Six Days of Summer on Shetland

IMG_6050
Shetland puffin

Getting to the top of the UK from Holsworthy represents seven hundred miles of driving and a twelve hour ferry trip from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Just about worth it provided it was wall-to-wall wildlife action and excitement for the entire time we were there. And ideally some good conditions for kayaking so that I could experience paddling in a new location.

Remarkably Unst, Shetland’s most northerly island, is almost exactly the same latitude as southern Greenland where Hezzer and I went on a sea kayaking expedition last year. Just above 60 degrees North. No icebergs around Shetland though.

Driving up the M6 was the usual tedious and stressful challenge (bear in mind we have no traffic queues and only one set of traffic lights in Holsworthy), possibly made worse by the poor weather forecast for Shetland….strong winds and…groan…FOG.

I picked up Hezzer and Sharpy en route and by 7pm we were on the deck of the ferry scanning for sea creatures. Glimpses of porpoises and the odd Puffin, that’s all.

IMG_5404
Hezzer and Sharpy

First day on Shetland was a bit of a struggle, especially as southern England was basking in 30 degrees and sunshine. It was windy, cold, wet and sometimes misty, sometimes foggy. But I was determined to camp. My amateurish festival-style tent might well collapse or blow away, but we were going to give it a go. We pitched it at a sort of official campsite at the marina at Brae and although it bent and distorted alarmingly it looked like it would just about survive.

IMG_5164
Orca in the Fog (the only one we saw)

We took a stroll to a sandy beach on the adjacent island of Muckle Roe and while hunkered down out of the wind an otter appeared around the headland and started to swim towards us. The wind was in our face so it would not catch our scent (if it was downwind it wouldn’t have come within sight). Hezzer got ready with his camera but before I had time to get mine out of its waterproof bag the otter appeared in the waves breaking on the shore just in front of us. It emerged from the water and without hesitation strode directly towards Hezzer who was settled on the foreshore, with a sort of ‘what are you doing on my patch?’ type attitude (the otter, not Hezzer).

It marched forward, hesitated, then continued its approach, finally stopping when it was only five paces in front of Hezzer. When it clicked what was going on it fairly rapidly, but not panickly, returned to the sea, and carried on fishing. It emerged onto the beach again a bit further on, sniffed about a bit, and then swam back to the point where it had come from.

IMG_5170_01
Hezzer and his Otter

The next couple of days involved trying not to get battered or crushed by the wind, and working our way north to the island of Unst, the most northerly part of the UK. We witnessed some superb wildlife action between Arctic Skuas and Arctic terns as the former tried to steal the latter’s lunch. Sometimes four skuas to one tern.

IMG_5249
Hezzer plus Arctic Tern friend

We camped wild one night on the west coast of Yell, and in the grounds of Gardisfauld Hostel on Unst for the remaining three. It’s got  a superb view out over the sound where we saw otters, seals and all manner of seabirds. And a rainbow.IMG_5318

IMG_5956
Hezzer and Yours truly at Gardisfauld

Hermaness nature reserve overlooking Muckle Flugga lighthouse is as far north as you can get in the UK. And it is staggering because of its wild west-facing coast with offshore stacks whit-topped with Gannets, as well as vast areas of moorland dotted with numerous pairs of ‘Bonxie’ Great Skuas, which were either cruising about looking for trouble (as Bonxies do) or standing about displaying by throwing their wings back and uttering a primeval gulping call that sends a shiver up your spine (in a horror movie type way).

IMG_5612
Bonxies Displaying

But I do like Bonxies, they are one of my favourite seabirds. Non-birders hardly notice them because they look so scruffy.

At last, after three days, the wind dropped. It was due to stay fairly calm till lunchtime the next day, which just happened to be 21 June, the longest day of the year. I have always made an extra special effort to get up extra early on the longest day so I didn’t need much persuasion to set my alarm clock for 4am, as I was itching to go for a paddle. My Cobra Expedition kayak had travelled the best part of one thousand miles on the roof of the car to get here; it would be a pity to take it back without it getting wet (with sea water).

In fact the alarm clock was surplus to requirements because a Blackbird, which had made one of only about three bushes on the entire island its home, decided to have a bit of a sing-song to welcome in the dawn at 2.30. It did well to spot the difference between night and day because at this latitude there is not a lot of difference and you can still just about read a book in the darkest part of the night.

IMG_5638
Early Start (note incorrect date)

I was all packed up and on the water by 3.40am. My earliest start ever on a kayaking trip. And was very excited because early means otters.

Less than a minute of paddling along the glass calm water in front of Gardisfauld Hostel I heard a cat yowling from the undergrowth and saw an otter hopping about amongst the rocks. Obviously not the cat’s best chum. This was followed a couple of minutes later by another (otter, not cat), also on the shore, which was an unusually pale individual.

I crossed the sound over to the island of Uyea as a couple of Red-throated Divers (Rain Geese as they are called in Shetland) arrived from their freshwater loch for breakfast in the sea, striking the water at speed breast-first with quite a splash. The sound of their honking calls as birds shuttled backwards and forwards to their breeding areas in the hills, was more or less continuous all morning.

There was a lot of honking which apparently means there is going to be a lot of rain. ‘They’ were right.

Another singleton otter as I arrived at the shore of Uyea and then I heard a piercing otter ‘whistle’ followed by a bit of a chatter as an otter on a rock communicated to its mate which was following some distance behind. All a bit too dark for photos as it wasn’t even four o’clock!

As it brightened I had an excellent prolonged view of an otter fishing in front of me. I followed it along at a safe distance and watched as it emerged onto a rock to munch its way through a butterfish in a typical noisy, mouth open, crunchy otter way. And a half decent photograph.

IMG_5707
Otter on Uyea Island

As I emerged out of the shelter of the island around the more exposed east-facing shore of Uyea the otters were replaced by Grey Seals and a few small groups of Black Guillemots which were uttering their high-pitched whistling calls, one of which sounded more like a Great Tit.

