The North CoastSponsored by Pippa And Allistair Stark
Waking to the dull clunks of footsteps clattering down the stairs of Kervaig Bothy I listened intently behind the warmth of my sleeping bag; a distant rush of surf rolling into the bay drifted through the open door nearby. Unlike the hikers keen to escape and explore I was in no hurry, the tide wouldn’t turn in favour until 2pm and I could afford the luxury of sleep.
With the arrival of Cathy and her two young kids Morag and Gregor I emerged to fry the last of a precious pack of bacon. Peering outside I watched white horses cast across the bay, the sea looked unsettlingly rough.
The turmoil of tide and wind found itself reflected in a race of nervous thought. Despite the comfort of a bed I hadn’t slept well; for hours I lay wide awake starting at the ceiling and letting my nerves get the better of what confidence I had. This was the north coast! A place which like a brooding storm had hung over the horizon waiting for my arrival; this was the realm of the tide and wind, a place where each day was committed by tremendous cliffs unrelenting and unforgiving to any exposure from the north. As I had travelled up the west coast locals had regularly regarded my intentions as either brave or stupid almost always parting ways with a solemn “Good luck!” Looking out to see I certainly didn’t feel brave and I longed for all the luck I could get.
With hope that the sea would calm with the turn of the tide, there was a painful awareness that I had to take every opportunity with the weather to creep slowly along the northern shores. The wind may have been fierce but as a saving grace the sun appeared to cast a golden morning hue across the soft sand of Kervaig bay. Inside the bothy rays of smoke floating upward from burnt bacon cast light in rays across the battered wooden table. Over tea and conversation with Cathy I decided it was best to wander along the cliffs to scope out what to expect ahead.
Leaving a small heap of kit on my bunk I donned boots and bent against the wind tramped across the peat bogs to wander up a short grassy slope. It was a cold morning and spurred a fast pace in effort to warm up, before long I had arrived at some of Britain’s most spectacular sea cliffs. Peering over a blustery precipice I gazed down the towering wall of rock which sloped smoothly down to the crashing ocean far below. Dark flurries of wind cast cats paws across the sea between tremendous explosions of surf, the nervous anticipation returned.
A chaotic turmoil of swell and fetch clashing together in violent fury the waves were short and steep and seemingly reared from every direction at once. I knew that the tide was flowing against the wind and took an ounce of solace in the knowledge that this was as worse as it would likely get. In the back of my mind I knew that from such a high even those waves which looked small would become giants once sat amongst them. It was the same voice that whispered “Once on the tide, you can’t turn back” the currents would be too strong.
The spectacle and harsh beauty of the immense weathered coast distracted away from the nagging thoughts. Puffins, Fulmars and Kittiwakes dotted the dark rock nestled into splashes of white guano amongst mossy ledges, tiny cracks and crevices. Over the rush of wind and deep boom of surf they sung a symphony out to the open sea.
Teetering along the edge of the cliff a lone stone wall snaked its way along the coast; the last remnants of past crofting communities the wall had stood the test of time, weather and the more immediate threat of bombing. Stumbling across the remains of parachute flares, shrapnel and huge fresh craters blown into the peat I was constantly reminded that I wandered across the edge of a live firing range; one of the few in Europe where naval ships are allowed to unleash hell upon the beautiful landscape.
I hiked in hope of finding a vantage point to relay a phone call home, I had spent hours gazing into tidal charts and descriptions printed on tattered paper about the northern passage but longed for re-assurance. The fear of making a miscalculation and being held at mercy on the tide already seemed a terrifying scenario to face.
A 5km walk and a brief phone call to my father later helped to settle the doubt, with a last glance at the wind fighting an un-winnable battle with the tide as it narrowed between a rocky island and the shore in a tremendous crescendo of waves and whirlpools I returned to the bothy…it was time to go.
Stuffing my kit into dry bags and closing the bothy door I stood and watched the two children playing gleefully on the sand by the shore. Cathy who stood beside me said with a sigh.. “You have to cherish these moments…I havn’t told them I have terminal cancer, I just want to make the last few years as bright as possible”
Taken aback and with heartfelt sorrow Cathy seemed to suddenly put everything into perspective, here I was worrying myself sick about some stupid wind and she was fighting the biggest battle of her life in complete silence to protect those she loved. With a last hug goodbye I departed and left her as the silent hero to watch her kids enjoying the sun and the sea.
Pushing the kayak from the slipway with a grinding scrape I returned to the sea. Leaving a small white trail of gel coat onto the rocks beneath the kayak I pushed out from thick seaweed and out of the sheltered landing.
Tentatively I nudged the kayak forward one stroke at a time, slowly and surely approaching the headland at Kervaig bay. Leaving a large gap between I and the shore I watched the awe inspiring explosions of waves rearing up against the rocks in tremendous white eruptions. The air was filled salt and the deafening roars of crashing surf seemed to echo from the walls and reverberate around the boat.
Following a trail of foam drifting upon the tide I rounded the headland and immediately into a confused concentration testing chaos. From above the wind buffeted and caught the paddle blades often by surprise, the swell ricocheted and bounced in every direction from the base of the cliffs and all around waves reared in sharp triangular convolutions. It was slow and tricky paddling, I focused hard on simply staying upright and let the fast race of the east flowing tide push the boat along the way.
Thousands of puffins scattered from their perches in a cloud of feathers and bright rainbow beaks only to splash, crash and bob around the boat as I fought to paddle onward. The height of the incredible rock faces seemed ten times greater from the base than they had from my perch above. Looming high over the sea and dominating the horizon they defied every fury put upon them by the open ocean to my north.
Before long I was racing on the tide between the rocky island I had watched from above. The sea reared high and steep before my bow rising the waves to head height walls of water. Unlike the swell the boat did not bounce gracefully atop the race, laden and heavy it simply plowed straight into the face with a freezing splash before emerging with a torturously slow bob from the other side. Soaked and filled with adrenaline I felt as though I had entered the mouth of a river, I could see clear tongues and rapids to navigate as I crashed across the rip. Ahead I could see the calm promise an eddy line!
With a tremendous grunt I heaved on the paddle to drive the nose inland. Looking inshore for the first time at a chance glance away from the water I could see that despite being side on to the coast I was traveling along it at tremendous speed. In the moment all fear had disappeared, my world immersed into nothing but the next wave… I realized somewhat surprised that despite the stress I was actually enjoying myself!
