Ullapool to Cape Wrath
Sponsored by James & Anita Copestake
Re-packed and re-fuelled Kate and I hauled the kayak onto the beach. With a scrape and a splash Sula was afloat once more. Taking a brief rest on our garden lawn to swill the last dregs of my tea I looked out at the gentle lap of waves on the shore, my clothes were dry and despite sniffling with a cold I was ready to leave home to get back on the water.
With almost two weeks “Off” from kayaking which packed with skiff racing, mountaineering and the delights of occasional home comforts I felt lost from the pace of the expedition. It was time to return to the rhythm I had lost and start heading north!
Back on the sea (Photo; Kate Copestake)
The sun was shining and only a slight wind was against my travel. I was starting late in the morning but felt determined to make progress as far as the “Summer Isles”; a archipelago of islands in Annat Bay. Squeezing back into the boat the pressure sores on my knees returned with a dull ache, even after two weeks they remembered their place. Gripping the paddle it felt right at home in my hands, this was where I belonged!
With a last look back at my home I paddled out into Loch Broom and straight toward Ullapool point.
Back out to sea (Photo; Kate Copestake)
My arms ached at first my balance was unsteady but soon I returned to the rhythm behind the blades. Ahead beyond the point a familiar line of fetch promised the onset of westerly wind in my face. “Enjoy the calm…while it lasts” I thought to myself through a cold bunged head.
Sure enough as I rounded the rocky shore in-front of the familiar line of white houses on the shore I was awakened from my flu like stupor with a bucket of Ice cold water; It cascaded over my bow and straight into my face! With relief the wave seemed to be a lonesome rogue, the wind was stiff but not strong and allowed fast paddling out into the bay. With one last look I drifted past Ullapool and out of sight from home wondering when we would meet again…
Kate had driven along to the shore and waved one last goodbye, I aimed for the small white tower of Rhue Lighthouse in the distance, with my head down I paddled onward. As I paddled I started to feel a strange mix of emotion, I knew that I was now heading toward the more difficult areas of the journey; the notorious exposed and tidal Northern waters would fast approach. The feelings of anxiety were confused with the comforting familiarity of home water, I knew Ullapool’s coast and had paddled it many times before; it felt as if I were simply out on another day trip.
The sea was becoming as mixed as the conflicting thoughts drifting through my mind. Shingle shore rose into small rocky crags to which waves clashed with a low clapotis. The bow was laden with a fresh load of dried food and nosed deep into each wave; with every stroke a bucket of water exploded bitter and cold into my face.
As I past Rhue lighthouse I hugged close to the shore granting a light rest between the waves, I had lost sight of Ullapool and was on my way into Annat Bay itself. Rounding the corner toward Isle Martin Rhue lighthouse stood tall against the rocks which crashed with a fantastic white spume of wind and waves, a family out for a walk waved from its base.
Where the sea grew shallower the waves countered by becoming taller and steeper, the boat bounced and dived across the water with tremendous splashes giving a fantastic exhilaration. Already soaked I no longer cared about the regular cascades of cold sea, at least they helped distract me from my groggy stuffed head. The passage to Isle Martin was short and intense but almost as fast as the sea had rose it became exceptionally calm and tranquil. The sun returned from behind the cloud and lit the deep red sandstone cliffs into a fiery glow. A peppering of white and black scattered the wind sculpted walls; Fulmars, Cormorants and shags perched upon their scenic roosts.
Hugging the walls tight and peering upward I almost failed to notice the dull thuds against my blades in the water. As I entered a small alcove the repetitive “Thud, thud, thud” in the water seemed to intensify, it was as if I were paddling in custard. The sun glared on the water enough to make peering below almost impossible. Curious I rafted up to the cliff and dipped my head into the water…
An incredible constellation of jellyfish swarmed below…like stars in a vast aqua green universe they drifted and pulsed with serene beauty. Mesmerised I realised the thuds on the blades had been strikes with the delicate organisms. I wondered if they were aware of my presence as I floated and ate an apple above their gelatinous galaxy.
Starting to shiver I left the jellyfish to drift in peace and headed toward the towering southern face of Ben More Coigach. Like a wall the mountainside plummeted in steep heathery gullies straight into the sea. I headed directly toward a small shingle bay nestled in the crags. I was Ill and it was having its toll, against the wind I was already stiff and becoming tired…I needed to stretch my legs.
Thirty minutes of basking in the sun amongst the rounded stones later and I was back on the sea. The wind was increasing to a stiff force three with gusts above and seemed to slow the kayak to a crawl. Struggling to battle it I slowly past the first few of the Summer Isles.
My arms hurt, my nose ran and my lungs were dry and wheezing. The wind seemed to defy every ounce of effort into the kayak but I was determined to reach the shelter of Achiltibuie. The small pier and scattered white houses in the distance seemed an age away, a long open stretch of bouncy sea against the wind stood between the shore and I. With head down and arms burning I moved slowly onward.
