Sunday, 1 April 2012

Fidra Overnight bikepack / packraft trip

Well, the clocks have changed, and it is about time to dust off the camping kit and get out there! The weather has been very warm here for this time of year, feels like summer. Inspired by this, I decided to do a trip I had fancied doing for a while, This involves cycling from Edinburgh to Yellowcraigs beach near Dirlton, then paddling across to Fidra Island, spending the night there, then going home. I figured this is a good test to see where I am at regarding a reasonably long cycle with kit (35k each way) and a sea crossing on the boat.

I set off at 4pm. I had done the coast road to Aberlady already, so knew most of the way. I'd be sticking to cycle tracks and road, with a preference for road due to being more efficient, especially with 15 kilos of kit onboard!

Cycle path in Edinburgh

The cycle out there was quite easy, I had the wind behind me, and fresh legs. The weather was amazing.

Woodland path near Aberlady

I arrived at the beach about 6pm. I could see the island was covered in seagulls - this was expected, but it is still something that strikes you when planning to sleep in such a place! I went down to the shore line, next to a couple of beached inflatable kayaks. Their owner came across, and we had a craic about the sea conditions. It was reasonably windy (about 12mph), and although the incoming swell was zero, the wind was blowing right down the Forth and out to see, and picking up some chop in doing do. He had said it was quite rough, but looked calmer now. The island isn't far off the shore (about 600m depending on tide) so I decided to go have a look in any case. I unpacked and inflated the boat.

On Yellowcraigs beach, looking over to Fidra

As is usual, the sea got rougher once I got out to the exposed stretch. It was still quite choppy, with about a 1 foot swell. Together with the wind, this means I was fighting for my course, as stopping paddling would have seen me get pushed out to sea fairly quickly. I went for the windward west side of the island, wanting to give myself the safety net of the length of the island in case I ended up getting pushed downwind. This was the first time I had taken the good mountain bike out in a choppy sea, and I have to say the thought of all that seawater on my bike was not plesant, nor watching an XTR derailleur hanging over the bow of the boat, bobbing about inches above the brine. In any case, I kept going and landed at the soonest opportunity, the waves pushing me onto the rocky shore.

Landing on Fidra

Fidra is an RSPB reserve. Like all the island in the Forth, it is home to a lot of birds. At this time of year, the main resident is the gull. Later on, puffins nest here, which is one reason I wanted to get onto the island at this time of year. We are lucky in Scotland to have very open access / camping laws, but it is beholden to us to use the rights in a responsible way. There have been declining numbers of puffin on these islands recently, and a concerted effort by a lot of volunteers to clear the islands of an invasive plant, the tree mallow. This large plant prevents the puffins nesting there. It would be entirely selfish to camp here when the puffins were in residence.

Anyway, the gulls gave me a noisy welcome!

Gulls on Fidra

I unpacked the boat, and made my way toward the center of the island, bit by bit. I assembled the bike, as it is easier to carry that way, and shifted all my kit across in two lots. I got to the isthmus that divides the island in two at high tide, and went back for my boat. The gulls had registered their objection by shitting on my boat. Thanks! Anyway, it could be worse, and I carried on moving across the island.

On the main section of the island, there is a lighthouse, with an old narrow guage railway leading down the hill to a small jetty. Near the railway, there is a wall that is the remains of an old chapel, or lazaretto for the sick, which was dedicated in 1165 to St. Nicholas. That is old! It is a shame all that remains is the wall, but is surely better than nothing. I rested the boat and bike there, and wandered up to the lighthouse.

The Chapel, looking over to Fidra 'castle' (the rocky stack), with North Berwick Law in the distance

My camera ran out of batteries just at the top of the hill, so no lighthouse photo! Anyway, you know what one looks like. Light was fading, and I wanted to make camp, so I went back down the hill again.

Looking West up the Forth from the lighthouse

Just outside the chapel wall, there was a flat, dry, soft bit of land that was not covered in bird shit. It seemed somewhat sheltered from the wind, so I decided to camp there.

I threw the tent up. I was planning on doing reviews of my kit, but I lost enthusiasm for that. Let me just say I am constantly surprised at how easy and quickly my Tarptent Scarp 1 goes up, and so far I have got no complaints at all about this great bit of kit.

Tent up, and night falling, I settled in, got out of my cycling clothes, and put the food on. At this point, I started to feel a bit 'jangly'. The combination of physical exertion, excitement, but also worry and loneliness made me feel not altogether settled. The wind had picked up, and I started to worry about the trip back to shore. Well anyway, my fresh pasta had cooked, and I munched away on it, not really feeling that hungry. I knew this feeling from before, it seems to happen when I set up camp and then go straight into cooking, or maybe it is just first day camp nerves? Eating is more functional rather than enjoyable.

My meal out the way, I zipped up in the tent, legs in my sleeping quilt. 9pm. The gulls were calling away, but had settled, knowing I was there, they kept their distance. Their noise didn't bother me, the sound of them is evocative of the seaside, a sound most of us know since we are wee.

I broke out the brandy. I have a preference to this rather than whisky these days, the fruity taste being a bit more civilized than whiskies smokey, peaty bite, a bit more palatable and less medicinal. When I got back, a friend suggested that in fact the right tipple would have been rum. This has been noted, and if I do this again, I will give it a shot!

The wind had picked up more, bending the end of the tent toward my face. Sitting here in the dark night, I felt I had really committed myself by sleeping on the island. What if it is really windy tomorrow? I couldn't shake the gnawing worry of having to take my boat out on rough, open water. I know it was going to be windy, but perhaps hadn't quite appreciated the reality!

I took out my radio (in fact, a wideband scanner) and flicked through the channels. Nothing on the marine channels. I have the buzzer as a preset, and that was loud and clear. Bzzzzzz. Bzzzzzz. Bzzzzz. Well, it's fun for 30 seconds anyway! Over to Radio 4 for a while, the comforting chatter somewhat soothing my anxiety of the following days windy float. Something about making sand dunes more mobile again, somewhat interesting. That finished, and they got onto some boring financial blather. I flicked over to find something else, and settled on Voice Of America, African edition. Strains of African pop music faded in and out, I wished I had a longer antenna so I could hear it better.