Relieved to escape the tide race
I had emerged from the first major tidal race of the north coast, it hadn’t lived up to what I had feared but instead been somewhat fun. Bouncing on adrenaline almost as much as the boat bounced on the waves I powered the blade into the water and continued on the now calmer sea toward Faraid Head.
I aimed for a the peninsula as fast as I could paddle, now emerging into a wider bay the cliff line receded and so did the chaotic confusion of swell. The wind blew at the stern and with the tide also in favor the progress moved smooth and fast along the coast.
By the time I reached the small rocky headland of Faraid head the rush of the rapids had worn off, my arms were tired and the light was fading. I had planned to land just 7km past the headland on a small island which reportedly contained a bothy.
Expecting another race of tide around the headland I braced for another soaking bounce through to the sheltered side. This time however the tide sped up with tremendous welling up-rises which boiled from deep below, moving fast and effortlessly I was simply pushed around the headland without so much as a wave breaking the bow. Only when a boil of water welled up around the boat would I have to fight to keep Sula in line with the correct course. The small white lighthouse already blinking in the fading light simply drifted by to my starboard side and before long I had emerged onto the eastern cliffs. Huge stacks of shattered weather torn rock rose up from the cliffy peninsula, inland surf rolled into wide sandy beaches which offered tempting campsites.
Reluctant to perform a surf landing I pushed on toward the little island far in the distance, as the light had faded the day had grown colder and as twilight approached I pushed hard to reach the shore before dark.
The island grew closer and once more the tide started to speed up once more. Gliding in a wide arc under the escort of several curious seals I drifted into the shelter of a small shingle bay at the back of the island. Entirely sheltered from the wind and the thundering surf all suddenly seemed serenely calm, to my delight at the top of the bay a small bothy awaited with an open door.
Under the spectacular light of a tremendous sunset I dragged the kayak to the door, stumbled inside and with delight at finding a tremendous stack of wood lit a fire. Over a large smokey cup of tea I watched the sun sink over Faraid head and to some amusement a young otter wrestle playfully with a fishing bhoy in the bay.
Sunlight cast through cobwebs and condensation behind the single pane bothy window; casting a golden ray across the still smokey bothy to warm my sleeping bag as I shuffled upright to the table for breakfast. The evening fire had long since faded into the cold stone walls, the flickering candles which had lit the room by night relinquished to puddles of wax and my breath rose in puffs of steam.
The sky outside was a cold grey with only small scattered openings in the cloud to occasionally release the sun. I knew that inevitably I would have to creep out of my cosy sleeping bag and into the cold wet kit cast crumpled and soggy in the corner. I was spurred into action with the comforting knowledge that should I make it safely around the next headland I would have a bed for the night at the hospitality of one of my oldest childhood friends – Seumas.
Seumas is as close to a brother as I had ever had, spending our childhoods progressively working through the “Ray Mears Bushcraft Bible”, lighting fires and exploring just about every part of the local hills, coast and rivers as possible. It was with Seumas that I had first been introduced to river kayaking under the watchful guidance of a mutual friend (Sam). The prospect of a familiar face after so long in the company of seals and strangers was more than enough to persuade my departure from the island.
Under the escort of seal pups I rode out into the gentle flow of the east flowing tide. Aiming for the tremendous white cliffs of Whiten head in the distance I paddled out with a renewed enthusiasm and the expectation of another tide race to contend.
Ahead white dashes of spray reared up between caves and stacks which lined the peninsula. With memory to the chaotic hell to which I had paddled into along the cliffs the day before I chose to aim around the point at a wider birth in hope of avoidance.
Sure enough as I approached the headland the sea started to come alive once more, little tongues and whirls of water races around the hull with an unstoppable drive to power east regardless of the large rocky outcrop in its way.
My arms were aching already, the pressure points on my knees and back already sore and my mind still reeled between excitement and apprehension. For the second night running I had lost sleep only to dream of tremendous rapids and sinking into deep a deep black abyss only to wake up shivering in the cold dark bothy. The north coast was testing my paddling but also my psyche, I knew that the further east I went the stronger the tides would grow.
Whiten head however was promising to be a relatively tame and enjoyable tidal passage. As the cliffs grew closer and the rapids grew stronger I drifted and bounced close with ease and a smile past deep dark caves and towering white stacks. The water rippled and flowed but at no point promised cascading overfalls or deathly whirlpools. Unlike the day before I found myself enjoying gazing upward as the rock which passed my side.
The craggy cliffs marbled between chalky white clays and coal black to deep maroon boulders which warped and twisted over time and eternity appeared like a marvelous marbled painting against the hazy sunlit morning mist.
Lurching and bobbing through the main race I pulled closer to the rocks. Small standing waves appeared as the water funneled between skerries and the cliffs creating terrific exiting little challenges to navigate between. It was I and the sea working together in a mutual bid to push east under the silent watch of the seabirds adorning the vast towering walls.
Moving at 3-4km/h on the tide alone I rolled over the remnant swell which still pounded the cliffs. I had been only an hour and a half at sea but already the call of nature had started to distract all other thought from the hazy scenery. I already regretted the extra brew over breakfast and with over 10km to paddle before land desperation started to taint rational thought.
Attempting to “relieve” oneself in a kayak using an empty milk bottle turned out to be a messy process which was immediately abandoned. I scanned desperately for a landing but alas the swell and cliffs worked against my plight.
After a half hour to my delight a small shingle bay no larger than the boat appeared, it was seemingly sheltered and offered exactly what was required. Naively assuming it was safe I nosed the boat closer and between a small set of waves aimed for shore and drove hard on the paddle….
Immediately I realized I had made a tremendous mistake! Out of nowhere the kayak lifted high into the air; I was riding an inescapable freight train of water and barreled straight toward the rocks…”BOOOOM” The boat swallowed into the breaking wave and with a sickening roar of water I was thrown helplessly away from the shingle and directly into the bouldery cliffs. Landing with a crash hard and flat onto the rocks with a crack the impact drove all the air from my lungs, wheezing and panicking I flailed my blade at the rocks trying in vain to push myself free…the boat scraped from the beach only to be swallowed back into the trough of the next wave. Lifted a second time and thrown into the rocks with a spine numbing crash I pulled my deck and leapt into waist depth water.
