we were happy progress was being made.

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After dropping Tore off at the Airport, Suzie and I surveyed another couple of houses. Suzie was still worried about the wee girl at Caliebishie and after surveying a house there, we went down to the village meeting point and found the child and her grandmother and by this time the wee girl was much better, so we were both quite relieved.

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The meeting point had a bar at the side and we were talking to Brenda, the village councillor when Pascal (60) came up and had a wee snifter of Rum from a bottle full of leaves of some kind of herb.

He then proceeded to give us the most memorable description of Hurricane Maria

“that big tittie lady who was blind and going in circles breaking everything with her big stick”

We could hardly stand for laughing.

Our final visit that day and of the deployment was to Lucian to whom we gave a couple of tarpaulins and ended up surveying her roof. She showed us her bathroom where there wasn’t room to swing the proverbial cat but ten people somehow crowded in to shelter from Maria.

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The following morning, we got the bus to Roseau and after a final cup of Cacoa Tea got the ferry to St Lucia. It turned out to be a good decision going on the Tuesday because it was getting dark as we arrived at the Uptown Guesthouse at Souffries and we may well have been late for our flight had we waited until Thursday. On arrival we could see the famous twin Piton mountains, Gros Piton and Petit Piton. Absolutely spectacular and apparently even better seen from the sea.

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As we were now early for our flight we had a full day and a bit on St Lucia and managed a swim or two and climbed Gros Piton. On Thursday another memorable bus ride took us to a beach near the airport where we had a brief swim before saying au revoir (for now) to the Caribbean, you don’t really say Good Bye to the Caribbean.

 

Reflections Without a Mirror     

We arrived at Gatwick on Friday morning (24/11/17) and said our goodbyes as Suzie left for home and I waited for the Glasgow Flight. I ended up sitting on the same balcony seat with yet another coffee and reflected on what had happened since I last sat there. I was happy with what we had achieved. We could always have done more but things move slowly in the Caribbean and issuing about 250 Sawyer water filters and buckets probably means around 1000 people now have access to safe clean drinking water. We also were helping with a number of roofs and this was the main part of our deployment and any money left over would be spent wisely by our local Rotarian friends including for example a scheme to make wire Fish Pots for local fishermen to stimulate the economy.

The deployment was probably at the easier end of the scale and certainly more comfortable than I envisaged and I am under no illusions that the next one could be much more arduous and uncomfortable. What will be will be and I look forward to helping again.

The one thing that has surprised me was my friend’s reactions to my deployment. It would be fair to say they have been blown away and have said some very lovely things. I hadn’t really thought of things in those terms but it is nice to be appreciated. It was especially nice reading their comments 4000 miles from home.

On arrival at Glasgow there was snow on the ground and I had dropped about 30 degrees C in a few hours. It was good to be home.

Job done.

Post Script. The last word should come from my Grandaughter Millie who made me this card and nearly had her Grandfather in tears

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My Disaster Aid Deployment to Dominica Part I

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

My Disasteraid Deployment to Dominica Part II

I Want To Become A DART But Is My Head Too Blunt?

In September 2017 I travelled 4000+ miles to attend a four day course in Maryland, USA. The course was the culmination of my application to become a DART (Disaster Aid Response Team member) for Disaster Aid UK and Ireland (DAUKI). Having decided it was a long way to go for a four day course, my wife Shona and I travelled out for a few days holiday in Baltimore before the course. She then flew to Florida to shop whilst I was on my course and we met at BWI Airport to fly home together.

DAUKI is a project of The Rotary Club as are the other Disaster Aid countries including amongst others; Disaster Aid USA (DAUSA) and Australia. All the Disasteraid organisations act independently but also come together under the umbrella of Disaster Aid International.  Because DAUKI had no pending training courses I had elected to travel to the USA to join in the course that DAUSA were running. The quicker I was trained, the quicker I was deployable.

I met some very interesting and impressive people both instructors and students and formed what I am sure will be lifelong friendships. It felt like a unique and life changing experience. How many folk travel 4000 miles for a weekend course?

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We spent some of the course in a field with a large tent as the class room and slept in the same 8 person tents we would distribute to people in need at disaster locations.

