Ardnamurchan to Loch Hourn
This blog is sponsored by Jeremiah Cain
With a gentle rustle of fabric the early sea breeze blew across my tent, inside I was slowly cooking in my sleeping bag. For the fourth day in a row the scorching sun shone above from a clear blue sky. Emerging into a slightly cooler world outside the day promised to be utterly beautiful.
Gazing intently at the inviting water lapping on the sand and completely forgetting I had camped on a tiny island I bellyflopped onto the sand with a loud “THUD.” Spluttering sand from between my teeth I peered up to see a confused looking herd of sheep grazing on the machair, perhaps it was my imagination but they looked amused.
After a hearty breakfast of muesli al la kayak resin (my repair kit leaked and the scent tainted the flavour of all my meals this week) I packed and dragged the kayak down the beach.
Suddenly out of the mornings silence and tranquility my phone loudly rang. To my surprise it was my Godfather Ben Osbourne. By chance Ben was only 30km away, just north of Mallaig. A superb professional photographer Ben was leading a small photography course around the beautiful Knoydart region for a week. The forecast was for high winds in the evening but with luck and the motivation of a warm dinner with good company I would do my very best to reach him.
It seemed a shame leave such a perfect campsite but the thought of an evenings comfort and a dwindling water supply persuaded me to push the kayak onto the water and squeeze back inside, besides Ben’s company far excelled that of the sheep.
Paddling slowly and silently past some small rocks at the head of the bay I took one last look at the shore before turning out to sea and across the sound of Arisaig. It was just 6km to reach to other side but in the morning haze it seemed a long way off. With a gentle breeze now pushing at my stern the paddling started smoothly and I spent most of the crossing reflecting on a paddle trip around Eigg and Muck. One of Brian Wilson’s legendary annual micro-adventures I had paddled with 11 others across this very sound in almost the exact same conditions, although only several years prior to now it seemed an eternity ago.
The final 10 minutes of the crossing seemed to create the “Never ending sea” effect where no matter how much you paddle the coast seems just as far away as it were before. I focused hard on a small rocky outcrop where a gentle swell was splashing against the shore, aiming straight for it it was almost across.
At last I reached the shore, an archipelago of islands at the head of Loch nan Ceall promised an interesting adventure ahead with endless route options between them. Paddling closer I chose to aim to the western side rather than east and all the way into the loch itself, this way I would take full advantage of the following wind behind me.
As I rounded each rocky island dozens of startled seals flopped from rocks with loud splashes before curiously bobbing nearby to peer with inquisitive eyes at their strange yellow visitor. I made a point at waving cheerily at them which to my delight often results in a loud splash as they duck for cover before re-surfacing behind me, I call this ocean game “Tide and go seek.”
The wind was getting stronger and straight on my stern, at last I had the perfect chance to test my kite!
20 minutes of faffing, cursing and if anything creating more of a tangle with the kite line I resorted to simply holding it between my hands. With a tremendous lurch (which almost sent my over to join the seals) the kayak shot forward. I was sailing!
It almost felt like cheating but the strain of holding the sail up felt like justification. Peering at the GPS I was averaging 7km/h as I flew down the narrow channel between the low rocky islands and sandy bays. Despite the wind the sun shone through the shallow sand which marbled a distinctly tropical feeling over the entire sea scape, perhaps I had sailed to the Caribbean by mistake?
After a couple of km I had to change course, crumpling the sail and it into my foredeck and grabbed the paddle once more. Looking ahead to my surprise the seals were no longer my only companion. Two kayakers! One in a klepper fabric canoe the other in a home made boat were paddling just a few hundred meters away…COMPANY!!!
I paddled over, trying not to sound too enthusiastic to have actual human contact I made my acquaintance.
Dougie and Sandra were in Scotland on holiday, both seemed extremely fanatical paddlers and we soon were chatting at length about various pro’s and cons of kayaking equipment. It was certainly Dougie’s area of expertise I was fascinated to learn the history of the Klepper canoe which designed in Germany by Johannes Klepper as early as 1906 is a direct descendant of the original Inuit skin on bone design. Sandra’s kayak Dougie explained had been hand built by himself from plywood, shaped a little like an elongated heart and painted red it looked superbly stable and was an obvious labour of love.
Paddling a little slower than average I did not care about pace to my delight I was even invited to join the couple in their caravan just around the corner for a spot of lunch.
With the kayaks beached on the sand I found myself squashed comfortably onto a sofa in a small caravan with a huge ploughman’s sandwich in one hand and scalding cup of tea in the other. I couldn’t believe my luck.
We chatted about past adventures, gear and where I would be going next, whenever my mug threatened to become empty it was instantly refilled with steaming tea. By 2pm the wind had begun to rock the caravan, still eager to reach Ben that evening I departed.