Leaping to grab the stern of the boat as it rose on the third wave and narrowly avoiding loosing my teeth on the hull in the process I hauled the kayak around and dragged it from the rocky fate. Another wave washed me from my feet and with the kayak in hand I bounced onto the shore, freeing my leg from under the hull I scrambled to heave it onto the beach and finally escaped the waves…from the shore they seemed small but I was sure they had destroyed the kayak.
“YOU IDIOT!!” I screamed into the cliffs, it echoed around the bay with a flutter of startled birds which took flight from their roosts. I was sure the boat had a hole, 10km from the next beach and this shingle “Haven” surrounded entirely by 50m of cliff would be swallowed with the rising tide. I had no one to blame by myself and my bladder.
Amazingly despite some deep scrapes, chips and spider web splinters in the gel coat there was no significant damage. Relieved I remembered why I had landed and took care of business.
Escaping the shore was an equally difficult task. With the boat high on the shingle I bailed out the cockpit which had filled with water before squeezing inside and sliding like a seal down the shingle beach into a gap between the waves.
It was just in time to once again be hammered another three times by breaking surf which once more threw the boat against the rocks. Loosing my paddle in the process I pushed myself free with my hands to freedom. Soaked to the skin and thumping with adrenaline I retrieved the blade which had become stuck under the hull attached to the paddle leash, the skeg had jammed with pebbled which I would have to fix upon the next landing. I had made it this time but vowed NEVER to try and land for the sole reasoning of a pee ever again.
There was one last sting in the tail….the waves had claimed my last remaining apple from the deck!
For the remainder of the headland the now glass calm sea seemed to be even calmer than ever. The sun had started to break the mist creating an etherial shimmer across the damp rocks and still waters ahead and before long I was leaving the towering cliffs to my stern. The coast widened, cliffs turned to rocky outcrops and sandy shores which rumbled under the surf, the wind was none existent provided mercy for my mistake. Had there been a breeze as forecast the day before I would have fought to keep the boat inline without a working skeg.
Ben Hope and Ben Loyal stood triumphant against the inland skyline, a sea of heathery moorland rolled down to the coast to where I sat. Looking upward an exited anticipation to leave the boat and climb Ben Hope helped to spur progress toward my landing some 5km ahead.
Fighting the tide flowing fast from the Tongue estuary I nosed the kayak between the Rabbit Islands and landed in an perfectly geometric inlet between sharp rocky crags. At the head of the inlet a sandy shore promised a sheltered haven from the surf for lunch….this time I landed without drama.
Only a kilometre across the bay Scullomie harbor promised the end of my days paddle. The day was almost over and I was no longer in any rush. Laying in the sun on the sand I enjoyed basking in the warm glow and slowly drying out as I ate my last pack of soggy oatcakes. I wasn’t alone, a community of seals basked nearby on the sandy bar connecting two grassy patches of island. With azure blue sea and untouched sands it was my own private paradise. Despite a brief search Rabbit island seemed devoid of the little furry creatures to its namesake.
I noticed out in the bay something colorful drifting on the tide. To my astonishment it was another kayak! No longer relaxed I made haste to pack and leave, I hadn’t seen a fellow paddler in weeks and was eager for a chat.
As I approached I noticed a head bobbing in the water beside the boat. The kayak which was paddled by a young girl no older than 14 was accompanying a middle aged man and his son; they were swimming from the shore to the island.
Seemly confused at my surprise the elder man swam over and with a slightly difficult handshake explained this was a regular part of their life. He and his son would swim the kilometre to the island before continuing to the other side of the estuary. “I live on t’house on t’hill” he said through chattering teeth. ‘Leave t’boat by t’fence and Ill keep eye on it” Delighted wit the news I shook his hand once more and we parted ways. He would be escorted into the bay by the seals while I bounced across a surprisingly fierce tidal stream to the shelter of Scullomie.
Arriving 200m downstream I hugged the rocks to reclaim the distance taken by the tide, the harbor was a perfect haven from all directions and I took little hesitation in landing to settle in for an evening with Seumas.
With the boat soon tied to the fence and in dry clothes I wandered laden with dry bags along a small single track road. Passing small croft houses cluttered with a chaos of sheep, fishboxes and scrap metal I wound my way 5km inland to at last find a place to phone in my arrival. 30 minutes of laying at the roadside in the sun later Seumas arrived bright eyed and smiling behind the wheel of his 4×4 pickup.
Laughing and joking we drove back to the Ben Loyal estate where Seumas returned to an old building in state of repair where he had been working during the day. I waited around in the sun chatting to the builders while they finished up work for the day. As soon as the task was complete we drove to see one of the deer ponies: Mac. “he’s been acting up” Seumas explained, “he was fine last week but now is jumpy.” There seemed to be no real explanation to why the poor pony was suddenly so shy but several theories. Seumas seemed worried, as a skillful trainee Ghillie he knew that if it didn’t improve the horse would surely meet its end care of the head keeper.
There was one solution left, that Mac needed shoes! With baited breath we waited in the stable for the Farrier to arrive. Seumas seemed to have built quite the affinity with the pony which seemed happy to munch grass from his hand and receive an affectionate pat. I was exited, I had never seen a horse being shoed before.
With the arrival of the Farrier, the head keeper and several onlookers from the estate the pony was lead out into the courtyard for a new set of shoes. Cheery and rosy cheeked the farrier laughed and joked as he fired up a mini furnace in the back of his van. “You can cook a bacon roll in this in seconds” he jested.
With a degree of very skill full hammering over an anvil, gentle tapping of nails and careful melting of hooves with red hot shoes the pony had its shoes fitted. A job I had always assumed was that of the vet I learnt that the Farrier had taken a four year specialized course for the qualification. “Every part of it must be done perfectly, the nails have to be the right angle and right place to avoid hurting the horse” … Asking how he ended up becoming a Farrier he laughed “I wanted to be a joiner…somehow this just seemed more me.”
With a renewed gate in each step Mac returned to the stable at a gander. Seumas seemed happy that the job had been a resounding success and hopefully would fix the issues with the horses temper. The day was over and with a short drive Seumas and I ventured back to his home to shower and change.
The evening drifted by with a spectacular fajita dinner made with venison that Seumas could tell exactly where it was shot and when…after all it was he who had most likely taken the shot himself. With a cold cider in hand we settled into a relaxed evening both exhausted and ready for a comfortable bed.
