Archive for May 2011
This was the sight which greeted me coming home from work yesterday; a grumpy cat wondering where her dinner was. However, it’s what’s behind which is perhaps more telling; the large oddly shaped blue garden accessory is my creek boat. The fact that it has almost become part of nature gives away the fact that for a number of reasons (lack of water, back injury, too much sea kayaking) I have barely touched white water in the last year since the Thuli Bheri expedition. This is not ideal, as I’m off to the Italian Alps tomorrow night, and am so out of practice that I’m not even sure how you get into the thing…
Anyway, other news…
- I’m flogging copies of the Second Edition of South West Sea Kayaking on eBay. This is the way to get a signed copy/ personal message, if so required.
- There is plenty of space still for the South West Sea Kayaking Meet. Come along and make some new friends, hope you can make it!
Must pack now…
These three tiny Islands of Fleet are another gem of south-west Scotland. They are hidden in the shallow Fleet estuary; some of them can actually be walked to at low tide. Approach quietly and sensitively; the islands have significant populations of nesting seabirds.
Just speaking hypothetically; if you were to launch late in the day, just an hour or two before low tide … then you’d probably return to find that the beach you launched from was now a mile or two wide, and you’d probably end up having to head a mile or two further down the coast to land and have to walk back to the car in the dark. This is all hypothetical, however.
Another magazine article; this was a 2006 trip to the Indian Himalayas which was very much in ‘exploratory’ territory; many of the rivers we paddled had seen few or no descents, and there were certainly no guidebooks. I’ve paddled white water in India four or five times now since 1998, it’s a bit of ‘thing’ of mine. Incredible country.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Paddling in the Indian Himalayas, Easter 2006
India isn’t so much a country as a planet, and attempting to quantify its wildly diverse peoples, landscapes and culture would be the road to madness. Suffice to say that the world’s largest democracy is a land of mixed messages. One moment you’ll be entranced by astonishing ethereal beauty; a woman’s glittering sari, the detail of a Hindu devotional painting, or a distant ice field glimpsed floating above green terraces. The next moment, you’ll recoil at staggering squalor and poverty; a family living in a pavement shack, the lingering stench of untreated sewage, or the grime of a restaurant kitchen. Those of us – myself included – who had paddled in India previously, knew what to expect. What we mainly expected, was confusion. Nothing in India runs to plan or on time, and randomness is the only certainty. Despite – or possibly because of – the reasons outlined above, we absolutely love India. It was exciting to be back.
In past trips we had endured local bus travel, which involves countless hours of being shaken senseless on unsurfaced roads with random livestock perched on your lap, whilst poorly taped Bollywood tunes screech at ear-bleeding volume. This time, we had unanimously decided to cheat… at Delhi airport we were met by a luxury minibus and personal driver. To emphasise our softness, the word ‘TOURIST’ was emblazoned across the windscreen in humiliatingly large text. We didn’t care…we had speed, comfort, and – most importantly – the flexibility to go where we wanted, when we wanted. Our plan was to follow successive Himalayan valleys north from Delhi, having chosen to seek out areas we knew little about; what could go wrong? Well, for starters, there was almost no roofrack on the bus. Oops. We bodged a quick-fix which left seven creek boats perched unconvincingly across the bus, not actually connected to anything solid and overhanging both sides. We kept meaning to think up a better solution, but never did get around to it.
India veterans and virgins alike were glued to the bus windows in Shock and Awe, gaping at the wondrous cornucopia of transport which we squeezed past on our way to the hills. Honking Tata trucks, auto-rickshaws, bicycles carrying whole families, elephants; all regularly braking sharply to give way to the mangy cows which grazed indifferently in the centre of the fast lane. In time, heat and jetlag overcame culture shock, and we dozed.
The next morning saw us awaking high above the plains in the hilltop station of Mussourie. The British built such places (in the image of the Home Counties) to administer their Empire from a cool climate. Mussourie’s Mall bore a disconcerting resemblance to Georgian Brighton, albeit with more monkeys and less seafront. We hunted down India’s only functioning cash machine (tip: whichever amount you withdraw, it will be too much), we joined Indian kayakers Shalabh and Neema, whose acquaintance we had made online. Email is never the most reliable means to judge a total stranger’s character and boating chutzpah, but we were delighted to find that both were solid paddlers and much more importantly, splendid company.
Pre-trip research had involved staring at a pile of inadequate and contradictory map sources, trying to correlate the damned lies of one with the blatant misinformation of the other. We had been unable even to confirm whether river valleys were populated and had road access. Even the wonder that is Google Earth wasn’t sure. Now, driving up the Yamuna River, it was instantly obvious that there were roads and people everywhere you looked, and that this would apply equally for all valleys. With 1.2 billion locals, there is no such thing as ‘wilderness’ in India. The gleaming newness and scale of some of these roads was suspicious, and we were eventually to grasp the reason for this…
Every river paddled was a First Descent. That is a total lie, most weren’t…but they had might as well have been. We had no solid beta about any of them and half the fun (and stress) of our trip was peering out of the bus windows, trying to guesstimate the grade and gradient of the river far below. We were shockingly bad at this…we would confidently dismiss rivers as too flat, low or easy. Thirty minutes later, we would invariably be getting beatdown in a huge stopper which had looked like a ripple from the road, or clinging for dear life to micro-eddies on ridiculously steep gnarl. This happened time after time. We are not good learners.
