Expedition Scotland (part four). Outer Hebrides and St. Kilda.

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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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’

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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 puffin
Handa Bonxie
Handa Bonxie
Handa Arctic Terns
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
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!

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
Sligachan

And wet at Moidart.

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

White-tailed Eagle (aka Sea 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
Ready for the River Shiel
Shiel white water
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Camas Mor beach

Confession…..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.

Next…..Loch Ewe to Handa.

 

 

 

Expedition Scotland (part one) Oban to Kyle of Lochalsh

Cobra Expedition in expedition mode
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
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)
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
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
Friendly stag
...plus chums
…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
Fluffy otter
Not so fluffy otter
Not so fluffy otter
Otter with unfeasible tail
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
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
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
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
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
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
Glassy Moidart dawn
Beach at port nam Murrach
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
Idyllic camp ,Port nam Murrach
Non hostile bull
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
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
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
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
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
Ringed Plover
can you spot the eggs?
can you spot the eggs?
There they are
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
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
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
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
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
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
side-on seal
head-on seal
head-on seal

part two, Kyleakin to Scourie, soon.