BEN HOPE: 927m
11.2km +/- 879m Naithsmiths: 3h 42m Actual: 4h 20m
Bright and early for a new day and fueled on a huge fried breakfast Seumas and I ferried along a small winding road inland. Loosing sight of the sea for the first time in weeks I was exited for a change, today I would climb the most northerly Munro!
A deep orange blaze of light shone fire bright over gnarled scots pines lining the road; ahead Ben Hope rose alone from the moors with a pristine cloud free summit. In a rush to get to work Seumas dropped me in a small carpark labled with a large sign which read “BEN HOPE” “See you tonight, have a good one” he called out of the open window of the truck before speeding back into the distance along the narrow road.
Hauling my Overboard dry bag onto fresh shoulders I plodded upward at a limp, the glass cut on my foot was becoming increasingly painful upon each step. Thankfully the trail was muddy and with satisfying squelches into sphagnum moss the impact underfoot was soft. Ahead the ridge had started to creep into an orographic cloud which shrouded both the summit and my hopes of enjoying a view. None the less I was enjoying a chance to stretch my legs from the kayak, the pressure sores on my knees relieved creaking with each stride felt satisfyingly refreshed.
Before long the trail wound upward from the grassy valley and onto a shallow ascending ridge line. Humming Layla by Eric Clapton to myself I plodded upward and into the cooling blanket of thick cloud.
Panting and sweating I stopped only briefly to pull over my waterproofs, the mist in the air had started to condensate upon my skin and form delicate beads upon my arms. In waves of light and dark the cloud which hung only around the mountaintop faded and thickened, each time a faint golden orb reminded me that the sun was ever so close. Wishing and praying each time the sun appeared round and shrouded behind the mist I prayed for a clearing; alas no such luck.
The ridge was gradual and had become rocky underfoot, with a cold wind at my back whistling gently up the slope I soon found myself hobbling onto the summit plateau. Following a trail of rocky cairns which lead the way I soon approached a familiar trig point cairn which struck upward into the misty sky against the otherwise empty skyline.
With no view and a piercing breeze there was little point in hanging around, under the ethos of my late grandfather who believed a “proper” walk never repeated the same route back I aimed to descend the northern ridge. Rockier and more interesting to scramble upon the ridge promised a greater challenge to occupy the mind in the otherwise blank canvas presented in the sky.
Barely 50m from the summit however and much to my surprise the cloud parted. Stood upon a precipitous boulder which dangled out over a huge cliff I felt like moses parting the oceans as the mist cleared directly before my eyes leaving only the last wispy tails clinging to the face above and below. The incredible peaks of Foinhaven, Arkle and Ben Stack dominated the distant horizon; the view I had longed for had finally arrived.
Feeling rewarded and with a new albeit slightly delicate bounce in my step I scrambled downward to the moors below. Clinging to boulders with my hands to shimmy, slide and clamber downward the ridge was far more “technical” than the gentle ascent from the south in places delivering a terrific sense of vertigo.
About half way down the mountainside I emerged entirely from the cloud base, the sun was strong and dazzling saturating every pore with a tremendous warmth. It was a new day entirely, the mist was left to cling to the summit as I hobbled from the crags and onto the gentle descent to the moors below. A small procession of stalkers wandered out into the sunlit heath far below, with hopes to avoid disturbing the shoot I aimed to follow down a narrow river leading from the eastern corrie of the mountain.
The terrain changed from soft upland grass and moor and quickly became a tricky boulder field of loose screes and large lone rocks. Stumbling and scrambling down the face I soon emerged at the head of the loch; with a last look to the summit I turned north to follow the river.
Successfully passing un-noticed by the gamekeepers I waded through thick heather across the moors and descended into a small dappled birch woodland. The scattered light seemed to glitter over the foliage, butterflies flitted between the branches and a gentle warble of wrens and robins filled the air. Looking up to the mountain far behind the moor I watched the last wisps of cloud disappear into the ether.
Back on the road it was barely mid-day, all that was left to do for the day was to hobble slowly on the increasingly painful foot back to the estate house 5km along the single trail road which I had travelled earlier in the day. With a smile and a limp I set about walking north along the shore of Loch Hope. A golden eagle circled high above the road under the watchful eyes of an elderly birdwatcher “Have you been for a walk” she croaked from behind her binoculars..”I wish I could do that these days…these old legs are all worn out.” In no rush I stopped to sit in the grass and birdwatch with her. Her wrinkled weathered face told more of a story about the mountains and travels she regaled about conquering throughout what had been an incredible life of adventure, although elderly and frail her passion for the outdoors had never wilted.
An hour of watching the eagle passed by, my foot felt better and with a parting goodbye I left her to sit in the grass and soak in the sun and good views. Before long I had arrived back at the house, Seumas was still at work so settling in for a quiet afternoon I relaxed in the sun and examined my foot. Within an hour of sitting down the cut had swollen dramatically, large purple trails tracked up the veins in my leg from the small hole where the glass had cut…most alarmingly I could no longer walk on the very painful sole; In the morning I knew I would have to find a doctor.
Evening approached with the return of Seumas and a second superb venison supper we retired to the comfort of soft sofas and relaxed mutually exhausted into an evening of chilled banter and tales of our own adventures. Seumas having recently travelled alone in Canada set up a slideshow of photographs and an ad hoc presentation about the superb explorations in the wilderness….needless to say Canada is now firmly fixed in my “Bucket list.”
* * *
With a new day the weather had deteriorated and so had the condition of my foot. Hopping on my good leg into the kitchen to meet a beaming Seumas cooking a fry up I noticed he suddenly became concerned. Without a second thought he agreed to drop me off at the doctors in Tongue on his way to work, once diagnosed he would return and take me back to the kayak to continue the adventure.
The wait outside the doctors seemed an age in the cold morning air but after just 30 minutes I was admitted by a bleary eyed nurse just starting her morning shift. Diagnosed with a sceptic infection and dosed up on medication I was ushered back into the cold and soon returned into the truck with Seumas. We both laughed at the situation, my prescription read “The Tent” as my address and in an effort to waterproof the bandage I had taped my foot in the only cello-tape available in the local store…tape which read “Fragile” in bold red letters.
With a welcome hand to lift the kayak to the shore and after a last goodbye Seumas left me at the kayak to bounce back along the bumpy track to work. In his absence the sensation of solitude seemed to amplify. I sighed in the rain; I was alone again. With the doctors fiasco having taken most of the morning it was a late start, thankfully despite the rain I changed into kit which was almost dry. My motivation seemed to remain sat in the comfortable sofa back at the lodge, I longed to remain forever in-front of a warm fire in the comfort of a warm house. For the first time in so many weeks I stood in silence wondering “Why am I here?”