The Yamuna River drainage is one of India’s holiest, washing away the sins of those who bathe in it. Andy Mc noted that he’d need to paddle it more than once to wash clear his backlog, so we devoted plenty of time to these valleys, paddling the Yamuna, Tons, Rupin and Pabbar. The Tons is a tributary of the Yamuna, but is actually a much larger ditch with hefty tribs of its own. The Yamuna wowed us with wonderful blue water steep creeking, as, rather boringly, did everything else. We were wary (read: scared) of the upper Tons. We couldn’t see it from the road, nobody appeared to have been daft enough to paddle up that high up the valley, and the gradient profile suggested nasty gnarl. Ignorance is bliss, so a few of us paid farmers to carry our boats down into the steep valley. Reaching river level, our faces blanched and our eyes were on stalks; the Tons was full-blown Grade 6! With our few rupees left, should we pay the locals to carry our boats back uphill, or downstream? Mindless optimism won the day, and to our nervous relief, we discovered that the river became paddleable just around the next corner. Even so, wibbly wobbly routes taken down the first rapids betrayed our edginess! Some fantastic read-run action, a short portage along a beach (bloody Nora, are those tiger footprints?) a night under the tarp and to our astonishment, we rejoined the road early the next morning. Could the day get any better? Oh yes! Reunited, the team jeeped up the Rupin valley’s brand new road. Despite the usual misjudgements (“Has it got enough water?”) the Rupin offered up five exceptional flat-out hours, yet was unusually forgiving for a tricky ditch. Once you wussed, the road was on hand. As the day wore on and the Rupin steepened, the group shrank and it began to feel like Custer’s Last Stand! The very final drop boofed direct into the Tons. Kevin was so fried out that he boofed, broke out into the takeout eddy, capsized, forgot how to roll and swam. Oh, the shame.
We were genuinely sad to leave behind the wonderful free-flowing rivers of the Yamuna system. Even so, we did not fully appreciate just how privileged we had been to paddle there until we reached the Sutlej River. Here, we were forcibly transported into the future, and it was not an appealing future. Over millennia, the Sutlej has driven a monstrous cleft right through the Himalayas from the Tibetan plateau to the Indian plains. This is – obviously – something special. We had hoped to spend a full week paddling the Sutlej. Driving up the gorges, our faces progressively registered eagerness (it’s the Sutlej!), then fear (are the stoppers meant to be that big?), then incomprehension (what’s with all this concrete?) and finally despair (they’re devastating the entire valley!). What exactly had we seen? The Sutlej was brown and heaving, too high for mortal paddlers like us. Whatever, the real jolt was uncovering the state of the valley. India’s largest and deepest gorge has been tamed by concrete and dynamite into one vast engineering works and labour camp. The first completed dam has already left 40 kilometres of the river empty. Similarly scaled projects are well underway along the length of the river. Sadly, our abiding memory will be of thousands of construction trucks, churning dust as they endeavoured to complete the destruction of the Sutlej. Why was this a vision of the future? As India’s urban population and foreign exports rapidly expand, so too does the insatiable demand for electricity. In the Himalayan states of Utteranchal and Himachal Pradesh, this thirst is being quenched by largely unchecked and unregulated plans for hydroelectric power schemes. Multiple dams are being built or imminently slated for every single river. The future of India’s mountain rivers is dams, diversions and dry beds. Now we grasped why the roads were so good in the Yamuna watershed, and we felt physically sick.
After paddling the Baspa, a (dammed) Sutlej tributary, we moved on. We crossed the 10000 foot Jalora Pass and after melting the buses’ brakes on the descent, fetched up in the Kullu Valley. We worked our way around the region’s rather varied rivers and successively found ourselves faced by every possible eventuality – except boredom. Raging through the popular Honeymoon destination of Manali is the hefty Beas River. It is indeed rather thrilling, but keep your noseclip in place and your mouth tight shut. The Tirthan certainly had its moments, but is most memorable for the wretched stinking town which was visibly collapsing into the river as we paddled through. The Sainj had enough steepness to satisfy, but we had to time our descent in-between rock blasting sessions for the new dam. The Malana looked interesting, right up to the point where the Indian Army politely but firmly escorted us out of the valley, ‘for our own safety’. Because of, rather than despite these quirks, we relished all of these rivers.
Without question, Kullu’s trump card was the Parvati. Rapids of every hue and colour adequately entertained us for two full days. Treading gingerly among the turds at the Beas confluence, we agreed that the Parvati might just be the best medium volume Grade 4 river that we’ve ever paddled. Either way, it certainly has the hottest curry, delicious but unquenchable even by copious amounts of ‘Extra Strong’ Indian beer. This is to be located and enjoyed in Manikaran, a wonderfully glitzy Hindu and Sikh temple complex which straddles the evil gorge above the Parvati put-in. We usually allow ourselves one short controlled dose of ‘culture’ on each trip, and a stay in Manikaran filled that quota perfectly. Embarrassingly and possibly dangerously, our attempt at cultural immersion degenerated into cultural misunderstanding when Neil and I took a wrong turn and found ourselves inextricably participating in a Sikh ceremony. Neil’s lack of beard was a dead giveaway, not to mention that we were the only men not brandishing sharp jewelled knives…
With a single paddling day left, we woke beside a completely dry riverbed, 80 kilometres west of Kullu. We’d headed here on a whim to find the Uhl River, with no more info than a blue line on a sketched tourist map. Lucky Dip boating! Harsh words were muttered when the river proved to be empty, and we faced the prospect of a distinctly downbeat finish to our fortnight-long Grand Tour. Reverting to mindless optimism once more, we drove up the river on the off-chance. We quickly located the culprit, another dam. Above that was a free-flowing river, and a notably steep and chunky one at that…our gamble had paid off! At the road head, our arrival stopped the village dead in its tracks. All work and play was suspended as the entire population came to watch the ridiculously clothed Westerners do incomprehensible things with large plastic toys. One particular toddler almost keeled over in awe as Kevin strode past, attired in full creeking get-up. The footbridge and banks at the put-in were crowded with villagers trying to get the best view as we broke out and peeled off downstream, one by one. I can’t speak for the others, but personally, seeing my parting wave being returned enthusiastically by a hundred smiling strangers fulfilled the trip in an instant. And as for the river itself? Well, the Uhl is a story in itself…
More photos, river notes and info on paddling in India at www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk
Photo gallery from this trip – http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.30021277799.40182.528037799&l=abae22c78e
Carreg Samson cromlech, Pembrokeshire
How did the people who constructed this now-eroded burial monument ‘see’ their world and their landscape? Why was it constructed and how was it used? What was the significance of the cromlech’s coastal location? How did it relate to the surrounding landscape?
