Plockton to Ullapool
Kindly sponsored by Jonathon Walton
Hungover and half asleep I arrived back into the quiet town of Plockton. Whisked away to graduate from university had seen a short but intense few days pass. Transformed from salty sea creature to suited up formality for the pomp and circumstance of receiving a diploma I had officially become a graduate. I had returned to Stirling for one last get together with some of the best friends I could ever ask for, needless to say a final party had left a headache and ringing ears in its wake.
After parting ways with many hugs and goodbyes I was back on the road less travelled, for now however I was not alone. In addition to the family two more smiling faces had been crammed into a landrover packed with the last remnants of flat furniture. Beside me my cousin Joe who having just escape final exams at Oxford was wearily gazing out of the window, behind Joe the beaming and sunny smile of a long parted friend was crammed into the corner behind some rucksacks. She too gazed from the window with excited wonder at the landscape. Tess and I had crossed paths on the Abel Tasman trail in 2009, hiking with her friend Ella we struck up a friendship through a mutual naivety at foreign travel. In exchange for a snickers bar to supplement an under packed food supply we had become good friends on the road, it was a friendship which had long since continued past youthful ramblings in New Zealand.
Tess was rightly exited and perhaps hidden behind her smile a little nervous, almost a complete novice kayaker with only one lesson before coming to Scotland she would be joining me from Plockton to Ullapool. I was absolutely delighted at the prospect of company on the water although all be it a little apprehensive in consideration to safety, “would Tess be able to cope with the wild west coast?” There was only one way to find out.
My mum and sister left to return to Ullapool in the crammed car, after a last hug only Paul, Tess, Joe and I remained in Plockton. We were soon joined by a bouncy and energetic Beth who left alone in Plockton for a few days seemed happy to return to company. “How was your weekend?” Paul asked Beth over a welcoming hug….”Fine…only one small fire on the boat!” ….Apparently the electrics need looked at! Alls well that ends well I guess.
Exhausted from the bustle of graduation, exams and travel we could all relax for the evening over cups of tea to the gentle rocking of Mollymawk at anchor in the bay. With a high wind forecast the next day only I had to prepare to paddle, the rest would follow by sail.
* * *
Fresh and spritely I woke completely cured from alcoholic ailments, the sea air had done the trick. It was a warm and bright morning all be it a little windy. I was excited to be back on the water once more, after the first hours paddle the wind would be behind me and I would make great progress toward the coast.
Thanking Beth profusely for hanging my overalls to dry I squeezed into the kayak with a teetering balancing act from yacht. Fuelled on a large fry up I was ready to go! I would race ahead of Mollymawk and meet them 10km north west at Uags bothy.
Leaving Tess with a pot of coffee and in the fine company of Beth, Paul and Joe I paddled out of the bay. Upon leaving Plockton I was faced with a strong headwind with a steep fetch against my travel, unsure whether the elements of the weekends partying was to blame the crossing seemed punishingly tough. At least the regular bucket loads of cold sea water breaking over the bow helped to refresh me from the tired state.
Arms aching and shivering I eventually reached the shelter of the far shore. Beautifully wind sculpted sand stone cliffs rose upward from the sheltered sea. Vibrant ferns, gnarled birch trees dangled from crevices lined with moss and lichens, Tannin brown streams cascaded from the moorland above to gently float into an etherial pearly white mist around my boat. I was expecting the point before Uag’s bothy to be a tricky with tide and lumpy sea, instead a relative calm welcomed my arrival into the bay. Looking back toward Plockton there was still no sign of the others.
Landing onshore with a scrape I was greeted by a group of elderly men in purple 70’s style onesies. Ranging in age from 65 to 78 they had hired a small rib and donning spray suits and old thermals were braving the weather to explore the west coast….THIS is how retirement is done!
To my delight I was ushered inside by two young English lads with the promise of a warm fire and hot tea whilst I wait for the yacht to catch up. Chatting in the warmth and flicking through the masterfully written “Unofficial Uag Bothy Bible” which containing adverts ranging from tropical escort services to “Squirrel for sale…warning he’s nuts” was brilliant amusement in the others absence.
Half an hour after arrival a mast drifted past the headland, my escort had arrived. Looking out to the bay it was immediately apparent that so had the wind!
Smiling and laughing Beth, Tess, Joe and Paul arrived onshore in what seemed an overladen dingy. Having grown up in Adelaide Australia Tess was still inspired by the sheer abundance of green. They all wandered around the bay and into the bothy. Again I would leave them behind in the kayak, with white horses bouncing on the far shore they wouldn’t take long to catch up.
Heading out into a sea which normally would instil a nervous anxiety I was spurred with the comforting knowledge that should a capsize occur help wasn’t far behind. Paddling 2km west from the bay would be the hardest sea of the day. Rising in steep fetch which broke at eye level from the kayak the sea crashed across my deck. With the familiar boom of fibreglass on hard water I braced, bounced and rolled toward a small rocky outcrop.
