Wednesday 27 July 2011

Hebridean colour, Scarp and Cearstaigh

Although our time in St Kilda was finished we still had two days of our trip remaining.  The morning was damp, grey and drizzly which suited a slow morning onboard Cuma.  About mid-morning Murdani took Cuma to the narrow Caol (strait) between the island of Scarp and its small neighbour Cearstaigh.  The southerly wind was still fresh but reducing in strength, and Simon hoped to film some towing sequences here for the DVD.

As we anchored, the cloud tore away and the sun came out - Murdani's Cloud Lever (tm) had been operated again!  The Scarp shore is mostly steep and rocky, but occansionally there are beautiful beaches.

Looking across to Harris and Lewis, we reflected that the landscape that had seemed hard and rocky prior to our visit to St Kilda now looked much more accessible with numerous opportunities to land.

Scarp, like most of the Hebrides is composed of Lewisian Gneiss, one of the oldest rocks on the planet.  Here, the summer sun picks out the warm colours and characteristic banding in the bedrock.

Even in this hard landscape where the bones of the earth are close by the surface, people have scratched a living.  The characteristic ridge and furrow pattern of runrig cultivation were clearly visible.  The ridges would have been formed using hand tools and fertilised using seaweed - a back breaking labour seemingly totally mis-named as "lazy beds"

Beneath the cliffs the water was a beatiful turquoise green colour.  All our tiredness from the previous day fell away - we couldn't wait to get back on the water!

On days like these, the Hebridean colours are simply matchless.  We were truly lucky.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Boreray, the stacs and a farewell to St Kilda

We reached the end of our crossing at Stac Lee, senses assailed by the wheeling Gannets and the incredible shape of Boreray ahead of us.

Paddling on to Boreray itself, we made straight for a huge cave in the sheer cliffs which drop into the sea here.

It wasn't possible to get a photograph which did any justice to the size of the cave, but it was cathedral sized.  Once again, St Kilda's epic scale reduced us to silence.

Murdani brought Cuma to the entrance of the cave so that Simon could film us within.  This image doesn't quite show the full story though.....

Murdani brought Cuma really close in and behind her the bulk of Stac Lee was framed in the cave entrance.  It's one of our abiding memories from the trip.

Moving up the west coast of Boreray, it was clear that our time was running out.  A freshening wind was kicking up the conditions as we headed towards Stac an Armin and the north of Boreray.  The swell was suging along the sheer cliff to our right; I tried to stay as close as possible in this amazing environment and so got very few pictures - I was much too busy concentrating on paddling!  I'm very impressed that Douglas took such good images from this section of the paddle.  All the way along this section we were entertained by the singing of Atlantic Grey Seals, a very atmospheric sound.

Passing between the shark's fin of Stac an Armin and the north tip of Boreray with it's huge towers, we were passed by a tour boat on a day trip from Lewis.  Goodness only knows what they thought of us appearing and disappearing in the surf and swell.

Murdani had picked the perfect place to get us back onboard Cuma, a good deal calmer than the conditions we'd paddled in.  All safely onboard, he turned Cuma mortheast and we began our journey back to the Hebrides.  The approaching weather front followed us all the way back.  It's a seven hour passage back, and we spent the time reflecting on the amazing St Kilda, an archipelago of dramatic scenery, amazing natural sights and epic scale.

We felt very, very privileged to have been able to visit and to kayak in such a special place.

It was 11pm when Cuma entered Loch Reasort, a superbly sheltered anchorage in the fresh southeasterly wind.  After a very late dinner we toasted St Kilda; our time there was over but we still had more of our adventure to come.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

In-flight entertainment

We began the 8.2km crossing to Boreray, a crossing of open Atlantic water.  There was a large swell running but otherwise conditions were good.  The oceanic swell was a joy to paddle, great slopes of water passing beneath us.  The crossing took around two hours as we had some tidal movement to contend with - in the St Kilda archipelago there's also ocean current to factor in. 

To keep us on course we used the best transit any of us could imagine, keeping the top of Stac Lee in line with the summit of Boreray.  Carlsberg don't make transits, but if they did........

Our in-flight entertainment all the way across was provided by the birds, Gannets and Great Skuas (Bonxies).  There are well in excess of 50,000 pairs of Northern Gannets (Sula bassana) in St Kilda, most of them on Boreray and the stacs.  The sky was simply full of them, wheeling and swirling around us.

Ganets have a metre long body and a wingspan of about two metres.  They are fish eaters and hunt by making spectacular plunging dives from about 10 metres up, folding their wings and powering into the water.  They can swim well underwater.