IMG_5729
Black Guillemots

As I rounded a headland the golden sandy beach of Sand Wick came into view, but before stretching my legs on the sand, I took a diversion up the narrow inlet of the Ham of Muness. A bottling seal, noisy Arctic tern colony and Fulmars nesting on an old building kept me entertained, but as soon as I saw an otter swimming directly towards me I took evasive action before it detected me and paddled round in a huge circle and tucked in to the shore, hoping it would swim right past. I held on to a flat rock on the shore and got my camera ready. The otter appeared, swimming quite happily, and then dived. The trail of bubbles approached, went under the front of my kayak, and the otter momentarily climbed out of the water onto the flat rock, close enough to touch. In an instant and a splash of water it was gone.

I felt a built guilty about upsetting this otter but I was actually stationary and the otter came to me, I wasn’t chasing it around.

IMG_5741
Grey Seal (bottling)

At the headland I had the briefest view of a porpoise surfacing once, the only cetacean I was to see in Shetland.

I downed a king-sized Bakewell Tart (from Baltasound Bakery) on Sand Wick while a trio of Red-Throated Divers came close into the shallows.

IMG_5793
Red-Throated Divers

After my pit-stop just as I was leaving the beach Hezzer and Sharpy appeared over the horizon so I stopped to have a word with them, watching the terns fishing in the bay.

IMG_5806
Sand Wick, Unst
IMG_5815
Fulmar

Then it was back the way I had come, this time including a circuit of the small island of Half Gruney in the itinerary. I was a bit surprised to pass a lone Sanderling on the exposed rocks; they are usually faithful to beaches.

After an excellent encounter with three incredibly approachabl Arctic Terns on the way back, I arrived back at Gardisfauld at midday after an eight hour 20 plus mile paddle…my first in Shetland. And six otters….five before 5am…..that’s another first!

Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern
IMG_5257
Beautiful Arctic Tern

The rain, and wind, arrived later in the day and the tent buckled and tent poles splintered. During the night I frequently got a faceful of canvas but we all kept dry and the tent stayed essentially tent-shaped (thanks to a roll of Gorilla tape).

Our final day was spent with a steady drive back down the island chain to the ferry terminal at Lerwick, and a warm (!) sunny afternoon seawatching at Sumburgh Head, hoping for the Orca pack to appear. Needless to say it didn’t, but we had superb views of Puffins and both species of skua. Hezzer glimpsed a Minke Whale far,far out but I failed to spot it.

That was it. Fairwell to Shetland.

It was such a pleasant evening as the ferry crept across Lerwick harbour, the kayakers and paddleboarders were out in their boardshorts.

Despite the windchill from the speed of the ferry I stayed out on deck for several hours. A big swirl at the surface close by was confirmed to be a Minke whale by the only other few people left on the deck who saw it before it dived. I must have missed seeing the actual creature by less than  a hundredth of a second. Probably the same one Hezzer had seen from the shore, as we were passing Sumburgh Head.

That would have been the icing on what was already a pretty good cake.

IMG_5413
Gannet

One of my personal rules about kayaking is that I spend at least as long on the water as the car journey it took to get there.

Oops.

This is the first time I think I have failed, and failed in a spectacular fashion. Twenty-five to thirty hours in the car for eight hours on the water. Crikey.

Time to get back to Devon and put in some hours on my local patch.

IMG_5873
Typical Shetland Scenery (although it’s not usually sunny)

 

 

Advertisements

Medley of Scottish Lochs

It had to happen sooner or later. After many years of being incredibly lucky with the weather during my Spring trips to Scotland, mid May 2017 looked as though it was going to let me down. The forecast was stiff winds from the west and intermittent rain. The west coast would have been no fun. I still can’t believe I was so fortunate with my two month expedition round the west coast and islands three years ago when I only lost one or two days to strong winds.

Plan B was to paddle in the relative shelter of various freshwater lochs, and ideally the ones with no roads along the sides to maximise the chance of wildlife encounters.

I drove the 650 miles from Holsworthy to Taynuilt beside Loch Etive near Oban in one very long day, and during the night as I was curled up in my sleeping bag the car was rocked by a gusty wind coming down from the mountains. Loch Etive was definitely no-go for a kayak so I sought the quieter waters of Loch Awe a few miles away.

IMG_3361
Loch Awe

It was windy and quite warm and dry so pretty reasonable. I drifted close enough to a Dipper for a reasonable photograph, always difficult because they are generally not that tame and are usually amongst dark rocks which makes getting the exposure right difficult.

IMG_3413
Dipper

In a sheltered bay on the north bank I was very surprised to come across a Great Northern Diver, still in its winter plumage (although it was 12 May). This looked like a  juvenile from last years brood.

IMG_3429
Great Northern Diver

I was very keen not to frighten it by getting too close but it allowed me to drift to about twenty yards away while it continued to dive. I got what I thought were some great images but noticed that every so often it would ‘gag’ slightly in a unnatural manner.

Upon reviewing the images I fell into an instant gloom when I saw the fishing line wrapped around its bottom mandible and trailing out behind it. Poor blooming thing. It’s flown all the way from Iceland or further to grace the UK with its amazing presence, just to get tangled up in  discarded fishing tackle.

IMG_3442
GND with fishing line wrapped around lower mandible

There wasn’t a hope of being able to help it as it seemed to be swimming and diving quite normally (and probably catching some fish) but I think its long term outlook is pretty hopeless.

I was lured into one of the lochside Bluebell woods for lunch by the dazzling colour.

IMG_3473
Loch Awe Bluebells

Just as I was completing my twenty mile circuit and trying to avoid the many fishing speedboats around a marina on the southern side of the Loch, I had a superb view of a couple of Black-throated Divers, these ones in full breeding plumage. They are exciting enough to see when dressed in their two-tone winter outfit around the bays of SW England, but in their breeding plumage they are arguably the UK’s most beautifully marked bird. This is definitely the case if you are photographing in black-and-white.

IMG_3557
Black-throated Divers

I was very careful not to approach too close to cause them distress, but they seemed relatively happy with several small fishing boats plying past and me floating about in my kayak, and continued to look for fish by dipping their heads underwater.

Black-throated Divers at their nest sites are super-sensitive to disturbance which includes photographers getting too close for that perfect photo.