With a fervent glance back to the bay I could see Mollymawk was setting sail, “Keep concentrating!” I screamed inside to myself, I didn’t want to capsize now…I feared it wouldn’t instil a sense of confidence from Tess for the weeks ahead. Wet and cold I braced hard on the crest of a large wave, leaning the boat I turned directly downwind and through a narrow gap in the rocks.
The fetch seemed less and now the stiff wind was directly at my stern, it created the perfect combination to really put pace to paddle and blast along the coast. Assisted with the wind it took less than an hour to travel the 7km to our planned camp. I was smiling, exhilarated with the sense of speed, my boat empty and elements in favour I could really fly. With immense satisfaction I was even keeping pace with Mollymawk as she bounced under sail nearby.
As I paddled looking out toward the Crowlin Islands I took inspiration reminiscing about my late great uncle Kevin who’s ashes rested in this very sea. He had first experiences on the west coast as a serving officer in the Navy during the second world word. An incredibly practical and seaworthy man he went on to become the driving force behind the now world renowned Penguin Sailing Club.
Race over and Mollymawk in close escort we turned together into the sheltered inlet of Poll Creadha. Paddling ahead to keep an eye out for rocks we soon found a suitable anchor site.
Safe at anchor at Poll Creadha
Anchor on the seabed and back on board Mollymawk I quickly returned to being warm and dry. Swinging around the shelter of the bay on the remnant breeze we were soon to be in greater company. The familiar outline of “Twister” and “Lucky Jim” were slowly sailing into the bay. Two more yachts from the Loch Broom Sailing Club they promised Paul with a catch up with his posse from home.
With all three boats soon tied together and several emptied cans of “McEwans Red tin” clanking around the bilges an evening expedition was staged….a 6km hike to the Applecross inn.
We arrived just in time, the rain started to fall outside the bustling pub windows. With an onset forecast of gale force winds I settled into a seat with a beer to join Tess, Beth and Joe in laughter at the “Old LBSC sea dogs” who had started to loudly sing sea chanties across the bar. It was comforting to be safe in the knowledge that in the morning we were going no where!
* * *
Sure enough the gales arrived. Paul, Beth and Joe also decided to remain in the shelter of the bay. For Tess and I this meant a day to ease into the kayaks, take a practice paddle and most importantly one more night without the tents.
Joe and Beth helped to pack the Kayaks for the weeks ahead. In exchange for a quick paddle across the bay. This was the first time I had the chance to see Tess behind the blade.
Unfamiliar with the narrow sea kayak she seemed twitchy and unstable, with a pang of worry I was very concerned how we would make any ground at all. But with a bit of practice and a few helpful tips beckoned by Paul and I she soon was paddling more confidently. We paddled out into a small fetch and back again without incident. Smiling Tess seemed more concerned at being slow than falling over…a problem I kept trying to reassure her I wasn’t concerned about at all.
Swapping Tess for Joe we again paddled around the bay, taking delight in nosing the bow up to seals basking on the rocks despite the rain Joe seemed to have found a new sport “I could get into this” He beamed upon returning to the dock. And perhaps he would even try to join me later in the trip.
* * *
Day three in Poll Creadha. Storm force winds still blew across the bay! Tess and I were starting to get itchy feet…we wanted to move. Beth who had unfortunately taken ill the previous evening leaving just Joe and Paul to sail north.
With a last wave goodbye and a flutter of sail Tess and I were at last on our own. With tents set in the woods near to where Mollymawk had anchored we tied the kayaks up on the shore and wandered into Applecross itself. Unable to paddle we decided to explore the mainland instead.
For Tess who used to the big city live was already feeling dirty our first port of call was to find a shower. As we wound along the winding country roads to Applecross community we entirely missed the campsite, instead we arrived at a large walled garden.
Sheltering from a brief but violent rainstorm we drank tea in the spectacular and vibrant garden cafe. The scent of pollen and rainbow colours outside could lift even the darkest mood. Smiling and refreshed we found the showers on our second attempt.
Clean and happy the day was drowned into many cups of tea and a pub lunch at the Applecross Inn. Only when the sun begun to set did we return well rested and with a slight tea induced waddle back to the tents.
* * *
“WILL!….WAKE UP!” Behind the gentle flutter of the tent walls Tess was calling. It was 5am and bitterly cold. Peering outside behind the steam of my own breath I watched the wind blowing across the bay, it was strong but perhaps manageable. I was cold, every part of me wanted to return to my sleeping bag and wait…Tess seemed far more motivated than I to get going. I was perplexed…”She’s Australian! How is she not as cold as I am!”
After a hot chocolate and huge breakfast which made Tess repeatedly ask “Are you trying to make me fat?” we decided to make an attempt at moving north. Concerned about the fetch on the far shore I delegated the plan to hug the coast, even 5km to Applecross would feel like progress.
With a push and a wobble we launched into the bay. Paddling into the blustery gusts of wind our adventure had officially begun. Delighted and confident Tess paddled ahead of me toward the headland, I followed behind nervously awaiting her to plummet into the sea. Of course Tess had no intention of going upside down and with a renewed confidence seemed quite at home as she paddled along the coast.
The wind was increasing steadily, suddenly an idea struck!
