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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’