Chapel and tent in the night

10.30. 11. Ok I need to try to sleep. I turned off the radio and light. The wind buffeted the tent. My mind cranked over, anticipating getting off the island. I was comfortable, but not restful. The night passed this way, the wind dies down, but the constant call of the gulls reminded me where I was.

2.30. Maybe I drifted off, I don't know. I started thinking about when I should leave, and decided the sooner the better, if I was the get away before the wind picked up.

5am. The wind was back, but more gentle. First light was at 6.10, sunrise at 6.40. I decided to go as soon as I could see. 5.30 came, and I started to pack up.

First light, with tent, packraft, and bike

I decided to 'do' breakfast back on the mainland, so it didn't take long to get the kit together, and take it down to the jetty. Shoes and socks off, I packed the boat whilst it was in the water, sitting on the jetty steps. It is easier to do it like this, as dragging the boat into the water packed full of kit is not easy, and you get an idea of the balance of the load when it is floating.

First light on the chapel, with seagulls hanging in the wind

I launch. I am on the opposite, sheltered side of the island from where I landed. Everything feels fine, but I know that as soon as I get into the crossing, I will be more exposed. I round the headland and enter the chop. It isn't too bad, but still not easy. I have to paddle constantly, head up to check my position relative to land. After ten or so minutes, I get to the more sheltered water again, and head toward the beach. I can relax now!

I drive the boat onto the sand, and jump out. It feels great to have my feet on sand! I drag the boat out and drink in the sense of relief and happiness to be back! I look up, and am greeted by the rising sun. Suddenly, it is all worthwhile.

Sunrise from Yellowcraigs beach, with the islands of Lamb, Craigleith, and Bass Rock

I carry everything up into the dunes, the songbirds making the mainland sound like I had landed in paradise. I pack the bike, and eat some chocolate for breakfast, to fuel me for the 35k ride home. The wind didn't let up, I had a constant 14mph headwind all the way back. It was slightly harder work than on the way out, but I had known I was to have this on the homeward journey, and stuck it out. I arrived home not feeling too bad.

I am glad I did the trip, it was an itch I had to scratch! However, camping on Fidra is not really something to be done for enjoyment. Camping at Yellowcraigs beach would have been a more pleasant experience, but I felt I had learned some things about wind, islands, and committing oneself to a situation. I also think I need to do more sea paddling to get used to that again, perhaps this was not the ideal introduction to packrafting this year. But all in all, a successful overnighter.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

I managed to put together a video of my Highland summer trip, check it out:

You can see the past blogs with story and photos at the following links: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

Coming next, some reflections on the trip, my kit list, and a map...

Monday, 2 January 2012

Highland summertime bikepacking and packrafting - Part 3

Day 3

I slept well, with no dead-of-night encounters with deer, or any other animal for that matter, and woke to a warm and bright tent. I turned on my phone to check the time... 6.30am. Oh well, time to get moving.

I poked my head outside. Lovely, it looked like it was going to be a cracking day.

Sunrise over 'Back Of Keppoch'

I got the porridge on and sat in the entrance of my tent. The other campers were fast asleep, all was still. Today was probably going to be a shorter day, and quite different from the last two. I had most of the route mapped out on the main road, although I had a farm track detour from Arisaig for a few miles, and the last 3k by sea. I also had the possibility of going out into the Ardnish peninsula to a bothy at Peanmeanach, but this wasn't a certainty.

Porridge finished, I washed up and broke camp. I still find myself surprised at how quickly everything packs away, and how small it is! It's 7am now, the bike is packed, and I'm ready to head off into the morning sunshine. A sense of freedom washed over me as I peddled out of the campsite, leaving the happy campers dozing in their tents and caravans. I felt fast and light, and able to go where I wanted, when I wanted. This is the solo travelers advantage - your time is your own, no one else to hold up or wait for.

Out onto the road now, and up the hill before taking a right to Arisaig, which was looking bonny in the morning sunshine, birds tweeting. Going round the main road through the village, I looked out for the turn off to my 'shortcut' I had planned. I had wanted to stay of the main Fort William - Malaig road as much as possible, and had seen this track on the O/S map. It looked like I could cut out at least 3k of road, and what is the point of having a mountain bike if you don't ride it on the dirt at every opportunity?

The road took me round the bay, and I stopped to snap a photo looking over the boats to the steep cliffs and flat top of Eigg to the left, and the Cuillins of Skye towering in the distance.

Looking over the bay at Arisaig

 On I went. It's funny how much dragging a bike over almost impassible terrain makes you appreciate roads. I don't have a road bike, and generally am not a big fan of being on a bike on the road, due to large metal boxes blasting past constantly, inches from the end of the handlebars. But these are small roads in the West coast of Scotland, not busy routes near cities. I had seen 2 cars on the road so far. In fact, I enjoyed the road so much, I missed my turning off onto the planned track, and had to do a u-turn and back track about a kilometer. Oh well, I could think of worse times (and places) to get lost.

I found my turning. The landrover track seemed ideal for my bike - these are the kind of tracks that have 'no unauthorised vehicles' signs at the start of them, the kind you would never drive down, but being on a bike, and given the access laws in Scotland, they are fair game. The track passed some cottages, then into woodland. The warm day made the air thick, the smell of the plants and trees and earth mixing with the occasional insect. Proper 'summertime in the highlands' air.

Arisaig landrover track

The track ended soon enough, with a locked gate, meaning I had to lift the packed bike over a wall to get onto the road. Now there was no choice, the sides of Glen Beasdale forcing the main road and the railway line to snake over each other, close to the shore - no room to pick and choose a route here.

The road was much less busy than I was expecting it to be. Most of the time, there was no traffic on the road apart from myself. What a relief! I have to say, on a day like today, I can totally see the attraction of road touring in the North of Scotland.