33816014053_7f04eb81f7_b
Black-throated Divers

I spent the weekend with son Henry who was working in Stirling, and the wildlife action continued, now focused around his enormous telephoto lens rather than my kayak. While sitting in his hide at 6am it was a thrill to hear,simultaneously, a cuckoo calling on a distant hillside, a snipe drumming overhead (sounding more like a mosquito), the bubbling call of a dozen Blackcocks which were ‘lekking’ (displaying) nearby, and the honking call of a pair of divers (Red-throats I think) flying overhead. Tremendous, and well worth the effort of turfing out of bed early. And we saw a Hen Harrier.

IMG_3620_01

The forecast was wet so when I left Henry on Monday morning I opted for a circuit around Loch Tummel clad in full waterproof gear. Exciting because I was paddling new shores but otherwise grey and damp.

IMG_3635
Loch Tummel

I was determined to set up my tent for at least one night and although I was very aware that the further west I drove the wetter it would get, I had my eye on the southern shore of Loch Arkaig. It’s got no road access for ten miles along its shore so should feel nice and remote. I should have a decent paddle but not too far if things should ‘blow up’ (meteorologically speaking).

IMG_3658
Loch Arkaig

The first day started dry and quite still but gradually deteriorated into sheet rain with a fair old howling headwind. However I was not going to let it beat me so I dug in with the paddle and ploughed on, waves breaking over the deck, cheered up by the tumbling song of Willow Warblers and peep of numerous Common Sandpipers.

IMG_3452
Common Sandpiper taking a nap

A lucky drier interlude allowed me to pitch my tent at the mouth of a small river a couple of miles before the end of the loch, and after a brew I paddled into an even stronger headwind to the sandy beach at the head of the loch. Typical, this camping spot was better as there was a large area of short-cropped flat grass with no-one in sight. Even better, a Greenshank was piping its slightly haunting and slightly mournful song somewhere upwind not very far away. To me it is the ornithological equivalent of bagpipes.

IMG_3676
Camp on Loch Arkaig

No way was I going to paddle back to my tent and bring it here in these conditions, so I enjoyed the downwind run back to my camp and settled in to read my book. I emptied out a tin of catfood I had brought to lure in the local Pine Martens but needless to say it hadn’t been touched by the time I departed in the morning.

And as usual I fell asleep within five minutes of starting to read. Fortunately a Hercules passing overhead about 5 foot (or so it seemed) above my tent woke me up. But then it was time to go to bed anyway.

The next day dawned sunny and I enjoyed the twelve mile paddle back to the car. A Merlin crossed the loch high above my head and I could hear the bubbling croon of Blackcocks coming from the patch of forest more than a mile away over the water.

My next loch was Loch Ness and I had a specific purpose. I had arranged a rendezvous with a friend who was pedalling (not paddling) from Land’s End to John O’Groats at at the pub in Dores at the eastern end of the loch. I had to be there at 1pm so I thought I should set off by 5am to allow for the odd break.

IMG_3713
Loch Ness

Lovely sunny day, light following wind, great paddle, but virtually zero wildlife apart from two floating (and smelling)deer carcases. And limited viewing and scenic surprises as the loch is dead straight. The trees at the end of the loch which were my destination, were over the horizon when I set off.

IMG_3691
Loch Ness Ducklings

However it was great to see my chum Andrew plus cycling companions, and we were joined by my brother Tim who works nearby. Super pub in super location by nice beach.

IMG_3725

The promise of lighter winds the following day lured me down to the sea at the Moray firth, with the hope of an encounter with some of its resident Bottlenose Dolphins.

I paddled out from Ardesier on the southern shore near Fort George in glassy conditions. On approaching Chanonry Point  a distant splashing encouraged me to crank up the pace as it must have been dolphins. Sure enough they soon appeared, and as Bottlenose dolphins always do, they seemed big. This is because they are, and also because the individuals of the Moray Firth pod are reputed to be even bigger than normal as they are one of the furthest north groups in the world and need extra blubber to keep warm.

IMG_3800
Moray Firth Dolphins

Two outliers swam past before a group of five came past satisfactorily slowly and close to allow me a few pics. Interestingly the photographs show a sort of crease below the forehead on some of the bigger dolphins giving them the appearance of a frown, confirming perhaps that they do indeed have more blubber than some of their species that inhabit warmer climes.

I paddled a few miles up the coast of the Black Isle for lunch then back past Rosehearty beach. It was great to hear the constant cheerful call of passing terns.

IMG_3807
Common Tern

The dolphin watchers were out in force as I crossed back over to Ardesier. The dolphins obliged by fishing a few metres off the point for much of the afternoon….I could even see their fins through binoculars from two miles away when I got back to the car.

IMG_3811
Chanonry Point
IMG_3817
Chanonry Point dolphin watchers

My final short paddle adventure was in the rain at Loch Insh, the highlight being a couple of broods of newly hatched Goldeneye, and an Osprey.

IMG_3823
Goldeneye brood

Although I did break the appallingly slow and traffic laden drive back to Devon with a quick ten miles on the River Avon at Tewkesbury. Perfect, warm ,still.

IMG_3928

 

 

Expedition Scotland part five

Expedition Scotland (part five). Final Fling

 

Cush and I had six days to play with before my adventure was due to end back at Oban. We started with a cruise up Loch Sunart on Sea Canter. This was my second trip up the Loch, and it was raining and misty just like the first time. However Sunart is an extremely scenic loch and the low cloud and mizzle doesn’t seem to detract too much from its splendour.

We moored at the pontoon at Salen. Superb spot. I was keen to do another hefty day-paddle and had rather regretted missing out on Loch Teacuis when I passed this way seven weeks ago.

So I was up at five and paddled across Loch Sunart to its deserted southern shore in the hope of another wildlife encounter. There is no doubt that otters and their friends are more active early in the morning.P1050453

Paddling more or less silently about ten yards off the shore I saw a pine marten working its way across the rocks of the shore towards me. It had no idea I was there. I had the perfect view of it hunting, then halting and pouncing on some unseen and unlucky small creature in the long grass. The clicking of my camera made it look hard in my direction but it soon lost interest and went on its way.P1050460

The south side of Loch Sunart is indeed wild as there is no road access. However there are a couple of fish farms which make a bit of noise. One reeling clicking noise is particularly weird as you can ‘hear’ it in the back of your head from quite a long range but it is completely undirectional and impossible to work out where it is coming from. Birders amongst you will know what I mean when I say it sounds like the song of a Grasshopper warbler.