Rafting up with Tess we clipped together with a mini caribiner to form a stable raft. Upon departing Paul had left me with his late fathers golf umbrella…. With a thud and a whoosh I popped it open and lurched forward with a hearty tug…..”LETS SAIL!”
Trying to remember Mary Poppins songs and enjoying the sudden opportunity to drift and chat we were blown out across Applecross bay at a steady 6-7km/h. “I still think this is cheating” Tess quipped with a cheeky laugh.
As I had feared the far side of the bay was subjected to a high fetch. To my delight the tiny clip had turned us into a singular very seaworthy vessel. As one we could ride together through whatever the weather decided to throw at us….there was only one problem.
“I’m Cold’ Tess chattered behind stifled shivers, so was I. The umbrella was starting to reach breaking point, at a steady force 5 and increasing it had started to buckle and burst inside out at regular intervals. We had to find a new solution!
Collapsing “Dodo’s Brolly” we slowed in the fetch, still together we split Tess’s collapsable paddle in two. Handing her one half and taking the other in hand we started to canoe our raft like Con Tiki long the shore.
With the wind behind us we made surprisingly good ground, with the effort of paddling forward we had warmed up. There was no longer any doubt…we would make the bay before Loch Torridon! We paddled hard for two hours, there were no easy landings along the shore with the now head height fetch rolling behind us. Determined and with incredible strength of mind Tess remained smiling most of the morning despite the bitter elements…we now paddled in a sea that alone I would have been very nervous in.
By 2pm we landed on a rocky shore. Hungry and once again cold we devoured a pack of oatcakes and set sail into the swell once more.
We were just 5km to our camp. The wind whistled violently around us and tall waves crashed behind our stern. Bracing hard as Tess continued paddling I held us in line, bouncing and crashing together I wondered how much more the little clip could take. With a loud ping and a jolt my question was answered….grabbing Tess’s deck to hold us together I looked forward for the broken join. Incredibly it held strong but a bolt had torn from my deck. Still watertight and now rolling in the breaking waves we carried on with the following wind, we were nearly there!
Turning into the bay we were barely 200m from camp. We had escaped the fetch but now faced a hard paddle against violent cats paw gusts which ricocheted from the craggy coast. Heads down and with gritted teeth we paddled hard for 15m at a time before resting for a few precious seconds. Each time we stopped we lost ground back out to sea with the wind…I was tired, Tess must have been exhausted!
Shivering, knackered and desperate for the dry we worked fast as a team to pitch each others tents. Disappearing for a few moments we each peeled out of cold clothes and into comfortable sleeping bags…at last we were warm.
Crawling into Tess’s tent for dinner I nudged onto her mat beside her, despite both being tired we ended up talking far past the sunset, it felt eerily familiar to the late night conversations we had had under the starry skies of the Abel Tasman.
There were midges glued to condensation on the walls of my tent, it could mean only one thing….there was no wind! Still and quiet it was eerily silent compared to the roar of wind over our camp to which we had fallen asleep. Out of the silence a frustrated yell bellowed from Tess’s tent…she had discovered midges.
Having frantically packed between sprinting around in circles to escape the veracious beasts we took little hesitation in escaping to the water. Unclipped and paddling alone we both glided out onto perfect glass calm waters. Both Tess and I were suffering from stiff shoulders, the improvised canoeing had taken its toll on our arms.
In comparison to the mighty seas we had already passed the calm waters seemed to spur a new confidence in Tess, it was perfect conditions to get to know the boat. The nervous twitches had disappeared replaced with stronger more confident strokes.
Barely 100m from camp and we were rewarded with one of the best otter sightings I have ever been privileged to experience. Barely the length of our boats ahead of us a young otter sat on the shore devouring its prey, seemingly unfazed by our presence the illusive creature finished its meal before gracefully slipping back into the sea.
Exhilarated with the sighting we paddled on toward Loch Torridon, the comforting knowledge that the further we paddled the more sheltered we would get helped to motivate tired arms. Hugging slow cliffs dotted with crevices, caves and archways the coastline itself was stimulating and exiting to venture along.
Before long we were well on our way into Loch Torridon itself.
The forecast was for another period of high winds to batter the western coast. Rather than sit idle we made the decision to paddle to the very end of the loch to Torridon township itself. Whilst awaiting the storm to pass we would climb some mountains. For I it meant a few less to summit over the winter months, for Tess it promised her first every Scottish Munro’s!
Several hours of tranquil paddling at a comfortable pace later we landed at a small slipway for lunch. Persuading Tess to share a snickers on top of a hearty meal of oatcakes we giggled at the notion that I was trying to fatten her up…it was becoming a standing joke….I had taken it upon myself as a mission.
Over half way we would easily paddle the remainder of the distance to camp before the wind arrived. It already felt we had made tremendous progress…without our epic day the day before we would not have made it in time.
As Loch Torridon narrowed to the small inlet to Upper Loch Torridon we paddled close to the cliffs to avoid the slight tidal stream against us. From a small cave in the sandstone face a 2ft tall Puffin painted on a rock was nestled in the darkness. Perplexed and amused we couldn’t figure out how or why it was there…upon later asking locals the story of its creation seems clearer. “A tour boat painted it on…that way they can guarantee seeing a real wild puffin to their paying clients’ It seems they can be cheeky here on the west coast!