View from the A 830 at Cuildarrach

Up ahead, I had a decision to make. Was I going to go off road to Peanmeanach? This was an optional excursion that would cut out about 9k of road cycling, replacing that with 4.5k of unknown, possibly not very cyclable path, and then a 1k sea loch crossing. I was being indecisive about this, which meant I wasn't that keen on doing it. I had had my fill of rough walking tracks, and the smooth and empty road was luring me onward. I decided that I'd look for the turn off to the track, and check it out at least. However, despite being on a main road, and checking my O/S map several times, which had the path clearly marked, I managed to completely miss it. Well that was that, decision made - Peanmeanach would have to wait till another time.

By now, I had had enough time to get a feel for what road cycling meant on a mountain bike. It is obviously not the right tool for the job, but still works ok. However, I started to feel cramped by the wide handlebars and short stem, the upright position that is so natural off the road feeling clumsy when faced with miles of smooth road. This, together with the warm weather and the fact that I had not had a proper wash in three days, were conspiring to make me feel less comfortable than I would have liked. Not terrible, but just not totally settled either. Added into this mix, I had to admit I was starting to feel somewhat lonely. Maybe it was just the expectation of seeing everyone again and telling them of my trip, maybe it was the thought of soaking in a hot bath. In any case, I now had a goal - I wanted to catch everyone in the cottage at Dorlin where they met for an extended lunch every day. It seemed doable, so I hunched down as much as I could on the bike, and kept going on the empty main road.

On the Fort William to Mallaig road, looking onto the Ardnish peninsula

Reaching Lochailort, I turned right onto the Glenuig road, and soon passed a group of four cyclists going the other way, all waves and hellos. The camaraderie gave me a lift, it was great to be out here doing it, and seeing fellow travelers reinforced how lucky I was. Up ahead a bit, there were a few motorbikes stopped in the side of the road, more people, on different machines, but still enjoying the best of Scotland.

A few more miles and I was in Glenuig. I knew there is somewhat of a climb out of Glenuig on this road, and one that I had never cycled up. I psyched myself up. By this point, I was tired, I had done a lot in the last two days, and it was possible to really feel the weight of what I was carrying. Going uphill, it feels like something is trying to drag you back down again, which is, in fact, the exact physics of the situation. I manage to get some of the way up it, but the road steepens and I give in.

Walking ain't too bad (as long as no one sees you!).

Jumping on the bike again, I crest the hill and enjoy a freewheel down the other side. Payback. I was now looking onto Loch Moidart, and heading straight for a jetty that I planned to inflate the boat at and take the 3k sea float shortcut, rather than a 12k cycle. I found it, a nice ramshackle old pile of rocks. I wonder if anyone has done a book on jetties, pontoons, and piers of Scotland - would be a good read I reckon.

Jetty on Loch Moidart, bike ready to transform to boat!

Boat inflated for the last time, but in sea water for the only time on this trip.

The packraft in calm and clear sea

Out into Loch Moidart, it feels good to be in the packraft again. I still haven't lost the sense of vulnerability that comes with floating solo in a wee inflatable boat. I still find myself making a beeline for the nearest shore, happy when I am closer to dry land.

This time, I have a companion with me, although an unwelcome and unhelpful one. A cleg (horse-fly) has latched onto me. Not fancying to be bitten, I keep paddling, hoping it will give up. No such luck. I give it the full beans, paddling as fast as I can, but it is still buzzing round me. This is a sticky insect for sure. I stop and swing the paddle in a futile gesture to shoo it off. Finally it lands on the side tube of the boat. I slap it hard and it falls dead into the water. Well, it got fair warning.

I pass the islands on Loch Moidart. Although there is little wind, and the tide is going out, the small ripple coming into the loch from the sea is making progress a bit slower than I would have otherwise expected. I really want to catch everyone, and the idea of some bread, beer, and a bath are driving me on. I keep on up the loch, admiring a lovely white yacht that I am heading toward.

Near the end of the trip - Loch Moidart

I see there are three people on it, lounging about. Looks like bliss. I get closer, and one of them waves over at me. I wave back "Hi there!", not sure if an 'ahoy there' would have been more appropriate. He calls back "Are you Nik?". Surprised, I acknowledge I am he. "Your dad told us about you, didn't think anyone else would be paddling this way with their bike on a wee inflatable boat" he shouts, adding "You are off your head!". I laugh, pleased that tales of my trip have preceded me. He invites me onboard for a beer, but I politely decline, as I am not convinced that boarding would be straightforward, and reckon that getting back into my boat after a beer or two would be somewhat less easier still.

I rounded the corner now, past Castle Tioram, and toward the beach where the cottage is. I stop a bit away from the sandy shore, and shout "Hello!", my call echoing round the steep cliff behind the house. No reply, I guess everyone is chatting noisily. I shout again, at the top of my voice. This time someone comes to the front of the house. I wave, and they go to fetch the rest. Soon, family and friends are on the beach, snapping photos and firing questions, familiar faces with smiles and witty comments. Dogs barking, and strangers wondering just what the heck is going on.

The end of the journey

I climb out the boat. This feels like a proper end to the trip.

"Can someone fetch me a beer please..?"

(next installment - some reflections on the trip, my kit list, a map, and maybe a video...)

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Last Day Of 2011

Well I know I said I was going to post the final day of my trip today, 31st December 2011, but I have run out of time and haven't got my blog post done yet. Sorry about this if you were looking forward to it, but I felt it is better to do it right than to rush it. I hope to have it up over the next few days. In the meantime, enjoy a photo from day 3, sunrise over 'Back Of Keppoch'. All the best for 2012!

Sunrise over 'Back Of Keppoch'

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Highland summertime bikepacking and packrafting - Part 2

Day 2

As happens with camping, I didn't sleep all the way through the night, but woke up about 2am or so. Something that was worrying me. All my 'active' clothes were soaked through, and sitting in a cold pile at the bottom of the tent. The thought of having to put them back on in the morning was not a pleasant one. I could hear it wasn't raining, and I thought I'd try to hang them up outside, maybe they'd dry off a little?