After about an hour and-a-half steady paddling I arrived at the mouth of Loch Teacuis. It was everything I hoped it would be. Scenic, remote, interesting. Islands, tall trees, steep hills, loads of wildlife. An otter slunk off, a red deer hind stared at me from behind a bush and a couple of small and fluffy fox cubs went tearing off when I surprised them coming round a mini-headland.P1050473

And there was that reeling noise again. But no fish farm this time, it was a singing grasshopper warbler!

Quite a tidal flow in the narrow neck half way down the loch, and then it opens out to a lagoon in which I was surprised to see a couple of boats moored. And a few houses on the shore.

I stopped for a tea break on Teacuis right at its head. Then back along the western shore, trying not to disturb the large number of harbour seals plus small pups hauled out on the islands adjacent to Carna.

Mother and son/daughter seal

I stopped to watch a pair of otters fishing in the strong tidal current at the neck of the loch, and a school of porpoises, and then retraced my route along the south shore back to Salen. I didn’t fancy the north shore as it is followed by a main road. Good move as I saw three more otters.

25 mile paddle, surely one of the best in Scotland in terms of variety, remoteness, and wildlife.

Back on Sea Canter we stopped overnight at Loch Drumbuie then sailed to Dunstaffnage near Oban the next day.

I paddled round the island of Kerrera before our very final two days exploring the Ross of Mull.

Near Carsaig Bay, Mull

The kayaking near the south-western tip of Mull is exceptional. If it was in south-western England it would be rated as the number one kayaking destination and be crawling with idiots in sit-on-tops, like me.P1050658

P1050701It’s got everything, and was certainly looking at its best as it was calm and sunny. So the white sand beaches were perfect. A very complex coastline with twists and turns and islets and a handful of beaches at the neck of craggy inlets. Lots of seals too. Golden Eagles soaring over the tops of the hills.

Then it was back to Oban, and that was it.

Duart Castle

Expedition over.

785 miles paddled.Plus a further 500 or so miles sailed/motored on Sea Canter.55 otters, 4 pine martens, 2 mink (all from kayak), 6 minke whales(all from yacht…still havn’t seen a whale from kayak…), 30 lots of porpoises, 10 sea eagles, 6 golden eagles, 2 basking sharks. One St.Kilda wren. And a trout and a pollack. And one Stealth Bomber.

A few key bits of kit have ensured a successful, and enjoyable trip:

1. A decent tent. I took a Vango Tempest 300. A fairly rugged D of E type tent and big enough to move around in. Easy pitching. No broken poles.

2. A good cooker/water heater. My Jetboil was ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC. Ultra quick in any wind condition. Economic on gas. I took far too much gas,in fact had enough for another two months camping.

3. A good boat. Controversial one this, I suspect. Everyone thinks they have the best  kayak. But I would consider my Cobra Expedition sit-on-top (SOT) hard to beat. Long.Narrow.Fast.Huge hatches (yeah, OK, they leak a bit).And the ease of use of a sit-on-top. Just hop on and go.

Plenty of opportunity to move around if you get a sore butt.

And of course hugely safe. If you have a spill you just climb back on. Or do you? In the same way as I would suspect that a average paddler in a conventional sea kayak could not roll up if they get tipped over in a big sea (and if they did,they would be subject to exactly the same conditions that just tipped them over,so they would probably go over again), I would worry that I may not be able to get back on my SOT. It’s fine if it’s flat, but conditions bad enough to result in a capsize (surf excluded)would be pretty nasty anyway.

However at least I would have the chance of a simple re-entry and not be struggling with a swamped kayak, pumping it out etc.

The sit-on-top/sit-in kayak (SINK)  debate is potentially very long. I just like to keep things ultra simple. Simplicity means more time on the water and less time faffing about. Float it out onto the water.Sit on and go. No struggling with a spray deck on the beach and then scrunching across the stones it into the sea.

Yes OK you need a decent drysuit for all season SOT paddling, but apart from that, clutter is a minimum.

Considering my expedition round the west of Scotland as a whole, there were three or four occasions when I was concerned about my safety because of the sea state. Probably unnecessarily so, as I never came close to capsize. But paddling round the ‘dark side’ of St. Kilda I would have been in a state of severe anxiety if I was in a SINK. The unsinkable, unswampable feature of SOTs with their drainage holes provide a feeling of security.

I suppose it boils down to enjoyment. My expedition was probably 80% enjoyment, 20% worry. If I was in a SINK that would have been 50%/50%.

I could go on,and on, and be a bit of a bore about the SOT advantages. Maybe it’s because they are so sneered at by most SINK sea kayakers.

Just one more thing. How many times have I ventured out onto the water on a foul day on a SOT when if I only had a SINK it would have stayed in the garage. A lot.

Anyway, Scotland over, its back to footling about in Devon and Cornwall.P1070079

 

p.s.

Most disastrous bit of kit was my ghastly trainers I bought from our local factory shop for a fiver. Unbelievably cheap, unbelievably plasticky, and unbelievably smelly. like the worst teenagers socks. The combination of permanently damp feet and overwhelming stench was a recipe for nausea, but I think it helped keep the midges away.P1050733P1050388_01

About these ads

Occasionally, some of your visitors may see an advertisement here
You can hide these ads completely by upgrading to one of our paid plans.

UPGRADE NOW DISMISS MESSAGE

Tags: , ,, , , , , , ,,

Expedition Scotland part four

 

 

MOTHER SHIP

Phase two of my kayak expedition involved ‘nipping’ over to the Outer Hebrides and working back down to the south of the island chain before crossing back to Oban to complete the entire circuit of Western Scotland.