Returning to the kayaks we all laughed as a herd of cattle waded past, I was a little concerned with how close some of them came to trampling the kayak but none the less enjoyed the rather bizarre spectacle before me.
Back on the sea after a quick wave goodbye I realised to my annoyance that I had completely lost my map case. Leaky and patched the case itself wasn’t a loss, but the three maps inside were, navigation may suddenly become a little trickier. Thinking back it seemed most likely that I had dropped it during the sailing escapade before meeting Dougie and Sandra, only a few kilometres back I decided to retrace my steps in hope of spotting the it washed on the shoreline.
A 3km round trip later I returned still mapless. Swallowing my pride I resorted to one of my ultimate pet peeves…iphone navigation. With luck I would be able to purchase new maps in Mallaig which was only 10km downwind.
With a stiff force 3-4 wind at my back I flew along the coast between Back of Keppoch and Mallaig, without distraction I paddled hard as fast as I could. To my east sandy shores drifted past in front of ominously dark clouds atop inland mountains, it looked like my sunny week was soon to fade back into cloud once more.
Fighting a heavy clapotis around a rocky headland I nosed into Mallaig harbour little over an hour after leaving Dougie “That was fast!” I thought through heaving breath. Free of the fetch I floated in the sea below a towering harbour wall, above a small red light indicated the imminence of the Mallaig-Armadale ferry. It seemed amusingly odd to be waiting at traffic lights in a kayak but as I watched the ship roar out of the harbour I understood why they wanted boats to wait, I certainly didn’t want to be in the way.
Paddling across the now empty ferry ramp I arrived into the glass calm shelter of the harbour. My first impressions of Mallaig were that of an industrial fishing port, Huge rusting fishing boats creaked on worn ropes which were tied to battered piers covered in creel pots and fishermen dressed in tank tops and oily jeans power hosed nets on huge concrete ramps. The air was filled with loud hammering, clatters of metal and to my delight the crackled tones of Bob Dylan from a crackled ships radio.
Beaching at the head of the pontoons on a small sandy bay I wandered up into town, the clouds were on the way but for the moment all was bathed in sunshine. To my surprise hidden behind the harbour was a bustling community with friendly pubs and shops filled with smiling tourists. Returning from a huge marine shop with new maps and an Ice-cream I was suddenly confronted by a balding man with an outstretched hand.
We had met the day before in Ardnamurchan at the top of the lighthouse. “seen any more whales’ he uttered cheerily, “nope, have you?” I replied…“just myself in the mirror’ he quipped with a smirk. With a laugh I explained I had to get going before the wind picked up further and returned to my boat.
A young fisherman who overheard the conversation strode up and said in a a warm but with every sense of sincerity “you keep alright yea” and beckoned to the large fetch crashing on the far shore.
As the fisherman left I sat on the wall and peered out over the water , the wind and sea had picked up. Comfortably a force 5 maybe more I knew the fetch would be huge across the bay. I had to make a decision. On one hand I had no where to camp in Mallaig, no where to easily land my boat out of the tides AND I really wanted to see Ben, on the other I knew it would be on the limit of what I could paddle safely. I stared blankly to the distant cliffs, huge waves crashed over the rocks…it was hard to imagine from the shelter and sunshine of Mallaig harbour.
I was sat just 5m from my boat, above a tourist suddenly waved frantically to their friends and pointed directly at the kayak…wheeling round expecting to see it floating off I was amazed at what came next…
Upon landing I had dragged the kayak to the end of an outfall pipe out of which had just emerged an otter. The illusive creature hopped effortlessly from the pipe onto the prow of the boat, teetered along the hull, jumped onto my camera bag (camera still inside), lept onto my stern and launched itself into the water.
Taken aback and speechless I was astounded to see an otter in what can only be described as the least secluded stretch of beach I had seen in days. The tourists gleefully snapped photographs, cheered and pointed as the otter swam graciously around the bay as if showing off before disappearing under the pontoons.
Inspired and re-motivated with the incredible scene I decided that I would set out to reach Ben in Doune. This would be a hard 5km.
Setting off from the harbour the wind caught the back of the kayak, it launched me forward at speed. There was little fetch but I could see it building ahead of me across the bay before crashing with terrifying power into the cliffs beyond. Behind a small headland just 4km ahead a sheltered sanctuary…I could make it!
By half way across the occasional spindrift had begun to whirl across the sound, I had yet to be hit by one and feared if so I might flip. The fetch was now chest height, rolling at my stern I had to brace almost as much as I paddled to keep the laden boat from nosing its bow deep into the passing waves. To keep stable I had been forced to track into the sound with the wind, as the shore approached I knew I had no choice but to travel beam onto the ever increasing waves for an intense kilometre to safety.
