Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I’m in the bar (a new bar! A friendlier and slightly less conveniently situated bar!) all ready to post at least one update, and the router isn’t working. But no fear, the manager’s on his way to check it out. So I’ll see if I can’t remember what happened my final full day in Orkney without the aid of my guidebook to prompt me along.

I decided to rent a car again because without any tours running (the tour guide was in Canada) there’s really nothing one can do but wander around Stromness, and I’d done that already. So I went back to the car rental place and learned that they only had standard transmission cars left. And this would be well and good if I could drive a standard transmission, and I sure sure can’t.

So I left to look for another car rental place and couldn’t find one, so I went back to the hotel to ask. There were two people at the front desk – a man and a woman. She gave me the names and numbers of two rental places – one in Stromness and one in Kirkwall, which was on the other side of the island. I visited the first and learned that surprise! Not actually a car rental place!

I called the second and eventually deciphered that the gentleman was saying that I could rent a car, but it’d cost me £30 to get the car to Stromness. And this was on top of the regular rental fee. Ha! Ha I say; ha. That’s more than I paid for the rental yesterday.

So back to the hotel where I learned that the gentleman at the desk was the owner, Douglas. Douglas told me that if I was willing to wait a bit they’d see if there was a car free and he’d be happy to drive me to Kirkwall since he was going that way anyway. Front Desk Lady called and told me that it was a £40/day rental, and when I winced she got them down to £35.

An hour later I was on my way to Kirkwall with Douglas, who gave me a nice tour of the island and told me about the place. The most notable thing I remember is that people on the island tend to have a number of jobs. They might have a B&B, keep some sheep and/or cows, run a shop, and work in the post office on weekends. I guess in a place that depends on tourism so much you have to really work to make ends meet. Also they pump oil there, and manage to keep it really concealed. The oil is taken from some pump in the ocean and then taken to one of the islands. Clever!

Douglas made sure I was all set up with the car rental agency and I was on my way. I found a spot on the beach (with sand dunes – who knew they had sand dunes here? I sure didn’t). Looked around, took some photos, and got back in the car. I drove around in this manner for a while, occasionally stopping at some posted spot.

(This is frustrating: it’d be fine if they just reset the router and they’re not doing that for some reason. It’d fix it, I promise! I told them that but I don’t know that they totally get what I’m talking about).

I drove over to Deerness, which is on the far eastern tip of the island. The draw here was something called The Gloup, “a dramatic collapsed sea cave.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but the idea of going to something called a Gloup was too good to pass up.

It was exceptionally lovely. It’s on the edge of Skaill bay, where there’s a long walk along the nature reserve. The Gloup is a short stumble from the carpark, and is another deep gash from the sea back through the field. At the front is a trickle of water that falls drastically down 80 or so feet to the ocean which tumbles in and crashes along the surprisingly smooth walls, eventually creating tunnels and deeper caves in the rock.

Down the trail there are the usual cliffs plummeting down to the sea, which thrashed happily against the walls. I walked about a kilometer and found that the trail branches down the cliff via irregular stone steps and wooden bridges. At the bottom you can go left and explore a rough bit of rocky beach, or right and explore more rocky beach and masses of dirty sea foam that would often fly into the air and cling to the walls. There was a tall chunk of rock in the middle of this enclave, and on one of the jutting bits of stone stood a large web-footed bird, casually hanging out in the ocean mist, that I later learned was a shag.

Continuing along the path led me up more stone steps (causing a fearsome grip on the rope rail and nervous giggling) of a section of cliff that’s been mostly separated from the mainland, save the path along which I was walking. At the top is a plateau of long, plush grass out of which a bird would occasionally spring, startling the hell out of me. There was, at one point, a settlement on that section of cliff, and there still remains half walls of a church, and I think more sections of stone walls, but those have long been covered with grass and secreted birds.

It should be noted that my batteries had, again, died, and there wasn’t a store for miles. I need to start carrying a disposable camera with me. But doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having a non-disposable camera?

I walked the perimeter and headed back down the slick, muddy steps and up again into the fields. I wanted to go further, but was tired and had plenty to see yet, so headed back to the car.

I went to the Ring of Brodgar, which is a wide circle of standing stones dating back to ages ago. Now it has a giant patch of heather growing in the middle. Unfortunately, when you really have to go to the bathroom, as I did, it’s not much more than a bunch of tall rocks in a circle. I walked the circumference anyway and took a few pictures and climbed back into the car.

(Ha! They’re turning their router off and back on again! Let’s see if I’m right).

Not far from there is another set of standing stones – just four or five – called the Stones of Stenness. I didn’t even bother to get out of the car for that one, but just moved on after stopping and giving them an admiring glance.

(Oh I was so totally right! What’s up, knowing routers!)

By fluke alone I found Maes Howe (or Maeshowe, depending on where you read it), and paid for a ticket. It’s some kind of burial chamber in the middle of a field dating back to 2750 B.C., according to my guidebook. There were three of us on the tour. The guide led us through a tunnel that requires you to walk maybe twenty feet bent over halfway, which is exciting when there’s no light. Then there’s a square room, and branching off of that three smaller chambers. The openings to the chambers are about two feet off the ground, and are maybe two feet square. I know people were shorter back in the day, but good heavens. Inside is a stone platform upon which, presumably, the dead were laid to rest.

They don’t know much of anything about the building as it was used when it was built, just that it took an estimated 40 years to build, was constructed around the same time as the standing stones, and on the solstice the setting sun shines right through the doorway (this was also true of the cairn that I saw in Inverness). The reason their information is spotty is that in the 12th century Vikings crashed through the top of Maes Howe and, after clearing out any useful artifacts, used it as a party building. Really. Lots of cavorting and carving of graffiti on the walls. Ridiculous graffiti, too. Things akin to, “I am the best writer in the world” and, written about ten feet up, “So-and-so is really tall.” And it’s presumed that the smaller chambers were essentially make-out rooms.

Glad to know we’ve evolved since then.

At the end of my day I dropped the car back in Kirkwall and wandered around the town before catching the bus back to Stromness. I bought ultra-local yarn and admired the shops, then headed home. The houses are so remote here that the bus will occasionally drop people off at their driveway, presumably if your house is on the way. On my return I tried a new restaurant, a pub by the harbor. Despite my wimpy taste buds I ordered spicy fajitas, and spent Halloween eve wondering how their food could be so bland that those fajitas were considered spicy. I had a local red beer and thought it decent.

I also bought some local beer called Skull Splitter before returning to my room, named after a local Viking. It was hands down the most disgusting beer I have ever tasted and couldn’t abide more than two sips before pouring the rest down the sink. I mentioned it to Will, a Guilfordian, and he’d recently tried it and said it was akin to sucking on a sockful of pennies.

I couldn’t agree more. For what they claim in scenery they lose a good portion on food. Except the steak. That was superb.

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