John O’Groats to Helmsdale
Kindly Sponsored by James & Anita Copestake
Clean and dry I sat in the harbour to watch a father and son fishing for their tea. Both clad in tattered blue boiler suits flecked in white paint they were in perfect camouflage against the turbulent tidal bar running just off shore. They had little luck and after several hours settled for a mackerel kindly donated by a local fishermen.
Upon the beckon call of his father the young fisherman stumbled out of tacky John O’Groats into green fields beyond; a BBQ by their caravan awaited. Unable to tolerate the delicious wafts from the fire which drifted over the tent I left my camp perch for an evening wander to Duncansby stacks some 2km nearby. To my delight I was leaving the ominous black cloud hanging above the harbour to venture toward the sun. The promise of a tremendous view helped to spur my stiff and sore legs up the hillside.
Chasing bleating sheep through fields and ducking under the vicious swoops of nesting terns I left the bustle and tacky chaos of town. Away from the shops, the smelly burger vans and hey jimmy hats I had escaped the “Tartan Bubble.” looking back from afar John O’Groats was actually quite a nice town. Fulmars peppered the sky between the sun and I and with an effortless grace glided upon thermal currents wafting from the warm heather moor before plummeting behind the headland to what I guessed must be tremendous cliffs below.
Passing a familiar classic white lighthouse tower teetering atop the sheer wall of rock which was Duncansby head I wandered along a wide grassy trail toward the edge. Even from afar the towering pinnacles of Duncansby stacks dominated the coastline. Eager tourists free from the tacky tartan shackles of town herded themselves between fence line and DANGER sign in blissful conformity, eager to explore and unsatisfied with the 20m buffer to the edge I scrambled over the fence to lie over the precipitous face and watch the birds and tide below.
Letting the golden warmth of the sunshine saturate my still stiff arms I lay in silence atop a large pink marshmallow of sea campion. The tide race below seemed too distant to bare worrying about, it was the last I would encounter and instilled a tremendous relief; even from far above it looked relatively easy.
By the time I returned to camp the sun had set and a festival of colourful tents had sprouted from the freshly mown grass next to mine. German bikers laughed loudly over oily rags and the clank of spanners, dutch campers brewed coffee on the lawns with guffaws of laughter and English weekend trippers gawked and joked at the explosion of clothes and kit strewn around my camp. The bustle and chaos of a paid campsite would normally be something I would avoid, but in the light of the recent solitude of the North I relished the social evening chatter lubricated in plenty of ale. It was long after dark before I slept.
* * *
The tide had turned; Time to drift east!
Packed and loaded I set about the arduous 200m drag to heave the kayak through town and onto the slipway. I had barely left the campsite when a young dutch tourist immediately appeared offering “Do you need a hand friend?” Delighted I accepted with the warning “Sure, but careful its very heavy!”
I giggled a little as the expression in his eager face immediately turned to a mix of regret and purple as he heaved the boat from the grass. Puffing and panting we lifted our way through town in 10m intervals ensuring to take a generous break and stretch each stop. He laughed ‘Is it full of concrete?”
To my surprise during the 200m distance between camp I bumped into both my neighbour from University halls of residence AND my primary School headmaster. It suddenly seemed like a very small world indeed.
Thanking the helping hand I left the dutchman to return to his family in the camp, a small crowd had gathered around the boat with an intrigue that this wasn’t one of the several Lands end bike expeditions also preparing to set forth nearby. It wasn’t unusual, for some reason a sea kayak tends to generate attention more than I had experienced hiking or biking and familiar questions were now easily answerable. “Is that a Sea Canoe?..No its a kayak,” “Do you sleep in that?” and “How do you eat” was the routine chat. I had even managed to convince one tourist that I gained nutrition by osmosis and needed no food.
The crowd petered out leaving only a few left to cheer goodbye. With a helpful push I waved goodbye with a smile, in a strange way I was going to miss the tacky haven.
Squeezing between the tyre clad harbour walls and Orkney ferry I returned in silence to the calm serenity of the ocean. With a last wave to the onlookers who had rushed to the far side of the pier I glanced one last look at the rainbow coloured hotel dominating the bay. “Last tide” I breathed relieved and exited as I approached the rush ahead. Hugging the shore the sea started to become alive once more, boils of water rose from the depths which deep at my side I could see kelp fronds twist and turn in the eastern flow.
