My life has been full of adventure, so it’s quite difficult to choose when was the best time of my life. After thinking back to my days since leaving school, my gap 6 months after school and my second gap 6 months after university stand out as times that I will remember forever. There can’t be much more exciting than boarding a plane headed for a foreign land for a year or 6 months. That feeling of freedom and expectation that you are now an adult heading out to see the world for yourself. Life has changed rapidly and for the better so I can’t really say that my gap years were the best time in my life because what I have now is incredibly special but in a very different way.
Sorry about the quality of my photos, but they are photos of my photos from my old albums.
My two gap years were spent in similar fashion. The first one was so good I decided to replicate it to a certain extent and the second one ended up even better. I didn’t do the cliché thing of working in some sprawling UK city and pissing it up for a whole year. I had what I would call good wholesome fun. My first gap year after school I spent 3 months working for a Safari company in Kenya followed by 3 months working on a deer stalking estate in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland. This post will focus on my 3 months on Couldoran estate in the Highlands of Scotland.
In Scotland I was employed as a pony boy and later after the stalking season I worked on the Salmon farm on the same estate. The estate was on the coast overlooking the Isle of Skye. Our closest village was Kishorn which consisted of a church, a butcher shop, a grocer shop and a few houses where very weird people lived. More on the local people later, because they deserve a story on their own.
Upon my arrival in the Highlands, I was given 2 fat horses named Mandy and Misty and a 1:50 000 map of the estate. It was 2 weeks before the start of the stalking season and my job was to get the horses fit. Job, are you crazy, I was in seventh heaven! If I remember correctly the estate was about 10 000 ha of rugged mountainous terrain with several large Lochs and hundreds of small ones all interlinked with little streams. Every piece of water had a wild population of brown trout. I was amazed that these tiny little lochens high up in the hills had self sustaining populations of trout. They were mostly small, in the 6 to 8″ range, but great fun to catch on a light rod. I also had free range for miles in which ever direction in looked, including the neighbouring estates. There’s no such thing as genuine private land in the UK, as anyone is free to walk on your property. It’s a curse for the owner, especially if you have a prominent mountain on your property. A mountain of over 3000ft in the UK is called a Munroe after the first fella to climb them all. There are 282 of these peaks in the UK. There were several on the neighbouring estate but thankfully our estate had none so the hill walkers were few and far between.
By the time the stalking season commenced on the 1st October, I had hiked up every one of the mountains in on the estate, and I had caught fish in every conceivable place! In the morning before setting out I would look at the map and decide which little stream or Loch I wanted to fish, and off I went. I grew up riding horses for fun on the farm, but I can’t say that they my favourite animal. I had some interesting times loading horses in and out of horse boxes and walking these two old nags through the mountains. I very quickly learned that it was much easier to lead the horses on foot, than to ride one and lead one. The reason for this was simple, they knew much better than I did that walking through these hills was risky business so they preferred to follow me. The whole landscape seemed to be one huge peat bog which for obvious reasons strikes fear into the heart of any horse with half a brain. Even high up on a rocky slope you could come across an inconspicuous looking bog that could be a deadly trap for an animal.
The one day I came across one of these bogs that looked quite dodgy. It would either require a long walk round it or that I took a chance and tried to cross it with the horses. Obviously with my lack of experience I took a chance and tried to drag the horses across. I found a narrow part of the bog that I could jump from one bit of firm ground to the other. I took the first horse and he lept across effortlessly. Then it was Mandy’s turn. She had far too much trust in her boss and she just casually tried to step across. In she went and in she stayed! I now had half a ton of horse with its front knees on firm ground and it’s back legs completely sunken into the bog up to her tail. I wish I had taken a photo but at the time it was not very funny and I was in no mood to take pictures of a horse sinking away into a bog! Actually it was terrifying! The more she panicked and lunged, the deeper she went. Mandy had this terrified look in her eyes. The one you see on an animal that’s about to die! If this had happened on my farm I would have called the TLB and about 10 staff to dig her out. But here I was alone, and about 3 hrs walk form the car. We had no cell phones back then and there was no way to call for help. I couldn’t leave the horse, as she may just dissappear into the bog never to be seen again. It was a ridiculous situation, me half naked and covered in mud shoving rocks under her belly as she lunged. She was so exhausted that I had to actually beat her to get her to lunge. Quite traumatic for both of us! Every lunge she made, I shoved another rock underneath her. Slowly but surely I managed to stop her sinking and then it was time to start digging with my bare hands. After several hours of digging I finally freed her of the clinging mud and she managed to lunge free. She stood there just shaking and unable to walk. I was also exhausted and a days fishing had been spent. I now knew the exact reason why the horses didn’t like being ridden through these hills. From that day onwards I gave all bogs a very wide birth.
After the stalking season was over I was offered a job working on the same estate but on the fish farm. Mark Pattinson who owned Couldoran also had a large salmon farm on the estate. It was a fascinating operation and I had some very amusing experiences over the following months. Part of the Kinloch Damph operation was a farm that was a whole heap of floating cages on Loch Lundie. This is where the small salmon were grown from a few inches long until they were about 10 inches long and ready to go to another farm out at sea. Loch Lundie farm was considered the highest and most remote salmon farm in Europe. The Loch was high up in the hills at the base of Applecross mountain. There was no road up there so two of us walked up on a Monday morning and walked down on a Saturday morning after feeding. The fish were treated as if they were àlso part of the We Free Church and they also weren’t allowed to eat on a Sunday. Im sure they would have loved a feed but when I mean nothing happened on a Sunday, i mean nothing. The We Free Church were the very reason that my ancestors and many others left Scotland in the first place
Excuse all the exclamation marks, I am now going to introduce you to a true North West Highlander. They are nothing like a modern day William Wallace, many of them are actually quite a disgusting bunch. Punch was appropriately named as he spent most of the week either hungover, pissed, or stoned. He had worked at Loch Lundie for 17 years! It was his first job after leaving school, and he was still at it! He had never been as far as Inverness, the closest big town. That’s like me living in Kokstad saying I’ve never been to Maritzburg or Port Shepstone. Work was usually done by midday and off in would go fishing or tying flies. Punch would open a bottle of whiskey and watch Porn movies. When I first walked into this cosy little cabin I thought to myself, “oh cool we going to watch lots of movies”, only to realise that what I thought were action, comedy, and romance movies were actually Scotlands largest collection of Porn movies. Most of the time I was inside I didn’t know where to hide or where to look. Imagine this innocent, yes I was very innocent, 19 year old trying to tie flies in the corner of the cabin as Punch rolled another joint and watched Debbie does Dallas! After a joint or two, out came the fiddle. Punch thought he could play the fiddle, well maybe he could if sober but definitely not while he was stoned. It was torture, and he thought he could sing too! Aside from Punches drinking habits, smoking habits, Porn addiction, small mindedness and the fact that he was dating/shagging his first cousin, he was actually quite a decent chap. He was genuinely interested in where I came from and in life in Africa. I kept myself busy tying flies, fishing in the loch, and hiking in the mountains, but November on the west coast of Scotland is not exactly the best outdoors weather. So I had to put up with many days couped up on the cabbin peeling potatoes or tying flies.
My few months spent in the Highlands of Scotland are undoubtedly high up on my “time of my life” list. I have returned several times and I no doubt will return again. The Partinsons who I worked for looked after me like I was family and we still keep in touch to this day. I hope someday that Olli will have the same opportunities that I had to travel and meet such special people.