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.


  1. Sounds like a great trip, but a packraft on the ocean is some brave traveling!

    Nice pics, too.

    Steve Z

  2. Sounds fantastic

    Define Adventure "A journey with an unknown outcome"

    Top Adventuring

  3. Hi Nik, Was looking out to Fidra Island on the beach yesterday and thinking `wow that is some paddle out!`
    Well done, looked fun -:)


  4. Great write up, thanks for sharing!

  5. I really enjoyed reading your blog, sounds like a great experience! Im from north berwick and have never set foot on the fidra,,, I will have to now!

  6. Thanks for sharing on your blog, it's a great read! Much more challenging terrain than where I'm hanging out, I'm permanently cycle touring around the Thames Valley (blog: I didn't realise carrying a boat was so easy, I might have to try it one day and paddle down the upper Thames - no waves here!