I stuck my head out the tent. I stood up, and was startled by a loud barking from behind me, about 100 meters away on the hill. At this point, I was lucky I had temporarily forgotten about the legend of the "Grey Dog Of Meoble", a gigantic, shaggy-haired Scottish deerhound whose preternatural appearances are said to presage death, and who's story was traced to a small lochen where the dogs owner in the story was torn limb from limb. That lochen lay directly up the slope from where my camp was. Not that I am superstitious, I wouldn't let a story like that scare the crap out of me sitting in a tent in the middle of nowhere by myself. No way... well... maybe a bit!

I turned round, and saw a doe and it's calf running up the hill away from me. It was a deer barking, not a ghost dog.

I got out the tent. I hadn't brought any camp shoes, so went barefoot. The grass and moss enveloped my bare feet, not a totally unpleasant sensation, cold and wet but also soft and invigorating. Now I had to move. The dreaded midge was closing in, fangs sharpened, the still night air was perfect for this macro-Dracula. I picked up my bike frame, turned it upside down, and lashed a cord to it, then the tent. I didn't think that 2 feet was high enough, but I started draping shorts and top, jacket and trousers over it. Ever hopeful.

I climbed back in, dried my feet, dozed off. I was woken again by the sound of rain, so I had to pull all my 'washing' in again. Not pleased! Don't think my efforts had worked at all.

Another few hours dozing, and I woke to light and morning. One thing I like about camping is the early mornings. I'm not usually a morning person, but when the outdoors is right there, it is great to get a fast start. My worry about wet clothes hung over me as I prepared my porridge. What was I going to do? I had to wear them, I didn't want to wear my cotton sleeping clothes. I decided that at least heating up my base layer before putting it on would be good, so whilst I sat with my legs out the tent eating my breakfast, I put my cycling shorts underneath my legs, and my merino top over them.

Porridge finished, I couldn't put off the moment any longer. I pulled on the wet clothes, now warmed up. They didn't feel as bad as I had imagined, the heating must have helped quite a lot. Encouraged, I got into breaking camp, rolling and packing everything, and hauling it down to the loch side. By this point in time, I was feeling not too awful in my wet clothes, and started taking photos again, unfortunately by this time the tent was down and packed away.

Breaking camp at the head of Loch Beoraid 

When I was planning the trip, I had imagined cycling and walking the length of the loch along the track marked on the map. However, the previous afternoons scramble up and down the glen, the steepness and bogginess of the general terrain, plus the absence of anything resembling any kind of reasonable track along the loch, the decision was an easy one. I'll try the packraft. I inflated the raft, filled up my water bladder with water from the loch, and packed the bike and kit on it.

Ready to paddle down Loch Beoraid

All ready, I climbed aboard and pushed off. I almost instantly felt happier. The feeling of sitting in my raft, floating on the calm water, my legs rested, making smooth and gentle headway down the loch - this was luxury! Due to the fact that my packraft has a spray deck, it is in fact quite a snug and dry place to be, from the midriff down at any rate. The weather had lifted, and I was beginning to see blue sky between the cloud. As I paddled, I felt my wet clothes get drier and drier. Thank god it wasn't raining today!

The loch felt lonely and peaceful, there was not a soul to be seen. The steep sides of Loch Morar rise abruptly out of the water, they seem to contain the water as if water had been pored into a giant cupped hand. I paddled on, contemplating the crossing of Loch Morar that was a few hours ahead of me. I kept trying to figure out what it was going to feel like, what the distance was going to look like. Loch Beoraid was 5k long, the crossing I planned to do of Loch Morar was 2k straight across. The sun came out, and I snapped some pics looking back down the loch, from whence I came.

Looking back down Loch Beoraid, Gleann Donn in the center

By now, with the effort of paddling, I was totally dry. I was surprised very happy about this. Lesson learned, the best way to dry clothes is to wear them.

Paddling past the island on the loch, I saw a small hut. It seems that the only use of the loch is for fishing, and I guess this is a place for the fishermen to have a sandwich and maybe a wee dram at lunch. I had a hip-flask of whisky with me, but I hadn't touched it the previous day, and now wasn't the time for that either.

The steep wall of land that rises out of the end of the loch was close by now, about an hour and a half after starting my paddle, I was almost there. I turned the 90 degree corner at the end of the loch, to be greeted with a pleasant and calm pool, trees hanging over it, and a small slipway. It struck me as looking somewhat Japanese. I landed and got out.

The other end of Loch Beoraid, packraft just landed

Time for another transform, I have a bit over 4k of track going through Meoble before getting to the big bad Loch Morar.

Boat and bike

Deflated packraft, ready for rolling up

Bike with camping gear on handlebars, food, maps,
and cooking stuff in framebag, and boat on rear rack

Here's another great thing about the combination of packraft and bike. Using one right after the other is just such a weird feeling. They use opposite limbs - packraft mainly arms, bike mainly legs - and the sensation of moving in each of them is so different. The packraft is slow and fluid, the bike faster and bumpy. I just love the changeover, quite apart from how cool it is being a human powered watercraft one minute, and a landcraft the next.

The track was quite well made, the usual rough sand and pebbles that constructed landrover tracks have in this part of the world. This track was different however - it has no connection to any other track or road at all. It simply goes from one loch to the other. It's kind of strange to think that here are vehicles that use it, but there must be, I see tracks.

I stop and take a picture. Up ahead is the settlement of Meoble. I feel strange cycling through it, it seems such a private little corner. It was used as a WWII Special Operations Executive training camp, and you can still see the helicopter landing pad on the satellite photos. I didn't have a clue what went on here these days, and I didn't want to pry too deeply. I see a few scattered buildings, and far off by the white house, a white Landrover, probably the only vehicle on the road.


I climb back on and cycle through. Past a shed with a couple of lads working on something, then toward the Landrover. I pass it before I realise there is someone in it, and another chap outside, leaning in, having a chat.

He spots me as a cycle past. "How did you get that in here?" he shouts after me.

Shall I stop for a chat?