For the tourists it marked a lighthearted but disappointing joke at their expense, for us it was a sign that we were within an hour from camp. Ahead at the eastern end of a small woodland a wide shingle bay promised the perfect landing for several days refuge.
We had travelled 20km Tess was clearly exhausted, “Be aware!” She shouted “Grumpy Tess might arrive soon.” Thankfully she didn’t and after an hour of slow tired paddling we scraped our way onto the beach. A disused lay by next to a winding single track road was the only easy camp site, it wasn’t perfect but to weather a storm it would do just fine. Rigging up a washing line as Tess set the tent, with dinner over an open fire we settled in for a long stay.
Looking up Loch Torridon
Overnight roaring gales arrived, heavy beating rain scattered across the tent walls. It was the first of three forecast days of high wind but thankfully the rainiest predicted day of them all. With this in mind Tess and I slept late into the morning before ambling against the gales to Torridon town. With a shower at the campsite Tess seemed reformed and a new person…she still hadn’t quite got used to being constantly salty. Clean and happy we settled into the Torridon cafe for a days relaxation of many teas and a toastie.
* * *
Day two arrived…it was still gale force winds outside. Not a day for paddling! To our delight however the sun was out and despite the wind it was a wonderfully warm morning. Yet again we had spent far longer than intended chatting into the evening in Tess’s tent, tired and still a little full with tea we took our time preparing for a day in the hills.
BEINN ALLIGIN (SGURR MOR & TOM NA GRUAGAICH) 13.9km +/-1368m
Recommended Naismith 5h 4m, Actual time 6h 20m
By 10am we were packed light and on the road, our goal to summit the twin peaks of Beinn Alligin.
Leaving the single track behind Tess and I wandered up a well constructed path toward the eastern end of the infamous “Horns of Alligin” a series of imposing pinnacles on the far horizon. The trail weaved between dense remnant woodland, the sunlight dappled ferns and heather on the forest floor as it shone through the gnarled Scots pine and birch canopy above. Beside us huge waterfalls rumbled into a canyon nearby.
Far more at home on foot than at sea Tess was leading the trail ahead as we left the woodland. With two months sitting in a kayak behind me and Tess’s experience as a keen runner I was definitely the less fit of the two of us. The gentle gradient of the trail straightened out across open moor ahead, it lead directly to the steep face of the first horn.
Even at the low pass between the mountains the wind was blowing hard, on the summit we would expected to be buckled against gale force gusts. Looking upward a steep but easy scramble lead us to the first of the horns. With a snickers bar to spur our energy onward we headed upward together.
Thirty minutes past of punishingly steep ground which often requiring hands to lift over high blocks of sandstone sapped what energy I had in my legs. Tess and I plodded slowly upward often stopping to admire the view behind. Ahead the cloud was lowing over the peaks, perhaps we wouldn’t have a view for long!
Determined to make the most from the day we decided to take the direct route over each of the horns rather than bypass along a narrow track below. The route wasn’t overly difficult but proved tough in the stiff wind. Carefully placing hands and feet on small ledges we scrambled along the face.
By the third horn it the wind was close to force 6 plus, we had started to enter the cloud.
Throwing on a jacket to avoid the worst of the mist I followed along the narrow ridge behind Tess who teetered along the wind sculpted blocks of 500 million year old rock. With a high five and a cheer we descended from the final horn onto a small col, we had only a long gradual ascent to go until the summit.
False summit after false summit loomed through the mist ahead, hiking under compass bearing and pacing we bent low with heads down against the relentless fury of the wind. Whipping up the cliff into our faces it whistled across the rocks and with a deafening roar clashed through the fabric of our jackets. This was the second time I had been approaching this summit, and the second time in gales and minimum visibility….thankfully this time there wasn’t any snow.
At last out of the mist a distinct tower of stone loomed. The cairn was close! Side by side we staggered to the top and dropped a stone atop the pile. “Congratulations Tess! Your first Munro!” Despite being some of the most extreme weather Tess had seen she beamed a wide grin of elation. One down! One to go!
Sheltering briefly for lunch behind the cairn we quickly layered up and descended toward to col. Behind the ridge we descended into a serene sheltered alcove. Out of the wind a low roar of wind of rock rumbled deeply from over the crest.
Meeting a solo hiker who was a member of the Mountain Rescue we joined his company to the second peak. Clearly he was a lot faster than us and soon disappeared ahead into the mist. We too were eager to summit and return to the shelter of camp. Briefly touching the second cairn we turned to descend.
Having dropped my camera and badly chipped the lens I tried to hide cursing from Tess, she clearly felt my pain and with added optimism soon distracted any thoughts of what had happened.
Descending from the col we quickly escaped the mist. Stiff legged and tired we wandered down toward camp, the sun was shining on a loch peppered with dark gusts below. We could see camp in the sunshine and the thought of warm food over a fire spurred movement onward. A good trail lead the way through the moorland to the woods below.