A Gannet's skull has air chambers to withstand the shock of repeatedly diving into the sea, they are supremely adapted to the sea.  Young birds spend three years at sea before returning to breed, and outside the breeding season the colonies disperse to mid Atlantic and equatorial waters.  They are very handsome birds, snow white plumage with black wingtips, a golden head and a bright blue eye.

The Gannets we were seeing flying directly towards Boreray undoubtedly had a full cargo of fish in stomach and crop for their hungry chicks.  They may have hunted up to 200km from the nest, so it must be galling in the extreme to get "bounced" by the piratical Bonxies within sight of their nests.  Several Bonxies will harry a Gannet, twisting and chasing but always forcing it down toward the sea.  Sometimes the Bonxies will grab tail feathers or (more seriously) a wing joint and flip the Gannet in mid-air.  We watched dozens of these chases, and most resulted in the Gannet regurgitating some of it's fish to stave off the attack.  None of the fish ever hit the water before the Bonxies caught them.  Sometimes a Gannet would evade the attack, but most often the Bonxies got their fish.  It was fascinating stuff.

Cuma had gone on ahead to film around Stac Lee.  We watched her almost disappear below Boreray, and even when we were much closer the size of the swell hid her completely at times.  Long crossings have never really been my thing, I prefer the interaction of land and sea and to explore coastlines. This, however, was fantastic, committing paddling at it's very best. 

We already knew that we'd not be able to circumnavigate Boreray as the weather was closing in, the signs of an approaching front clear in the sky to the west.  We still had an absolute highlight to come though.

Monday 11 July 2011

Through the gates

The Sound of Soay is a very impressive place.  Three stacs stud the sound, Stac Dona, the tall and slender Stac Biorach and Stac Shoaigh which has a arch at the base of it.  The effect is of a giant set of gates, in fact they've been christened the "Gates of Hell" by some kayakers!

The Stacs are very Tolkienesque and an imposing sight even on a sunny day like this.  The horizon appears flat but there was a large swell running and although near to slack water there was still plenty of tidal movement around the stacs.

As we moved towards the "gates" the scale began to dawn on us; it took longer than we expected to get close.

Stac Biorach (the Pointed Stac) is the taller of the two gates at 73 metres, a spire of dark rock lancing from the water

Stac Soaigh isn't as tall (a mere 61 metres), but is deceptive as we'd seen it end on intially.  Seen side on it's massive and has an arch straight through.  We could have passed through between the two stacs, but we'd probably not get a better chance to try the arch. As we approached, the apparent calm began to be less calm!  Sets of Atlantic swells were approaching the arch from each side and when combined with the tidal movement was creating a mess of confused and energetic water.

One by one we powered through. The arch is much longer than it appears, it's almost a tunnel.  Conditions in the middle were best described as "a bit lively".  Almost through, I was surprised by a wave reflecting from the wall and required a quick and panicky brace to stay upright.  Our verdict?  That was fun!

Once we were all through there was a huge change in our surroundings.  We'd come from paddling alongside massive cliffs, then between towering stacs.  Ahead of us was a very wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean

Choppy Soay for lunch!

We made a rendezvous with Cuma for lunch in the Sound of Soay.  Conditions at the entrance to the sound were choppy, and the tide was still running strongly through the sound.  A break would mean paddling through near to slack water.  There's no anchorage here, the cliffs of Soay and An Campar drop sheer into the sea.  The practice we'd had boarding and launching via Cuma's inflatable now paid off as we formed the strangest lunch queue any of us had experienced.

In another display of consummate seamanship, Murdani took Cuma close in to the cliffs of Soay.  He knew that there was an eddy which was almost slack and he positioned her to take advantage.  With the engine trickling ahead and the helm hard to port, Cuma described a tight circle in calm water.  We queued up and boarded, passing each kayak on a towline to the stern.

All safely aboard, we tucked into lunch and also took the opportunity for a comfort break.  This is another great advantage of using Cuma as a base; the coast of Hirta and the crossing to Boreray are both, individually, very committing paddles.  With Cuma in support is became possible to do both in a day.  For me, lunch was more nervous than for most - I'd tied the knot holding £25K of kayaks and kit to Cuma!

Our slowly revolving restaurant had one of the finest views imaginable.  Soay and An Campar loomed over us and ahead lay the stacs of the Sound of Soay, with Stac an Armin and the edge of Boreray just visible.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Hirta's south and west coasts

We turned north west and began our journey below the cliffs of Hirta's southwest coast.  This stretch is exposed to the full effect of the North Atlantic swell, we were lucky to experience it on a quiet day.

However, "quiet" is a relative term and there was still a considerable swell surging at the cliff bases.  We kept offshore a little to avoid the worst of the clapotis and to get a wider view of the cliffs.