Part of me felt that it would have been nice to stop for a blather, but I enjoyed the thought that they would be left wondering what kind of crazy cyclist I was, and I could leave it to my imagination what top-secret nefarious activities go on there, and remain blissfully ignorant about the no doubt mundane realities.

There was also a part of me that felt that if I explained to the locals that I was just about to inflate a small dingy that I was carrying on the back of my bike, slap the bike on top of it, and paddle it straight across Loch Morar, they would have put a considerable amount of effort into trying to dissuade me from my plan.

"Boat!" I shouted back, patting the bagged packraft. On I cycled.

Around a few more bends, and I start to see the banks on the opposite side of the loch. They look quite far away. Further on, I start to see the water. It doesn't look like friendly wee Loch Beoraid, Loch Morar is quite obviously a large body of water in motion. I can only keep going and see what it is like up close. Soon enough, I arrive at the shore. It is a bit windy, and there are certainly waves on the loch. There is a large but rickety pier, and some sheds, and a sand and pebble shore, more like the sea than a freshwater loch. I lean the bike against a shed, get out my map, and check my course. It starts raining.

Camas Luinge, Loch Morar, looking over to Swordland

I spot the small white boathouse on the opposite side of the loch, this is the landmark I plan to paddle straight for. I shelter under the doorway of the shed for 5 minutes, letting the shower pass, fueling myself with a mars bar. The rain eases off, but there is still a constant wind blowing down the loch, and the waves towards the middle have some white tops - not a good thing. I decide that conditions are not ideal, but what I will do is head out in the raft and see what conditions are like. I promise to myself I'll turn back if I'm not happy.

Pushing off, I remember how deep this loch is - 300 meters, and I am going right over the deepest bit. We're not in the Musselburgh Lagoon anymore, I say to myself, looking over the 2 kilometers to the white speck on the opposite shore.

The boat is feeling ok, although the waves feel much bigger when you are in amongst them. I figure the wind is about 15mph tops, and the waves about a foot. It seems manageable, but not easy. I push on, keeping my eye out for larger swells. When I see one, I turn into it so as to cut through it rather than get pushed down the loch sideways by it. I can't stop paddling now, if I do, the wind quickly pushes me off course. I put my head down, turn into the next wave, paddle, repeat. I'm getting further out now, but I have to focus on the next wave, no time for taking in the view, I must keep the raft moving and under my control. A larger swell catches the stern and wets my back. I brace myself and keep paddling, cutting through wave after wave, occasionally looking up and seeing the white boathouse getting a little closer each time.

This goes on for about 40 minutes, and I am now within maybe 300 meters of the shore, almost there! Suddenly, a wave catches me unprepared, and the bike shifts on the bow. I counter-balance by leaning the other way and try to keep paddling, but it shifts a little more. This is bad, I am going to loose all my kit overboard. Although it is all tied together, and tied to the boat, and I have practiced hauling it in and reloading,  that is not something I want to do in these conditions. I have to stop it falling. I put the paddle down, and stretch forward, tugging at the load, trying to pull it straight again. It isn't moving, it's quite heavy. I try again, it shifts a little. I pull it again, it is more central now, not ideal, but it will do.

I look up. Where is the boathouse? In the half minute or so I was rescuing my load, I have drifted at least 150 meters down wind of my planned landing at Swordland. I scan the shore for a possible place to get out. It is rocky, but doable, but I have second thoughts. I want to reach the boathouse. Putting my head down again, I battle directly into the wind. This is very slow going, and my arms are tired now, but eventually I am in the calmer bay, a few other boats bobbing about with me. I make a beeline for a pebbly shore beside the pier, climb out the boat, and almost fall over - knackered.

Packraft at the pier at Swordland, Loch Morar,
after the crossing from directly opposite

I could have kissed the ground. That was quite an intense crossing, I'm overjoyed to have made it over in one piece.

It must be lunchtime by now, so I assemble my bike and head over to the concrete end of the pier, set up the stove, have some oatcakes and cheese, and take in the view. The sun came out, and the wind died down. Bliss.

Having lunch on the pier, Swordland, Loch Morar

I really took my time here, it was great just to hang out, sit at the end of the pier with my legs over the side. After my lunch, I pull out my hip-flask, and pour myself a cap-full of whisky. I sip it slowly, savoring the smoky taste of the Lagavulin. After drinking about half of the cap, I poured the other half into the loch, as a thank you for giving me safe, if demanding, passage.

Now into the afternoon, I had the path along the side of the loch to the village or Morar to do. It had got a bit warmer now, with the sun out, and the initial climb (walking) up the hill away from the loch edge told me what was in store - a somewhat rocky and rough path lay ahead. Up past the seemingly misplaced Swordland Lodge, with fancy old armchairs looking out it's windows, and scraggly sheep looking in. Sleeves got rolled up, jacket taken off, sunglasses put on.

The track offered fantastic views of the loch, but didn't offer that much in the way of good cycling. I had been on the go all day, and didn't really have it in me to try to beast my way over every loose rock and through every muddy hollow. I did cycle when possible, but if the way got difficult or much inclined, I didn't hesitate to get off and push. I think the track would be easier riding with fresh legs and an unloaded bike for sure!

The afternoon was showery, with my jacket coming on and off every 30 minutes or so. The wind kept blowing behind me the whole way. It did seem to take a long time to get 'in front' of Camas Luinge on the opposite side - it felt as if I had done two sides of a triangle. I had to admit, it would have been much faster just to have packrafted down the 9k of the loch, especially with that wind pushing me all the way. But I was here for the views and the routes, not to get from A to B as fast as possible, so I took my time and enjoyed the path, snapping photos as I went.

Rusty hut on Loch Morar

The further along the path I went, the thirstier I got. I had had water, but I felt somewhat reticent about gulping down gallons of loch water. It was something I was just not used to, and to be honest next time I do this I'll be taking a filter of some kind, even just to get rid of the 'floating things' that there is a surprising number off in every cup! Anyway, my craving was for carbonated drinks. I couldn't get it out of my head, it started to drive me on, my fizzy pot of sugar at the end of the trail. I had some glucose tablets and some more water, but it didn't really hit the spot.