No one living can definitively answer these questions. The fact is, that the psyche of Neolithic man is utterly obscure to us. However, glimpses of our distant ancestors’ world view can still be gained. The only possible way to achieve this is to visit and appreciate these sites in their landscape context. Prehistoric monuments are very often located in ‘liminal’ zones; boundaries between the one world and the next; e.g. the edge of the sea, or marshland. Furthermore, they often appear to form component parts of a greater whole; ‘ritual landscapes’ of multiple monuments and sites.
A magazine article from 2003, about paddling in the central Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada.
Smarter than the Average Bear
I’m plodding along a hot remote forest track somewhere in the ‘Bugaboo Wilderness’ of western Canada’s Rocky Mountains. I hear it a long way off; a vehicle coming, the first I’ve encountered. Eventually, a trail bike chugs into view up the valley, ridden by a young local couple.
“Hi there, are you lost? We don’t meet many folk up this way.”
“I’m a kayaker, I’ve just come off the river. I’m searching for our shuttle driver; she didn’t show up at the takeout. Have you seen a black Chevy Jeep along the way?”
“Sorry, you’re the first person we’ve seen all day. We’ll keep an eye out for her.”
“Cheers, have a good ride”.
“Hey bud, just one question before we go.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Why aren’t you wearing any clothes?”
Time-shift, forty-eight hours earlier. Five of us (four blokes and one infinitely patient girlie) converged on Calgary Airport from random directions and locations. We picked up hire cars, strapped on creek boats and headed west in search of the Rocky Mountains. These weren’t hard to find; they were just outside town, rather large and, well, rocky. With our standard degree of mission co-ordination, our two cars were separated within minutes of setting off. By a subtle combination of blatant luck and feng shui, we all met up again at the same campsite. This was in Banff, a garish souvenir mall masquerading as a real town. A miserably arctic night later (camping, what IS that all about?), we hit an outdoor store. We shelled out on their most expensive sleeping bags, constructed from the soft fluffy down of kittens and seal pups. Not for the last time, we had to reassure ourselves that despite having the Queen’s head on it, Canadian dollars aren’t real money.
A river was now needed in order to justify our bankruptcy. We crossed the Continental Divide into British Columbia and wound up at the Kicking Horse River. This river has numerous sections rated at Grade 1(6) or Grade 6(1). I exaggerate, but not much. We ooh-ed and aah-ed at various evil things lurking under bridges…but eventually wussed onto the ‘rubber numpty’ section, i.e. the bit that rafts do. This was rather decent grade 3-4, lumpy and continuous in a deep canyon with a busy railroad track clinging to the walls. We didn’t inspect or portage anything, good job really – anybody seen the film, ‘Stand by Me?’
The next day saw us in full-on faffing mode. We bottled the harder Kicking Horse sections, and the much recommended Yoho River was way too high. A rethink saw us resurface in the upper Columbia River valley. This was a bit weird, as four months earlier we’d been boating in the lower Columbia River
valley – 1900 kilometres downstream in the USA. This area – the East Kootenays – proved to be a good call, as river levels thereabouts were perfect in mid-August. First up was the Bobbie Burns River. Getting there was half the fun. A seriously ill-advised ‘shortcut’subjected our jeep to the beating of its short pampered life. Luckily Kevin proved to possess superhero 4WD powers, but don’t tell Alamo. Three hours and a mere twenty kilometres later, we reached the put-in.
For weeks prior to the trip, Kevin had amused all with his rampant Ursaphobia. He had avidly researched all sorts of Really Useful Bear Facts. Nervous emails informed us that there are 180 000 bears in BC, and that they are capable of 0-30 mph in the time it takes to say; “I didn’t touch your porridge!” He’d briefed us fully on bear contact protocol (the National Parks note that if the bear is still mauling you after you’ve played dead for five minutes, you probably are being attacked). Ever since landing, Kevin had been glancing over his shoulder and when he bought bear repellent pepper spray, we fell about laughing. And now, paranoid Kevin had the last laugh. Big time. Lumbering along near the put-in of our creek, was his arch nemesis – Yogi himself. This bear happily sauntered off out of sight, but Kevin’s credibility was reinstated; henceforth we all listened to him more closely! We launched super-quick-fast and fled the spot.
Bobbie Burns Creek proved much easier on the water than off. The rapids were undemanding but there was a spectacular waterfall to portage and the sense of wilderness was huge…there was more wildlife than a Disney cartoon.
“What the hell is that?”
“Well Chris, what does it look like?”
“An ugly horse”
To be fair to Chris, moose are an uncommon sight back home at Hurley Weir. Arriving at the takeout, there was no sign of Heather. We were a bit worried as we’d rather rapidly abandoned her with the jeep in Bearville. I trekked up the road to find her, but found that my wetsuit shorts chafed in all the wrong places. I whipped them off, and you know the rest…thankfully Mrs R hove into sight shortly after, alive and well. She had wisely chosen the better, longer road to the takeout, but she got wildly lost on featureless forest tracks (and encountered more bears) – all in a day’s work for the Shuttlemeister.