It was growing later and later into the evening, the sky grew darker behind my boat as the rain moved into the mountains inland. Squinting between salty spray which lit golden in the sun over a clear western horizon I could see the sheltered inlet between the Isle of Ristol and Old Dornie anchorage. The sea beside me no longer glinted with glare, disturbed and risen by the wind it sunk cold and slate blue into the depth beneath, the shore was golden and inviting….All I wanted was to land and curl into the warm comfort of my sleeping bag and rest. Like a snail crossing a road I slowly closed the distance between sea and shore, No longer aiming to land at Achiltibuie I paddled directly into the wind heading instead for the Island passage to Ristol.
* * *
Over an hour of fighting the waves had past, I was close! At last I turned the corner and as if turned off by a magic switch the wind diminished into calm. I had finally reached shelter and lay back onto the deck of the kayak to glided into the shallow natural harbour of Old Dornie. The sun was warm and slowly dried the salt on my arms into intricate marbled patterns. I followed a small sailing dingy to the slipway. I had planned to camp in solitude on the Isle of Ristol itself…but first I had to find some water!
Unable to spot any rivers or streams nearby I wandered up a nearby hill to scout for a source. I did not find any on shore but was instead rewarded with a tremendous sunset panorama across Annat bay and into Loch Broom.
Sitting on a curled slab of sandstone rock I gazed back toward home, shrouded in rain it was out of sight and bathed in a cold blue cloud. From the golden glow of my sunlit perch I watched in silence. Rolling dirt and sand between my salt patterned hands I tried to soak in the last view of familiarity which saturated my mood as much as the sea had my damp neoprene top. An hour past, suddenly with a jolt I lurched back to reality…“OH S**T! The Kayak!” The tide was rising and I had left it untied!
Almost at a sprint I bounded from the hillside and rolled down the heather slopes toward the harbour. Convinced the boat would by now be floating in the bay I anticipated the inevitable cold swim to retrieve it. It was a thought I didn’t warm to quickly! Rounding the pier where the boat was beached with a scatter of shingle and puff of dust I slid to a halt. “Phew!” The sea lapped perfectly at the cockpit, another 10 minutes and Sula would have set off on her own voyage without me.
Vowing that from then on I would always Tie the boat to shore as well as drag it up I returned to the sea, still without water I hoped that somewhere on the island would be a source. It was just a gentle 5 minute paddle to reach the sandy shores of the Island.
As I pulled the boat up the beach on the roller I was delighted to discover a small trickling stream bubbling up from the sand, there had to be water somewhere! With the tent set on a rise of perfect machair above the beach I wandered into a large mire behind the camp. Scraping through the remains of burnt heather it was clear the island had recently suffered a wild fire. To my delight it made finding the water source wonderfully simple; within 20 minutes I returned with two bottles full of dark tannin brown water to cook dinner.
Ash stains after exploring for water
Sitting warm and dry at last in the sleeping bag and sipping a scalding cup of tea I watched as the sun sunk like a golden orb into the dark grey sea.
* * *
Overnight the rain inland had continued east. What had been but a small slither of clear blue to the west now dominated the sky. It was a perfect sunny day and the winds had diminished. To my delight the salt air had also largely cured my cold.
Fuelled by oatmeal, tea and a newfound sense of adventure I took no time in setting the tent and packing the boat. The tide was high and launching from the soft sand took little effort. So far the day had just been getting better and better. On the sea and heading north I passed a small group of kayakers heading south. It was no surprise the west coast is famous as a paddling destination. What was a surprise was the sudden shriek “Its him!” from one of the paddlers. Confused I approached slowly into the group, to my amazement one of the group recognised my boat and had been following this very blog! I was delighted to be suddenly gifted with a chocolate bar and a quick conversation before they disappeared as quickly as they had arrived to land on Ristol.
Bobbing on an overly inflated ego and fuelled with a chocolate induced sugar high I paddled harder than normal and took little time in arriving at Reiff. Skirting the cliffs as close as I could I dipped and rose along the coast on the rising swell which rolled in from the west. Alone on the sea I was joined only by the occasional pair of climbers taking full advantage of one of the regions premier sea cliff climbing venues. With huge wind carved cliffs of grippy red sandstone housing huge cracks, ledges and overhangs which promised fantastic adventurous routes and scrambles along the coast it was easy to see why they came.
Cormorants nestled in their guano white perches peered down at my boat with wings outstretched to the sun. I was far more comfortable and energised than the day before, paddling felt good and I was exited to arrive at Achmelvic beach to camp later in the day. A location much loved from many a childhood holiday.
As I passed the cliffs of Reiff I found myself trying to remember the hazy memories of one of the most incredible natural encounters of my life; I had been just 8 years old and on my fathers sailing boat with the family and some friends, we had been surrounded by a pod of Killer Whales along this very shore. I could still remember hearing the splashes and watching the fins, most of all trying to hear their calls by pressing eager ears to a broomstick dangled overboard and into the water. I could remember being nervous in the 24 foot sailing boat, what would I feel if they appeared now?