The islands at the end of the loch got closer as ever-changing weather rolled down the loch. Past the houses at Brinacory in various state of ruin, then the same distance of path again till Bracorina.

Loch Morar, looking toward the islands at the start of the loch

Tarmac! The sensation of rolling on smooth road was very welcome at this point, only tainted by a few steep hills, then a fast downhill and right into Morar. I made a beeline straight for the nearest shop (the petrol station), and got a Lucozade. I necked it as fast as reasonable, then went back in for a Coke. I've never had such a craving for crappy fizzy drinks, but there it was. Thirst slaked, I phoned my family to let them know I was ok, then pushed back up the hill again. I had someone to call on.

In the holiday villa I had spent a few days prior to my trip, there was a book I read cover to cover called "Rough Passage: A Life of Adventure" by a man named Tom McClean. Tom had come to my attention earlier in the year via my research on islands around Scotland. As only the internet can do, one thing led to another and I ended up watching news footage of him jumping onto Rockall, a tiny islet in the rough Atlantic Ocean, 160 miles out from the Scottish island of St Kilda. In what must be at least a 12 foot swell. I went on to learn that he had rowed across the Atlantic single handed, and subsequently sailed across it in the smallest boat. He had settled in Ardintigh, setting up an adventure camp there, and then got a house in Morar itself where he and his wife run a B+B. I had passed his gate on thw way down the hill, and he has a picture of his record breaking Atlantic boat at the gate, so I reckoned he wouldn't mind a fan calling by.

I rang the bell and was greeted by his wife, who then went and got Tom. We had a good chat for half an hour or so, I showed him my bike with the boat on the back, showed him some of the pics on my camera, and told him of the wee trip I was on. He showed me his shed with the rowing boat he spent 70 days on crossing the Atlantic, together with the tiny box which was his only shelter on Rockall, and various other bits and pieces. His expeditions made my wee trip feel like a walk in the park.

Tom McClean's boat

He very kindly invited me to camp on a plot of ground in front of his house, overlooking the lovely Morar Bay. It looked a cracking spot, but I declined, for a few reasons. First of all, I wanted to get a bit further on that day, it was a little early to stop (and the caffeine in my tooth-rot fizzy drinks had kicked in). Secondly, I knew there were fantastic beaches and campsites along the coast toward Arisaig. Third, and mist importantly, I knew there was a pub in Arisaig where I could have a good feed and maybe a beer or two. So with a promise to email him when I got my pictures up on the internet, I was away.

The weather by now was warm and calm, and the coast road was a real pleasure to cycle down. The sands on this area have to be seen to be believed - pure white, making a striking view all along the coast. I called in at one campsite, but they were full, and told me to go to another one down the road in 'Back Of Keppoch'. I freewheeled down the back road, and found the site.

Looking over the main road to Back Of Keppoch

I found a house that looked like it may be the owners of the campsite. I rang the bell, and was greeted by a friendly woman. Yes, she had room. Perfect. We chatted, and the conversation got on to my travels. I told her about crossing Loch Morar. Her reply? "If you were my son, I'd have given you a spanking for that!". I thought that was quite funny, as I am in my 40s now... but I may look somewhat younger.

She did go on to tell me about a few tragedies that have claimed lives on the loch, including one where two small boys and their granddad were fishing from a boat on the loch, when one boy fell overboard. The grandfather jumped in to try to save him, but tragically they were both drowned. The boy that was left had to be rescued, as he didn't know how to work the boat. Terrible. In light of this, her reaction was understandable. It did make me review my safety, although I think I did the most I could to ensure I could deal with all situations, and had a really strong backup in the form of my Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB. This little device is basically a one use panic button. When activated, it sends a distress signal, along with the exact GPS coordinates, to the search and rescue HQ. Without this device, I don't think I would have done my crossing. Swimming 1k in a heated swimming pool is all very well, doing the same thing in a cold deep loch with a swell on it, clothed, is quite another.

I set up camp and got changed and somewhat washed (there were no showers at the campsite unfortunately). I had been advised by Tom of the Cnoc-na-Faire Inn, just up from the campsite. I was hungry now, and headed up for a very pleasant supper, washed down with cold lager. Lovely! Well fed and watered, I rolled down the hill into camp, and strolled out to the seafront to take some pics.

Highland sunset

It had been an excellent day. I walked back to the tent, and got ready for sleep. Some neighboring campers were playing a banjo, not very well. This kept me up a for a wee bit, contemplating the advantages of solo camping versus being in a campsite. Soon enough they put the banjo down and turned in. It had been a full and successful day for me. Contented, I fell asleep, dreaming of paths and lochs.

(to be continued Sat 31st December...)

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Loch Shiel and Loch Morar - highland summertime bikepacking and packrafting loop

I had been kicking about a plan since early in the year to do a multi-day bikepacking trip in the summer, starting from near Acharacle on the West coast of Scotland. Various plans had been made, possibly a group trip involving boats at a few points, and a trip round the Ardnamuchan Peninsula. The group trip idea didn't come about, so I changed my plan to a solo trip involving the use of my newly acquired packraft.

The route i decided on started at Castle Tioram with a cycle to Loch Shiel, across and up the loch, then cycle the rest of the loch up to Glenfinnan. From there, I'd cycle up the glen, then take a left at the lodge up Coal-Ghleann and down Gleann Donn to Loch Beoraid, along the loch, then out and across past Meoble to Loch Morar. Across Loch Morar, then along the loch to Morar itself, down to Arasaig, then round past Glenuig, into Loch Moidart and back to the Castle.I reckoned three days would do it at a relaxed pace.

Day 1

It's funny how much pressure and expectation I felt as the planned day came closer. I had invested a lot of time and not an inconsiderable amount of money into preparing for the trip, not ending up doing it would be a big letdown. A few days before, I kept my eye on the weather. The main thing was the wind - too much of that makes cycling, camping, and most of all packrafting difficult, heavy going, dangerous, or plain impossible. The day before the trip was windy, and I took a look at Loch Shiel... 20 mph gusts and 2 foot waves were rolling down the loch, enough to make it a no-go if it was like that the next day.