6 hours after setting out we ambled onto the single track road. Smiling and cheery we decided to follow the little gorge which we had ascended along back to the coast and scramble along the shore the last kilometre to the tents.
Climbing past a deer fence we snuck into the estate grounds of Torridon house. Tip toeing along the side of the gorge we marvelled at the narrow rapids which cascaded downward, it was a perfect hidden wonder to end the day on.
Hidden in the woods we relaxed in the dappled evening sunshine by a set of large cascading waterfalls. It felt good to simply enjoy the tranquility of the woodland, below the trees we were sheltered and only the rustle of branches and creak of trunks broke the silence.
Walking quickly along the front lawn of the tremendous manor house we snuck onto the driveway and wandered on toward the nearby tents, to my surprise and delight we came across a patch of wild chanterelle mushrooms growing unseasonably in the woods.
Two munros down! An afternoon relaxing in the manor gardens and chanterelle cooked with Wild Thyme on oatcakes for entrées…we felt like royalty in our little green castles overlooking the shore. With another long evening sipping hot chocolate in the tents we prepared for another day in the mountains tomorrow.
* * *
WESTERN LIATHACH (MULLACH AN RATHAIN) 9.35km +/- 1016m
Recommended Naithsmiths 3h 31m, Actual 3h 48m
“There is only one munro to do, therefore it must be an easier day” was definitely the wrong assumption.
With the wind still howling Tess and I left the tents early in the morning and begun to push through thick bracken directly up the face behind our camp. Our aim was to summit the western peak of Liathach…in the gales there was no way we would brave the imposing scramble along the ridge.
The ascent was steep and challenging, we followed a huge hill fire the previous year the ground was covered in twiggy remains of burnt heather which snagged each step upward. The sun was shining once more but above the cloud hung low over the peaks.
Sloping steeply upward the ascent seemed to pass relatively quickly. In the high winds we watched in awe as waterfalls fell only a few feet from the cliffs above before soaring skyward to whence they came.
We had ascended 500m, aiming for the long gradual western ridge which flows like the tongue of a river to the summit we were nearly out of the steep ground….nearly!
Standing between a cliff face and a gorge I was left scratching my head for a decision. The choice between a rock and a hard place! Slowly easing downward with Tess close to my side we followed a narrow deer trail along the steep and exposed face of the gorge. Clinging to the heather and watching every step with fevered concentration we eased our way along a 10m exposed step to the base of the gully.
Slowly and steadily we descended, with one last hop and a huge relief Tess bounced from the train into the soft heather beside me….”Its all technically easier than that from now on” I assured her.
Scrambling up a small stream we broke free of the ravine and onto the rounded face of the ridge. Bent double against the roaring fury of the wind in our face we were battered with rain as we moved slowly upward.
Staggering into the mist we found shelter behind a large erratic boulder in the flat. For I it was another typical wet and windy hill day, for Tess it was now comfortably the most extreme weather she had ever set foot in. Concerned that she had no water proof trousers I asked if she was ok, behind her hood she was still smiling but obviously cold.
From where we were the quickest descent was to continue as planned to the summit which lay just a 200m up and a kilometre ahead. Leading the way under compass bearing I walked in silence only turning to check Tess was still behind me and still smiling. Determined to reach the top she continued without complaint, quietly I she was earning serious respect…after all if the tables turned and I were placed into the heat of an Australian summer I would surely just stop.
Staggering, huddled to the ground and scrambling upward in winds pushing 50-60km/h the constant gradient of the slope seemed never ending. After an hour of slowly wandering into the endless mist which swallowed all but the roar of the wind we stumbled onto the edge of a cliff.
Below the clouds seemed to swallow the abyss, just 20m above a small cairn marked the end of our dreich ascent. It was a different feeling reaching the summit than the days before, this time there was no cheer or laughter just two cold souls ready to get back to the warmth of the shore. With a quick tap on the summit we turned back upon ourselves and headed fast toward the steep descent down.
It was mid afternoon, we suddenly found ourselves spurred with the thought of a tea at the cafe. Descending as fast as we could down the steep scree we slowly started to escape the cloud. Escaping from the summit seemed punishingly long, the slope was steep and hurt our tired legs the solace of flat ground seemed a long way off.
Slowly the slope eased, no longer in silence we both plodded on with fierce determination to make it to the cafe…as I often do on long hills I started to subconsciously mutter “Hot chocolate, drinking chocolate…hot chocolate, drinking chocolate” over and over to myself.
With a sigh of exhausted relief we trudged across flat bog and onto the welcomingly hard single track road to Torridon. Hiking under the rain our efforts were suddenly put into perspective… The town was filled with ultra-marathon teams, the “CELTMAN” race event was consuming the little town. We watched in admiration as exhausted men and women ran seemingly unfazed toward the finish line….we had done one mountain, they had swum 3000m biked 200km and then run a marathon over two munros!
Over a very welcome cup of tea in the cafe Tess and I chatted endlessly about the inspirational efforts of the runners both vowing to one day attempt some form of marathon….perhaps not for a while and not on such heroic scale but something, one day!