As I wondered a head slowly rose out of the water ahead, watching the ripple it wasn’t quite the head of a fearsome orca. An otter bobbed in the foamy water left by the swell as it tapped a mussel on a carefully balanced rock on its stomach. Not a deadly predator to be feared and avoided but instead a sight to enjoy.
With a wave goodbye to the otter I left the coast of Reiff and out into the open water of Enard Bay. Pointing the bow straight toward Achmelvic bay I headed out into the calm sea. Just 10km away the paddle would only be a couple of hours, in the sunshine and with a gentle wind behind the boat I made quick comfortable progress toward a small island just south of the beach.
* * *
As I approached Achmelvic bay day kayakers appeared along the coast and colourful sails of small sailing boats drifted across the turquoise sea ahead. Fishermen began to out number seals on the rocks at the shore; a tell tale sign that civilisation was approaching. Beneath my boat the shallow sea over perfect white shell sand appeared to be more Caribbean than Scottish, I was tempted to roll over for a swim and had to remind myself that the inviting sea remained bitter cold.
I had been at sea for over 4 hours, parched with a lack of water and very stiff I was delighted to paddle to shore and relieve the pressure sores on my knees and back. As I grew closer to the beach I was amazed, the quiet beach which as a child we would visit to enjoy in peace and solitude was now covered in sunbathers, boats and tourists. Times had certainly changed!
Landing with a gentle soft scrape into the sand I was immediately surrounded by a group of young children brandishing buckets and spades. Feeling like I had arrived onto a desert island home to an unknown tribe I smiled “Hello!” ….the children scattered off across the sand…I took that as permission to land.
Infront of a group of sunbathing onlookers I wandered up the sand and spread out on the rocks to sunbathe. Despite the busy bustle of tourists the beach was still as perfect and beautiful as I remembered, many fantastic memories were washed into my past from the sand and Machair here. From scampering barefoot around rock-pools at the edges looking for crabs as a toddler to chaotic beer fuelled teenage beach parties, never once had I dreamt that I would arrive back at the familiar shore by kayak.
There was one advantage of the newfound tourism presence. ‘Here mate” a balding elderly gentleman called out from his deckchair, “They sell Ice-cream up there” he pointed to a campsite above the bay. 10 minutes later I was sunning myself in the sand with a large cone of vanilla ice in hand…I was in heaven.
Suilven dominating the campsite
It was 4.30pm, I had been on the beach for over an hour and a half and was ready to set the tent. However a quick phone call home to relay I was safe suddenly changed my plans. “Theres a Storm coming!” Paul explained down the phone. I checked my watch, it was late but the sea was glass calm; I chose to make an effort to continue and round Stoer head lighthouse. With hope I would be more sheltered the next day and could push onward to the north. Peeling away from the warmth of the sun I returned to my boat. A local fisherman who introduced himself as Mac approached and offered a kindly push into the sea. With a thank you and a wave goodbye I turned my back to the sand and back into the North Minch.
The sea was smooth, all but the faintest breath of wind remained. Paddling along the rocky shore a superb vista of Suilven and the Assynt mountains stood tall behind the rounded rocky coastline. Geometric slabs of rock forced upward from the coast over millennia slanted into the sea beside me. Although tired I was enjoying paddling more than I had most of the day, inspired by the scenery before me the effort seemed to simply diminish.
By the time I reached Stoer lighthouse the sun was low in the sky. I had only a few more hours of light left before I would be paddling into dusk. Hugging as close to the towering cliffs of the headland as I could I discovered a narrow passage leading between the rocks. Looking upward the cliff seemed to loom above the boat, I almost had to look directly above to see the top. Fulmars soared across the sky all around the boat as I pushed through the small channel barely as wide as my craft. This was a passage which under any condition other than flat calm would be impossible.
To my delight there was no swell on the beach below the point itself. With tremendous care to avoid large rounded boulders I gently landed for a brief explore. Leaping from the cockpit into waist depth water to avoid cracking the hull on the boulders I hauled the bow onto the shore and tied the kayak off to a boulder. The tide was falling so I had to limit my time to only a quick jog to the top of the hill.
Panting and sweaty I ran up the cliffs and stole a 5 minute glance back at the lighthouse and to the cliffs below. The midges were veracious and with their persuasion to add to the rapidly falling tide I ran back to the boat. With considerable effort I removed Sula from the rocks with many cracks and curses as the weighty hull pressed on awkward rounded boulders. With an almighty last shove she was afloat and I slid with a thud onto my leg. Bruised and cursing I waded back into the cold water and with a degree of balancing squeezed back into the cockpit.
