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...)


  1. What Bike is it please also where did you get the bags

  2. What a really compelling read from a very special part of the world. I've really enjoyed the 2 sections so far... I'm subscribing with google reader. Keep he adventure alive!

  3. An excellent blog Nik, I'm really looking forward to part 3. (I'm Jurassic off SOTP by the way).

  4. Thanks for the kind comments all!

    @ The itinerant archer - bike is a Cannondale Caffeine, bags are Revelate handlebar harness with an Ortlieb Drybag, BuggyBags frame bag, Old Nam Mountain rear rack with Lomo drubag, Clik Elite Compact Sport backpack.

  5. Great read on a cold winter day in Park City, Utah. A very beautiful and impressive area you travelled. I would love to visit it sometime- preferably with my fat tire bike. Sea kayaking would also be a good option. I don't have a pack raft. Came across a link to your blog while reading about a pack raft/fat bike trip on the Coloarado river near here. Thanks for writing! Walt- (67 and still riding & paddling)