I was in the zone, concentrating as hard as I could I wheeled my head around in all four directions to predict the next wave, felt the boat rise and with my hips flicked the boat to its most stable angle. The shore seemed agonisingly far, the wind was now over a force 6. Head height waves broke over my deck to remind me just how cold and deep the sea around my tiny craft was. I was starting to feel out of my depth, with an onshore wind there was no safe landing to the rocky shore, I HAD to make it.
After what seemed an age the moment of truth arrived, I had to turn sideways to the sea. I let a head height breaker crash over my stern, lifted high upon its crest I drove hard into the sea with the edge of my blade. Teetering on the apex of the wave the kayak flicked west toward the headland.
Side on the waves seemed so much higher and steep than they had when following behind. I tacked out to sea again at an angle to avoid the clapotis crashing from the shore, reaching over each wave I heaved the boat with a tremendous splash through the crest of wave after wave. Each time a bucket load of cold water was thrown into my face. I couldn’t let my concentration lapse, even the slightest error in a stroke would send me over to be washed into the chaos of cliff face and waves.
I travelled by bracing hard through breaking waves, only pushing hard strokes at a sprint between sets. I felt completely at the mercy of the sea. 200m to go! It had taken almost 40 minutes to paddle the last 800 but I was so close! Running down my deck water had started to fill my cockpit, 6 inches of sea sloshing around my cramped legs made the boat feel very unstable and so low I begun to wonder if I might sink. The thought that Ben was returning from the Isle of Muck and would pass by soon filled me with comfort, at least if I do go down help might arrive.
Bouncing and crashing past the headland all suddenly became calm, I had made it! Hidden from the swell by the cliffs I stretched back on the kayak, water sloshed around my knees, I was exhausted.
Less than a minute after arriving into Doune bay a large boat sped into the harbour. Turning to face it I was surprised to see 12 photographs all brandishing huge cameras, it felt as if I had suddenly arrived into a paparazzi shoot. Behind one lens Ben’s familiar smile appeared, he waved over enthusiastically.
The boat moved over to the harbour as I landed on a pristine shingle beach, looking over the bay large homely wooden cabins promised a warm place to spend the evening. I laughed to myself as I emerged from my deck, 8 inches of water sat inside…oops.
Ben arrived and embraced me in a warm hug, it was great to see him. Together we dragged the kayak onto a perfectly mown lawn, before I had the chance to unpack I was ushered inside for tea and cakes. The lodge was a beautiful wooden building, warm and inviting I immediately felt at home. Still in wet clothes as I sat in a comfortable chair sipping scalding tea it felt strange to think just an hour before I was battling huge waves.
Photographers appeared en-mass and joined for tea, listening to tales from their trip to Muck it seemed surreal to think what had taken me several days to paddle from had been an afternoon trip for the group.
After the second cup of tea I returned to the garden, pitched tent and grabbed my spare clothes. The prospect of a warm shower for the first time in over a week seemed incredibly inviting.
Inside the lodge, Book at: ( http://www.doune-knoydart.co.uk )
Clean and comfortable I felt like a new man and a little less smelly I am sure the other photographers approved too. Relaxing on the porch in the sun Ben and I chatted and looked out to the waves still rolling past the headland, it was now far too strong to safely paddle out there.
Before long we were summoned over to another wooden lodge. I was surprised to learn that although only accessible on foot or by boat Doune is home to not only superb accommodation but an excellent restaurant. Inside a wide array of drinks stacked the shelves, photographs by Colin Prior lined the wooden walls and in the centre of the room a magnificent table awaited us all.
Exited there was a general buzz between everyone, it was 8pm and a hungry anticipation filled the air. Sipping on an ale I was quite content just to soak in the atmosphere and continue chatting to Ben.
After about 15 minutes a chef burst through the door with a huge tray filled with bowls of soup. “This crab soup” exclaimed the chef who beckoned with a wide sweep of his arm to the window…“was crawling around the bay yesterday.”
Now that is what I call fresh and local! Needless to say the creamy broth was absolutely delicious, especially when mopped up with crunchy home made bread which just from the oven was perfectly warm and doughy in the centre. The soup barely touched the sides, but within minutes the chef re-appeared. This time a huge plate of rice, another of freshly steamed vegetables and finally a steaming pot of Coq au vin. Letting the other guests help themselves first I was then served by Ben the most enormous portion. Delighted to be eating something that isn’t freeze dried it didn’t last long and without doubt was the best food I have had in a long time.
After dinner we retired to the lodge, collapsed into the sofas and chatted for hours, photographers lined the room editing photos taken during the day, there were some superb photographs of Muck. By midnight all was quiet, returning at a jog to my tent the midges had arrived. Filled with food and tea I fell asleep almost instantly.