The next morning, we were up for something with a bit more oompf. Some local heroes at Toby Creek told us that the creek’s tough ‘Seven Canyons’ run had only just dropped low enough to paddle. They also said that we’d need seven hours for a first run down. This was red rag to a bull for Chris, who flogged us through the run in about three hours. All I clearly recall is desperately trying to match the human Duracell Bunny’s merciless pace…that and a dire cliff-hanger portage. I lost count at twenty, but the others assure me that there were just seven canyons, each with their own character and kick-ass boating (in local parlance). A fantastic run, imagine knocking off seven different classic rivers before lunchtime.
All of our river info was coming from a pair of hefty guidebooks to the Rockies. Interpreting them was a bit of a learning curve. Although they are accurate enough, the author has a bit of a macho problem. Time after time, a river is described as ‘Grade 4’…only to say below, ‘Be prepared to paddle grade 5+ on sight or execute desperate portages.’ I kid you not. We didn’t notice this in the small print on the guide to Findlay Creek. Or didn’t take it seriously. Or whatever. Either way, we had a decent enough bimble on the Findlay’s middle canyon. Poor Andy took a big tumble whilst portaging a tree jam; no harm was done, but this was the shape of things to come. Three of us carried on into the lower canyon. Good heavens, it was unpleasant. This section saw us spending about as much time on the bank as we did paddling; the Findlay excelled at siphons, sharp rocks and all manner of gnarliness. Our legs were cut to pieces and our nerves were in tatters. My nadir came when I slipped and dropped my boat into the river whilst climbing. It ran the portage perfectly. Chris gets a real buzz out of chase-boating Grade 5 (no, really), so somebody at least was happy.
Bugaboo Creek (we’re not making these names up) flows downhill. Very much so. A steep boulder ditch, we were in familiar territory from years of crashbangwallop UK boating. Kevin had the comedy moment of the day, becoming inexplicably convinced that he had been left far behind by the group. He shot off and frenetically straight-lined a mile of super-steep grade 4-5 to ‘catch up’. As it happens he was actually at the front, and we followed in bewilderment, some distance behind.
Bears had become a common enough sight and we’d begun to be less hung up about them. Our fears were however firmly re-established on the drive north from the Bugaboo. A bear tumbled across the main highway in our path – in the midst of a residential area. Henceforth we all had surreal nightmares
about Baloo chasing us through shopping malls or ambushing us at cash machines, and suchlike…
That evening we found ourselves in breathtaking Yoho National Park. Dwarfed overhead on all sides by soaring peaks, vast ice fields and stupendous waterfalls, we were actually peering down. Below our feet the planet dropped away into a frightening deep and dark canyon. Somewhere down there was the Yoho River, although we could only glimpse it by leaning out into the void supported by unconvincing tree roots. One thing was obvious enough; there was still too much water churning around in there. The put-in beats all; it’s directly underneath the awe-inspiring Takakkaw Falls. These plunge 800 metres! We built a makeshift gauge…a line of rocks heading out into the main flow. After dark, stealth camping; we snuck our gear into the bushes when the Park Rangers had their backs turned.
Six a.m. up at 5000 feet was cold. But the river was colder, carrying its own shroud of Hammer Horror movie mist. The glacier forming the Yoho was directly upstream, and we were gambling on less melt water to make our trip viable. Rubbing our eyes, we wandered down to the ‘gauge’. None of us were really convinced. To our disbelief, a few short hours had seen the river level plummet, leaving our gauge rocks high and dry. Game on. I’m not a morning person, but a few splashes of frigid glacial gloop woke me pretty sharply. We paddled through the portals of the canyon into ominous gloom. Sheer rock rose on either side. Total commitment.
“Am I too late to change my mind?”
I had a bad feeling about this. Just this once I wasn’t the team cannon fodder, my worries concerned the group. Chris and I had been in comparable canyons in the past. Kevin and Andy however, had never stuck their necks out this far, and Andy was happy to admit that the paddling was a long way past his comfort zone. I am sure I spotted a vulture wheeling expectantly above his boat…
We soon forgot our numb fingers as, right from square one, the paddling was pushy and continuous. The Yoho slid visibly downhill, not reassuring for a boxed-in river of sizeable volume. Amazingly it always proved to be paddleable, but the Germans who first paddled the gorge back in the ‘80s couldn’t have known this – they must have had balls the size of Bavaria! The crux came. All we saw ahead was a smooth rock face, time to find an eddy! We fumbled along a cliff ledge to peer around the sudden corner. Over our heads a fixed paddle shaft commemorated a paddler who died here. I’m not superstitious, but I forced myself not to look at it. The line seemed obvious…dodge the holes around the bend and break out before the easy bit below. What could go wrong? I followed Chris and Andy around the bend. Chris found a micro eddy, Andy missed it…and the following rapid had magically morphed into a muntering maelstrom. Why does it always look tiny from above? Andy was dragged from sight; a rescue would be needed imminently. I followed Andy’s line over the lip in heroic Baywatch mode. Some dodging and weaving, a toilet flush through offset holes and a desperate claw past a massive rock. I was scanning the water for a swimming Andy, but shouldn’t have worried. I found him grinning in the bottom eddy; his line had been better than mine and he didn’t seem to have gotten his hair wet. It just goes to show. Something.
How do you top surviving one of the world’s finest grade 5 canyons before breakfast? Well, we had a fair crack at it. The road north was the famous ‘Icefields Parkway’. This incredible highway runs past innumerable glaciers and freakishly blue lakes in the 230 kilometres north to Jasper. At every lay-by along the route, we shamelessly joined a billion gawping and clicking Japanese tourists. Well worth an afternoon off paddling to see. But only if you’ve paddled the Yoho first.