Enter Cushing with his yacht. He had left Bristol in early May and we met up to discuss plans on ‘Sea Canter’ at Kyle of Lochalsh. Das boot (my kayak) fitted snugly on the foredeck, so the second half of my trip was going to involve stealing a lift for all the nasty and tiring bits so I could cherry-pick all the best bits. And Sea Canter had some nice big storage spaces for food…and drink.

Cush and Sea Canter

LOFTY

Together with Marcus and Gordon who had just got off the train at Kyle, we sailed up the east coast of Skye, crossing over to Scalpay in North Harris on a still, misty day. I did a bit of exploring  by kayak up the north Eastern tip of Skye before we crossed, along the line of the very dramatic Trotternish mountains , and checked out the lofty waterfall  near Staffin.P1050127

P1050135REMOTE

Are the Outer Hebrides starkly beautiful or appallingly bleak? I suppose it depends on whether a landscape devoid of trees and composed largely of rock appeals to you. The sun would help the appearance enormously but we didn’t see a lot of it, initially. In fact we didn’t see a lot of anything because of the  mist.

Typical Hebridean Scene

We anchored in the perfect natural harbour at Rodel, poised for an assault on St.Kilda the next day. We couldn’t believe our luck at the favourable forecast, a large area of high pressure anchored to the west of the UK. Only questionmark was a bit of mist and fog.

SENSATIONAL ST.K

So the next day we motorsailed up the Sound of Harris and out into the Atlantic. Slight swell, light winds. No problem.  Six hours later we saw the St. Kilda islands ahead. The outline of the main island of Hirta looked a bit dull in comparison to the jagged relief of Boreray and its adjacent stacks.

Boreray

We anchored in village bay and worked out our plans for the next day, keen to make the most of  the UK’s number one adventure destination.P1050172

I was dead keen to paddle round the island. I have a huge amount of respect for those few who have paddled to St.K from Uist…not sure I could have done it. So I HAD to paddle round it. Had a quick preparatory paddle early in the morning and found a tiderace off the tip of the island of Dun that I couldn’t paddle against. Pity our arrival coincided with June’s biggest high tides. The local seals didn’t seem too phased by the nasty tide race though.

Laid back St.Kilda seal

We all ventured ashore and got absorbed in the history and haunting basicness if the row of old stone houses in village bay. And the astonishing number of stone storage huts or ‘cleits’ dotted about all over the place including way up the side of the steep hills.

The old settlement at village bay

Its a bit of a pity there is a military installation right slap bang on the shore in village bay with a generator the size of a ship’s engine running 24 -7.

We sent off a ream of postcards with the St.Kilda postmark. I was pretty pleased to see a St.Kilda wren singing from a chimneypot, and surprised to see a pair of swallows zipping about.

SOLO ROUND ST.KILDA

So back to the kayaking.Low tide might mean the tide races were less so off I paddled, anticlockwise. The tops of the hills and cliffs were lost in dense mist which was a pity as they are the highest in UK. When I rounded the sharp corner to the north facing coast I ran into a fair swell which was bouncing back off the sheer cliff. Very atmospheric with the hoards of fulmars circling around, but I was on the edge of my comfort zone and was gripping the paddle very tight. Ten miles of vertical cliff, no shelter, no beaches.And no rescue.P1050199

Everything about this place was primeval. The cackling of gannets and fulmars, the raucous clamour of auks on their nesting ledges, the boom of the swells breaking under pressure in the sea caves, and the haunting cry of the seals.Don’t supposed its changed a lot since the ice age. In fact probably since a long time before that as St. K wasn’t covered in the ice sheet.

P1050204

I was not hanging around and arrived at the gap between Hirta and Soay quicker than I had thought. Still a stiff tidal current but it was in my favour. I was a bit concerned there was even more swell on the west facing coast although was kept distracted by the tens of thousands of puffins rafted up on the lively sea. Although I’m sure it is usually a lot livelier.

Raft of puffins

I could have missed out the island of Dun by nipping through the gap but wasn’t ready to finish yet so tackled the tide race at the end again which was just manageable, although against my direction of paddle, predictably.

Das Boot at St Kilda

I was quite relieved to arrive back at Sea Canter in village bay. It allowed the colour to return to my knuckles,and pulse rate to return to a level more sustainable for long term survival.It was only ten miles and only two and a half hours  but probably my most exciting paddle ever.Totally extreme. I was pleased to have got one over on the raft of Bonxies that were sitting about in Glen Bay, clearly discussing how my body parts were going to be shared out when I came to grief.

We departed for South Harris the next morning and our very memorable St.Kilda experience was nicely rounded off by seeing a Minke whale close to the yacht, including hearing it ‘blowing’ as it surfaced.P1050250

CIVILISATION AGAIN (sort of)

Back at Rodel we had a shower and a meal in the excellent Rodel Hotel to celebrate Cush’s birthday.

Then down the east coast to Lochmaddy. An extrordinary place. A ferry terminal, a hotel, a line of houses and a shop.Actually quite busy for Uist.

Ferry hiding at Lochmaddy

I paddled right round Loch Maddy. 14 miles. Good thing I took my map because getting lost amongst the maze of islands was highly likely. And some astonishing tide traps. I shot down one rapid into a lagoon but then had to fight my way UP the next one as the tide was surging in from the other direction as well. 6-7mph flows.

Great for otters as I don’t suppose they get disturbed by kayakers very often. One attempted to hide under the weed. Unsuccessfully.Four altogether.

Low-profile otter

Next day, farewell to Marcus, and Cush and I set off down the east coast of N.Uist, Benbecula and S.Uist. Overnight anchorage in  Lochboisdale and on towards Barra. Two days of sailing and hardly a house to be seen.

South Uist city

VATERSAY VISIT

We had Vatersay as our target and a white sand beach. Upon arrival I paddled ashore to hunt for the legendary Corncrake. They used to be common throughout the UK but change in farming practices has led to them just clinging on to normal life in the outer isles.I wandered across the amazing machair and its swathe of flowers, listening hard for those raspy calls.

Vatersay machair

I had given up and was nearly back at my kayak when I heard a characteristic  call wafting over on the wind, coming from a hayfield behind the crofter’s houses. Yes, a Corncrake, and several more answering nearby. Stare as I might, I couldn’t see them. They keep their heads down in the grass.