Crests of standing waves broke far across the bay but with a stealthy stroke I passed by almost entirely out of the current barely a blades depth from the rocky seabed. With a whoop and a bounce I rounded the tide bar, it was barely a ripple above chest height and spurred the consideration to venture out to sea to ride the full race. Having built up the fear and dread of the final hurdle I almost wanted to take a bit of a pounding, if I really desired my chance rapidly drew closer as the current pulled away from the cliffs and into tremendous breaking rollers off-shore. I was warm, dry and upright…after a brief debate I decided I preferred to remain that way and turned toward the cliffs.
Tall and plunging deep into the calm sea lapping at the rock the cliffs of Duncansby head were the epitome of peace. There were no roaring tides, barreling waves or mythical demons to drag the boat to the depths here, only Fulmars and sea urchins clinging calmly to sun warmed rock.
The lighthouse swam out of view to be replaced with cliff above. Passing into the shade of the cliffs I slipped un-noticed by the bus loads of daytime wanderers gazing upon the stacks somewhere above. There was one last obstacle; a narrow channel between cliff and the first blocky stack known as “The Knee.” Red and knobbly “The Knee” reminded me of the already throbbing pressure sores on my own inside the boat, that was its only challenge and to my surprise no tidal flow what so ever drifted through the channel. It seemed that at 1 hour after the tides turn that the current instead bounced from the headland and straight out to sea leaving only calm waters and happy paddling in its wake.
From the ocean the fragile loose towers of Duncansby stacks seemed to become giants. Guarding the cliff line and marking the turning south I glanced to my compass; it read 180° Weaving and hugging as close I could to the stacks and caves the swell was none-existant. I took the advantage to land and take a brief wander on the beach beneath the towers of rock. Tourists from above waves like specs atop the nearby cliffs….from my island pinnacle I felt like the king of the castle.
Forgetting that I should be making best advantage of the tide it took over 2 hours to escape the gripping spectacle of the stacks and cliffs. Dawdling, exploring and entirely loosing track of time I slowly weaved and nosed my way along the coast to the south. Morale rose higher and higher as the realisation that I had conquered the north slowly dawned; I was really heading south! With the mental illusion that it was downhill and heading to the warmer latitudes I was ecstatic and for the first time during the trip started to allow the thought of the finish line to venture into paddling day-dreams.
Cliffs diminished and the coastline widened, prairies and farmyards replaced waving tourists atop the rocky shore and seals appeared basking on the rocks. It was 1pm already and with a sudden surfacing from a particularly encapsulating wander in the mind I realised I was absolutely starving.
I had forgotten to stash a chocolate bar in the PFD and cursed the food so close in the front hold yet so unaccessible. On narrowing headlands where tide grew stronger into curling glassy tongues of movement and propulsion I watched sea urchins pass beneath my deck. You can eat sea urchins raw from the sea…but I wasn’t that hungry.
Rounding the last rocky outcrop of Tang head I suddenly noticed a small yellow bag floating ahead in the ocean. To both dismay and utter delight it was a fully sealed packet of “Walkers: Cheese & Bacon Crisps.” Mother nature had provided in spectacular form.
Cunningly snaring the illusive bounty from the cool water and popping open the foil with a burst of crisp shards and bacon scent I devoured my prey with relish.
Refuelled I looked Just 1km ahead to the northern end of Sinclair’s Bay. A crumbling ruin at the shoreline marked where I had planned to set camp, but revitalised without stress of tide nor storm a spontaneous compulsion to press on became overwhelming. With no intention to land I aimed the bow due south and out into the open bay. With luck I would catch the last of the offshore tidal stream and be carried all the way to Wick for the evening.
Porpoise rolled in and out of the waves ahead as I left the cliffs behind, to the west open sandy shores promised the potential to land should anything go wrong; it was a now unfamiliar concept after a week of formidable coastline. Sure enough I rode into the current which became a mixed blessing; I travelled on free energy at 4km/h but the waves rose steep in the current to break under the extra speed of the bow and cast a cold dousing over the deck. Crashing and splashing toward Noss head was the wettest hardest hour of the day, I regretted continuing but was determined to reach Wick before the light fell.
