Chris Harvie braves boring bison, bad food and blustery winds to ski in the Scottish Highlands
We were looking at a small mixed herd of yak and bison standing in a miserable pool of muddy sleet. They didn’t look happy, but then I don’t imagine bison ever look happy. Yackety-yak.
At the entrance gate, an employee had asked us where we were from. We had told him. South Africa.
“I thought I heard a twang,” he had said with a Highland twang of his own. “Well, it’s just like the Kruger National Park out there, but without the speed traps.”
There are, of course, no similarities whatsoever. Skiing was off though, as a result of 200km-per-hour winds in the Cairngorms, and bison- spotting was the only alternative way to pass the day in Inverness-shire. It was, we were reminded frequently, the week before the season began. The Speyside Steam Railway was without trains. There were no reindeer at the Reindeer Sanctuary. The shops, admittedly, were holding sales but Edinburgh Woollens are beyond the South African pocket even at two for the price of one. So bison it was.
“What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?” I asked. No one in the car knew. “You can’t wash yer ‘ands in a buffalo”.
It’s one of my favourite jokes but there was no denying it; the bison weren’t grabbing us, seasoned safari-hands that we are, and neither were the red pandas, the wolves or the mouflons, whatever they are. We could identify with the lynx, sensibly and invisibly buried away from the snow in a hutch, and with the Scottish wildcats, although there was a rumour in Aviemore that they weren’t really wildcats but a couple of household tabbies relocated from the RSPCA.
High-speed snow clouds rolled in from the North Pole, immaculately camouflaging the snow monkeys by the frozen pond. We retreated to High Range, our lodgings on the outskirts of town. In their own words, the place has been under the personal supervision of the Vastano family for more than 32 years, where the standards and style have been influenced by continuity and continental flair. An immodest claim but not an unreasonable one, and their La Taverna Ristorante, Pizzeria and Bar, whilst not being terribly Scottish, serves a mean vegetable terrine followed by chicken marsala or wagon-wheel-sized pizzas. All in all it was ideal and cost only R200 per person per night.
The following day was forecast as clear, which seemed utterly unbelievable watching the squalls outside the window, but we needed to prepare for the prospect of some skiing and headed out into the Scottish chill to check on hire prices for skiwear, to pull over our optimistic Mr Price T-shirts.
You know you’re in Scotland when the ski-hire shops are not called Alpine Sports but Skiing- dubh, after the sock-dagger that killed Macbeth.
We settled on School of Snowsports next to the Hilton Hotel (yes, there really is one) in Coylumbridge, tentatively pre-booked our skis, poles and boots and raided the beanie bin for much-needed head protection. It was getting colder, not warmer, so we made our diffident way back to our apartment to roast a chicken and indulge ourselves in British nostalgia television.
Sunday, however, dawned clear and still. Ten snowy kilometres uphill from Aviemore, we bulked ourselves out in padded trousers and jackets, donned our clomping skiboots and trudged like King Kongs across the car park to the funicular and up Cairngorm Mountain. Most of the 12 lifts and tows were open, the friendly queues were mercifully short and the streaming sun offered perfect visibility. It was as fine a day’s skiing as I have enjoyed anywhere in Europe, a dusting of light powder snow on a firm base, and the good-natured locals were as cheerful as we were at the prospect.
Lunch, a low-point later on, was at The Ptarmigan, Scotland’s highest restaurant, at the top of Scotland’s highest railway, and home to Scotland’s highest postbox and, probably, to Scotland’s dodgiest menu.
The best bet was macaroni cheese and chips and we were back out on the snow in no time, chanting the ‘Dee-diddle-diddle-diddle’ from the theme of Ski Sunday and slaloming down the runs, in and out of the tangled wrecks of the first- time squaddie-skiers of the British Army.
When the wind got up at about four o’clock and began to blow an icy blast of crunchy snow across the sweeping tops of the range into our exposed red faces, we retired discreetly to the valley; but it had been memorable.
The next day, as we drove back down the A9 towards Edinburgh, through blustering gales and snow drifts, an occasional red deer sheltered under a pine tree. No bison. No yaks.
The Highland Wildlife Park is nothing like the Kruger National Park.
Aviemore, though, is a bit like Tiffindell but with macaroni cheese and a season three times as long. And a very different twang.
For more info…
High Range Holiday Complex, Aviemore www.highrange.co.uk
Highland Wildlife Park www.highlandwildlifepark.org
School of Snowsports www.schoolofsnowsports.co.uk
Cairngorm Mountain www.cairngormmountain.org