For most of us, our travel plans for 2020 pretty much all crashed and burned. With varying degrees of restrictions and lockdowns, even travel within one country became tricky to plan. At the start of 2020, my work schedule for the coming December and early January had me working in the western Indian Ocean. Alas covid-19 changed all that and, like so many others, my year was very different to that planned. Planning a short winter holiday break with my son Calum, and hoping to combine this with some good photographic opportunities, we planned to head up to northwest Scotland and fit in a few days walking and camping. Alas stricter travel restrictions imposed on the UK in December meant that plan was no longer possible. So instead we looked locally and decided that a couple of days camping on the moors of Dartmoor, Devon, would be the best option.
A friend dropped us off in the middle of the National Park around 11.30 in the morning, New Year’s Eve, and would pick us up again mid-afternoon two days later. Our packs were pretty large as, apart from camping and camera equipment, we carried three days food supplies, and once the temperature slips below zero we can both eat a lot! The route two our chosen campsite, at the top of a waterfall, took us around five hours to hike, including the rather chilly fording of a river. The slipperiness of the rocks underfoot, combined with the numbing effect on our feet and the sheer weight of our packs – threatening to topple us sideways with every stumble – made for a highly entertaining crossing, but not one we were keen to repeat.
Hiking over steep, boggy ground covered in thigh-high tussock grass, topped off with a layer of snow was an interesting experience, and we both lost count of the number of times one foot would disappear into a deep, cold pool, sending us sprawling sideways.
The sun had already set and the temperature was dropping sharply when we arrived. Despite numb fingers our tent went up in record time and we were cooking beef curry over the camping stove 30 minutes later. I was grateful I’d brought butane/propane mix gas cylinders rather than the standard (and cheaper) butane camping gas. (Butane is fine in summer, but has a boiling point of -1 degree Celcius (30 deg F). This matters, as it is of course the gas, not the liquid that burns. The gas is liquid under pressure (in the cylinder) but needs to boil and become a gas when it is released in order for it to produce a flame. Propane, by contrast, has a boiling point of -42 degrees Celcius (-44 deg F) so no worries there about it turning to a gas. Propane has the disadvantage that the vapour pressure – the pressure it exerts against the cylinder walls – is considerably greater and so stronger cylinders are required. As few of us require to cook at -42 degrees C a compromise is a butane/propane mix. Okay, probably too much chemistry already!)
Having arrived at 4.30pm, by 6pm we had both consumed a mountain of rice and curry and were already in our sleeping bags. I had been given a bottle of Mackinlay’s Shackleton whisky (inspired by the 25 cases of Mackinlays that Ernest Shackleton had taken with him on the Nimrod Expedition to Antarctica in 1907, three cases of which were rediscovered – frozen in the ice – in 2007) and a small amount of this has stowed away in my rucksack. So it only seemed fitting to toast in the New Year with a swig or two.
New Year’s morning arrived cold and grey. Low cloud blanketed the sky and the sun was little more than a faint glow in the southern sky.
I eventually crawled out of my sleeping bag when the desire for coffee and breakfast became greater than the desire to remain in my sleeping bag. Pulling on my boots, not the easiest of tasks as they were frozen stiff with large amounts of ice adhering to them, I forced myself out of the tent and made my way down to the river to fill our kettle. The previous day’s snow had turned to ice in many places, so this a process of skidding and sliding down the bank, being careful not to end up in the river.
Calum’s boots were considerably worse than mine. Having absorbed a considerable amount of water during the yesterday’s hike, they were now both saturated and frozen solid as rock, so they had to be gradually thawed and dried as much as possible. This put paid to any idea of hiking anywhere that day had we felt inclined to do so. Too many decades of carrying heavy packs and diving cylinders has reduced the intervertebral discs of my spine from thick spongy cushions to something more akin to sheets of rice paper, so I for one was quite content to spend the day relaxing in the proximity of the tent and leave our packs off for 24 hours.
During the afternoon I went back down to the river with my camera, and spent some time balancing on the rocks just beneath the waterfall. Continually splashing water had created the most wonderful patterns of icicle curtains fringing the rocks, but as the water was too deep to stand in and the mid-river boulders were coated in a thin sheen of ice, every photograph was a careful cost-benefit analysis of how much I wanted the picture against what were the chances both I and the camera would end up in the river.
Days are short at the beginning of January, and so cooking dinner began at around 3pm. Hot soup, followed by chicken curry and then sticky toffee pudding left us just enough time to wash up and clear away our cooking utensils before the sun set. Five thirty pm and the sky was dark. However, despite the cloud cover, an almost full moon reflecting off the snow-covered land produced an eerie glow – sufficient to see quite some distance across the moor. By six pm were were in our sleeping bags, ready for sleep. The following morning we would pack up and begin our hike back .
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