Waking in the tent it was wonderful to know that I wouldn’t have to endure the midges over breakfast, throwing on some shoes I unzipped the flysheet and ran up to the lodge. After a cup of coffee with Ben who was in deep in trip planning mode for the day ahead we wandered over to the restaurant for breakfast.
As with the night before a huge table laid out for 12 with an extra space for myself greeted us. This time large jugs of orange juice, boxes of cereal, toast and a huge tray of fried bacon, eggs, sausages and even black pudding were spread across the room. It was a feast fit for a king.
Half an our later I waddled back to the lodge for a last coffee before we parted separate ways, with so much food inside I wondered if I would even be able to fit back in the kayak. With one last hug Ben dashed off to the boat to take the others to the next photo location, once again I was on my own. After a squeeze and a push I was back on the water it was with huge relief to see the wind and fetch had died. Still at my back a light breeze pushed me along the rocky shore and out of sight of Doune. I aimed for Loch Hourn. Overcast the morning was cold, I paddled hard to try and warm up.
Filled with energy from the colossal breakfast I made good pace along the coastline, looking across to the Isle of Skye I begun to debate a difficult choice over and over. My heart was set in kayaking back south from the Sound of Sleat and around the outside of Skye, but soon to be joined with a complete novice kayaker my mind said “no, bad idea!” It was a difficult conundrum, I decided to decide later in the week after some mountains, besides I had “the secret project” fast approaching.
Landing on a large bay at the southern end of Loch Hourn I wandered up to peer toward the mountains. It was an exiting prospect to summit some munros, I knew the forecast wasn’t great but that didn’t matter, I could climb! But there was another adventure playing on my mind.
During new year in 2012 I had met the McCann boys, climbers and adventurers the spark of an idea had been seeded upon visiting a local gorge in my home town of Ullapool, the plan…to jump into it. This week that idea was to become reality, and I would be there regardless of where I had made it to by boat.
In Loch Hourn a stiff wind was now growing against me, Just three days to make it home…I thought with a sudden fear that if I were trapped by wind on Loch Hourn I would miss the canyon adventure. Making a spontaneous choice I decided not to paddled into the mountains, instead I would cross the loch hide the boat and head home a day early for the adventure. At least I would guarantee not to miss the adrenaline fuelled escapade.
Landed south of Loch Hourn, making a choice…mountains or home
It was midday, the road from Arnisdale to Ullapool was quiet across the sound. Paddling hard I fought the wind, could I make it home tonight? Punching onto the water from the mountains above the wind forced stiff squalls against my strokes, soaking wet and cold all I wanted was to reach shore on the far side. I made a pact to myself, if I didn’t reach the road by 2pm I would camp the night and try in the morning.
Nestling under the shelter of a huge cliff I took a moments rest. Looking east the remote Knoydart mountains stood defiantly from the horizon. I turned north and set off a into open water toward the other side.
It was a bouncy ride across the sound, with the wind arriving in all four directions as it deflected off the steep faces of the nearby mountains. The far shore seemed to take an age to reach. Landing at the foot of a lone white cottage I wandered shivering toward the door, with luck they would agree to look after the kayak for a few days.
The house was abandoned. Close to the road and in clear view I decided not to leave the kayak. Instead with reluctance I returned to the sea.
Paddling toward Arnsidale I scouted the shore looking eagerly for a place to land. Ahead a small rocky shore with a thick wood at the top promised the perfect place to hide the kayak. I was in luck.
With the fender I dragged and scraped the boat over the rocks to the woodland. Once on the mossy under canopy it was easy to pull the boat between some large boulders. It was 1.30pm. Sheltered by the trees and with a light rain drifting between the branches the midges arrived in force, there was no hesitation in quickly changing into dry clothes. With a dry bag filled with the basic necessities I scrambled up a steep scree slope toward the small single track road.
To my delight and amazement after just five minutes a car appeared, I had assumed I would be here for hours. Thrusting my thumb out the car slowed with a creak of rusted brakes. I had a lift!
Sat in the car with a local fisherman I was on the way home, already 2pm I now had to make it to Kyle of Lochalsh. Carrying no tent if I failed it would be a long cold night.
To my delight I was dropped in Glenelg. Just one more lift and I would make it home. Although the road was quiet I soon amused myself with a basket ball found in a hedge at the roadside. After just 30 minutes I was again travelling fast in the right direction. It felt bizarre moving so fast with such little effort and although planned I felt as if I was somehow cheating.
By 5pm I had arrived at Kyle, booked a train ticket and was on the way home. With a carriage to myself I rattled across the highlands toward Garve where I would meet my parents and head to the house. The sudden reality of why I was returning dawned.
In just a few days I am actually jumping into a canyon!