* * *
Day 4 in Torridon! At last the wind had gone, and not only had it diminished but completely disappeared! Relieved to rest tired legs we packed and prepared to get back in the kayaks, if the weather held we would make it to Ullapool just in time to reach the world’s first Skiff rowing championships…a competition I was signed up to row in.
In the calm sea we soon reached the Puffin painted on the rock. Having stopped to untangle the fishing line I had been chasing Tess who was far ahead on the glass calm water. Panting for breath I rafted along side and under the Puffin’s watchful gaze dropped the line into the water.
A vegetarian for several years Tess decided that should a fish be caught she would eat it! To both Tess and my surprise barely 5 minutes after dropping the line it jerked violently “I GOT ONE!” Tess held my boat steady as I reeled in as fast as I could I didn’t want to loose our dinner now!
With a second surprise there wasn’t a fish on the line…there were two! A pair or large Coley, not the tastiest fish in the sea but certainly good enough for a healthy dinner. With a flick of the line both fish were flailing on the deck….”You might want to close your eyes” I warned Tess before thumping the fish on the head…. Turning round with horror she stammered “You did that with YOUR FIST” It made me giggle much to her disapproving look…sorry Tess.
Briefly beaching at the head of Loch Torridon to enjoy the sun we shared another chocolate bar before continuing out west.
Travelling along the northern coast of Outer Loch Torridon we hugged the craggy shoreline, hot, sunny and still it was the perfect weather to paddle. Taking the chance to improve Tess started to work on correcting a persistent tendency to list to the left, no matter how hard I watched I couldn’t see what was causing it.
Tess was suffering from severe irritation to her eye and was concerned it might be an infection behind her contact lenses. Clearly causing distress we landed on the shore next to Craig bothy. I proved the perfect spot to swap contacts for glasses and more importantly for a spot of lunch.
Warmed by the sun the sea was pleasant to paddle through and very inviting. We paddled together side by side past crags and wide stony beaches chatting about whatever came to mind. The sunshine was slowly being swallowed with incredible lenticular clouds which over the now clear Torridon mountains produced a spectacular vista behind us.
Landing on a wide sandy bay tired and ready for camp we were only 2km the days end. Keen to push on we took a half hour to rest and wander along the wide red sands of the appropriately named Red Point. Exploring the broken remains of the old fishing station every ounce of attention had to be focused on not stepping on camouflaged eggs nestled in the dunes.
In the still twilight we beached at the northern bay of Red Point. Dragging the boats together up the sands and setting camp on an exposed plain to avoid the worst of the midges I set about preparing dinner!
Fried in garlic and olive oil with a little wild thyme the fresh fish made for a fantastically filling dinner, apprehensively Tess nibbled on the first meat she had eaten for years. “ITS GREAT!” she beamed after the first bite, needless to say the rest of the fillets didn’t last long between us.
* * *
Another day another gloriously calm sea! Tess and I had perfected our morning routine… I would shimmy across to her tent in my sleeping bag like a giant orange worm and cook breakfast and a coffee whilst she packed. There was never a sense or urgency when getting ready, it took almost two hours each morning between waking and paddling, almost twice the usual when alone. It was like a holiday within the expedition, after all what more could I ask for? Perfect weather, relaxed pace and in the company of a beautiful woman….bliss!
Back on the water we aimed to round Rua Reidh, it was the most exposed section of the entire trip and a point I had been quite concerned about getting around with Tess. With clear sky above and tranquil sea it couldn’t be a better day to get around.
Travelling onward there were plenty of opportunities to stop and rest along the coast, after several hours of gently moving north we nestled into a large bay on a soft sandy alcove amongst the rocks.
Wandering behind the hill to hunt for some water with less “essence de sheep” I left Tess to relax and soak up the warmth blazing down from the morning sun.
An hour later and once more we were back on the way toward Rua Reidh. Huge sandstone cliffs towered over rounded rocky shores. Beneath the kayaks the crystal clear water cast mesmerising patterns across the sand and kelp below, as we paddled fish scattered to seaweed shelter and crabs scuttled to lone rocks in the sand, it made for superbly interesting kayaking. I found myself wondering if we had perhaps teleported to a more tropical country…surely this couldn’t be Scotland!
Smiling almost as brightly as the sun itself Tess paddled at my side, below my kayaks shadow chased me across the sand and Fulmars glided down from above, standing proud on the horizon at my bow the large white pillar of Rua Reidh lighthouse promised that camp was already close.
The coastline rose from stone beaches to sheer cliff, from deep dark cracks and caves waves rumbled in the dark abyss. Huge archways tempted Tess and I to draw closer to the shore despite the rolling swell. We bounced and rolled toward the lighthouse through a lumpy clapotis drawn by the swell on the rocks.
Riding with the tide and wind we rounded the notoriously exposed Rua Reidh with ease, Tess handled the bumpy sea with apparent ease despite being clearly tired.
As we rounded the point I travelled into familiar territory once more, I had paddled these cliffs a year ago and could still remember a fun passage close to their sides. “Follow me!” I shouted to Tess and pointed the bow toward a seemingly dead end bay.