Limping into the kayak with sore and tired muscles the medication had made me drowsy, thankfully I paddled with intent of moving just 4km east on the last of the tide. I would camp at Skerray harbour in the shelter of Coomb island.
On the falling rush of inland water from Tongue estuary I rode back out to sea; immediately soaked to the skin with pouring overfalls of cold salty water I was entering a downward spiral, a whirlpool of low moral. “it’s 4km! It’s pointless..why bother” The voice murmured in the back of my mind behind the patter of freezing rain driving hard against my cheeks in the stiff headwind.
Escorted past the island sound by a pod of porpoise my mood lightened slightly before the inevitable arrival of a vicious headwind. Against the tide the sea rose high and demanded a mental strength which seemed sapped by the medication. I could see the harbour…I was almost there!
Upon arrival at the steep rocky shore of the harbor however I changed my tack. I chose not to land, not because I felt the urge to continue but out of a want to delay the inevitable painful, cold and difficult haul of the kayak into a muddy wet camp. By paddling on I could remain clinging to what warmth my body created through the paddles and delay the cold end to a day. There was rumor that a friend of my fathers may join in a kayak the next day, I new that my landing must be close to road access. With this in mind I aimed directly for the small community of Bettyhill some 7km in the distance.
With a brief break to cling to some rocks and balance onto the deck, retrieve and don my waterproofs I continued to fight into a stiff headwind and out of the shelter of Coomb island. Once in Torrisdale bay the swell rose steep onto the shore, only the thought of a warm bar to dry off persuaded my intention; I would brave the surf and land.
With furious paddles I bounced through surf crashing higher than head height straight into the outflowing current of the River Naver. Bracing hard the boat turned on each breaking fury of whitewater to slide sideways into the shore with thumping crashes of water across the hull. Somehow be it luck or skill I emerged from the boiling mass of breaking water into an tranquil eddy in the rivers flow. Hugging the shore I approached inland under heavy rainfall; I felt utterly defeated. “F**K OFF YOU W**NKER!” An irate fisherman stormed down the beach from his car….he hadn’t even cast a line but felt the urge to give me an earful.
I was not in the mood what so ever and returned fire with a stubborn middle finger from my watery vantage point. This was no place to camp and under the barrage of airborne clumps of mud being thrown angrily by the least welcoming fisherman I had ever had the pleasure of meeting I returned back into the surf. Back through the roar of the waves, the cold cast of bitter salty ocean and the heart thumping fight against the towering breakers I fought into the safety of open water. Completely exhausted my morale shattered I sat with a cold lump in my throat; I had no plan any more…nowhere to land.
Completely done with the day I had finished in body and soul, there was but one option; I would have to turn around. Slowly and reluctantly I drove the bow west and aimed for the far side of Torrisdale bay. Here was a small community but a wasted mile, thankfully however no surf rolled into the river at its side.
Scraping through sulfurous mud in the pouring rain I dragged the kayak unceremoniously along the River Borgie. It became a 500m trek with the heavy boat which often became stuck or jammed in the thick viscous riverbed. Desperate for just the smallest patch of grass I was delighted to discover a camp beside an abandoned farmhouse.
With one last heave I extracted the kayak from the water, squelched into the field and collapsed into a slumped head upon Sula’s deck. For the first time in years I uncontrollably burst into tears. Lasting only for a few minutes the strange relief to simply let it all out calmed my mood, I was still cold and shivering but somehow everything seemed a little brighter; there was even the faint sign of blue sky on the horizon.
Snivelling to myself I set about making camp and before long had crawled inside my little green castle warm and dry once more. By the time camp was set the rain had stopped and to my surprise the farmer had appeared.
Marching down the field I expected round 2 with an angry local, as he approached I summoned the courage to explain my plight. There was absolutely no way I was moving like it or not. To my delight however the smiling man simply patted me on the back, handed over a chocolate bar and with pointing inland with the parting words “Theres a bar 2km that way” turned about and marched back across the field. I never learnt his name but to whomever it was thank you! My day seemed completely restored.
Sure enough as the farmer had said a 2km hobble inland revealed “The Borgie inn” a small wooden bar packed with cheery locals. Settled in the knowledge that the friend of my fathers hadn’t replied to contact and that I most likely would paddle alone I indulged in a fish and chips and numerous cups of tea before waddling back to the tent in the evening glow. Zipping the tent door closed at last all I hoped was that the swell would remain from the west and allow a safe exit in the morning.
The morning brought better weather and a far improved mood. The sun was shining and the sea calm to escape. To my delight the tide had risen and allowed only a short portage to escape the sulphurous mud at the mouth of the river.
Retracing my path across Torrisdale bay I soon passed Bettyhill, the fisherman was nowhere to be seen. I soon left the open sandy shores behind and under the rolling surf paddled along a low cliffy shoreline. I aimed directly for Strathy point far in the distance.
Small caves and hollows dotted the shoreline, it seemed each peninsula on the north had its own individual rocky character. This headland was low and of a lighter hue, it seemed far less intimidating than those before it. This assumption was ever so wrong! As the tide and I drew nearer to Strathy point the sea reared into a new beast entirely. Out of nowhere the swell rose from only a few meters to well over head height, the water became steeper and more confused. I had entered a chaotic battle of swell and tide which ripped toward the little pearl white lighthouse at the tip of the slender black wand that was the headland. The seas compared to those I had fought in Kinlochbervie a week earlier but here the waves would break in white horses to crash alarmingly across my bow. I regressed into an adrenaline focused concentration jerking back and forth to the attention of the next wave. Bracing for every second stroke my progress would have slowed to a crawl had it not been for the strength of the tidal rip which thankfully pushed the kayak at tremendous pace toward the rocks. I knew so long as I could maintain keeping the boat upright which was becoming an increasingly stressful task in itself I would be pushed around the point.
An hour went by, it seemed to simultaneously rush past in a focused blur of adrenaline but at the same time drag into an eternal unbeatable battle. The lighthouse seemed as distant after the first hour as it had upon first sight, I was out of my depth both literally and metaphorically. In a haze of fear and concentration I crept forward praying I would make the safety of the eastern side. It became the promised land, a mythical entity where calm waters and sunshine would greet my arrival once out of the furious hell upon which I found myself.