The day of departure came. I looked out the window - rain! Well, at least there was hardly any wind. Everything was packed the night before, so just a quick shower, then breakfast, a midgy farewell to family, and I was off.

The first section felt great. I was rolling on roads and tracks alongside the River Shiel that I knew so well. It was raining, but only softly. The feeling of freedom and of expectation, as well as relief to be on my way, was something I hadn't felt so profoundly before.

Onto the A 861. Past 'Fergies', a hotel and bothy bar once run by accordion legend Fergie MacDonald, now by his daughter. No time for a friendly nip now, onwards on the single track main road, then off down to Dalelia, past a pier on the side of Loch Shiel, and onto a landrover track, chase some sheep across a field, and to my first 'transform' from land to water.

I unraveled the boat on the red rocky shore, and started inflating it. I had practiced the transform enough that it was now easy to me. Boat ready, I packed the bike and the two dry bags onto the bow. I could wax lyrical about how atmospheric this spot was, looking over to The Green Isle (Eilean Fhianain) to Ben Resipole blanketed in rolling cloud and low mist. But that's what photos are for.

Ready to cross to Eilean Fhianain

I took a short float over to the island. I had visited it once, but that was a long time ago. Most of the land is taken up with a burial ground and the ruins of St. Finan's Chapel. I walked up to it, and it was impossible not to feel the history of the place. The ancient graves, the small ruined chapel with it's alter, cross, and bell, the mist rolling amongst the trees in the mainland all about me.

St. Finan's Chapel alter, cross, and bell

I'm not a religious person, but I rang the bell and said some words to myself, asking for a safe trip. A shiver ran down my spine.

Down to the boat and out onto the loch again, I had at least a 3k paddle in front of me. The air was dead calm, not a breath, just gentle drizzle on and off.

Looking up Loch Shiel to Polloch
It was serene to just be floating by myself, paddling on flat calm water. The packraft isn't the most streamlined of small human powered watercraft, they seem to do about 3kph with a steady paddle. Like walking, you need to put one foot (paddle) in front of the other to make way, the boat quickly stops and spins round if you stop paddling. So it's 1, 2, keep going, but plenty of time to enjoy the view. I like keeping close the the shore where possible, seeing everything from this unique perspective is one of the joys of being in my wee boat

I didn't keep a track of the time much on my trip. I don't wear a watch, and my mobile phone was turned off in a waterproof bag deep in my rucksack - but when I got to the Pontoon at Polloch, I knew it had to be lunchtime! After a quick transform into landcraft, I got the oatcakes, cheese, and cup-a-soup out, and tucked in. 

Polloch Pontoon

 I did this a few times on this trip, and there is something great about sitting on a pier, jetty, or pontoon after a few hours paddling and cycling, and just relaxing, listening to the water against the pier. They will be the transition and transformation points most of the time on this trip, the flat and uncluttered surface making a great spot to eat, contemplate where I have come from, and where I am going to next.

Something happened on the pontoon that I had not seen before. You can see in the photo above that the water is flat calm. Well not long after the photo was taken, and for no visible reason, a swell suddenly got up. It was like someone had turned on a wave machine miles away. No announcement, no gradual change. If you look at the above photo, you can see a lighter area of water to the top. I looked at other photos I took there, and indeed it is the swell approaching. It made me appreciate I had a calm loch for my journey.

Leaving the pontoon, I had a 10k cycle along the logging road that runs up the South bank of Loch Shiel. I had done this road before, so I know what to expect - a compacted sand and pebble road rolling up and down all the way along the banks of the loch.

The logging road along Loch Shiel, looking toward Glenfinnan
Despite the somewhat soft and wet surface, I got to Glenfinnan in reasonable time. It was funny crossing through - I hadn't seen a soul all day, and now there were tourists and cars and trains and boats. Quite a metropolis! I carried on to the singletrack road up Glen Finnan, under the Viaduct - the bike poses for a picture.

Glenfinnan Viaduct, no pottering about

By now, it had decided to rain fairly heavily. Still, my windstopper trousers and jacket seemed to be bearing up. The single track private road up Glen Finnan to the lodge / Corryhully Bothy was really quite pleasant, no big hills, no cars, and a nice roll on tarmac. Once at the lodge, I turned left up it's access road, then it was straight on for me, off road.

I was immediately confronted with a wall of a climb... this was the quad bike stalker track I would be following for the next 2k. Off the bike, I pushed up the steep embankment, squelched through a wet boggy patch, turned a corner, then jumped on where the track leveled off, and started my assent up Coal-Ghleann. The rain really was lashing down now.

Although the quad track was reasonable, endless waterbars and cross-drains together with large rocks and a generally rough surface, combined with the added weight on my bike, made me walk more than I would have liked. I had a strange sense of isolation, after the bustle of Glenfinnan. I knew I was heading for an overnight camp miles from anyone, miles from any road, well off the beaten track.

A brooding and wet Coal-Ghleann

Pushing on up, I was starting to feel wet now. Wet, but certainly not cold. I run hot anyway, and a merino base layer over my jacket keeps me warm winter or summer. The Allt a' Chaol-ghlinne stream was full of water, enough rain had fallen to fill all the burns and streams in the area. The higher I got in the glen, the less of the path there was. I was walking more then cycling, until I found myself only walking. The quad track had turned into a rough walking track following the river.

At this point, I have to admit, I started to wonder what I was doing. I had been on the go for about 7 hours now, surely it was time to have one last splash in a puddle, then get home for a plate full of pasta and a nice cold beer? No, I knew I had another 4k of glen to walk through, then a solo camp at the head of Loch Beoraid. Wet and tired, and not a little lonely, I was now officially out of my comfort zone.

The trudging had got more boggy now, the path barely a hint. Still, the bike was not too hard to push about, I think having weight in the framebag really helped here - low and central. The path disappeared as I neared the top of the glen. On each side of the glen, burns cascaded down from above. I stopped and looked round. It seemed all about me was movement and noise, dramatic and timeless. I felt lucky to see the show.

