Expedition Scotland (part one) Oban to Kyle of Lochalsh
Two months paddling around the west coast of Scotland. Up the mainland and then back down the outer Hebrides. Kayak stuffed full of Genoa cake from Holsworthy Co-op. Totally self sufficient. Camping on the way.And I would take a fishing rod of course but I’m not sure whether towing a lure as you go along is as successful in Scotland as it is in SW England.
That was the plan. I mentioned it to a very level-headed and practical Scottish work colleague, with a first of May start date. She replied immediately “That sounds cold”. Oh crikey.
You can’t do a full-blown expedition in (on) a sit-on-top kayak. You need a fancy sea kayak with a cockpit and spray deck. Wrong. My Cobra Expedition is an excellent fast boat with gigantic hatches perfect for stuffing full of tons of clobber.( Yes OK they leak a bit).I couldn’t imagine a better expedition boat. I squeezed in one 25l dry bag, two 20l and three 13l bags and a kayak trolley in the hatches with a 60l and another 13l on the back deck. Loads of stuff I would never use, of course.
And it’s plastic, so robust for dragging over barnacle-encrusted rocks. I got our local plastic guy to weld on a couple of extra ‘sacrificial’ strips along the keel for extra wear.
I took two drysuits. One ‘all in one ‘ Gul Scapa for those really wet days, and a salopette/dry top combination for slightly less wet occasions.
No backing out. Too many people told. So on 2 May I found myself paddling away from a nice sandy beach outside Oban, being waved off by my wife Becky. See you in a couple of months. Gulp.
Actually there was nearly no paddling at all. I had named my kayak ‘Das Boot’ on the spur of the moment , forgetting that Das boot was a U-boat. As I heaved the vast weight down the beach into the water it appeared that floating would not actually take place and the Genoa cake would take it straight under.
But it did float , two inches lower than normal,and I was away.
Fortunately Day 1 was a cracking day with no wind. Fantastic. I was soon lost in kayaking dreamworld as I paddled up the east coast of Lismore island , meeting a couple of otters on the way.
Then mistake number 1.
I remember reading in some book to watch out for the fast ferry that services the local superquarry near the top end of Lismore. No problem. Dead flat conditions. Clear vis. What could possibly go wrong?
This. The ferry blasted past just as I about to cross a shingle spit. It was towing a hefty wake which I could see would break impressively in the shallow water. Instead of waiting I chose to nip across before the wave broke but unfortunately got completely stranded as the water sucked out in front of the wave tsunami-style and was then doused in a two foot wall of water, amplified because it actually wrapped around the spit and formed a peak in the middle, right where I was cringeing.
So I had to change into my emergency dry clothes within two hours of the start. Not good.
Nice easy three-mile crossing over to Morvern and then down the mainland coast. I was invited in for a cup of tea by a crofter called Iain. Fantastic…this is what it’s all about.
Another otter and a Sea Eagle on a nest. Even better.
I camped beside Inninmore bothy at the entrance to the Sound of Mull.A stag came to say hello and the rest of the herd spent much of the night munching unbelievably loudly right outside my tent.
Good first day.
I spent Day 2 paddling up the sound of Mull. I had done my homework about the tides and what direction they flow and how fast, but quickly realised that close to the shore you can get as many counter eddies working in your favour as you can the main flow working against you.
Six more otters, camp in Loch Drumbuie.
Then it started to rain.As it did on-and-off for the next month.
I had been eyeing up Ardnamurchan point but given the dodgy forecast, and having read one too many reports about how nasty the conditions off the point could be, I somehow thought a portage from Salen to Loch Shiel would be the better option.
So I sogged it through the drizzle up beautiful Loch Sunart.Beautiful EVEN in the rain. And exited at Salen.
I nearly ruptured in several places heaving Das Boot onto its trolley, which sagged alarmingly, and then could not pull the vast weight up the steep hill.
So I had to relay the bags up to the hotel forecourt which conveniently had just opened providing the opportunity for an energising drink, supplemented by an entire Genoa cake.
Then the three-mile road portage to Acharacle. I really regret this because although it meant I could keep moving I would have done better to sit tight for a day in my tent and then enjoy the beauty of Ardnamurchan and its beaches.
Not a good portage. I got very very hot indeed and even hotter when I lurched into the tea shop at Acharacle which was inexplicably kept at about 100 degrees F.
I took to the water again at the pier in Loch Shiel and looked for somewhere to camp. Only acres of bog stretching into the distance. The rain intensified. The wind picked up. I had to camp in a bog. My morale plummeted. Only done 3 days. Yikes.
Day 4. As predicted the southerly wind was howling but I had cunningly factored this into my paddle down the lovely River Shiel which flowed north. And I even caught a decent trout at the exit of the loch.
I hoped that the well-wooded Loch Moidart into which the Shiel flowed would offer some protection from the near gale.I wasn’t really in the mood to enjoy the extraordinary Castle Tioram and its surrounding islands…I had to find somewhere to camp before I arrived at the open sea.