Around Jasper, Kevin dragged us to a Rodeo. Not the whitewater kind where you float around in circles wearing a bib, but a real rodeo. Cowboys, bucking horses, seriously peeved bulls with sharp horns. The body count was epic but Rodeo etiquette dictated that nobody would let themselves be stretchered off. Rider after rider crawled in agony to the side. We sat transfixed throughout, swearing in awe. We’ll never think of kayaking as an extreme sport again!
We had time for one last river in the Rockies. Jasper’s horizon is filled by Mount Edith Cavell, and we headed out to find the river which drains it. The Astoria is famed for super-steep boulder paddling (“who tilted the earth’s crust over?”) but the real fun was finding it in the first place. We stumbled down a dry river bed into the valley, then bushwhacked cross-country through dense forest for an hour or two. This was never dull because well, we never felt alone. The bear paranoia was back with a vengeance! Kevin was suddenly popular again as we literally waded through bear pooh (provided presumably by Pooh Bear). We reached open ground and there ahead, was the Astoria River. We sat beside an eddy, exhausted.
“Thank goodness for that, we’re safe at last”
“Are you sure? Check out the sand, here”
“It’s a bear print. A grizzly bear’s, to be precise”
“Aren’t they the big stroppy ones?”
“It looks fresh. Very fresh indeed”
“Well, Gents…I think we’re back on the menu”.
Mark Rainsley moved down the food chain with Kevin Francis, Andy Levick, Heather Rainsley and Chris Wheeler.
This is the field that we’ll be using for camping at Corfe Castle for the South West Sea Kayaking Meet this year. I snapped this on my phone whilst mountain-biking home from work. The field isn’t the flattest (consider coming early to get the better plots along the treeline!) and only has a water tap by way of facilities, but I’ve ordered some portaloos to be delivered. The field is accessed by a gate off the main Wareham-Swanage road, which runs through the gap in the hills you can see. Incidentally, ‘Corfe’ means exactly that, a gap in hills.
A path leads to the right of the castle into the village, which has all the useful facilities needed for survival; a teddy bear shop, a National Trust gift shop (in case you run out of pot pourri), an Enid Blyton shop and a fossil and gem shop; useful stuff like that. Thankfully there’s also a grocer’s, a bakery, cafes and pubs.
There is still plenty of space on the weekend, but it is certainly filling up fast (nearly 2/3rds full at present). Last date for entries (if it doesn’t fill up first) is June 30th.
Magazine article from 2004…
I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the Skye
You know how it is, after only one day back at work, the holiday already seems to be a distant fact, something you did years ago. So there I am, at home, on Monday evening. I am pottering around, about to fill the washing machine when a smell drifts towards my nose. Now the laundry pile is usually smelly… but this is different. I pause and sniff… wood smoke, suncream, insect repellent, perhaps a hint of whisky and of course the unmistakable odour of sweaty thermal. I am transported on a wave of odours back to the previous week. A wonderful week, a week of sea-kayaking and exploration and pleasure. I sit there amid the pile of laundry and relive the week.
Mark and I escaped from work in Dorset on Friday afternoon and hurtled North. The Isle of Skye was calling. By Saturday morning we had reached Fort William where we raided the supermarket and stocked up on a range of camping friendly foods. I really love the fact that you can carry so much food in a sea-kayak. I get so bored with the kind of tasteless rations you have to carry if you are back-packing. We wandered round the supermarket, buying everything on our shopping list and more. Pasta figured highly, as did chocolate. Lots of fuel, lots of rewards.
Then onwards to the Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye bridge. As we drove across the bridge the sky improbably cleared and the sun appeared. Weather forecast be blowed, it was sunny and settled and all signs of driving fatigue vanished as we took in the glorious Skye scenery. I had been anxious about paddling in Skye; the unknown coupled with a vague idea about unpleasant Atlantic storms and the knowledge that the coast we were planning to explore was rather remote. Somehow, as we stood in the car-park at Elgol, all those worries evaporated in the hot sunshine. Looking across a glassy sea towards the serrated ridge of the Cuillin mountains, I couldn’t wait to get the boats loaded and set off.
Loading boats is an amazing piece of magic. You start out with a vast pile of kit and food and water and somehow it all disappears into the kayaks. With the boat loading done, I said goodbye to the car and set off in an altogether quieter vehicle. I couldn’t quite believe it, just over 24 hours earlier, we were still at work and now we were paddling on glossy black water towards a grand and awe-inspiring wilderness. There are no roads into the heart of the Cuillin. The only routes are by foot or by water but you are richly rewarded for your efforts as we were to discover.
I was paddling a brand new boat, never paddled before. What a christening! It sliced through the water and I soon got used to its trim and settled into a rhythm. Looking down, I suddenly realised that we were not alone. The sea was full of jellyfish! Layer upon layer of them, looking like ranks of space invaders in some eighties computer game. We spent the next ten minutes looking for the biggest one and trying not to pick one up with the paddles. Then it was heads down and pushing on to our campsite, a tiny beach tucked in below the mountains.
As we drew towards the campsite, the mountains closed around us. What a special place. Near vertical rock walls with trees and bushes clinging impossibly to tiny crevices. The silence! The solitude! “Cuckoo!” We couldn’t believe our ears. But there it was again, echoing around the rocks, “cuckoo, cuckoo.” Who’d have thought it, cuckoos in the Cuillin. But now it was time to unload the boats again, put up the tent and have some dinner.