In the fading light the sea became a tapestry of gentle blue whose colours borrowed from the evening sky rippled and reflected beside the gentle wake of the kayak. The last rays of yellow light shone down on the lighthouse at my stern in total silence aside the splash of my paddles on the water. A rare moment of perfect paddling with both beauty and serenity brought a beaming smile across my face, it had been a great choice to tackle the headland tonight and not face the storms in the morning.
The lighthouse soon drifted out of sight behind towering cliffs bathed gold in the last rays of the sun. As the light sunk between bands of thick cloud the landscape changed from cold evening blues to fiery reds. Whenever sun struck the water ahead it became a blinding dance of light and waves, it was 8pm and night was approaching, but it just didn’t seem to matter any more.
Passing the Old Man of Stoer sea stack and crossing a final open stretch of water I crossed the cliffs and returned to rounded coastline, nosing the boat into a small harbour at Culkein I stepped out onto the shore and shin deep into sulphurous grey mud. The sun had long since set with its final symphony of red and violet blue cast upon the approaching storm front from the north. Now I was cold, it was growing dark and I needed to camp.
* * *
I woke several times in the night to the deafening roar of wind and rain lashing at the tent door; The storm had arrived!
By 8am the wind had grown to a steady force 6, peering outside for the first time I watched the steep fetch of white horses rise and crash into the slipway below my camp. It provided the only shelter in the bay. The sea was a turmoil of waves and spray, I waited, watching and weighing my options. I didn’t want to remain in Culkein, there was a better option; Oldany Island.
The island was just 5km north, I knew once I reached it there was a sheltered bay with a small bothy on it. The bothy belonged to my best childhood friend – Seumas. He had even offered me a key for the shelter earlier in the month. I cursed myself for declining the offer; I had planned to paddle past it in the daytime. Although unable to access the building, I remembered from childhood trips to the perfect sandy bay on the remote island that it was a superb camp, far beating the battered pier where I sat. I was also somewhat creeped out by the old man who had persistently been watching me with binoculars for over an hour now from his nearby home.
It was windy! But I thought to myself “It’s only 5km, I can take it!” It was settled, I would set out into the storm.
Braving the rain and wind I squeezed into my cold wet kit and collapsed the tent, Hauling the kayak back into the sulphurous mud and climbed into the boat. From the level of the sea the waves seemed considerably taller. I eased out behind the harbour wall and with a last stretch in the calm pushed out into the elements.
The wind immediately caught the blade, the boat jerked around and lurched violently. I braced to remain upright and sunk the paddled into the waves. With a heave I drove the boat forward with all my might; “This was it!”
The first of may cold waves crashed over me with a piercing chill, cold spiders of bitter water scuttled down the back of my neoprene shirt and stole the breath from my lungs. Gasping I looked up right as the next wave submerged the bow and exploded over me again. Fighting the wind I drove a deep stroke, ducked, submerged into the waves, emerged from the sea and breathed…this repeated over and over and over. I was moving at a snails pace and using every ounce of effort I could muster to move forward.
I made it 2km across the bay it had been almost an hour! Despite the constant barrage of freezing water the effort to drive forward kept me warm. I was fighting to keep the boat not only forward but upright, the waves were tall and steep rising at head height before crashing over the boat in an attempt to swallow the craft into the sea. I aimed for the shelter of a set of tall cliffs to the east of the bay. Progress was painfully slow, and I was starting to fear I would capsize and become dashed on the rocks behind me. The waves roared and exploded across them with a terrifying might, I could catch only the slightest glimpses between salt stinging eyes and the constant run of water streaming from my hair and over my face. It was like paddling into a waterfall, a slight chance to breath then back into the water.
The fetch was finally starting to subside, I was barely 500m from the shelter of the cliffs. Dark cats paws buffeted across the water with a fierce strength. As each approached I would hold the paddle low in the water and duck letting them roar across the boat before returning to battle the waves. Exhausted and sweating I arrived at last at the base of the cliffs, here the wind roared above and around but left a 5m sheltered belt along their edge to hug with precious gratitude. It had taken an hour and 45 minutes to make just 3km from Culkien.
Following the sheltered cliffs I reached Oldany Island, with less effort to move the boat forward once out of the wind I was convulsively shivering in the cockpit. I already wanted to be on shore and back in the shelter of my tent.
In the lee of the island I paddled along a narrow passage which separated it from the mainland, zig zagging to and from between sheltered havens at the channels sides. Birch trees on the shore creaked and groaned in the wind which was setting about stripping them of every loose leaf and branch it could.
Seals started to bob ahead in the water and as I approached the sheltered bay where the bothy stood proud atop the sand they seemed to multiply. Stopping amongst a thick patch of seaweed I counted a total of 42 individual heads bobbing curiously in the sound…a new record!
