Wednesday 26 May 2021

To hell in a hailstorm

After a chilly night, we woke to a lovely morning at our camp on the Sound of Sleat.  Handily, as it was Springs the tide would be fairly high in the mornings meaning that we'd only have a long carry with our boats at one end of each day of our trip.

The cool air was very clear and every colour was really "zinging" - Raymond's paddling attire of sea-blue top and grey trousers were in perfect colour coordination with the scenery!

A leisurely breakfast taken, tents down and final preparations complete, we had just a short carry with our heavily laden boats to the water.....

...and soon were off down the Sound in truly glorious conditions.

As we paddled south a view opened up through a gap in the hills to the Cuillin of Skye, the iconic skyline drawing both eye and memory - what days have been enjoyed on that ridge!

Our route took us south across the mouth of Loch Hourn which the previous afternoon had been whipped by a strong wind and raked by steep breaking swells.  No such issue this morning though as we paddled the 4km wide mouth in flat calm conditions.

A glance over the shoulder stopped us in our tracks as a more open view of the Black Cuillin opened up, the main ridge to the left with gars Bheinn prominent at the end of the ridge and the mighty Blaven with Clach Glas on the right.

After a coffee stop on the south shore we turned our bows inwards and headed along the south shore with the sun at our backs and a view across to Beinn Sgritheall (Scree hill) - one of the loosest mountains in Scotland to climb - it does what it says on the tin!

Conditions were very atmospheric, alternating between warm sunshine and chilling air as snow and hail showers passed.  Remarkably, we were missed by all of these through the morning.

After a lunch stop we paddled into Barrisdale Bay where Loch Hourn takes a twist and becomes very fjiord-like.  Initially it's difficult to make out the route through the Caolas Mor (big narrows) but it soon becomes clear as one approaches.  The channel is only a few metres wide and has very strong tidal flow; we'd timed our passage here carefully.  

Loch Hourn has a well-deserved reputation for fierce weather - indeed one translation of the name is Loch of Hell!  Situated on the edge of Knoydart which "enjoys" the highest rainfall  anywhere in the UK with annual totals exceeding 4.5 metres.  The loch's position sandwiched between high mountains, west facing aspect and narrow topography result in fierce winds and we were about to rediscover!  Although the weather here can be superb for many days on end - that's not the norm.....

We arrived at the narrows just as a squall gathered at the head of the loch and swept down towards us.  Donny had already gone through in his F-RIB and pulled into the shore to sit it out.  Douglas and I were already into the throat of the channel, which is just a few metres wide, when all hell broke loose.  

The squall arrived with an instantaneous rise in wind and a frightening roar.  We simple bowed our heads into lashing hail and tried to hold position by paddling hard.  For fully ten minutes we were battered by wind, hail and spray - then just as suddenly as it had arrived, it passed.  We all gathered on the shore of the spit at Caolas Mor, a little battered and more than a little chilled.  We decieded that the best course of action would be to warm up by doing some more paddling and so got back in the boats and headed farther into the narrow upper loch.

 We made it as far as another narrows leading to the tiny Loch Beag and the road end at Kinloch Hourn.  This is one of the more remote spots in Scotland...although we were just 2km from the end of a road, that twisting, precipitous and narrow ribbon of eroded tarmac goes through totally empty country for fully 37km/23 miles before reaching a main road.  The ebbing tide was pouring out from here and the whole area dries out at low water - we could go no further.  Turning back, we headed down the ebb tide towards our intended camp site.

Sunday 16 May 2021

Away and underway

Through both lockdowns I've been exploring local hills and routes and there will be a whole series of "catch-up" posts at some point.  Great as this was, it was a relief to get to the point where travel restrictions could be lifted and we could get "away".

In the week that Covid-19 restrictions were lifted sufficiently to allow travel outwith our own local authority area, Lorna, Allan and I met at Inverness and drove on to meet up with Douglas who'd travelled from south Glasgow, Raymond who had travelled from north Glasgow and Donny who had come up from Taynuilt near Oban.

You'll be able to follow this trip in "Sea Kayak tri-vision" by checking out Douglas' blog starting here, and Donny's Youtube channel here.


Our rendezvous at Glenelg takes some getting to; down the main road towards Skye and then a twisting drive on the single-track road over the 339m/1112ft pass of Mam Ratagan.  Mind you, it's a lot closer than the twinned location on Mars!  The strange association was instituted in 2011 when NASA was looking for a palindromic name for a location on the Martian surface which the "Curiosity" rover would visit twice - and Glenelg is Scotland's only palindromic place-name.

We parked our cars at Bernera beach and checked with a local lady that they'd not be in anyone's way for a few days.  We took our time packing, it's been over a year since we last packed boats for a multi-day adventure!  Finally all was ready.  Our friend Donny was using his 2.75m folding RIB (F-Rib) "Guppy" and set off a little ahead of us to play in the tidal stream at Kylerhea.  We'd timed our departure to take advantage of the last of the south going tide which would push us down the Sound of Sleat (pronounced "Slate") towards our intended camp site for the first night.

We'd deliberately scheduled a short first day as we didn't set out until early afternoon.  A couple of hours of steady paddling got us back in the rhythm of travelling in fully laden kayaks and it wasn't long before we reached our intended camp.  

As it was low water and Springs, we had a fair carry to get the boats up - as there were five kayakers we were able to lift even the laden boats and move them in two stages; firstly up to the beach to give us time to sort our camp.  We moved them to the same place as our tents later on.  Donny anchored "Guppy" in a lagoon around a sheltered point on the other side of our camp.

We pitched our tents and got a cup of tea on....we'd arrived and another adventure was underway!

Our camp was sufficiently spacious that we had choices of where to put the tents...which is not always a good thing as several pitches looked equally promising!  To get our boats above the Spring high water mark we moved them up to the turf - which was actually a little higher than mine and Douglas' tents!

Our camp looked across a sheltered bay to a ridge, above which the upper slopes of Beinn Sgritheall (scree mountain) soared.  A couple of heavy showers blew through, sending us into our tents temporarily - and each one left more snow on the mountain.

While the temperature was on the cool side, it was undoubtedly Spring.  Bright clumps of Primroses (Primula vulgaris) dotted our camp, splashes of colour among winter-bleached grasses.

The play of light was really quite special and the occasional shower was well worth sitting out to watch the change of colour and form during the late afternoon.

A rainbow stretched across the bay; too broad for my camera lens to get it all in as it arced up over one side.....

.....and back down to the other side of the bay.

 Dinner was a superb chicken casserole followed by home-made carrot cake - both courses courtesy of Lorna.  I was unsurprised to find that there were large quantities of driftwood along the shore; the absence of people around to collect it for over a year meant that we could gather what we needed from close at hand, and even to just collect the driest pieces.   The fire was lit below the high tide mark which meant that by the early hours of the morning all trace of it would be erased.  We sat long into the evening around the fire, catching up with each other after not having been together as a group for so long.  It felt so good to be away and underway.....