In the morning, Mark made tea and we took it up to Loch Coruisk; a remote Loch that is only just above sea level and whose stillness and seclusion are guarded by the walls of the Cuillin Ridge itself. Of all the places I have had my Sunday morning cup of tea; this will be top of the list for a long time. Sitting on a rock at the feet of great black mountains and staring at their reflections in the water, it felt entirely unreal. We were so small and so out of place in this stillness. We lingered as long as possible over the tea but we had things to do that day. We had breakfast and loaded the boats up… with walking boots! We spent the day on Bla Bheinn; a mountain that has views across to the main Cuillin ridge, Loch Coruisk and out to sea. Well, in the kind of weather we were blessed with anyway. A walk up a mountain is always enjoyable but paddling to the start of it made it feel almost like a grand expedition. I must say however that I don’t recommend putting dry trousers on over hot ankles at the end of such a walk. Trust me, it’s not pretty.
We had company at dinner that night. A seal came and had a look at us and then went and got a friend. They spent the next hour courting together in the inlet by our campsite. A perfect end to an amazing day.
Our luck with the weather held again on the Monday, the weather forecasts we’d read had all been pretty gloomy but it was sunny and settled again. We took down the tent and headed out. It was Scotland, it was May and I had just put sun-cream on. The weather was amazing! We looked out for seals on a nearby skerry before we left Coruisk but they were all off fishing apart from one youngster who was decidedly miffed at having his sunbathing interrupted. We left him to it and started to cross to the small Island of Soay. We paddled into an inlet on Soay as the tide was running out. Seabirds were fishing all round us and one sleek white chap was so intent on catching the fish he’d seen that he arrowed into the water just to the right of my paddle.
Soay was the site of a shark fishing station at one time in its history. That day, it was eerily quiet in the harbour, the deserted building had half a roof and there was a rusted steam engine outside. We felt like trespassers as we sat and ate our lunch looking across at these ruins. After exploring further on the island, we set out for Skye again. We were aiming for a headland called Rubh an Dunain which the map showed was peppered with cairns and ruins despite its remoteness.
As we neared the headland, the wind began to pick up for the first time since we arrived on Skye. I had to push hard to maintain my pace. Mark paddles an impossibly skinny, tippy and fast boat. Nothing seems to slow him down. I was feeling quite tired as we neared what I thought was our landing spot. Mark carried on past it. I argued but he said that it would be easier to land on the other, more gently shelving side of the headland which meant another few hundred metres of paddling. He was right about the landing but I knew that the sea was lumpier round the corner. Suddenly I remembered that this was still a strange boat and I started to feel a bit panicky. We turned out into the chop and I turned into a novice. I am sure we’ve all been there, that time when we stiffen up with nerves and forget to put our paddles in the water. Of course, when this happens, the boat starts to be tippy and you stop going anywhere. At times like this, Mark used to try to give me advice which, when I’m stressed I have to say I am not good at listening to. He’s learned now, poor chap, he stayed quiet and gave me space to get my head together and start paddling again. I put my head down and ploughed on and round to the bay where we landed. I shouted a lot when my feet were finally on dry land. The waves hadn’t been that big but I was tired and it had to be someone’s fault. Poor Mark! By the time we had put up the tent, I had warmed up and calmed down. We went off to explore the ruins we were camped among. This remote and empty headland had once been very crowded indeed. There were ruined crofts everywhere and the remains of some pretty intensively farmed land. Now there were just sheep… and us, oh and the cuckoos. A romantic spot now but with a sad history common to so many parts of Scotland that were cleared by land-owners who were looking to make some money from sheep. We ate dinner watching the sun go down over the sea.
I woke up to the flapping of the tent the next morning. It was windy, the sea was lumpy and we weren’t going anywhere soon. Our radio had failed to pick up any weather forecasts but things had clearly changed. The Cuillin ridge had cloud over it for the first time since we had arrived and we watched as the peaks played hide and seek in the rapidly moving billows. By early afternoon, the wind had dropped and the sea flattened. It was a few miles up the coast to Loch Eynort but this was a committing few miles. No landings on the way if the wind got up again. I wanted to go on but wasn’t confident. Then the sun came out. I don’t understand why this tipped the balance but it always does for me. Everything seems possible in the sun.
So off we went. I found it hard work, we were paddling into the wind but were making sensible headway so we carried on. Off to the West, we could see the Western Isles and we started to see sea stacks in front of us. Eventually we were at the foot of the nearest: shaped like a bottle (three storeys high) with a hole in the middle. We stopped and rafted up to look and eat ginger cake. As we ate, I realised that we were being blown towards the cliffs. I stuffed my half of the cake into my mouth at one go and abandoned Mark. I tried to explain myself but the cake stopped me, I tried to chew but there was just too much cake. Mark thought I had gone mad. He started to paddle on through the gap between the cliff and the stack, I saw him pause as he felt the wind coming through the gap and then a cormorant dive-bombed into the water right beside him. I am sure I saw him jump out of his seat, I just couldn’t stop laughing. Not good when your mouth is full of cake and you’re trying not to be blown onto a cliff. I followed Mark through the gap, tears of laughter streaming down my face. The wind was whistling through the gap and the waves were quite lumpy on the other side. I was relaxed in the boat and I unexpectedly found just how well it handled the swell when I was loose and paddled calmly.
Mark looked relieved when I came through the gap laughing. He wasn’t sure how I would react to the larger swell but I was enjoying the way the boat was slicing through it. Besides, my mouth was still full of cake. The swell for this last mile was quite intense but I now knew that the boat and I were more than equal to it. Mark was probably having a bumpier ride in his boat than I was. Before very long, we surfed into the shelter of Loch Eynort and found a camping spot. I spent ages collecting drift wood and building a fire. We didn’t get a chance to enjoy it, because then the midges arrived. We had seen the odd one or two before but that evening, as the wind dropped, the midges descended in their millions and we hid in the tent.