The closer I came the steeper and taller the waves grew. Like freight trains dark and menacing each wave would rear upward to my beam before rising high into the sky to swallow out all sight of land around. In the bottom of the wave only water could be seen, I may as well be alone in the middle of the atlantic for there was no escape, no landing here. I felt for the first time painfully aware that I really was on my own, should the nightmare become real and I capsized there would be no help to arrive before I would wash upon the rocks. It was time to concentrate and nothing else.
Almost there! “COME ONE” I repeated over and over to myself, I could see the finish. Relieved I could just make out through seldom glances that two tourists watched my progress from the rocky point. Although they didn’t know it their presence gave a reassuring relief that I wasn’t truly alone any longer. The point passed to my starboard in a deafening roar of surf and whistle of wind, bouncing high on the waves to the extent that my bow went skyward as far as my cockpit only to crash back into each trough I thumped across the last of the tidal current.
As if by magic I plummeted over my final wave and into the immediate shelter of the eastern face. Two hours of sheer panic and total mental focus finally came to an end. The water was exactly as I had wished for, barely a breath of wind and perfectly still it was a totally different sea. Enjoying the chance to lay back on the deck and stretch out I watched the crashing waves roar out to the north in the powerful current. I feared that would not be the last time such a sea and I would meet.
In the lee of the wind I landed onto a small rudimentary slipway cut into the headland to access a small hamlet presumably once tied to the lighthouse. Cold and wet once more I giggled to myself upon discovering I had been sat up to my shins in water….the waves had almost filled the kayak in the process of making it through the chaos.
In the shelter of the headland and re-fuelled on a large chunk of chocolate bar I returned to the sea. It was only a few short kilometres to paddle along an interesting section of coast to my intended landing at Melvick harbour. The cliffs were lower than before and sported curious caves which rose half way up in a perfect line, had I not known better I would have sworn them to be man made.
Intrigued and inspired I paddled hard on the tide back into the exposure of the swell. Thankfully only a low clapostis met my side, the worst of the battle had already been conquered and within an hour I paddled confident and triumphant into the perfect shelter of Melvick bay. Between skerries of battered bouldery outcrops the small concrete pier proved to be a perfect campsite. Just a 10m roll up the slipway later I had set camp by a small building on a patch of grass as good as any paid campsite. To my delight my camp happened to be along the line of a popular dog walk route and even had a bench to relax upon. For most of the afternoon I relaxed in the sun and enjoyed the occasional flitter of conversation with delightful locals. One elderly man epitomised scottish generosity with the most incredible stereotype. “YOUR DOING WHIT LADDIE” He stammered upon asking why I was there….he immediately offered a cigarette to which I politely declined, looking a little disarmed he then offered a beer..”Afraid I can’t” I apologised and explained about the foot medication. For a moment the chap looked perplexed, a situation to which he hadn’t prepared…neither cigarettes nor beer what does one Scot then offer another… “AHA!” He stammered and shuffled purposefully back to the car only to return with a six pack or IRN BRU. Laughing I gladly accepted and sharing a can sat upon the bench to listen to his tales of fishing in the area for the rest of the afternoon.
Sunshine turned to cold cloud overnight, the calm wind rose to whistle through my guy lines. A storm was coming. Watching a pod of Risos dolphins playing in the surf which had risen dramatically overnight I weighted my options. Option A: Say put, Option B: Brave the wind.
In hindsight I would made the wrong choice. With the boat packed and wet gear back on I confidently paddled from the safety of the harbour. Intent upon catching the pod of dolphins which splashed afar in the distance I paid little attention to the increased height of the swell which was violently pounding the distant cliffs. Nor did I appreciate the imminence of gale warnings fore-told by my father. I was setting out into what was to become one of the most humbling experiences I have yet experienced in a kayak.
The swell wasn’t violent once afar from the shore and the wind blew strong at my stern. I saw no cause for concern as I left the safety of the bay and directly along the coast toward Dounray nuclear power plant. My main concern was that I might start to glow a bit as I grew closer to the radioactive bay. Committed to the tidal race and a 20km stretch of un-landable cliff-line I was paddling unawares into a trap.
The successful tackling of such tremendous waves the day before at Strathy point had swelled my confidence, I felt I could paddle through anything. Well rested and with the first night in weeks of genuine undisturbed sleep I took little time in paddling to the power plant. Scanning my map I had unexpectedly progressed 3km further along the coast than I had expected and by mid-day was confident I would make Thurso by early afternoon.
However 5km west of Brims ness the conditions rapidly started to deteriorate. The swell pushed by the tide around the impending headland started to grow taller and taller. Rising in slow undulating rolls towering up to three or four meters above my head the swell had become absolutely massive. For a second I would rise onto the crest of what felt like mountains to admire a brief and welcome view of land only to roll back into the dark abyss at the trough. At the base of the widely rolling swell it felt as if all light was sucked into the cold depths beneath.
I was starting to become anxious, never had I paddled in such tremendous waves. I was growing closer and closer to the edge of my comfort zone and the wind was rapidly veering to the north and rising. What had been but a mere force four early in the day had started to cast steep breaking fetch directly on my beam. In line with the swell it built to create monstrous towers of water which broke their crests in a foamy rage of spray across my hull.
I was at the mercy of the sea and barely half way could not turn back. For the first time on the north coast I was starting to feel genuine fear creep into the pit of my stomach. Grabbing the camera I snapped a few shots between calm sets in the waves, the only time I felt brave enough to relinquish my white knuckles from the grip of my blades.
Once more I was fighting to remain upright, my concentration focused on my little bubble; It was just I and the impending wave from my side. I could see as the tide roared fast around Brims ness that it was rising into a solid line of breaking surf tall and far out to sea. A terror washed over my conscious thought I knew I would have to pass through the breakers like it or not. Unlike river kayaking where the threat is immediately spotted and tackled in a furious flail of paddles and ability the sea allows time to dwell upon the challenge.
For a torturous half hour I watched the breaking waves loom growing dauntingly taller and more threatening. To my side I past directly through red flags which whipped chaotically in the increasing wind. A live firing range I could see soldiers lined on the cliffs and hear gunfire, I had no choice but to paddle on in hope they would see me and stop.