There was only one tiny flat green pitch on top of a rocky islet. I spent ten minutes trying to pitch my 3 man (Vango Tempest) tent in the strong wind, and failed. A little bit panicky. One more effort to get the pegs to stick in the bare rock. Success and I hurled myself into the tent and cowered in my cosy sleeping bag. And wolfed down a sachet of Chicken Tikka with Rice (Wayfayrer) followed by half a genoa Cake (Holsworthy Co-op).
Day 5 . Right on cue the wind dropped to nothing in the early hours. Perfect for the four mile crossing to the Arisaig peninsular, but conditions were still a bit hairy. So it was with great relief that I rolled up at my first white-sand beach of the trip, just as the sun came out!
Fantastic. I needed no pursuasion the set up camp immediately and dry out. Even the local bull wasn’t going to put me off.
The water I managed to find was alarmingly brown (in fact a passer by thought it was petrol!) but I boiled it all up using my excellent Jetboil so hopefully all nasties were eliminated. My Jetboil has completely revolutionised my camping experience. Waiting for water to boil has always driven me potty, and if there is the slightest wind it takes centuries. But Jetboils are as quick as an electric kettle, whatever the conditions.
Unfortunately my water foray into the heather resulted in an assault of ticks which sank their fangs into various soft and squidgy body parts and provided extreme itchiness for the next two days.
On into Arisaig and a stock up at the Spar. More Fruit Cake. Then I thought I would treat myself to a proper campsite and a shower. I hadn’t yet taken off the clothes I had set off in (apart from the dousing at Lismore).
Gortenachullish campsite looked good. The £10 per night seemed a bit steep but it was my first campsite so I didn’t know. I have since learned this was a complete rip off so I will definitely not be going back.
Flat calm day so I paddled the ten miles over to Eigg. Hoped to see a whale but failed. Arrived at the cafe before it opened. Starving. Never seen anyone fry bacon so slowly. Maybe shouldn’t have had an eigg but it seemed appropriate.
Then up the east side of Eigg and back to my ghastly campsite (but couldn’t be bothered to move to a more reasonable one…too tired.)
On past the gob-smackingly beautiful sandy beaches, but sprawling caravan parks, of Arisaig and Morar, not looking their best in the rain. Loads of Great Northern Divers loafing about in the bays….its a bit worrying they havn’t migrated north yet. Do they think summer has not arrived?
Stop in Mallaig for a shop (more cake, this time cherry for a bit of a change). Then up Loch Nevis before hopping across to the legendarily remote Knoydart peninsular. I had been looking forward to this.
I found a decent sandy beach at Sandaig (the other one) and camped. Pity about the quantity of plastic rubbish at the high-tide mark.
I had set myself 3 modest wildlife targets for my expedition. To hear a Corncrake, to see a Minke Whale, and to see a Pine Marten. None of which I had encountered before.
So I was pretty pleased as I supped a cup of tea at 5.30 am (I like an early start) and a pine marten bounded across the whole length of the beach. Good start. Then an otter in the bay as I departed. And a couple of Bottle-nose dolphins at the mouth of Loch Nevis. Just as I had hoped.
Pity about the heavy rain and north wind which made it feel blooming cold as I paddled around into fantastic Loch Hourn.
I found a sensational place to camp on a shingly spit , and the sun popped out. Warm and still, and not midgy.
As always a pair of Ringed Plovers were nesting on the beach and I watched quietly as Mr (or Mrs) plover crept across the shingle, called softly to Mrs (or Mr) plover to get off the eggs, and dutifully took his (or her) turn to incubate the eggs.
I continued up nearly to the head of Loch Hourn as I like its remoteness and feel.
I caught another fish on a trolled Rapala. A miniscule pollack which went back. I don’t know whether I can be bothered to do much more trolled fishing as I seem to spend an awful lot of time taking weed off the lure and not catching many fish, as I suspected. Maybe it’s still a bit early in the season.
More otters and a school of porpoises.
And a small dark Mink that was swimming about diving for fish in an ottery manner. Another top camp at a sandy island at the Sandaigs (the other ones) with a lot of Gavin Maxwell fans wandering about.
It was absolutely chucking it down as I packed up this morning. Thank goodness for my full drysuit. But I’m getting expedition hardened and starting to trust my gear. Totally waterproof drysuit and totally waterproof tent. A group of three otters then another fishing just off the pier at Glenelg.
I arrived at the notorious tide trap at Kyle Rhea at exactly the wrong time but was gung-ho about being able to paddle against the tide. Wrong. Nearly. It was absolutely surging where the little ferry goes across and I could only just inch my way forward paddling absolutely flat out. I was just about to give up when I found an eddy, and it was easy after that.
The Skye bridge lured me on and I camped just round the corner to await the arrival of son number 2 for a brief break from my progression up the coast. And the sun came out again.
Phase one complete. 200 miles paddled . 11 Genoa cakes consumed.
And I havn’t even given the seals a mention