Ahead the ruins of Castle Sinclair grew ever closer, clinging improbably to the gnarled rocky headland the ruins seemed to defy gravity let alone the weather. Another small lighthouse at Noss head promised the end of the day was close, with luck the curtains of rain drifting in from the west would hold off long enough to set camp in the dry.
As the peninsula finally arrived the tide which narrowed past the point rose into a tremendous rapid; surprisingly in its power the waves became less steep but taller and delivered a superb rush of exhilaration as I was launched around the point. It was a welcome boost, cold and wet my arms had grown tired and my progress slow, with every stoke my progress seemed to fade with the light.
Back at the shoreline I was relieved to find that I was travelling forward although the turning tide had started to swirl gentle counter eddies against my path. Darting between rocky skerries with a sluggish crawl.
A bay ahead promised a landing against the rock and the chance to set camp, I assumed it was a small inlet at the north of Wick called Broadhaven however upon later investigation discovered I had mis-read my map; I had landed in Staxigoe harbour.
Looking back to Noss head from Staxigoe Harbour
Sunshine crept over the sheltered and perfectly square bay from what gaps remained in the approaching weather front. The bay seemed sheltered and very peaceful, a perfect landing to spend the night.
With the kayak dragged up the cobbled slipway and nestled into a patch of grass beside a large stack jutting from the beach I sat and brewed tea at a welcoming picnic table on the concrete pier. All was silent and quiet, exhausted I wandered a few kilometres to Wick to stretch my legs only to succumb to temptation and celebrate rounding the north with a Pizza in town.
By the time I returned to the tent evening had fell and all was quiet…sneaking behind the stack for a quick pre-sleeping bag sprinkle the silence was suddenly broken with a tremendous CRASH!
Wheeling around in the darkness I peered under my torch beam, to my horror a fist size boulder had been thrown at my tent. Razor sharp I had sliced through the fabric like butter landing exactly where my pillow lay. Had I not needed a pee I would have been hospitalised. Clenching my fists I raising my arms to protect my head incase another missile launched from the darkness, with a clatter another rock bounced from my tent and skittered across the harbour. I followed the third through the beam of my torch and caught a trainer scampering from the rise above. I ran!
In chase I could make out kids on Scooters, weaving between alleyways they were one step ahead, I lost them and suddenly frightened they might return to the tent I turned tail and ran home. The tear in the tent was significant, surely breaking all water proofing from above it would need a patch without doubt. The youngsters had left but I no longer felt safe.
Returning to wander the nearby streets I spotted a familiar electric scooter propped on the wall of a nearby house! “Gotcha!” I smiled.
Trying hard to remain calm and not shout I chapped hard on the door; met by a perplexed mother who was very pleasant to talk too I asked if her kids were out to play. “They just got back” she replied with a smile…”Why?”
From the corridor behind her a frightened voice shouted “I didn’t throw it!” Bingo! Over the mothers shoulder I shouted into the house “I didn’t mention anything being thrown….’ but now that you mention….”
Overweight and bulshy the smug rounded face of a 10 year old girl appeared, I recognised her….I had passed her in the street during my stroll, the only one of her friends with an electric Scooter I had watched her tease the others and refusing to share the extravagant toy…I explained to the mother about the stone, producing it from my back pocket. Crouching to eye level and fighting every urge not to scream I calmly explained to the girl how seriously I could have been hurt and how my expensive tent was now leaking. “How would you like it if I put a hole in your bedroom roof” I asked in hope of connecting a response…“I don’t care” she blurted.
Despite both her very angry mother and I blatantly catching her red handed I never received an apology, I was half tempted to ask the mother to sell her scooter to pay for the damages, beside the girl needed the exercise. I didn’t bother, beside no harm had come, I was ok and I had a patching kit….Sadly however no matter how hard I would try the thoughtless act had forever ever tainted my faith in the people of Wick and did no favours to the West Coast v East Coaster rivalry….A stupid bias I longed to eliminate and thankfully in the weeks that followed would be.
For now however I was left frustrated, angry, tired and in a distinctly sour mood…the perfect day had come to a bitter end.