Waterfall at the top of Coal-Ghleann

It was great to be at the top. despite there being no path, and just soggy ground, interspersed with marshy bits, and then some wetter bits that turned into streams. Out came the map (thank goodness it was waterproof!). I had to find my own way. I hadn't decided beforehand what side of Allt a' Ghlinne Dhuinn I was going to go down, and I needed to make a call as I didn't want to have to cross it in spate. From what I saw on the map, and what was in front of me, I decided the left hand side was the way.

Pressing on, and the walking was really heavy now. I was picking my way through ancient moss covered boulder fields, walking over them and trying not to stick my leg into a gap,  hauling the bike beside me, wheeling it over, leaning on it for support. You would think it would have been a real burden, but it felt ok. I am sure it slowed me down a lot compared to having just a rucksack, but I felt light on my feet, the bike was carrying the weight.

100 meters on, and I found myself looking down onto Loch Beoraid. It was wonderful to see it unfolding before me. Even with, or perhaps because of, the rain, it really felt like a hidden treasure, a sight only a few walkers, stalkers, and anglers get to see. No one gets to see this without putting in a fair amount of time and effort.

Looking down Gleann Donn to Loch Beoraid
 Now things got serious. The glen was steep, much steeper than on the way up, and with no path, I had to constantly consider my way. I thought about stopping for a cup of tea, but elected to bash on, afraid that stopping would see me reluctant to start again. More tough ground, boulders, and marsh. The glen gets steeper, and I decide to keep uphill of my bike, in case it gets snagged or tips over - I don't want to be underneath it and get pushed over myself. The sides of the glen are over 45 degrees now, and I have to cross a good few burns in full spate, filling up a roaring Allt a' Ghlinne Dhuinn below.

This is truly the point of no return, I have to get down this glen. I can feel my focus sharpening, I am in wild country, I am on my tod, and I have to use my own resources to get through it. I leave the bike and do a recce, decide on a route, go back and claim another 50 meters, before doing the same again. I'm in the trees now, but the glen is getting steeper still. The noise of the water is getting in top of me, I start wondering if I am going to get down from here at all. 

The next recce presents me with two choices - go high and try to cross a steep grassy slope with a vertical rock face to the upper side, and vertical drop to the other, or go straight down the glen where a 7 foot almost vertical slab of rock is the only way down. I decide on the latter. This really is hard going. I am soaked through, exhausted, but I know I have to keep traveling. I lower the bike down the slab, going onto my stomach and stretching down, holding the front wheel. The back wheel is still a couple of feet from the bottom, but I don't really have a choice. I let go, and the bike slides down and comes to a rest - no damage, thank goodness. I try to lower myself down gently, but end up sliding down the slab as well. I get to the bottom, with a scratched hand for my trouble.

The glen starts to level out now, with grassy banks among the open wood. There are still burns rushing down the sides that I have to cross. At a fairly deep and large one, I put the bike in downstream - bikes are quite streamlined for this use, the spokes presenting no resistance to the rushing water. My tired legs on the other hand are grateful for the support, this water is moving fast, and the last thing I want is to loose my footing and fall into the fast cold water.

The grassy banks give way to unsurprising marsh, the ground almost flat now. This is more slow and heavy going, I really don't have any energy left, but there is nowhere to camp here. I'm at the flat marshy area in the center of the picture below. I have really had enough by this point, when the idea strikes me - time to float! It makes sense, I feel trapped and need to free myself up out of this waterlogged ground. I walk to a small tree by the side of the river, and go into transform mode.

Allt a' Ghlinne Dhuinn flowing into Loch Beoraid
I start to feel the midges. The midge lotion goes on, and I carry on with inflating the packraft, and securing the load. I am trying to be careful and safe here, I don't want to loose my cargo - the tent especially. I slide into the boat and push into the river. Marvelous... what a fine sensation. After being on my feet for hours, I am floating, getting carried to the loch with little effort, sitting down! This is the true packraft advantage - walk, ride, float.. What was impossible and impassable, becomes easy, pleasurable, practical. Water is just a different kind of path.
I get spat out into the loch. Daylight is fading - it is past 9pm by now, and it really is time to find somewhere to camp. I consider the small island in the loch, but it is quite far (about 4k), and it would be dark by the time I got there. I don't even know if it would be habitable. Scanning the nearby banks, I see a sandy beach tucked into the head of the loch. Sand! Not marsh, or bog, or river, or rock, but soft, well-draining sand. I head straight for it, I can camp right there! Landing, I pull the boat out the water. I look at the sandy shore... well I could camp there, but I hate getting sand everywhere. I wander up a bit, the ground is rough and I cross the faint wisp of the barely used path that goes along the loch. Up a bit more, and there is a raised hillock. I climb up it. It's somewhat flattish. No more procrastination, decision made, I am camping here. I get all the gear in a few trips, deflate the raft, and put the tent up on top of it, and fall inside.

I'm in total autopilot now. All my clothes come off, and I dry myself with my camping towel - it was a good call bringing that. I put on my dry boxers, t-shirt, socks, and woolly hat. Luxury! ok, food. I get out the stove pan, water. Dump some water in, and let it boil, put in my pre-measured ration of pasta, then close the lid and dive into the tent again. Mat inflated and sleeping quilt unpacked, I get inside. I have never felt so warm and comfortable, I was so thankful for all the amazing camping equipment available nowadays, I was carrying it all on my handlebars, tent, quilt, mat - they all pack so small and light.

Now I have my head down, I am exhausted. My eyes close, I relax. I'm not really hungry, but I know I should eat so I have energy for tomorrow. I slip in and out of consciousness in my warn cocoon. I open my eyes - the pasta! Not sure how long I was 'out' for, but I have burnt my food. Ok that's not good. I empty it out and put another portion in. Concentrate this time. Make food. Eat food. I force myself to do this. No enjoyment, but I know it is doing me good. Finished, now I feel really drowsy, now drifting off, now sleep...

(to be continued, next installment 24th December 2011)