Next day I set off on a big paddle around the south of Barra, east of Vatersay and over to Sandray. And would you believe it, the sun came out and we saw the white beaches and turquoise water shown off at its best. I rubbed shoulders with a couple of sea kayak groups in Castlebay, watched a Sea Eagle and Golden Eagle flying together, and stepped ashore on the most perfect beach on the east of Sandray.P1050373

P1050388MINKE and MINK

Time to head back to the mainland. A drizzly start but flat calm as we motored away from Barra. Perfect for wildlife spotting. Three Minke whales, two Basking Sharks, loads of porpoises and seabirds including shearwaters, skuas and storm petrels.

The sun emerged as we approached Ardnamurchan point and headed for the marina at the crazily quaint town of Tobermory.And our first trees for two weeks.

Tobermory

Rather surprised to see a Mink hunting on the shore during my early morning paddle the next day.Evil little beasts, they are very bold and approach the kayak before getting in a panic and tearing off into the rocks when they realise I am not edible.

Last part of adventure coming soon…part 5  ‘Final Fling’

About these ads

Occasionally, some of your visitors may see an advertisement here
You can hide these ads completely by upgrading to one of our paid plans.

UPGRADE NOW DISMISS MESSAGE

Tags: , ,, , , , , , , , , ,

Expedition Scotland part three

Expedition Scotland (part three) Loch Ewe to Handa

 

KEEP PADDLING

I knew the favourable weather window wouldn’t last so I needed to keep clocking up the miles. However I was also keen to explore into most of the sea lochs that cut into the heart of the Highlands. The compromise was to paddle round all the lochs without main roads beside them and bypass the others e.g the Loch Brooms.

Another sunny stillish day as I circuited Loch Ewe , skirted Isle Ewe and had a bit of a stock up in Aultbea stores. I was having a very social two days having spent the night in a friend’s house in Cove, and then meeting my brother and another chum for camping at Mellon Udrigle.

Lots of jellyfish about including a large Lion’s mane jelly:

Lions mane jellyfish

P1040781Another big headland beckoned, Greenstone Point. Another easy one with calm water. And upon rounding it another vista of fantastic Scottish mountains to enjoy.  Farewell the Torridons, hello to An Teallach and the Sutherland peaks.

Mellon Udrigle camp

Mellon Udrigle is the perfect white sand beach, the only problem was that a lot of other people thought the same and it was actually quite busy. My companions arrived and we sped off to the Aultbea hotel for gnosh. One too many pints of the local brew led to a slovenly start the next day, and it was the last of the still days so multi miles was essential.

EAGLE EYES
Friend David came along in his Prowler for the first half of the day. David quickly spotted movement amongst the rocks on the shore and we were astonished to see a pine marten hopping about. Reasonable view.

David's pine marten

The Gruinard beaches are sensational, and looking their best in the sun. We stopped for a snack on one of the many and then on around to Mungasdale, another beauty, where I bad farewell to David. Despite being certified free from Anthrax, we bypassed Gruinard island.

Gruinard beach

I was suddenly gripped with an urge to blast onwards, fast. In the back of my mind I was worried about Coigach Point and the weather forecast for tomorrow. The sea completely glassed off allowing me to maintain 4 to 4.5 mph which is about my max cruising speed.

I sliced across the mouth of Little Loch Broom and as I was passing Cailleach Head I made the spontaneous decision to cut straight across to the Summer Isles, five miles away. This would mean missing Loch Broom and Ullapool which wasn’t going to be the greatest disaster.

Avoiding nearly being run down by a trawler I passed up the middle of the Summer Isles, heading for Isle Ristol where I knew there was a decent beach. But stupidly I stopped short on a shingly beach pointing south and set up my tent in a bog. Bad. A good campsite is hugely influential in deciding whether I have had a good day or not.

NERVOUS

Next morning another three or four battle squadrons of midges needlessly erased their existence in  and around my face, and I noticed my hands were shaking as I folded up the tent poles. And my mouth was dry. I really was getting in a bit of a stew about rounding Rubha Coigach.

It was because the weather had broken. Overcast, drizzle, and steadily increasing SW wind. And my fears were proved correct. A moderate swell, whitecaps, bounceback from the cliffs and stiff tide stream (at least in my favour) led to a hairy five miles. Gannets and fulmars zipped past and it was a bit concerning that the bonxies were hanging around shadowing me, no doubt discussing amongst themselves who had first peck at my eyeballs when I tipped out.

Pretty stupid really. But suddenly I was around the point and paddling SE in a completely different world.  Calm , sheltered and laden with interest in the form of coves, cliffs, stacks and caves. Otter, seals, peregrine.

BAD
I was soon on my way north up the amazing rocky coastline of Enard Bay. Barren and remote. Like a twit I sopped early at Inverkirkaig and camped at a lousy spot beside the river mouth. Even more midgy the next morning.

And another nervous day. Onshore wind and swell creating a bumpy ride. As soon as the sun comes out everything looks friendly. When it goes in the sea becomes battleship grey and seems hostile.I had a nose at Lochinver and bought a cup of coffee in the Spar. As I got back to my kayak I slipped on kelp and landed hard on my backside on a rock and hurled the coffee all over me. Much to the amusement of the people waiting for the bus.

Lochinver

I cowardlily cringed out at Clachtoll campsite after only thirteen mies but at least this put me in a good position for Stoer point tomorrow.

Didn’t like Clachtoll. No good reason apart from the fact that I really should be seeking wilderness campsites and leaves the cosy places to the campervanners. I needed a shower though.

Stoer point was a thrill. It had everything a major headland should have. Mighty cliffs, lighthouse, squadrons of Guillemots and Razorbills zipping about, islands, surging tide currents, and the most unlikely towering stack, the Old man of Stoer, which had a narrow kayakable channel on the inside.

Old Man of Stoer

GOOD
Excellent. Then back into calm waters in the shelter of Culkein and Clashnessie Bay. I had my eye on a camp on Oldany island. Spotted a sandy bit on the north-east corner on the map. I needed a good camping spot after a succession of bad ones.