* * *
Sunshine greeted the morning camp, I had slept little often waking to the slightest noise with a fright; Each time I would clutch my lucky green bamboo pole which I used to remove dry bags from the depths of my boat, like a club in hand I would lye too afraid to move or turn on the torch lest I be battered by angry locals. The peaceful bay seemed an unexpected and odd setting to be so nervous.
There was a rattle of guy lines; my heart raced. Another rattle! I could see a boot beneath crack at the tent door, a shadow over the tent. Slowly with my stick in hand I crept the zip down on the door….it was a fireman.
“Sorry for last night” he said behind rosy cheeks, “the kids around here can be right “B****ARDS.” Handing me a coffee and asking concerned “You on your todd?” meaning “Are you own your own?”….Yes I muttered behind a still racing heart. “Just stay safe lad” He said and without another word turned up the hill and left. I have no idea how he knew about the kids or who he was, but he slightly restored a little faith.
Eager to escape the memory of the night before I gazed one last time at the tear in the daylight, I had calmed down a bit and it seemed a little less dreadful than it had in the dark. A pack and a push later I left the harbour into calm water and onto the tide. I intended to paddle as hard and as fast as I could with the hope of making good distance. Now heading south I was overwhelmed with an urge to finish, I assumed the exiting coast was behind and the game had become one of making miles not smiles.
Passing Wick quickly to avoid the harbour and against a cold morning breeze I gritted teeth and put my head down.
Avoiding fishing boats and tidal streams the coastline quickly became craggy once more. A vicious wind was growing directly against my travel, cold and stiff it buffeted the blades and drove pace to a crawl. I was surprised at how the crackled voice of the evening shipping forecast had broadcast “Cromarty Three…Gust Four” but now faced a stiff force 4 gusting to fives in dark cats paws.
Hugging close to the Castle of Old Wick at the shoreline I nosed as near to the shelter of the wall as I could, it wasn’t much but by hopping between calmer eddies at the cost of extra distance I was making easier progress.
Noticing a narrow cave in an island known as Stack O’Brough I decided to escape into the shelter to eat a chocolate bar and recover already tired arms before pushing on into the wind. To utter dismay the cave dissected the entire island. Over 50m long and just 10m wide the cave was in-fact a tremendous tunnel. Slanting luminous algal green rock which sloped into azure blue water created the bizarre illusion that I was paddling downhill. Each blade echoed across the walls to scatter rock pigeons in a flurry of feathers, in the middle of the tunnel the island opened up to the sky. A tremendous skylight shone above and to one side a small 2m wide window shone light in from the rough sea outside; a perfect hidden sanctuary to which I will one day hope to return.
What was supposed to be a brief 2 minute snack became 30 minutes of floating and gazing. Outside the walls I could hear the wind whistling and didn’t want to return.
Emerging back into the elements I found myself using the “Shelter” excuse to explore every cave and crevice I could along the coastline. Surprisingly it became one of the most interesting and intriguing stretches of kayaking I had paddled across Scotland; Any paddler who discounts the east coast as a paddle destination has clearly never paddled from Wick to Lybster.
A lot later than I had hoped I rounded the aptly named Scarlet head. I had hoped it would provide some rest bite from the wind but alas there was little luck. Fierce and steep the waves constantly drove cold reminders of the bitter sea over the deck drenching my kit and my morale to the core. My arms hurt, salt crept into my mouth and nose and eyes teary against the biting gusts. I wanted to land.
The conditions were nothing on that of the north but were slow and punishing, Once past Scarlet head I stopped distracting myself in caves and headed directly for the nearest landing.
I had heard rumour of a magical inlet carved from the rock out of necessity to survive. Whaligoe harbour had been my planned stop for lunch and supposedly nestled into one of the many inlets cut into the cliffs to my side. I had been at sea 4 hours, my joints stiff and aching I rounded each corner with hope of stumbling upon the sheltered inlet.
By the fifth failed discovery I had decided it was a mythical place rumoured but not real. Subsequently I almost paddled right past it only noticing the famous “330” steps cut straight into the rock with a chance backward glance. The harbour was such a poor location I had almost discounted it but sure enough there was just enough shelter to scrape ashore and stumble into a patch of sunshine.