They escorted the boat all the way to the shore where barely 3 hours after setting foot I collapsed exhausted, cold and defeated onto the sand. For a short passage it had been truly exhausting. Looking out from the deceptive shelter of the bay I could sea waves crashing on the shore to the north. With a heave I hauled the kayak alongside the bothy, set the tent in the shelter of the building, collapsed into my sleeping bag and immediately fell asleep.
Tired; pulling the kayak onto Oldany beside the Bothy
* * *
I woke early in the morning to complete silence, the tent was hot and sunlight shone bright through the muddy green fabric. The storm had passed over night and in its place tranquility had returned to the west coast. Hanging my clothes to dry in the tree outside the bothy I lazily stuffed my gear back into the kayak. The sea had settled hugely, smooth and calm only a tall but very rounded swell rolled across Eddrachillis Bay to the north. I was delighted, in such great conditions rather than hug the coast I could hop directly across toward Handa Island and save over an hours paddle for the day.
Oldany Island in great weather
This time when sliding into the water the kayak drifted out into the bay with only a few strokes, movement seemed infinitely easier when compared with the previous battle the day before. Paddling out into a bobbing sea of seals once more I turned directly north on the compass and headed out to sea.
In the rolling swell I rose and fell in and out of deep troughs and crests, each time I would rise high to view the incredible vista of moorland and mountains to my east before slowly descending into a view only of sea. Deep enough to often hide all view of the islands ahead once in the troughs the swell made for a bit of interest in the otherwise perfectly calm ocean. With tremendous puffs of white spray the rolling swell rose on the shores to the east and crashed into the rocks.
After the first hour I had made it almost half way across the bay and had started to pass between wide snakes of white foam created by the stormy chaos the night before. Like paddling through snow it was dazzlingly bright and felt like a giant salty bubble bath. I took tremendous satisfaction in parting the bubbles with the bow of the boat as I passed through their path.
As grew within the last 5km of the Northern shore I started to paddle faster; two cups of coffee before a long open passage were perhaps a mistake. The coast seemed to remain as distance as ever no matter how fast I tried. The “Bordom” hour had arrived, a term which I have coined for the final hour of a long passage where the coast seems but a hands reach from the boat but takes forever to arrive.
Passing between two small islands I stared to follow the craggy coast toward Handa Island. Huge caves and warped cracks dominated the dark rocky coastline, the blackened rock was broken only with the rolling crash of the low swell thundering against the shore. I aimed toward a small bay ahead which offered a perfect sheltered landing on Handa Island, it seemed a good place to stop and stretch.
Hauling the kayak up the sandy beach I arrived on the island before collapsing in a star on a patch of short grass. The sun radiated from the white shell sands baking the landscape in the heat of the day, looking up to the sky I watched as arctic terns soared past squawking at the strange intruder.
“Hello Sir!” A voice suddenly boomed. Alarmed I jolted upright…it was the resident warden, “I…I thought I was alone” I stammered with a racing heart, he chuckled and invited me to join a wee tour of a small stone hut nearby. Like the pied piper the cheery warden led a small string of adventurous tourists to the old croft house and described the islands purpose as a bird sanctuary with delighted detail.
Leaving the tourists to the trail I decided to take a short jog to the top of the Island to try catch a glimpse of some of the seabird colony. Following a superbly built boardwalk trail which wound snake like across the moor from the coast I watched as Arctic Skuas and Great Northern Skuas (Locally known as Bonksies) dive bombed smaller gulls for food. Just as I had as a child on the island I spent almost as much time scanning the boardwalks for lizards and pigmy shrews than I did gazing up at the birds, the island had changed little from how I remembered. Nearing the top the moor seemed to plummet into nothing over the horizon, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Guillimots and the overwhelming scent of Guano started to fill the air….the Northern cliffs were close!
A small sign teetered at the end of the boardwalk trail which behind flakes or rusting iron and faded paint read “Beware, unsafe edge.” I peered over the grassy lip and down to the sea far below, crashing with tremendous booms the swell rolled huge clouds of spray against the rocks at the base. I watched sea birds flock around a large stack which painted white by the birds stood resilient to the exposed coast, the sea was a long way down but I could see that it was very lumpy…the last hour of my trip would be a little bouncier than expected perhaps.
Looking North from Handa
Gazing in awe at the rows of birds lining the walls below I realised that the puffins had left for the season, they had returned to the sea and so should I. Taking one last look north from the cliff tops I returned to the board walk and jogged back down to the kayak.
With one last handshake to the warden I pushed the boat out into the shallow sandy bay, the water warmed by the sun and the rising tide over hot sand was temptingly inviting but I knew I must push on before it turned against me in the narrow channel ahead.
I had left it too late! As soon as I rounded the bay and pushed north toward Kinlochbervie the sea warped from calm to a vicious tidal chaos. As the tide turned the water rose into steep lumps over a meter above my head and from every direction at once. I had experienced the phenomenon before; as the tide turns it often confuses the sea, never had I seen it this large. The large swell rolling in from the west pounded the ochre red rocks on the shore before bouncing back out to sea and adding to the mayhem.