Between huge crashing waves on the golden red sandstone which glowed in the evening light we paddled toward a series of spires ahead. Tess paddled ahead as I pointed the way, weaving tightly we passed through a narrow crevice between the stacks. Rolling on the swell which surged through it was narrow enough to almost touch both sides of the towering cliffs with arms outstretched. Here we were sheltered from the wind, the worst of the waves and travelled in the shadows.
Emerging with a whoop of excitement brought upon us by the grandeur of the view and thrill of the gentle surf we paddled back into sunlit turquoise ocean. Ahead a golden sandy bay, our camp was close.
Tess passing ahead through the narrow passage
As we grew closer I watched with anticipation as the swell reared into a tall surf break before crashing onto the shore, between the sand huge jagged and sharp boulders scattered the bay. There were little safe landings, the best being no more than 5m wide between rocks. With 30m of rolling surf to navigate the treacherous obstacles it was a dangerous and difficult landing.
Sitting offshore I watched for a break in the waves, weighing our options. Neither I nor Tess could land safely here. As I turned round to beckon Tess onward to the next bay I watched a scene of horror unfold.
A huge breaker had risen behind us, towering 1-2m tall and breaking as a steep wall of white surf and fury it roared toward the rocks, sideways to the wave Tess’s hull flashed white to the sky. Surly she had just capsized!
Time slowed. . My heart lurched, what do I do! A rescue here would be almost impossible…to save the boat or Tess from being dashed to oblivion from the rocks! There was only time to save one! Choosing to leave the kayak to be smashed to oblivion and paddling round hard to head straight for Tess I watched with amazement…
As the wave roared over the rocks Tess wasn’t with it, she emerged from behind the trough! Amazingly through instinctive skill she had performed a spectacular brace, smiling widely with shock and delight she emerged upright and soaking. “I’m not sure what I just did” she shouted happy to be still in the boat….”PADDLE!” I screamed back….the next set was fast approaching.
Heaving and crashing through the breakers we both paddled out to the safety of open sea…”Phew!…That was close!”
Hearts heaving with adrenaline and stomachs lurching we had no option but to head for the next bay. Landing here was definitely not a good idea.
Moving onward the wind now against us and sea very lumpy we were both desperate to find camp. Exhausted and ready to rest headland after headland of rocky crags past by. 1km, then two and then three kilometres went by… Tess seemed at the end of her reserves. At last! a small crack between the crags with a narrow stony beach, sheltered from the surf by a nearby island it was the perfect landing stop….we finally landed.
With camp set we lay star shaped in the soft sheep mown grass, the setting glow of the sun saturating every pore and warming our tired muscles, it was bliss! The evening past watching the sun slowly sink into the horizon, our only activity was resting on the grass and a small expedition to fetch water which became a rescue mission for a poor trapped lamb.
Cut free from fishing line and a rusting creel the lamb bounced with glee toward the nearest grass and set about devouring it with ecstasy, it clearly had been trapped on the rocks for days. Noticing a series of rusting lifeboats we wondered where they had come from and what boat.
“It was during a blinding blizzard on February 26, 1944 that the Liberty ship William H. Welch met her end, she had hit the island of Eilean Furadh Mor and sunk into the cold winter sea. Only Five members of the crew and seven Navy gunners survived from the vessel’s complement of more than 60, those who made it owed their lives to the brave heroism of the local crofting community who despite the danger rushed to their aid.
Almost 70 years later their only memorial were the rusting lifeboats (Sadly never used) and a slick black stain left by the ships oil on the tideline so many years ago.
That night I woke to a crash and strange noises outside, convinced it was ghosts of the tormented sea men I cautiously peered out…to my relief it was just the grateful and still hungry lamb tripping on my guy lines.
* * *
It was a cold morning, the coast draped in mist with a sea harr rolling in ahead. Having become accustomed to the sun Tess and I spent longer than usual in the tent making sure to drag out every morning chore to the longest it could take.
Eventually we packed and loaded the boats for another day at sea.
Paddling across a small open passage Tess and I aimed for Green point. In the mist both Tess and I struggled for motivation and over a small fetch made slow progress to the far shore. Four kilometres later we reached the shelter of a small island. “I’m knackered” Tess said with a sigh, clearly the extra kilometres the day before had taken a toll, despite the pain she gritted teeth with determination and lead the way ahead.
Bouncing through heavy clapotis which required every ounce of concentration I and Tess crept along the rugged coastline. Both focused on keeping the boat stable we paddled in relative silence, looking up a tantalising blue tinge drifted through the mist above…the sun was coming!
Passing the aptly named Green point which covered in algae and seabirds signalled our turning point back inland we were more than ready to land. With the point sheltering us from the swell I was delighted to announce we had already passed the halfway mark for the day, the weather was rapidly improving and one of my favourite place names on earth promised a landing a few kilometres ahead….I speak of course of Mellon Udrigle.
A perfect crescent of bright white shell sand the bay emerged from the mist upon our arrival, paradise seemed to simply present itself before us. With a dull thud we scraped onto the sand, eager for a stretch and some lunch in the sun we wandered to the top of the bay smiling once again.