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I Once Knew A Girl Called Maria

1 October 2017 was the final day of the course at a hotel and instead of an arbitrary exercise we were split into groups and tasked with researching current disasters. The course director Larry’s aim was to gather intelligence for possible deployments and use us to come up with ideas and also give us realistic training. On the job training indeed. I was with Dan and Christine the other two British students and we were tasked with looking at the Caribbean. After a few false starts we honed in on Dominica and focussed our attention there and analysed how Hurricane Maria had affected the island state. We eventually presented our findings on a flip chart. Larry asked lots of questions and had me going back to various points. At first, I wondered if we were off track and was thinking “crap I’ve messed it up!”  but we were eventually congratulated for good work and Larry announced that a deployment to Dominica was a distinct possibility. Phew!

The course ended, we all passed and I had learned some ‘merican y’all. I crossed the Atlantic wondering if and when I would ever be deployed. I didn’t have to wait long.  A couple of weeks later I was asked to go to Puerto Rico which had also been hit by Hurricane Maria. I scurried round getting my gear organised and getting inoculations but just before leaving, my part of the deployment was cancelled. I was disappointed but by now realised that uncertainty and flexibility were the name of the game, so I was fairly philosophical. I was told that my deployment was cancelled to save some funds for another potential deployment.

It slowly sank into my head that Dominica could be on the cards and I began some internet research in case I was picked for that.

Preparations

As I began to research I found some horrific and heart-breaking scenes on the internet. Having entered #Dominica I found a video on Twitter of a woman wandering round the remains of her house. All that was standing was a bit of one of the exterior walls and an interior wall or two. She had lost everything and probably didn’t have that much to start with.

This hardened my resolve to go if I got the chance, after some folk were questioning why I was going. At that point I couldn’t even explain to myself why I wanted to go. Did I need the hassle? Did I need the stress?  Was I risking PTSD? Was I risking harm from humans, mosquitos or any other things that wanted to eat me?  There didn’t appear to be any crocodiles which is always a good start!  I’m not too worried about running away from a crocodile as I’m usually going to be a faster runner than whoever I’m with …  but still!

I suppose there is an element of adventure, mixed in with helping people less fortunate. My thoughts were and still are that some elements of a deployment could be distressing, some could make me wonder what the …. I was doing there whilst other elements could be uplifting and even funny but ultimately, I would come home having hopefully risen to the challenges and feeling that I had done something worthwhile. I’m certainly not trying to impress anyone or to say look at me, how wonderful am I?

On 1 November 2017 I received an email asking if I could go on deployment to Dominica around 10 November 2017 with Tore from the USA as the team leader, and could I reply as quickly as possible. Tore had been an instructor on my course.  It took three minutes to type my answer; YES. Was that quick enough?

This time things started to move apace and the third team member was soon identified as Suzie, also from the UK. Things never faltered either and this time it began to be obvious I was actually going, although I never relaxed or fully believed it until the plane took off

I continued gathering intelligence right up to the minute I left and amassed a good deal of information which I shared with Tore and Suzie.

The following is some of the main points and helps understand the situation:

Dominica, should not be confused with the more built up Dominican Republic, a separate island state in the Caribbean. Originally, I was pronouncing it as DOMIN IKA but later learnt that the correct pronunciation is DOMEN EEKA more like the French version Dominique. It was named by Christopher Columbus because he passed on a Sunday.

It was a possession of France and then Great Britain who colonized the island in 1805 and finally it gained its independence 1978. The population of around 73,000 live mainly in towns around the coast and is 86% black. 3,000 Kalinago people still living on Dominica are the only pre-Columbian population remaining in the eastern Caribbean and they mainly live in what is known as the Kalinago Territory.

Dominica’s economy has been dependent on agriculture – primarily bananas, but more recently has been driven by tourism as the government seeks to promote Dominica as an “ecotourism” destination. Known as “The Nature Island of the Caribbean” due to its spectacular, lush, and varied flora and fauna.

Ross University,an American medical university at Portsmouth in the north provides a high percentage of the GDP and has around 1300 students. This is a major source of employment and revenue, particularly in Portsmouth with bars, restaurants and hotels relying on the income derived from the campus.

I also found the latest statistics in relation to the humanitarian relief effort and a spreadsheet giving contact details of agencies and Non Government Organisations (NGOs) in the field all co-ordinated by the United Nations.

No Babies Will Be Named Maria For A While

Maria, the 13th named storm of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season, became a category 5 hurricane, the highest level, near the Leeward Islands on Monday 18 September 2017 and its first landfall was Dominica at approximately 9:35pm that same day as an extremely strong hurricane with wind speeds in excess of 155 mph.