Ooh perfect. Short turf overlooking a sandy beach. Nobody or nothing else in sight apart from a deserted bothy.Just the usual plovers, arctic terns busy on a nearby island, eider ducks cooing. I set up camp and took a quick spin around the island.

Oldany island camp

My penultimate day paddling up the Scottish west coast mainland was probably my most enjoyable. Oldany island to Kylesku bridge and then around both the remote sea lochs that carve into the mountains from there. Loch Glencoul and Loch Glendhu. Huge variety of scenery and wildlife.

It was a reasonably sunny day so paddling wasn’t an effort. I called in at the Kylesku hotel to ask if I could use their outside tap to fill my water bottles. Shoudn’t have bothered because the water tasted so horrible (iodine I think, hopefully not weedkiller) I ditched it and scooped some out of a stream containing a couple of sticklebacks instead.

Then I paddled into Glencoul. Terrific. It took me right into the heart of the mountains consisting of 50% rock ( obviously 100% rock, but 50% rock showing at the surface). As usual I paddled silently along close to the shore in the hope of seeing a Scottish speciality creature. Something russet moving amongst the rocks caught my eye. A pine marten. It was a long way from the nearest pine, in fact there weren’t any trees in sight. It worked its way over the rocks and stopped to study me briefly before deciding I wasn’t a threat and carrying on with its hunt.

paler Pine marten

I continued  through the narrows to Loch Beag and was quite impressed by the huge waterfall further up the Glen which I was told would be a disappointment.

Glencoul Waterfall

Then round into Glendhu. An even more impressive craggy glen and another top wildlife encounter. I had crossed to the north side of the Loch to try to shelter from the increasing headwind and was tucked in only yards from the shore. An otter surfaced a few feet in front of me and was heading in the same direction. I followed it for five minutes as it busily dived and surfaced and slithered through the kelp, intermittently coming to the shore to noisily munch some of the huge marine worms it seemed to find.P1040911

P1040927 I found a superb place to camp right on the shore opposite Glendhu bothy and enjoyed the evening sun as a golden eagle soared far overhead.

Loch Glendhu camp

GLOOM
My final day paddling up the mainland could not have been more of a contrast to the previous day in terms of weather. The rain started in the early hours. I was on the water at 5.30 because I was keen to get on (you don’t say) and the midges were worse than ever.

The W wind steadily increased and the day panned out exactly as I had feared. First bit to Kylesku bridge….easy. Second bit to Badcall bay, strengthening headwind and moderate swell. Heavier rain and feeling colder. Third bit from Badcall Bay to entrance of Handa Sound….terrible. Strong headwind with wavechop, swell and long cliffy sections providing a whiteknuckle ride. Fouth bit, up Handa Sound to the beaches….more sheltered…phew.

As a last fling I paddled round Handa island, admired the vast number of seabirds, including a few puffins, paddled in, around and under the Great Stack of Handa, got to the legendary cafe at Tarbert before it had opened (so missed out on food) and watched a bonxie eating a dead Guillemot, which I suspect it had just killed.

Handa puffin

Handa Bonxie

Handa Arctic Terns

Then the sun came out, I paddled back to Scourie, and was picked up by my brother Tim. Just outside Scourie beach were a load of moon jellyfish and the apology I made every time I accidentally whacked one on the head with my paddle were the first words I had uttered for a week (apart from the very brief exchange with the hotel manager at Kylesku).

Moon jellyfish

So that’s it for phase 1 of my adventure.. No more genoa cake for lunch. 550 miles completed.

Next: the Hebrides….and St. Kilda!

About these ads

Occasionally, some of your visitors may see an advertisement here
You can hide these ads completely by upgrading to one of our paid plans.

UPGRADE NOW DISMISS MESSAGE

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,, , ,

Expedition Scotland part two

Expedition Scotland (part two) Kyle of Lochalsh to Loch Ewe

 

RELAX

Before continuing on my way up the coast I spent a very entertaining couple of days with my two sons plus chum touring round my favourite spots around the area in search of its amazing wildlife.

Camping was cold at Sligachan on Skye.

Sligachan

And wet at Moidart.

But we got a great view of a White-tailed Eagle.

White-tailed Eagle (aka Sea Eagle)

And had a bit of sport paddling down the river Shiel again. This time there was a rapid at low tide where the river exits into the sea.

Ready for the River Shiel

Shiel white water

MORON

When son Tim dropped me back at Kyleakin so I could continue north, the northwest wind was whipping under the Skye bridge pushing up a mass of whitecaps and the temperature was well into single figures. A wiser person would have checked into the local Hotel for the night. But we had already done that and it smelled a bit musty and I didn’t want to go there again. I wanted to get moving. So I did.Bad move.

I passed underneath the bridge as Tim passed over with the car on his way back south and his wave somehow conveyed that he thought I was completely moronic paddling off in these conditions.

Away from the relative shelter of the bridge the waves repeatedly sloshed into the cockpit and I was sitting in a foot of water as it drained out slower than it filled up. And a few slapped me in the face. Although I felt a bit vulnerable the biggest issue was that the amount of forward progress really didn’t match the amount of effort put in.

I laboured past Plockton and then across the mouths of Loch Carron and Kishorn. I found a dismal place to camp in the rain on the (unnamed) peninsular on the far side near a thundering waterfall.Still better than the musty hotel though.

Continued rain and north wind in the morning ,but I packed up and made a bolt for Uags bothy in the shelter of the craggy coast. I arrived before 12 but there was such a welcoming patch of putting green type grass that I couldn’t resist pitching my tent there.

Uags...seven miles from the nearest road

And there I stayed for two days while the winds abated. Loads of cuckoos.

I managed a quick turbo-paddle around the Crowlin islands but even this was a bit hairy with a one-mile open crossing which became severely lumpy as the tide pushed against the wind. Nice seals though.

speckled Crowlin harbour seal

I wasted no time with an idiotically early start the day the wind dropped. Excellent otter encounter , in fact several, as I passed Applecross and scrounged some milk from the hotel which was full of bikers eating huge fried breakfasts. Funny how bikers seem to be about the same age as sea kayakers?!? Generally a different shape though.And more tattoos.