Concentrating hard I slowly drove the kayak forward and past Loch Laxford, between sharp jerks and bounces I stole the occasional glimpse back to the tremendous cliffs plummeting to the sea from Handa. Bracing almost as much as I paddled I started to build a rhythm against the waves, I rose and fell, tilted and rolled but so long as I concentrated on feeling the boat and the sea beneath my legs I could ride it through.
Suddenly Sula rose high into the air, at the meeting of 4 waves the sea had risen into a triangular peak beneath me. Bracing hard I had only but a second to react; the water which had launched me upright suddenly plummeted…I was falling! “BOOM!….CRRAACKK!” Sula dropped perfectly flat from the top of the peak to the trough, with a sickening creak of fibreglass the boat flexed with the impact as a perfect curl of sea displaces from my sides. Water poured over the deck, my back lurched and jerked with the impact of the fall, but the boat survived! Bobbing back to the surface I swiped the paddle outward in a long curve, a wide brace against the roll of the wave as she righted from the fall. I had stopped dead in the water my momentum stolen by the wave, heaving with an unexpected rush of adrenaline I gasped just as the next wave rolled behind and pushed Sula around, it was as close as I had come to a capsize but I had made it.
Pushing on with a fear of being dropped a second time looming in the back of my mind I drowned all but the next wave from my conscious thought, “Just keep focused” I screamed inside to myself as I edged little by little toward the safe shelter of Kinlochbervie harbour. At least the sun still shone bright and warm on the coast, it cast a deceptive warmth against the cold turmoil of the sea around my boat. Red sandstone and concrete grey pavements of rock rolled inland from the coast, carved by mighty ice sheets over the last ice age the rounded moors rolled inland with a smoothness I could only dream the sea would consider.
I noticed that seals were again being replaced with fishermen on the rocks, despite the crashing swell they were trying to snatch mackerel on their lines. I was almost there!
A small prominent peninsula poked out to the west, rounding its steep rocky face I instantly bounced from the waves into glass calm waters. Ahead of the bow a small line of white croft houses lined a shingle harbour which framed in a perfect rainbow suddenly seemed like heaven. At last Kinlochbervie had arrived!
Aiming for a wide half moon shaped bay to the North of the town I landed, hauled the kayak to the top of the beach and quickly set the tent. It was a perfect site far enough from town to be out of the way but close enough to wander in for an explore, on a small patch of grass at the top of the beach I settled in for the evening.
Kinlochbervie (Camp on beach at the left)
As evening approached the batteries on my radio finally ran out, fizzling into silence I decided to explore the local bar. I had managed to catch a forecast on the shipping news which I later confirmed with my dad via a phone call; “Gale Warning! Force 6-7 winds. Westerly” In the morning I was going no where.
With this in mind I quickly settled into the corner of the quiet pub with a cold pint, “Sorry about the Americans” the attractive young barmaid said with a laugh as she nodded toward a blurring chaos of tartan, they were the only ones in kilts dancing to a ceilidh band in the corner…”The locals are over there” she beckoned over to a solemn line of greying individuals lining the darkest end of the bar. I laughed.
A rosy cheeked local slumped onto the bar stool beside me, tall, built and with pepper grey hair the man had a weathered but kind face “What ya having boyo” He beckoned toward the taps, we hadn’t even been introduced. Sipping at my second pint the man explained he had watched the kayak bouncing into the bay, he was an ex member of the local fire service and knew the sea well. “It’s always bouncy between Handa and here!” he explained, “Swell and tide I reckon.” With a tap on the shoulder he left as quickly as he had arrived.
Two young lads appeared in the bar, I was about to head back to the tent but with instant recognition realised they too were embarked on a voyage. With tanned faces, weathered muddy clothes and the “Travellers look” fashion sense of synthetic clothes and various symbolic pendants adorning their wrists I immediately struck up a conversation.
Tom and Richard were just two days from finishing walking the length of Scotland, raising money for ‘Save the Children’ they had followed the Scottish National Trail. Amazed to be in the company of other adventurous people at last not to mention people my own age I drowned the evening behind many a pint. The sea had failed to submerse me during the day but the beer certainly succeeded as the night grew on.
Their video diary can be viewed here: Scotland End to End
Parting ways at final orders the pair hiked into the darkness and back to their tent, I stumbled with “Sea legs” back to the warm sanctuary of the tent where despite the already blowing gale I collapsed star shaped into the door and fell asleep. I only woke to crawl inside when the rain eventually begun sometime in the small hours.
* * *
11am, the gales howled and rain drove against the tent. It bowed and flapped with the gusts with a deafening roar. Groaning and hungover I rolled over and buried my head into my sleeping bag. I remembered through the haze that the two lads had invited me to join them to hike to Sandwood bay for the day, they would be here around 10am. Assuming they had already passed and I had missed them in my groggy state I stumbled into my waterproofs and headed back to the bar. With any luck I could shelter the day and enjoy a much needed coffee.