 

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Imagine what would be going through your head as Hurricane Maria approaches and you read the bulletins or hear the news on the TV or radio. How would you feel as you stared into your husband’s eyes? What would it be like as a father with your children looking at you with big eyes and trusting expressions knowing that Daddy always protects them? You can protect them from a lot of things but from the full wrath of Maria?  What would it feel like, as you hear the roof straining and tearing and that the only thing between your family and the full fury of the storm is a flimsy roof, that you really meant to put a few more nails in last month? When the unthinkable happens how do you keep your brood together?

Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica only two or so weeks after Hurricane Irma had caused considerable damage. Maria is undoubtedly the worst Hurricane ever to hit Dominica. It struck in the south east, swirled around the mountains in the centre then went back and exited the island on the north west near Portsmouth before going on to cause havoc, death and destruction across the Caribbean and Americas.

Maria tore every leaf from every tree, blew many over, flattened banana trees and took the tops off the cocoa nut trees. Official government figures state that 100% of agriculture was wiped out. Entering the populated areas, the wind ripped the roofs off houses, flattened and carried away the less sturdy houses and threw objects as large as shipping containers around like twigs. Even if the roof stayed affixed, the wind found its way into the houses by blasting open doors and windows then unless pressure could be relieved by opening the opposite door the pressure could cause the house to implode.

Just as bad, Dominica has 365 rivers, one for each day of the year as they say, proudly. The rivers became choked and blocked with debris then turned into dams with the incessant lashing tropical rain. The dams grew higher and higher until they burst, crashing through and carrying all before them, sweeping houses, bridges and other impediments along in a headlong dash to the sea.

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The storm lasted all night and by daybreak the tropical island paradise was broken and cut off from the world. Even the Prime Minister lost the roof of his home such is the egalitarian nature of the Hurricane. The first contact with the outside world was via a ham radio operator as all power, telephones and the internet were severed. Mains water supplies were disrupted, roads were impassable, bridges were broken down, every plant had lost every leaf, if it was even standing and it must have seemed like Armageddon to the stunned survivors.

 

As Dominica’s World Falls Apart The World Comes to Dominica

The world began to swing into action and the relief effort began.

Disaster Aid like most other NGOs specialises in certain products and ours is:

Water filters (Sawyer or Sky-hydrant)

Tents

Shelter Repair Kits

Disaster Aid is a small charity run by volunteers and it takes a while for it to be safe enough to send volunteers and to accurately assess the need and to establish contact with local Rotary Clubs. However, Disaster Aid officials swung into action and on 8 November 2017 I was on a plane from Glasgow to London Gatwick. In my hold luggage I had 50 Sawyer water filters.

I stayed overnight in a nearby hotel and the following morning checked into my flight to St Lucia. I was meeting Suzie at the Airport and as an experienced traveller she had taken over some of the travel arrangement burden. She had managed to route us to St Lucia then after an overnight there, we would get the ferry to Dominica. By this time, I had chatted online with Suzie but had never met her or spoken with her and had no idea what she looked like.

All I knew was that Suzie was a Project Manager who had recently returned from, a backpacking trip to Ethiopia. That implied to me that she was adventurous and self- reliant but again that’s a generalisation.

After a reflective coffee looking at the replies to my departing Facebook message and all the good luck messages, I made my way to Gate 33 and looked around for Suzie. Could that be her?  No. Is that her?   Nope.  Finally, I saw a woman who I thought fitted the bill, busy typing into her phone and I began to walk over but held off on approaching. I had made my usual joke that I would be wearing a red carnation and would be holding a copy of the Times. For once it was nearly accurate as I was wearing a poppy and actually did have the Times which been given out for free. As I looked at this woman, my phone pinged with a Whatsap message “Hey Matt sorry am at gate. Been on phone !! Are u on plane?”  I took great delight in quickly replying “might be standing next to you” and her head turned to me and we both burst out laughing. A good start.

The British Airways flight to Hewanorra Airport in St Lucia was pleasant but uneventful and we chatted and got to know each other.

On exiting the airport, we emerged into baking hot heat and politely declined the tourist taxis and the package holiday tour reps and found a bus that took us a short distance into town. From there we jumped into a local bus to take us from the south east to the north west of the island to be near the ferry terminal at Castries.