Applecross dog otter

Cup of tea at the lovely sandy beach called ‘Sand’ (come on…be a bit more original) and then a long haul ten mile up the dead straight and fairly uninteresting coast towards Loch Torridon. Still a niggly headwind and bouncy swell.

Suddenly livened up however by the explosive appearance of a large and very active school of Bottle-nose dolphins. They powered around all over the place and sploshed beside me. A little bit intimidating in fact as they are quite big and condition were still lumpy.P1040620

P1040625At  Cuaig the sun emerged, I found a deserted sandy beach and pitched camp, drying everything out while admiring the view over to the northern tip of Rona and Skye, and watching the dolphins appear again and surge past.

Top of Rona and Skye

EXCITED

I was eagerly anticipating my entry to Loch Torridon and the view of its mighty mountains, many of which I have hiked when my legs were a bit more functional and had a bit more meat on them.

But rounding Rubha na Fearn into Loch Torridon I was confronted with a howling southeast wind that was funnelling down the loch, complete with its complement of large waves. Blooming heck. I dodged about trying to find as much shelter as possible behind islands and headlands but was pretty pooped by the time I arrived in the very quaint hamlet of Shieldaig.

Stuffed in a cod and chips before camping on a grassy beach and then getting awful indigestion from eating all the greasy batter (or was it the pint of Guinness?).

I was determined to paddle round the entirity of Loch Torridon to get the best views of the mountains so set off into the unforgiving headwind the next day. Needless to say it suddenly dropped as I reached the head of the loch and started to head back.Typical.

Beinn Alligin

PANIC
27 May is my daughters birthday and when I checked I had phone reception so I could give her a birthday call, there wasn’t any. Lucky it was 5 am, so I had a chance of getting a signal at the mouth of the loch. Only problem was that was fifteen miles away. (I wasn’t going to ring her up at 5 by the way, I was just checking for later. I’m not THAT weird).

My hasty de-camp was made even more rapid by the plague of midges that hurled themselves in vast numbers into my ears, up my nose , and into my eyeballs. Can’t see that it can help the species as a whole when half of them failed to return from my various orifices alive.

It was a sunny flat calm morning so my progress up the north shore of Loch Torridon was as quick as it could be. I was rather sorry I didn’t get a better look at the village of Diabaig which is squashed between the rocky hillside and sea  Norwegian fjord style. The sun was directly in my eyes. And I didn’t want to hang about.

Redpoint east beach

I made a very brief stop at the excellent sandy beach of east Redpoint and then tried for a signal while bouncing about off the headland. Success. Phew.

My afternoon destination was Big Sand campsite on the north shore of Loch Gairloch. Time for a shower. Superb location above a long sandy beach and I plonked my tent just above the slipway.

The campsite was highly organised and clean and very busy with campervans. I made straight for the shower block and was a bit puzzled why I attracted longer ‘glances’ from passing campers than I would have otherwise expected.

The huge mirror in the shower block revealed why. Angelos Epithemiou sprang to mind.My budget underclothes smacked of refugee, and my face was encrusted in dried salt,sweat, dozens of dead midges and I think that was a bit of  Tikka Masala in my patchy stubble.

Next day was a doddle, a tour round Loch Gairloch. Past the cosy shelter of Badachro and up to where the Kerry river pours into the sea. I stopped in a cafe for a full fried breakfast which was surplus to requirements as it was only 9am and I had already consumed my five Weetabix and a Kitkat Chunky. It went down well though…think perhaps I wasn’t eating enough generally.

The forecast of light winds for the next few days made me much more relaxed about tackling the big headlands of Rubha Reidh and Stoer. In fact Rubha Reidh was about as easy as it could get with smooth surface and only a slight swell.

Rubha Reidh Lighthouse

Otter just after the lighthouse. I stopped for a tea break at the stupendous beach of Camas Mor. This has g0t to be the best beach in Scotland. Remote location, beautiful sweep of sand, backdrop of steep cliffs and stacks, dunes with the perfect pitch for one tent. I was tempted to stop but was due to meet an acquaintance in loch Ewe.

Camas Mor beach

I sent my fishing rod back home with my sons. Long distance touring and fishing just don’t go hand-in-hand. And towing a lure behind the kayak doesn’t yield the results it does in Devon and Cornwall. So that’s it for fishing…maybe.

 

 

 

 

About these ads

Occasionally, some of your visitors may see an advertisement here
You can hide these ads completely by upgrading to one of our paid plans.

UPGRADE NOW DISMISS MESSAGE

Tags: , , ,, , , , , , , ,

Expedition Scotland part one

Expedition Scotland (part one) Oban to Kyle of Lochalsh

 

Cobra Expedition in expedition mode

BONKERS.

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.

FOOL

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.

Pre departure pose

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.

See you in two months (ish)

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.

Looming Ben Nevis

Then mistake number 1.

IDIOT

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.

Friendly stag

...plus chums

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.

Fluffy otter

Not so fluffy otter

Otter with unfeasible tail

WET

Then it started to rain.As it did on-and-off for the next month.

DAFT

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.

Soggy Sunart

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.

Pub stop portage

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.

should've been at Ardnamurchan

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.

Loch shiel brownie

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).

precarious Moidart camp

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!

Glassy Moidart dawn

Beach at port nam Murrach

Fantastic. I needed no pursuasion the set up camp immediately and dry out. Even the local bull wasn’t going to put me off.

Idyllic camp ,Port nam Murrach

Non hostile bull

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.

Excellent Jetboil

ITCH

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.

MORON

Day 6

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.

Day 7

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.

over to Eigg

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.)

Day 8

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.

Day 9

BINGO.

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.

Bottle nose dolphin in rain

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.

Superb Loch Hourn camp

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.

Ringed Plover

can you spot the eggs?

There they are

Day 10.

I continued up nearly to the head of Loch Hourn as I like its remoteness and feel.

Mighty Loch Hourn Pollack

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.

porpoise

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.

Camp at Sandaig islands

Day11.

WET

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.

wet wet wet

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.

Skye Bridge

Phase one complete. 200 miles paddled . 11 Genoa cakes consumed.

And I havn’t even given the seals a mention

side-on seal

head-on seal