Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The which Salen? trial

Another fruitless evening and early morning on the internet, hunting down London accommodation. I've got Bondi's last week in the UK pretty much sorted and I fired off a few questions to the car shipper, asking for clarification of two completely contradictory statements in their quote.

I've booked 2 nights near Stranraer to close this Scottish chapter of our travels. I'll be right in the heart of the territory where my ancestors, the Kerrs and Withers, withered away their cares for a few centuries.

We leave Fort William for the fourth and probably last time with a view of the wind lashing the water down on the loch. Mull is theoretically only an hour away but weather and ferries will slow us down a tad. I've plugged Salen into the satnav and settle back to enjoy some half-hour episodes of the original 1988 radio version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?. The show usually opens with a sequence where each of the 4 panellists (Stephen Fry, John Sessions, and two guests) improvises a storyline called out from the studio audience in the style of a nominated author. In episode 5 "a visit to the dentist" is rendered by Homer (Stephen Fry, in Ancient Greek!) with interpolated references to "Upper molar" and "Punch magazine"), Jane Austen, Dylan Thomas ("past the bakery where there were pink loaves, green loaves, blue loaves...it was Dai the Bread") and Herman Melville. Alarmingly erudite and hilarious.

The first ferry crossing is not much more than a stone's throw over some water, but £5.20 ($13). Scottish ferries are maintaining their lead as the most expensive I've ever caught on any of three continents, putting even Norway in the shade. I drive on a while, on another single track road, fairly pretty even with the heavy rain. As I near "Salen", I'm a little surprised that there are no signs for the final ferry crossing to the isle of Mull. Pulling over, and inspecting the map, I discover that there are TWO "Salens" - not more than 20 miles apart as the lesser spotted mullhen flies. The much larger Salen that I'm aiming for is not in the Garmin satnav's memory. So I plot a course to Tobermory, the largest town on Mull and retrace a long distance to a turn off along a slightly more decrepit road that turns out to be the artery to Mull.

The last mainland stretch; Salen Pier

There's a short queue for the ferry here, and a snack shop serving venison burgers to fill a hole in my stomach and schedule. Striking a conversation with the ladies there, I mention the satnav error and get a nod of recognition - the Salen confusion is common - and one of them talks knowledgeably about the pros and cons of different satnav providers for Scottish roads. I suggest that the local council should perhaps signpost the two Salens since the same road leads to both, and you're not likely to be aware of the doubling up until an error is made.

The ferry eventually turns up - it's about £14 ($35) for a distance probably less than travelled by the Manly ferry in Sydney harbour. I've got a 100-page guide from the ferry company which does not find room to explain the differences between the available fares on those few pages of timetables. It does have room for paragraphs of tourist nonsense such as (I paraphrase) "while the island of Skye has only one distillery it still produces one of the classic malts from that island". Surely then, they make the ONLY malts from that island, unless some is being produced offshore.

You can probably detect me building up to a real rant here; Alison will be murmuring "James, Michael's getting crotchety again."

As I found on my Arran excursion, Scottish ferries uniquely do NOT include the driver in a car fare, so the first glance at the car price needs to be inflated further. If you want to get off the other landward side of the island of Mull going towards Oban, there is no fare reduction for the two journeys - that 45 minute trip costs in the vicinity of £35 ($87, or a night in a B&B). The cost premium doesn't even provide a real time-saving as it appears to be faster to leave by the this northbound ferry and drive in a loop: a rip-off whichever way you look at it. I wonder about the ferry economics relative to Norway, which has almost the same population as Scotland, spread over five times the land area, yet the connecting ferries are very much more affordable.

In recent weeks, I've had a few chats with travellers and B&B owners around the coast of Scotland. All think that the ferry costs are undermining tourism to these areas. Why would one want to take a ferry across a small body of water (for the same cost as an airfare to a Mediterranean island) to stay at a place which, for better or worse, will be mainly staffed by people from another country? Surely, it's not impossible to combine local flavour with an affordably decent standard of services.

Having heard a recent Scottish news bulletin on work training list "getting up in the morning" and "getting to work on time" as two important "soft skills", it's no wonder there are plenty of willing hands from other countries required to provide all these services. Meanwhile I hear a constant susurrus of Scots sounding off at the "damn English", or as I heard from one gent in Brua propound earlier this week "we're not British, we're Scottish". With so many people having one finger up their arse and another pointing at the English (or British) as the source of all evils, it's no wonder they don't have any hands free to do any useful work. One pub owner said he paid for a couple to fly from Eastern Europe to work for him because he couldn't entice any reliable locals - a similar story to what I heard on Orkney. I suspect that if Scotland seceded from Britain, it would have to be annexed by Poland just to maintain infrastructure.

Disembarking on Mull, there's a huge car line to board the ferry, but the road is not wide enough to properly accommodate cars going in both directions. Since the queuing cars are all properly on the road, the exiting cars have to try to not sink into the muddy verges that have taken a beaten with earlier traffic.

Salen is 6 miles further on, and the sun starts to make a braver show. I locate the B&B and then we continue a little further up the coast to Tobermory. The road is another crappy single-track affair, the short drive made less pleasant by 4WD drivers who have no intention of soiling their vehicles with a pause on the verge, and locals (identifiable by license plates or commercial signage) who refuse to use the passing places. The worst was a sour-faced local approaching me in a pickup truck who deliberately drove out from a passing place, and sat in the middle of the road until I had reversed 100 yards to another passing place. Welcome to Mull!


Rolled into Tobermory, and had to scatter a group of silver-haired visitors blocking a parking space. Jokingly upbraided them for hanging out in the street like teenagers (which they all lapped up), and that I'd been sent to deal with them because their antics had been picked up by the street video cameras. The multicoloured street frontage is postcard stuff, but there isn't much more to see, so after half an hour dodging the odd squall, found a pleasant cafe with free internet on the edge of town. Needless to say, the (lovely) staff were imported.

Early dinner at Salen Pub, the bartender an Aussie lad from Tasmania.

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