I did not care that I may be sanctioned; in fact the thought of being met by a boat of officials seemed an inviting prospect of rescue. With waves rearing and crashing over my deck to throw the boat almost to the brink of capsize save only by hard braces and gunfire to my side I felt as if I were paddling to my end.
I cursed to myself, teeth gritted and fighting the urge to scream. Fear played into rational thought, I considered what would happen should I simply give up and capsize already. It was an oddly inviting option, for some bizarre reason I figured it would end my struggle to stay upright; of course I knew the absurdity of the thought, it would only add to the effort and fear considerably.
The rapids were approaching, my heart thumped and the sea rose. “HERE WE GO!” I wanted out! The land so close but yet so far called to be rested upon. I vowed that I would kiss it if I made it to Thurso upright. The roar suddenly muffled, the whistling wind which now roared and snatched at the blades suddenly silent. Wheeling around time stopped. . .
A tremendous wave swallowed the sky! The kayak didn’t roll over the face which curled upward like a vertical wall and simply swallowed the deck. There was barely time to respond, out of instinctive fear I threw the blade as far as I could reach above my head, at the full length of the paddle which outstretched behind me in a tremendous brace I thrust with all my strength into the wall of water. The boat reared up into the sky my bow jumped and skipped as water exploded over the boat… Instantly the wave picked the 120kg craft into the air like a match and threw it sideways into a barreling thunder of momentum. I leant with my head touching the surf to my port side and prayed.
Somehow I bobbed upright from the thunderous wave, with barely a second to react in a sharp intake of breath the next one hit. Yet again with a terrified thrust of the blade I threw myself at the barrelling breaker, I rolled upward into the wave, for a fraction of a second a perfect green blue barrel of water rolled beautifully in-front of my bow before I dropped from the wave sideways into the trough.
I cannot say for certain but for what it felt I was underwater, dropped into a boiling menace of water I had no idea which way was up or down. All I knew was that I was leaning on my blade and that there was resistance, impact after impact bounced and thumped through the hull driving the wind from my heaving lungs. I was sure this was it, the moment I had dreamt about….I truly believed was going down!
Yet again I emerged back into the whistle of wind and for a third time I snatched a cold breath of salty air spitting water from my face in the process, yet again I was swallowed into a mighty barrel of a breaking wave. I didn’t know where I was, which way up I was or how far I had travelled but on the third rise I paddled as hard as I could…there was at last a break in the waves!
My heart thumped out of my chest, I waited for a fourth wave to finish the job. In the submersion the cockpit had almost entirely filled with water, the boat heavy and unresponsive had spun due west in the pummelling. I paddled without thought or reason as hard as I could from the breaking waves, it was no easy task for behind the line of rolling surf the sea rose in every direction in sharp pyramids.
I caught a glance at what I had paddled into, somehow I had rode through a line of breaking surf over what I can only imagine was a shallow reef. By sheer miracle I had bounced and emerged upright but totally soaked in the terrifying event.
Reality sunk in, ahead four kilometres of towering cliff line lay between my sinking kayak and the safety of a harbour. For the first time I seriously considered the flares strapped to the front of my deck in a dry bag. I didn’t dare to let go of the paddles, even to launch a flare I wouldn’t be able to let go until I had actually capsized. “Pull yourself together” I uttered over and over, I was close to weeping fear gripped my mind almost as hard as my hands on the paddle shaft.
Managing to turn the boat east once more I approached the cliffs, the waves had become smaller and the swell far less tall. Driven by a melee of clapotis and wind the sea instead reared in every direction rising and plummeting without warning from all sides. The boat rode so low in the water that with each lap of water the deck sunk into the sea only to slowly rise with increasing time. I was sure I would sink before I made it to the harbour. To my side waves exploded in terrific columns of white spray far up the sharp wall of rock. It was an inescapable face which seemed to hang above as a tormenting reminder of how close to land I really was.
Moving at what felt like the pace of a snail in a still increasing wind which now approached gale force I bit my lip to draw distraction away from the nerves screaming that they wanted out, wanted land and wanted to stop. I could see Holborn head just a kilometre in front of my bow. I was so close! But it felt so far.
More akin to a submarine I rolled, ricocheted and raced for the headland. Wind roared around the cliffs at my side in a tremendous bassy hum and whistled over the deck lines with a frightening scream. Water streamed down my face stinging my eyes, the taste of salt saturated my mouth and plugged my nose, every sense seemed brutally tormented by the sea.
The headland roared past in a race of tide and wind, I could see calm water!!
Like a tanker turning at port the kayak crept around, turning on the crest of each wave to maximise each stroke the boat finally pointed toward safe water. No longer did I aim for Thurso…Scrabster was close enough. I didn’t care that it was an industrial estate I didn’t care that I had no camp…all I wanted was dry land.
As if turned off in an instant I rolled out of the most hellish sea I have ever paddled upon and straight into glittering calm. The shelter of the cliffs swallowed the wind to all but a dull whisper far above, the swell disappeared entirely… it was as if I were back on the summer west coast.
Ploughing through the water the heavy saturated kayak slowly pushed onward into the docks. Huge industrial cranes loomed over the loud clangs and bangs of fishing boats tied to the pier. As I past the large ferry terminal and sighted a small concrete slipway I almost broke into tears for a second time in the week. People on the shore promised human contact and I knew that I had made it!
To my surprise an RNLI lifeboat steamed from the harbour, with a friendly wave the crew smiled enthusiastically; I doubt they knew just how close I had come to calling their aid.
Scraping with a loud grind of fibreglass I thundered onto shore. Falling from the cockpit into the water my legs felt like jelly, I still buzzed with adrenaline. A smiling man approached and introduced himself as Guy Newman, he was the commodore of the Pentland sailing club.
Without a second thought he offered to help drag the kayak to the clubhouse on condition I empty it of water first. The cockpit was almost filled and each hatch had several inches sloshing between the dry bags. Upon reaching the club he continued “You can camp round the back… Oh and theres a warm shower inside” ….I could have hugged him.
Warm and dry I sat for hours in the tent looking out to the sea, my confidence shattered. I knew how close it had been and had terrified myself. There was no longer any want or urge to return to the sea.
The following day I remained onshore huddled in coffee shops and dwelling upon the sea. Venturing no further than to explore the next mug of tea I revelled in the sedate lazy day. I needed to relax and restore my confidence, with any hope the many cups of tea would calm my nerves. Wandering along the coast in the evening I gazed back down at the cliffs which I had so frightfully paddled the day before, they seemed tranquil and calm under the evening light and but a shadow of their former demon...perhaps the conditions would be ok after all I decided.
