Mary de Ruyter ponders what consolations are possible when cherished travel dreams – from aurora to mountain-tops – go awry.

There are some travel moments you aren't likely to write home about. Not the time you accidentally damaged an ancient temple, or called your homestay host a goat because your language skills weren't up to par. I'm talking about the ones that got away.

Travel's unpredictability can be a positive thing, if you're open to it. A missed train leads to unexpected opportunities; the storm that messes up your beach plans adds atmosphere to that day's photos.

But when a central part of your plans, or even the whole reason for a trip, doesn't work out, it can leave you feeling gutted. All that saving, planning, anticipation, all that time spent getting somewhere, and then … zip.

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My biggest travel misses still niggle at me – but I've realised that isn't always a bad thing.

A heli-tour on Fox Glacier is still a dream yet to be realised for Mary de Ruyter. Photo / Tyler Lastovich
A heli-tour on Fox Glacier is still a dream yet to be realised for Mary de Ruyter. Photo / Tyler Lastovich

Heli-hiking on a glacier

Twice I have tried, and twice I have been thwarted. In 2010 at Fox Glacier, when cloud shrouded the glacier's heights, at least our group got the consolation prize of walking on the bottom of the glacier. Stepping on to that frozen mass was an experience, but the ice was dirty, fractured and messy. I wanted the wonder of seeing tropical-blue water frozen solid and sheer at the top of a mountain.

At Franz Josef and at Fox in 2017, when rain grounded the choppers, walking to the foot of the glacier wasn't even possible, due to receding ice and the risk of rockfall. Another example of how our habit of jumping on planes affects the very things we travel to see? By the time I return, the glaciers will probably be halfway up the mountain.

The Aurora Borealis is a once-in-a-lifetime experience on many people's wish lists, but you have to be lucky to see it. Photo / Bjorn Are With Andreassen
The Aurora Borealis is a once-in-a-lifetime experience on many people's wish lists, but you have to be lucky to see it. Photo / Bjorn Are With Andreassen

Seeing an aurora

Any aurora. Pleeeeease. Australis or borealis, I'm really not fussy. Those glorious dancing, coloured curtains of light that seem more supernatural than scientific. Twice I have tried, and twice I have been thwarted.

In late 2011, I extended an eye-wateringly expensive trip to spend five days in Tromso, a Norwegian university town in the Arctic Circle. You need clear, dark skies to see an aurora, so the constant cloud didn't bode well. Yet in desperation, I went on a Northern Lights tour.

We learned the ancient Norse people believed a giantess named Gerd lit up the horizon with flaming colour (not a bad superpower to have) – but Gerd had obviously turned in for the night. The best the tour guide could do was point to the palest green smudge on a camera screen. "Look, there they are!" he said hopefully. Fifteen people, from all corners of the world, remained silent. The sound of our dreams shattering echoed across the water.

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Nearly two years later, on a mid-winter visit to Tekapo's Mt John Observatory, I was full of hope. I was within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the sky was clear, and the sun was at the peak of its solar-activity cycle. Yet an aurora was absent, and my dream faded like the light of a dying star.

Conquering Sgurr nan Gillean, one of Scotland's top mountaineering destinations, was a case of if at first you don't succeed...' for Mary de Ruyter. Photo / Supplied
Conquering Sgurr nan Gillean, one of Scotland's top mountaineering destinations, was a case of if at first you don't succeed...' for Mary de Ruyter. Photo / Supplied

Sgurr nan Gillean

No, not the clearing of one's throat, but a peak on Scotland's Isle of Skye. Twice I have tried, and . . .

The Black Cuillin range is foreboding and challenging, one of Britain's top mountaineering destinations. At 964m high, Sgurr nan Gillean is one of the range's most popular summits. In the summer of 2001, during my OE, my friend and I set out for Sgurr nan Gillean's summit on the "Tourist Route" (a name as spectacularly misleading as Trump's 10,796 – and counting – false or misleading claims since being in office, according to the Washington Post in June.

We started off at sea level, gently winding past burns and ferns, through heather and bog. At the base of the ridgeline, the track became a near-vertical exercise in boulder-hopping, scrambling and slog. Then in a shock-horror-Scottish turn of events, mist rolled in. We seemed agonisingly close to the peak. But my friend, who had walked these mountains before, knew enough to realise we had to turn back.

I was crushed. Not because I wanted to "conquer" the mountain (such an aggressive, absurd concept) – but because for me, few things compare to the feeling of standing atop a summit, buffeted by wind, feeling utterly tiny and immersed in rugged beauty.

These let-downs have their upsides, however. I've learned to really savour the travel dreams I have realised. And maybe it's good to have some travel goals left on your list: to keep you hungry, and interested in the world.

Besides, sometimes second chances work out. Nearly a year after I had to turn back on Sgurr nan Gillean, I returned to Skye during the last leg of my OE. This attempt at the summit felt like trying to absorb a tiny piece of a country I was desperately unwilling to leave.

I set out early, all trepidation and determination. The sun beat down. Other hikers ebbed and flowed around me; I heard over and over how challenging it was. I feared I'd have to turn back again.

After passing the point where my friend and I turned back, I realised why he'd made that decision. The "path" ceased to fit any standard definition of the word. I climbed up through a cleft in two tall rocks. I walked along a ridge only just wider than my hips, with sheer drop-offs on either side. Not something to tackle in the mist.

The summit was tiny; the view was immense. Mountains all around. Dun-coloured land sloping to the shore, cut through with shining slivers of winding water. The sea shimmered like a carpet of sapphires, brought alive by sunlight and shifting clouds.

With fingers rubbed rough by the rock, I texted my friend to let him know I'd made it. He replied, "The last bit's great, isn't it? It's pouring down in Brighton. Wish I was up there."

I have a photo of me at the summit, face flushed an unseemly shade of beetroot – and shining with happiness. Sgurr nan Gillean was all the sweeter for the wait.