We had planned to carry on up the coast past more sea stacks and high cliffs the next day, but the wind stopped us. It was in our faces and just too strong for us to commit to at least ten kilometres of exposed paddling with no landfall. We were disappointed but because our radio had let us down, we just didn’t know what the weather was going to do. We decided to head up Loch Eynort to the road and hitch back to the car. Seven hitches later, we closed the circle and picked up the car. For the rest of the week, the wind stayed too strong to head out in the boats again. We explored the island on foot but felt so blessed with the days we had spent out along the coast that we didn’t feel cheated. We didn’t go that far really in those few days, but the remoteness and the beauty of where we did go made it worth it. And the sea stacks we missed… well there’s always next year.
(Click here for more pictures)
OS Landrangers 23 & 32
Imray C66, Mallaig to Rubha Reidh and Outer Hebrides
Scotland; The Rough Guide.
The Scottish Islands, Hamish Haswell-Smith
The Isle of Skye: A Walkers Guide, Terry Marsh.
Heather Rainsley – 2004
This article is about a trip to the rather lovely coast of south Brittany, back in 2004. Heather wrote this one…
Sea Kayaking Brittany
Have you ever found yourself doing something amazing? Something new and special, that you’ll always remember. The exceptional thing for me about sea-kayaking is that this seems to happen almost every time I load up my boat and head out. On the water, the memories are there for the taking. The little things…like the smell of the ocean, how the light shines on the water when the sun’s going down. The big things…long journeys, exploring new places, meeting new challenges. This summer was no exception.
Mark and I were in France with our sea kayaks, lots of food and even more camping gear. We had driven from the UK with a variety of maps and charts and a vague idea of spending the next two weeks exploring islands. Now we had arrived randomly on the shores of Brittany’s Gulf of Morbihan. If you are familiar with Dorset’s Poole Harbour, then you should find it easy to imagine this much larger natural harbour with its numerous sandy, tree covered islands. In addition, this boating paradise is well equipped with many of the fantastic bakeries and cafés that are such a staple of French holidays. We eagerly set about exploring the astonishing number of islands that are crammed into the Gulf. Every island was different; secluded beaches, ancient monuments, beauty spots and tourist honey pots. The waters were bustling with all manner of craft making their way between the islands. Locals were fishing and collecting oysters and generally enjoying life on the water. In the afternoons, the tide livened things up by making some fun waves and eddies between islands as it ran out.
Eventually, we started to feel crowded by all the other boats and longed for seclusion and the open sea. Peeking out of the entrance of the Gulf, we could just make out three islands on the horizon. Our chart told us they were Ile d’Houat, Ile d’Hoedic and Belle Isle. At thirteen miles, the shortest crossing from our camp site was to Ile d’Houat. We really wanted to go. But there were problems; we needed a falling tide to drag us out of the Gulf and propel us on our way across the ten miles of open sea. However the falling tide was in the afternoon when it tended to get windy and choppy.
“That’s OK,” said Mark “We’ll do it tomorrow night.”
Now perhaps I had a touch of sunstroke but at the time, it made perfect sense. Spend tomorrow packing the boats and then go to bed early, get up at two thirty am and set off. I think the sun must have really affected my normally timid spirit because part of me was pretty excited about making such a big (for me) open crossing in the dark.
The alarm went off; I was sleeping so deeply that its loudness seemed to hurt me physically as well as assaulting my eardrums. I like my ‘eight hours’ in a night and rousing at half two in the morning is very painful. Before we could change our minds, we packed our sleeping bags and tent. At the water’s edge we shoved them into the already packed boats; which were waiting where we left them, an agonisingly short time earlier. The tide was just starting to fall and there was a soft warm breeze blowing off the land. There is something a bit special about being up and about when everyone else is asleep; although I have to say I wouldn’t do it often. Time to set off. We startled lots of fish as we paddled out over the dark water…and one or two of them startled us too, as they bumped against the bottom of the boat or jumped up right beside us.
As we approached the mouth of the Gulf, the tide picked up and we were zipping along. Before we knew it, we had been squirted out of the Gulf and were on the open sea. The wind was behind us, a little brisker now but helpful. The journey had begun in earnest. The only sounds were those we made as we twisted and paddled and as the boats sliced through the water. We could see little outside the circle of our head-torches other than the distant lights we were aimed towards. I fell into a steady rhythm, probably pretty close to sleep and on we went. I can’t remember why we decided to turn off our torches but we did and then there was more magic on this strange dreamy night. The water lit up around us as we moved through it. This bioluminescence, as scientists call it, is made by tiny living things in the water. I wondered what people made of it before scientists put a name to it. I was awed and strangely comforted by these stripes and patches of light that we made as we went along in the dark. Fish that crossed our path made glowing green tunnels in the water and I didn’t tire of looking at it. Whenever we turned on our lights to check our charts or because we’d heard an engine, I was always keen to turn them off again as soon as possible so I could see the glowing water.
The lights that we were heading towards gradually brightened and we were beginning to be able to pick out individual points in what had seemed one faint haze. Off to the East, the sky was starting to lighten and sadly the phosphorescence faded from view as the sea changed from black to grey. The offshore wind that had been helping us along was stiffer now and at times we were surfing along on small waves. Part of my mind felt I should be anxious about this, but I was comfortable and relaxed and my Capella was running smoothly so I just plodded on. Eventually, the horizon was filled with our island and the sky was light. The sun wasn’t up yet and we were nearly there. We paused to check the chart and Mark spotted a beach where we could camp. The feeling of arrival after a journey like this is almost indescribable. In the soft light of dawn we approached the island, the first fishing boats were setting off and an old chap in a smock was out checking his lobster pots. He asked us where we had come from and there was a real pleasure in pointing back to the distant smudge and telling him. The sun came up as we landed and Mark whipped out the camera to record this crossing that we both felt so pleased with. At the time, I felt elated and thought I was grinning from ear to ear. Later, looking at the photos, I realised I just looked really weary. No surprises there.
