Hurtling through the Highlands. Loch Ness to my left, a cliff side to my right. I was in the back of a van full of complete strangers, the day after a 12 hour car-crash of a train journey. The previous night’s hostel bed was less stable than the post-Brexit pound. I was excited, but unsure what a week’s volunteering with Trees for Life, a charity aiming to re-wild Scotland’s Caledonian Forest, would bring.
What it brought was an unbelievable first experience of Scotland, in the country’s most dramatic landscape.
My desire to work in wildlife conservation (and take pretty pictures) dumped me into this adventure. I needed experience. A week of practical conservation volunteering to end my summer sounded perfect. I guess I won’t be breaking any Environmental Science student stereotypes this time.
The work was simple but important. We wore high-vis jackets- it had to be important. Some days were spent packing young trees for planting and others spent removing invasive non-native trees from natural woodland. You get a petty macho-rush from taking out a tree twice your height with a tiny bow-saw. The work days were tiring, but this was easy to forget every time I looked up into the vast expanse of civilisation-less hills, weaving rivers and verdant woodlands. Taking a break to take in the lazy, almost-silence of the scene felt like forever and I still didn’t want it to stop.
When I wasn’t in the field time was spent socialising with my fellow volunteers. We were a varied bunch from all over the UK, ranging from a performing artist to a former soldier, from a carpenter to a pair of retirees and many more. We cooked for each other, shared music and played games. What I really took in is what you can learn from others when you’re outside of the usual buzz of day to day life.
When there was daylight I‘d make sure I’d take full advantage of the scenery and explore the charity’s massive estate, seeking out colossal views and quiet spots where I could relax, forget about anything and everything for a few precious moments. The evenings were spent sitting in front of the fire telling stories to each other over glasses of Scottish whiskey.
Although only my first time, I felt like this was the best way to experience the Highlands.
On a midweek day off, ignoring the desperate temptation to have a lie in (very other day was a seven am start) another volunteer and I set off on a three hour round trek in search of a hidden waterfall in the hills of the estate. A test of endurance, map reading and in my new friend’s case, patience- he had to stop and wait for me every 100 metres while I pretended to be on BBC Earth’s Nature Photography Team. We braved bogs, slopes and slippery river crossings- we even got our feet wet.
After two hours, there was no sign of our goal; we needed to get back home.
“Let’s just see what’s round the next river bend”, I’d say. Nothing. “The next one”. Nope. But what lay around the last curve in the river was breath-taking.
A huge, secluded torrent of water gushing into a deep, black pool, surrounded by trees; rocks and moss. I could only stop, say nothing and absorb this tiny Scottish paradise. You didn’t get this in Norfolk.
The last couple of days flew by and before I knew it I was having lunch in Edinburgh alone again, reflecting on my experiences and dreading another day long train trek.
I travelled on my own to work with strangers who I befriended instantly. I had got my first glimpse of how utterly gorgeous Scotland can be and I contributed to a cause I believe passionately about and will benefit so many. A week well spent, I concluded.
I pictured my stand out memory.
On the penultimate morning, a small group of us dared each other to take a dip in the River Moriston at dawn. I was swimming in a gasp-inducingly cold river, with the sun rising over the mountains on one side of the valley and a rainbow arching over the hills on the other.
Unreal. It won’t be long before I journey north again.