With a short walk to the top of a small hill and several shared oatcakes later we were ready to paddle the last stretch to Gruinard bay. Travelling on memory from childhood day trips I aimed straight for a small and secluded island with the perfect campsite.
Out of the cold, wind and mist of the morning a dramatic switch in the weather had developed, clear skies and perfectly smooth sea. What better opportunities to explore the nearby cliffs and caves.
“ECHO!” I bellowed into a deep crack in front of the bow, the abyss replied….”ECHO…Echo…echo” Just wide enough for Tess and I to squeeze into the cave together we marvelled at the crisp clarity of the sea. Lining the walls under the water huge red anemones, slender orange “Dead man’s finger” corals and bright red starfish clung to the rock. Urchins shone pink from deep beneath the blue and fish scattered between long fronds of coral. Above us in the cave vibrant green algae was dashed across a purple rock, this was our own personal cathedral.
Scraping back out to sea we paddled the last 7km to the end of the bay, side by side we chatted and drifted apart from time to time to enjoy both company and solitude along the beautiful coast. Birds and porpoise were the only breaks in the otherwise flat calm sea.
As we approached the island the incoming tide over Gruinard’s large open sands had warmed the sea to a pleasant and inviting temperature, it gave the surreal impression of tropical paradise. A theme which struck true from childhood memories where countless hours leaping from sand dunes and chasing dragonflies across the bay seemed only yesterday.
To my relief the camp was exactly as remembered, a smooth square of sheep mown lawn sheltered by a small rocky wall and surrounded on three sides by a warm sea….not a bad spot to pitch tent and sip hot chocolate all evening!
Lying in the tent I was quietly sad, this would be the last night Tess and I would enjoy each others company at camp, during our days together Tess had become more wild at heart, I had perhaps become softer….I knew without company I would for the first time suffer loneliness in her absence….the thought was broken with conversation and drifted away into the evening light.
* * *
“Today I would paddle to my home!” I said it to myself again in my head as I lay in the sleeping bag staring at the tent walls, walls coated with sand, salt and the mysterious stains of months of use. A warm bed tonight…my own bed! What more motivation does one need?
To add to the excitement the west coast had decided to put on a show for our final days travel together. There was barely a cloud in the deep blue sky reflected in the mirror calm sea.
After a final breakfast and another snickers bar with familiar “Your really trying to make me fat!” quip from Tess we were on our way.
Paddling out of Gruinard bay I admired the huge sand dunes which unchanged from my childhood painted memories of past frolics in the sand. I still felt the urge to leap and bound from overhangs onto the soft golden slopes lining the shore. With a push over a sandy isthmus between a small island at the end of the bay Tess and I were headed home.
The sandy beaches quickly turned to rounded boulders and crags. The landscape behind a beautiful moorland which polished clean by glaciers past was speckled with bare rounded slabs of rocks. Huge scots pine dangled over cliffs and buzzards glided gracefully overhead, it was a perfect day on the west.
An hours paddling past, at the headland before crossing little loch broom I landed for a quick stroll.
Ahead the little white lighthouse stood proud at the end of Calliach head, the entrance to Annat bay and the road home. Two large black stallions trotted beside the building on green pasture with stark contrast to the lighthouses white walls.
A westerly fetch rose across Little loch broom, beam on it cast refreshing splashes across the deck, soon we would turn east and it would push us all the way home. With sun on our backs and clear sailing we could enjoy a shared excitement, we were nearly there!
The summer isles dotted the horizon as we bounced past “Planet rock” and into Annat bay! Having spent my first job at 16 travelling twice a day along this shore as cabin boy on “The Summer Queen” a local tour boat I recognised every inlet, every headland and every bay. Just over 10km lay between us and a cold pint on the shore.
It was early afternoon and with great conditions ahead we rested one last time at the head of the bay, Tess stretched out on a rock like a giant starfish and soaked up the sun as I ran up a nearby hill to admire the view.
Paddling along the coast with the fresh wind on our backs we made fast progress into the bay, hugging the southern coast which lined with cliffs and hidden bays was far more interesting we soon passed Rhue lighthouse.
Paddling under overhangs of rocks, through little gaps between rocks and at the edges of cliffs I was consumed with the strange sense that I was simply returning from another days paddle from the house, it didn’t feel at all like I had come from the border. I could see the familiar line of white houses jutting into the sea ahead in less than an hour we would arrive!
Watching a huge Hercules plane roar over us as the RAF played their war games we passed the “Winkie buoy” a large red marker which signalled boats to stay off the shallow shore, of course in kayaks we aimed straight inland to the point. I could see my house at last!
Hugging the shore and beaming with delight the spectacle of skiff boats lining the shore promised a lively buzz through the town…the worlds first Skiff Olympics was well under way! Rounding the pier through the silence “WILLL!!! TESS!!!” bellowed out of nowhere.
Scanning the shore Dad and his mates were sitting on the sea wall beckoning us ashore.
By the time we had landed a cold pint for both Tess and I was waiting on the wall. Paul embraced us in a hug “I can admit now” He said looking at Tess “I was worried.” It had been a long trip through every whether the west coast could through at us but we had made it home!