Woken to the rumble of fish lorries roaring from the harbour to Thurso along the overpass hanging over the tent I peered outside nervously. Behind a tangle of boat halliards and rusting steel cranes I could see the sea was shimmering cold and blue through what light escaped the clouds; It was time to return to the boat.
My tide window was short and I knew it, even with the looming urge to paddle as fast as possible into the firth and past Dunnet head I was slow and hesitant in stowing the tent back into Sula’s damp hold. Just two days ago I had paddled through the most extreme sea I had ever dared face in the little craft; I had survived upright and exhausted but the waves had claimed my confidence which washed by the pounding surf into the depths of the ocean was becoming hard to reclaim.
I could see the sea was calm but was scared; I needed to regain what I had lost..
* * *
Once on the water with hands held tight to my blades I started to leave the safety of Scrabster harbour; dodging boats and seals I paddled hard for warmth in the cold air, ahead Dunnet head loomed across the horizon. I was an hour before slack water, the sea was against my travel but in the open bay currents eddied and swirled in gentle revolutions around the boat. Only the faint ripple and uprising told tale of any movement in the sea at all. Of course there was swell, rolling now gently in large folds across the calm clear water before exploding furiously into the cliffs far ahead. Across two hour journey between Scrabster and the headland I found my thoughts saturated with reliving the terrifying and spectacular experience of paddling through a northern storm; this gentle movement on which I now rolled and bounced was simply the silent ghostly remains of once powerful waves.
Watching a Northlink ferry steam past toward Orkney in the distance I decided to pull closer toward the cliffs. The swell was low enough to allow hugging just 100m offshore and for the first time in days would offer the ability to enjoy gazing upward at the rocky clefts and caves. Just a kilometre from Dunnet head I noticed the sea suddenly start to move with the kayak, at last the tide had turned and now with tremendous power had started to flow like a wide river along the base of the cliffs. Ahead a small flurry of standing waves rippled below the headland, small but bouncy there was no option but to ride across the waves and into the eddy on the other side.
I approached the headland under the watchful eye of a group of motorcyclists who perched atop a fence surrounding the peninsulas mighty white lighthouse peering down with cameras waved with glee. Entering the race I found a bizarre comfort in the audience atop the cliffs far above, should I capsize they could not help but perhaps would send someone who would. Capsizing however was simply not a risk, after the recent stormy chaos the small two foot high waves seemed small in comparison. Despite white knuckled nervous paddling all the way from Scrabster to the headland I found myself relaxed and even enjoying every splash and bounce as I entered the race…the fear had gone and with the rapids my confidence was washed back onboard.
Within what seemed only minutes I had crossed the stream which continued out to see in the line of the headland, sitting in the calm of a cliffside eddy I could at last enjoy the spectacle above. The bikers who had run across the lighthouse to watch faintly cheered amidst the calls of gannets and guillimots soaring between us; nearby a small fishing boat drifted close to shore noisily hauling prawn pots from the tidal stream. It was only watching the current rip past the bhoys tied to the creels thrown back by the boat that I could gauge any form of direction to the sea, to my delight it was flowing smooth and fast directly toward John O’Groats.
With the headland behind and the open Pentland firth ahead I set off with a much more relaxed stroke. There was 10km between Dunnet head and the next significant obstacle “The Men of Mey”- a headland where the tide would squeeze strong and fast into turbulent tidal bars. I had planned to hug tight to the coastline to avoid the worst of the tidal rips but with blue skies and glass calm seas I changed tack heading instead directly for the point. With over 5km/h riding on the strength of the tide alone I would reach the point in barely an hour.
I had imagined for days that this day would be the ultimate culmination of wind, swell and tide; a test of skill and determination where both I and boat were subjected to angry soul-less waves. The wild thoughts had plagued my dreams and pulled at my nerves but instead I was paddling on a mirror, the water of the firth was broken only by the occasional ripple stirred by surfacing porpoise.
Relieved and delighted I smiled as brightly as the sun above, at this rate I would make John O’Groats for lunch!
Approaching fast the Men of Mey were growing close. Between rocks and skerries a clear singular black line spanned the entire firth. It was not as I had expected, there was no turmoil of water but only a singular perfectly unbroken standing bore. It wasn’t tall and neither threatening I aimed inland with intent to pass fast and close directly between the many rocks scattered into the water from the low headland.
As I nosed between boulders the speed of the tide upon which I rode suddenly became apparent. At last with the shore so close I could mark my progress and speed, I was travelling almost twice my normal pace and upon entering a narrowing between two larger skerries accelerated further. On a crystal tongue of curling water I shot barely a blades with between the rocks without a splash or a bounce. With the blades rested upon the water I paddled only to correct my course and avoid collision with seal or land, the tide was more than strong enough to push the boat safely past the Men of Mey and once more into calmer seas. It was 11.30am; just three hours after leaving scrabster and I had passed my last major obstacle for the day, all that was left was to ride the tide to the safe haven of John O’Groats.
The weather was so perfect, so calm and still that for a moment I considered paddling north toward the Island of Stroma. Only when I considered paddling against the tide to return to the mainland did I dismiss the idea. It seemed on such a day even a passage to Orkney was possible.
At mid-day I paddled into the colourful tourist haven of John O’Groats, a town made famous for being the “Most Northern tip of Scotland.” The curious phenomenon that is John O’Groats has a strange tale, for it is not the most northern tip of Scotland, nor even is it the most northern town…it has one special quality which sets it apart. The little village which comprises of a large hotel and several shops represents nothing less than the epitome of the best of british Tackiness. Lined with tourists, burger vans and tacky souvenirs people flock to see the famous white sign which pointing south reads “Lands End.” Teams of Bikers arriving sweaty and triumphant after cycling the country clash with those about to set off to the south, all amidst the throng of tartan and “hey jimmy hats.”
This incredible honey pot owes its fame to the owner of the colourful hotel which dominates the harbour, for it was he who invented the “Lands End to John O’Groats” challenge…perhaps one of the greatest businessmen of the north he turned the little hamlet into a town described as a “Seedy Tourist Trap” by Lonely Planet and even won a Carbuncle Award for being “Scotland’s most dismal town” in 2010.
For I however John O’ Groats represented far more than its reputation, it was the last camp before turning south at last!