These local buses are amazing and are small, mainly Toyota minibuses with 15 passenger seats and they are very quickly jam packed. If you put your bags on a seat you pay for the seat, so our luggage was on top of us and in front of our legs and we could barely move sitting on 3 seat bench behind the driver. 8 $East Caribbean ($EC) £2.40 was the incredibly cheap fare. As soon as the full bus moved off, I realised that having our bags in front of us was an absolute boon because I could see out of the front windscreen and it was not a pretty or re-assuring sight.

The bus was going at breakneck speed, overtaking on blind bends as was the rest of the traffic and right behind the car in front. Allied to this was a preponderance of duct tape around the interior which appeared to be holding the bus together. I realised that we were probably the safest passengers on the bus and that our luggage would act as airbags in the event of a collision.

At one point fairly early on, the driver was not far from a rear end shunt with the vehicle in front and a female at the back remonstrated with the driver. He then launched into a five minute tirade, where he went on and on without drawing breath. We could hardly make out a word that he said but it was hilarious and if nothing else his lung capacity was admirable. Eventually a man from the back told him to shut up and drive and the entertainment stopped.

At this point we still had no accommodation for the night as our intended guesthouse had not returned Suzie’s email but the guy sitting next to her said he was the finance director at a hospital and chatted to us in the most friendly and welcoming way. He eventually took Suzie’s phone and confirmed our booking.

This man’s friendly helpfulness proved to be the norm on both islands and people were so helpful and friendly even before they knew we were there to help. When they did know or saw our uniform t shirts they were even more effusive and stopped us in the street, shook our hands and thanked us for coming. Given that we were more often than not, the only white faces in a sea of black, the level of racial harmony was astonishing. The rest of the world needs to bottle this.

The bus dropped us off right at Eudovics Guesthouse where we booked in and quickly showered and went out for dinner. My bed was decorated in tropical flowers.

The owner of the guesthouse then drove us to a local restaurant and introduced us to the staff before leaving us to enjoy a delicious meal of salt fish, bananas and green bananas. Our drink was Sour orange from a tree in the garden. We chatted with a couple of ladies who grew bananas and learned all that you need to know about bananas and more. The restaurant staff flagged down a bus to get us back to the guesthouse, nothing was too much trouble.

We were up early the next morning and jumped on another bus which screetched to a halt as we flagged it down and in minutes we were at the ferry terminal and booking onto the ferry. My bag was searched at security and the security officer was holding her nose and putting Vick in her nostrils I presumed she had a cold but I remember thinking “wait till you smell things in two weeks” but she was pleasant enough.

Our first stop was Martinique, a French island and the rain was chucking it down good style but the scenery was good even then.

About 1050 I got my first sight of Dominica and at the same time a movie started on the TV monitors; The Smurfs. As far as I was concerned that was a good omen, given my long-standing nickname of Papa Smurf. As we got closer I could see green tree covered mountains but the trees on the summit ridges were a bit barer and looking skeletal.

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Our Arrival In The Broken Garden of Eden

On arrival in Dominica we were met by Alan from the car rental company who took us from Roseau to Portsmouth to collect the car. En route we stopped for lots of pictures of damage including shipping containers that had been blown across the road, houses and buildings de-roofed. Debris was bad around the frequent rivers. Alan gave us a good commentary and perspective that helped us grasp the situation and begin to see it from the survivors point of view.

 

Six weeks on, greenery was recovering and already a lot of stuff was growing. The roads were very windy and steep anyway but were covered in debris. Bits of road had been swept away, bridges were missing and detours went through land to the side.

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After sorting out the car hire and driving permits we finally drove up a hill, using maps.me to great effect and found Hotel the Champs owned by Lise and Hans our local Rotary contacts from Rotary Club Portsmouth. Hans and Lise are Dutch and you couldn’t meet nicer, friendlier, more energetic and public-spirited people and we immediately felt at home. They had suffered a lot of damage to the bar, restaurant and roof but were re-opening on Friday and Saturday evenings serving pizzas. On getting to know Hans and Lise, it is obvious that Hans is a bit of a wine buff and both enjoy fine dining but sensibly for the time being are limiting their operation to pizzas. This keeps it simple and attracts customers to have a respite and a nice meal out and gets the hotel working again but more importantly, creates employment for the hotel staff.

 

 

We were shown to our rooms and I took pictures of a stunning sunset. We had dinner with Lise and Hans. Lion fish with green beans, carrots and onions. It was lovely.

Next day the work starts.

 

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(continues in Part II)