Quiet back streets of Kinlochbervie
Delighted to find it open and far quieter without the american dancers I settled into a corner with a book and a coffee. There was only one other in the room, a wrinkled fisherman dressed in a tattered wooly jumper and yellow oilskin trousers. “You wanting a beer love?” The barmaid called over to the weathered sea man. Casually rising his slumped grey head from his hands he looked at his watch and then back at the barmaid in apparent dismay, “It’s a bit early isn’t it?” he replied. “Its 11.30″ she admitted. “No! I mean its a little early to be asking stupid f**king questions, pour me a pint!” he grumbled… Laughing I was quickly shot down with a serious stare by the fisherman.
For the rest of the day I settled into a comfortable sofa in the corner of the bar and watched curtains of rain patter across the bay which was peppered with white horses. Like many locals the man in the dark corner once broken past the tough exterior was friendly and regaled tale after tale of life at sea as a crab fisherman.
Only when It grew dark did I return to the tent, I was finally free of the hangover but longed for sleep none-the-less. Hunched against the wind and rain I arrived back at my little green haven. What I found filled my soul with horror to the core! The anchors had been removed, the door was open and inside a bucket of water had been thrown purposely across my sleeping bag. “WHY!” I thought with disgust!
The initial annoyance turned briefly to relief, nothing had been stolen and the tent had somehow remained secure despite the gales. I settled into the realisation that it would be a cold wet night before setting off in the morning. Damp, cold and upset I crawled into my sleeping bag still in my waterproofs and closed my eyes.
* * *
“I’M VERY ANGRY!!!” A voice boomed, my tent was shaking…it wasn’t the wind.
I had slept very badly, constantly shivering and barely warm enough I woke as soon as the hand touched my home, I realised this must be the culprit behind the wet sleeping bag. Already dressed in an attempt to stay warm I opened the door and leapt outside. Suddenly right in my face an elderly crofter started shouting expletives. Through the garbled shouting I deciphered only the words “TOTALLY ILLEGAL!”, “YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT, I THOUGHT WETTING YOU BAG WOULD BE A BIG ENOUGH MESSAGE” and finally “THIS IS MY LAND, NOT YOURS”
It was all I needed to hear, I asked the farmers name which he refused to give and then returned fire. Pointing out the Freedom of Access rights and that I wasn’t even on his croft; the tent was on the top of the beach. Confident that I was in the right I fought inside to resist screaming at the man for the terrifically uncomfortable night he had kindly provided, neither of us we going to be defeated.
Eventually after quite the shouting match the farmer stormed off to his farm to “Call the Police,” I concluded that although laws change some peoples attitudes don’t, I was so close to the roof of Scotland…I guess I should expect to find a few opinions from the gutter. Fuming and keen to leave I packed the boat and pushed it down the beach. With a sudden pang of pain I dropped onto to shingle, blood was running from my left boot. Peeling off the neoprene I discovered a large shard of glass had pierced directly through the rubber sole and scalloped a deep cut into the arch of my foot, I needed to keep time with the tides so removed the glass and replaced the shoe. It didn’t need stitches it could wait until the evening.
My “Illegal” Camp; The police never arrived.
Once on the water the gentle rock of the boat on the swell quickly calmed me down, all was peaceful again. I turned my thought onto a more immediate concern, today was the day I would round the Cape! A milestone I had built upon a pedestal in my mind the wild corner of Cape Wrath marked my official turning onto the roof of Scotland, I would venture into huge tides, vast exposure and a committing un-forgiving coastline.
I was paddling against the tide as I left Kinlochbervie, as I paddled north it would become strong and turbulent. It was a force I had to ride with and not against, my timing to reach the turn of the tide at Sandwood bay was crucial. A slight wind pushed against the kayak, I knew that when the tide turned it would rise the sea but there was no turning back now.
As I paddled past the sandy bay of Sheigra I hugged close beside a row of weathered cliffs which carved into caves and cracks resonated the power held by the winter storms which pummelled this inhospitable coast. It was the last call of refuge, I knew with the westerly swell that Sandwood bay would be an untenable landing, once around this point I had committed to round the Cape.
Following the increasingly steep cliffs against a stream of south flowing tide I grew increasingly nervous. The sea wasn’t angry or difficult but I had built the thought of the passage into a terrifying entity, a demon of wrathful tide and swell which played upon my every nerve…It was surely called Cape Wrath for a reason!
There was no threat yet, as I rolled over the swell along the base of huge red cliffs making sure to keep at least 100m off shore to avoid the sets of rumbling swell which roared into their base. The clapotis driven outward by each waves impact rocked the boat even from afar, I knew that in a few kilometres I would have to choose to hug the cliffs and risk the waves or ride the tidal stream itself.