Looking back to Mullach Bi, yet another dramatic skyline is revealed

The scale of the cliffs constantly caused us to have to adjust perspective - I couldn't get Morag and the top of this cliff near An Campar in the frame even at the widest angle my camera could manage!

Rounding An Campar, the northwest tip of Hirta, we got our first view into the Sound of Soay which separates Hirta from Soay (sheep island), where we'd arranged to meet Cuma for a lunch date with a difference

Monday 4 July 2011

Underneath the arches - paddling through an island

The weather forecast for the following day was good, but with a weather front approaching from the southwest in the evening.  We would certainly get a paddle, but would have to leave St Kilda before the front arrived.  The brief summer night was beautifully lit by an almost full moon.  This signalled that we'd also get lots of tidal energy around the islands and stacks.

After breakfast we got on the water straight away, Simon filming from the double, piloted by Ken.  The close in footage in the DVD will be mostly filmed in this way.  Ken is a very skillful paddler, he made manoeuvring and controlling the double whilst Simon filmed look easy, even with Simon having to lean out and get angles for filming. 

We paddled straight across Village Bay to the north side of  Dun.  The weather on our first evening paddle hadn't allowed us to get to this side, and what a great place it is.  Rafts of Puffins dived though green water as we approached.  The whole of Dun is riddled with caves, passages and arches.  Slots which look like one-way tunnels open up into huge caves and it's possible to get through underneath the island in a couple of places.  We entered such a slot whch led into a large cave, then exited back out the way we came, rather quickly on a large swell in my case! 

Continuing south east we came to the Great Arch.  This cuts through the island and can be seen clearly from many miles away.

There's a large submerged rock in the centre of the arch which creates quite a lot of confused water.  Gordon checked it out and called us through. 

The arch is huge underneath, a great passage to paddle.  The framed view back to Boreray is just superb.

All through, we turned north west up the coast of the island in warm sunshine and light winds. 

There's great rock architecture here and more caves.  The entrance to this one leads through to the slot we explored from the other side.

Soon we were passing the Dun Gap, but this time we headed past and on up the coast of Hirta.

Sunday 3 July 2011

Across Hirta

From the 430 metre summit of Conachair our walk would take us west to the rounded top of Mullach Mor with its crown of antennae and radomes, then south along the ridge dividing Village Bay from Gleann Mor (big glen) to Ruabhal overlooking Dun.

Right on the summit of Conachair, on the edge of 400 metre cliffs, we were surprised to see this Heath Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata).  It's a common species in damp ground throughout Scotland but isn't normally associated with cliff edges, especially ones so exposed as here.

From Mullach Mor we had a view out to the northern arm of Hirta, An Campar, and beyond to Soay (Sheep Island).  The difficult nature of any landing in Glen Bay can also be seen in this picture.

Gleann Mor stretched out below us, facing north.  The oldest archeaological finds on Hirta have been made in this glen.  There are hut circles and a set of remains known as "The Amazon's House" which is probably a bronze age wheel-house.

We followed the vehicle access track from Mullach Mor to a dip, then left the track and followed a contouring path to Ruabhal (western hill) and the cliffs of Hirta's south coast.  The view was, as everywhere we looked, stunning.

To the north west were the dramatic cliffs we hoped to paddle along the following day.  The pointed summit in the distance is the 358 metre Mullach Bi which is about half way along to the northwest tip of Hirta.

After some searching, we found the Mistress Stone, a fallen block bridging an eroded dyke.  Apparently, the young men of St Kilda balanced on the very edge of this rock as a test of balance and nerve (the drop is very considerable) although it may equally have been a stunt for the benefit of Victorian tourists.... 

We went right to the edge of the 130 metre high cliff overlooking Dun Gap.  How calm and easy it looked compared to the previous evening! 

We'd had a great day ashore.  I think we were all grateful to have had the opportunity to explore the village and some of Hirta, and of course to a hillwalker Conachair is a rare "tick"!

The weather signs were encouraging; the calm conditions in the Dun gap was an indication that both wind and swell had dropped away. We headed back to the pier in Village Bay to rejoin Cuma for another of Murdani's super meals.  All ears were on the weather forecast for the following morning

Friday 1 July 2011

St Kildavision! - the video diary

Simon shot this short clip as part of the build up to Volume 2 of  the "Sea Kayaking with Gordon Brown" DVD series  Filming footage for the DVD was the primary reason for us being in St Kilda, though a great adventure was also high on the list of reasons to go!  

Although it's not of the same quality as the finished product will be, this short video does give a flavour of the place and of our trip.  The team have had a sneak preview of some of the DVD material - which looks very, very good!

Simon's blog has links, more information and progress reports about the DVD's,

St Kilda Sea Kayaking, Video Diary 3 from Simon Willis on Vimeo.