Shivering I nestled into the grass and devoured a soggy pack of oatcakes. Before deciding to warm up by counting how many steps there really were, I had been told 330 but counted 364, more importantly I had warmed up.
The harbour lived up to its name, built in 1786 by Thomas Telford it was carved as a fishing harbour and despite Telford’s own description of the harbour as a “Terrible place’ it held up to 14 herring boats in its time….now the harbour barely held the fulmars and my kayak in the shelter of the wind.
Incan or Scottish?
Against the wind I was weighting upon on the morning decision to aim for Helmsdale, I wasn’t even half way and already was exhausted cold and ready to camp. “I’ll paddle to Lybster and make the call there” I decided in a bid to off-put the choice. The forecast was for severe gales in the upcoming days and I wanted to camp somewhere I would be able to access a town.
Returning to the water I was once more paddling against the wind and waves. Rain showers joined the fray shrouding the headland far in the distance, it seemed impossibly far but wasn’t even the extent of the days route.
Limping slowly onward paddling became a game of transitions, fading between imagination and reality I plodded stroke upon stroke along the shore. In a bid to reduce distance and no longer under the pretence of “Cliffs = Shelter” I was soon 2km offshore cutting the headlands. Breaking the distance into more manageable targets I would spot a particularly large house or woodland and try to race against a self set time to arrive, mentally it made the length of the day become less and paddling seemed easier.
To my surprise just an hour past Whaligoe the wind suddenly completely disappeared, this was the sign I was looking and hoping for…I would aim for Helmsdale after all!
Passing the last exit at Lybster I drifted to phone home and committed to carry on. Each mile went by slowly, so far from shore it was difficult to tell the pace and felt as if I hadn’t moved what so ever. Returning into mind games and singing loud and random folk songs to the seals I crept forward.
The little town of Dulbeath finally arrived and past to my side, I was on the home run. The light was fading almost as fast as my strength, my arms were at the point of exhaustion and lethargy was becoming overwhelming. Paddle two strokes, drift, paddle, drift….I found myself drifting off with my eyes closed and on feel alone slowly crept south
By the time I arrived at Berriedale the sun was low in the sky, every stroke was painful and I had started to doubt if I would make it before dark. There was still a 10km paddle to go, two hours seemed devastatingly far and the thought of having to drag the boat on shore to find a camp was becoming a daunting prospect.
Inch by inch, mile by mile the coast slowly went past. Passing an incredible stack at the corner of a cliff I no longer cared for the scenery, I needed to land and all else seemed insignificant. I felt ready to break down, the distance an eternity.
With a painful smile I rounded the corner and caught sight of a distant harbour….’Nearly there!” Of course the sea hadn’t finished yet, the wind returned stiff and against me once more…I could barely make progress with such tired arms. Over and over I repeated the mental driver instilled by my mother every time we went walking “Hot Chocolate, Drinking chocolate….Hot Chocolate, Drinking Chocolate” It is what I have always repeated when on the brink of exhaustion and need to force a rhythm, with each word I dug deep and drove the blade…
I was just 100m from shore…I could barely lift the paddles, exhausted and in the nick of time before the light faded into night I paddled into the very welcome shelter of Helmsdale harbour. To my surprise a lone figure stood waving from the shoreline.
Growing closer I realised much to my surprise it was my mum!
Landing with a scrape I fell out of the boat into the water with a splash, Mum cheered and dragged the bow onto the concrete. Collapsing on the deck in a slump I discovered she had even found somewhere to store the boat care of “Bunillidh Rowing Club”; The shed was at the top of the slipway. Tea in hand she announced that she had come to collect me, with two days storm it would be the perfect chance to return to Ullapool and take the opportunity to prepare the bike for the upcoming kit swap.
Dry and sat in a comfortable car with a huge scampi and chips I don’t think I have ever been so grateful for such a surprise, exhausted and dreading the camp set up the relief to realise it wouldn’t need to happen was overwhelming. The was a large part of me that felt the spontaneous return to my own bed and comfort of home was entirely “Cheating” but reminding myself that this adventure wasn’t about records or purism I soon let the sensation fade, besides the bike needed to be set up as I hadn’t had time before the trip set off.
With a sigh and dreary eyes I drifted off on the road, for two days I was going home!