Ahead of the bow a needle of rock appeared from behind the cliffs, there was no mistaking the towering pinnacle of Am Buachaille; the guardian stack of rock which stood at the southern edge of Sandwood bay. Approaching the stack at a distance to avoid huge white breakers which rolled into the shore from a shallow reef I suddenly round the boat lurching out to sea. The tide races were here at last!
Out of the rippled of wind on the sea huge tennis court sized boils of smooth water bubbled upward from the depths, turning the boat in whichever direction they pleased with surprising ease and speed I fought to keep Sula in line. I couldn’t escape the race but could fight it! Making painfully slow progress against the flow I edged past the tremendous column and out into the open expanse aside Sandwood bay itself.
As soon as I rounded the point the current diminished, looking inland I watched the deceptive white lines of surf roll onto the shore. They looked small from where I sat but their rumble and booms depicted a different story, I wouldn’t risk a landing alone on such a remote coast unless I absolutely had to.
It was the turn of the tide, once again the sea became a confused mess of waves in every direction. To my relief they were nothing on the waves I had endured before Kinlochbervie, bouncing and rolling past the golden sands inland I headed north. I could at last see the lighthouse!
Small, white and unassuming Cape Wrath lighthouse stood high on the cliffs in the distance, it marked the end of the west coast but also the beginning of the north. Concerned about the imminent threat of tide against wind I paddled hard to make best progress while the tide was at its least, once past the point it would flow out to sea and I would be sheltered for the rest of the day.
I had made my choice; I would swing wide from the cliffs and ride the tide race around the corner. I preferred the thought of drifting out to sea than being dashed upon the jagged rocky shore. As I left sandwood bay I entered the stream once more, the sea rose steep and fiercely against the wind. Glancing down at my GPS I was travelling 4km/h against the wind on the tide alone.
Ploughing the bow through the waves which had risen to steep walls of cold grey slate capped in white I bounced from sea to the sky. The laden boat lurched and plummeted through the waves to cast huge sprays of icy water across my face. Concentrating I was focused on nothing but the next wave approaching, I felt as if I had paddled into a river. To my side I could see the land drifting past faster than I anticipated, terrific barrels of white exploded into the warped and weathered rock.
Focused on the immediate surroundings I barely noticed the rapid progress toward the point. With a woop and a splash I past the huge island of rock jutting west from the Cape. Turning east I paddled hard to cross the current and guided Sula into a calm eddy behind the face. I had arrived on the north!
For the first time the sea was calm enough to allow appreciation of the spectacular rock I now bobbed beneath. Warped and twisted with the sands of time beautiful magenta seams were intertwined with white streaks, slate greys and coal blacks in beautiful twists and curves. If there was a divine creator in this universe this rock would be the ball of multi coloured plasticine discarded by the divine infant toddler.
Huge archways and caves gaped open from the marbled colours in the rock, ahead three razor sharp pinnacles stood defiantly out to the northern ocean. Here was a shore which had seen the worst weather imaginable and become moulded by its fury. Far above rising from flocks of Fulmars and kittiwake which filled the air the tip of the lighthouse itself stood over my boat. The turning point onto the next “stage” had arrived at last!
Out of the tide I was concerned to discover the swell had moved northerly and no longer pounded from the west, I had hoped to land at Kervaig bay nearby to camp in the bothy but the swell could be seen roaring into the sandy bay ahead. Paddling onward I aimed instead to a small jetty marked on the map near the lighthouse, I prayed it was laudable…there weren’t any other options.
Had the swell been less I would have hugged the incredible cliffs, darted between archways and nosed into caves but with the rolling breakers onshore I kept well off. Cold from the constant spray of the tide race I was ready to land! With huge relief the cliffs gave way to a long sheltered inlet in the peninsula. The well built jetty at the end was perfectly calm and a superb landing, 5 hours after entering the kayak from Kinlochbervie I clambered out onto dry land for the first time all day, needless to say with a relieved groan.
Wobbling on swell induced sea legs I rolled and hauled the kayak to the top of the stone ramp, loaded my Overboard backpack with dry bags and with intent to explore the lighthouse before reaching the bothy some 2km along the coast I wandered out into the moor with a limp.
After a brief explore of the white building and a somewhat foolhardy scramble onto the peninsula itself along a narrow trail in the cliff I aimed east to Kervaig Bay. Following the coast on hard ground the glass cut on my foot started to bleed again it needed attention but with a large rain cloud approaching I wasted no time and marched onward toward shelter. I arrived just as the rain finally started to pour, with a creak of the door and a patter of wet boots I stumbled in for the evening to a resounding cheer… I wasn’t alone for the night!
In the good company of two young belgian hikers and a middle aged mother with her two young children (Cathy; Morag & Gregor) I warmed by a fire burning peat and bog wood and sipped tea. With the west coast cast behind in my wake I settled into the evening mood, with another sip of tea I thought to myself “Well, so far the north coast was far more relaxing than I thought”.