We pitched the tent in some dunes on a long empty beach of pure white sand, ate breakfast and fell asleep. When we woke again, the beach had been transformed. There were yachts out on the water and people sunbathing and promenading along the strand. We wandered along the shore, enjoying the holiday mood and still feeling smug about our special arrival. The rest of the day, we explored Ile d’Houat; its sandy beaches seeming endless. When the evening came, most of the other visitors went home on the ferry, leaving the beaches to us again.
Another day, another island. A much shorter crossing this time took us to Ile d’Hoedic, a rockier and wilder feeling island whose granite bays made me think of Cornwall. We had lots of time to explore the few streets and the path round the island before finding a bar and enjoying café life French style. We were planning to cross to the largest island in the group next – Belle Isle – but it had been a while since we had seen a weather forecast and the weather seemed to be getting colder and windier which was a bit of a worry. Now, our French is not good. Neither of us studied it at school and what we do know has been picked up from one travel cassette and various menus. This is not the kind of vocabulary one should bring to a French weather forecast. Picture the scene; two strangely dressed tourists standing outside the town hall on an isolated island. They are
huddled around a piece of paper pinned to the notice-board.
“There’s a depression over the island.”
“No, hang about; there’s a depression over Iceland.”
Luckily for us, we eventually found a weather report – specially designed for stupid tourists – that supplied us with symbols and numbers. Fortunately, the forecast showed the outlook improving; the conditions would be comfortable to cross to Belle Isle if we launched that afternoon. Another open crossing… piece of cake.
We arrived on Belle Isle after sunset and once we’d camped and eaten it was too dark to see our surroundings. The following morning was foggy. Only after an hour on the water were we able to actually see the coast we were paddling along! Now there could have been no more perfect illustration of the meaning of the two words making up the name ‘Belle Isle’. It simply was…a very beautiful island. We were paddling along the Cote Sauvage – the wild coast – another perfect vocabulary lesson. The tall cliffs were sculpted and twisted into amazing shapes.
Over two leisurely days we explored the inlets, caves and spires along the Cote Sauvage. This exploration began calm and settled and we were bemused to find that we were rarely alone on this exposed coast. Fishermen had scrambled down near vertical cliffs to fish from dauntingly exposed ledges. Snorkellers in wetsuits were fishing with harpoons in vast numbers…Frog-men! Families in fancy yachts and battered launches were gliding and puttering up and down the coast. We were met with nods and smiles and felt very much a part of this life on the water. As the coast curved northwards, it became more exposed to the Atlantic. A large swell was humping in. Paddling a mile off from the shore, we felt honoured to be there on the ocean. Feeling its rise and fall beneath us and hearing it crash on the cliffs to our right made us nervous and awed at the same time. An exhilarating day! As we rounded the Northern tip of the island – Pointe des Poulains – we noticed a lighthouse on the point. It seemed familiar. It is the subject of one of those ubiquitous ‘exploding wave’ lighthouse posters. And we have paddled round it!
Days of Island exploration followed and suddenly it was time to think about making tracks to the mainland. We started our final four hour crossing in bright sunlight, early one morning. It was with sadness that we left Belle Isle behind. Glancing over our shoulders from time to time, we saw it shrink; at first filling the horizon and then getting smaller and fainter until eventually it disappeared altogether into haze. Finally we landed in the busy port of Quiberon and set foot on the mainland. At that very instant; fog descended and the wind got up. It was as though someone had been waiting for us to arrive and could now slam the door firmly behind us. Within minutes of our return to shore, it was as if we had only imagined our isles.
Heather Rainsley – 2004.
Click here for more pictures.
Another magazine article, this one from 2003. Heather and I spent the summer in eastern and western Canada, paddling white water. We finished up on the Pacific coast near Vancouver, and thought that we really should do some sea kayaking, seeing how we were there…
The Sound of Desolation
…sea kayaking without anoraks, British Columbia 2003
“Mark, wake up! There’s a bear right outside our tent”.
“Don’t be silly dear; that’s just a seal snoring”.
Here in Britain, sea kayaking has a rather sorry ‘anorak’ image…we tend to associate the sport with unkempt facial hair, boiled seagulls and questionable social skills. Sea kayaking articles in the paddling press don’t help; they traditionally focus on such riveting aspects as compass bearings and the inner workings of the Trangia Stove. Whatever the reasons for this image, it does a fine sport no justice at all. My wife and I have learned not to mention our secret habit in civilised company, if we want to be invited on the next whitewater trip. UK sea paddlers for whom this all rings bells, may be surprised to learn that there is ‘another place’, where sea kayakers can be loud and proud; where ‘Ocean Kayaking’ is seen as a perfectly healthy eco-friendly lifestyle pursuit, with a multi-million dollar leisure industry built around it. Sea kayaks are sold in High Street stores alongside running shoes and bikinis, and there are more sea kayakers than mountain bikers. Paddlers arriving off the plane from the UK might think that they’ve arrived on Mars…but they’re actually in British Columbia.
A bit of scene-setting. The Pacific coast of Canada is an epic wilderness of mountainous islands and deep fjords, formed by glaciers spilling down from British Columbia’s Coast Range Mountains. So…it’s very big, it’s very wild. But…this isn’t going to be a heroic tale of half-starved heroics on raging seas. Heather and I paddled in one titchy and sheltered part of this region, known as Desolation Sound. Nobody suffered, no one even got tired, nothing scary happened, the food was actually rather decent and the distances conquered can be measured in hundreds of yards. It was all quite pleasant, just as sea kayaking should be.
Desolation Sound was named in 1792 when Captain George Vancouver sailed into the area, found absolutely nothing of interest, and went away again. The full title today is ‘Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park’, and I’m boring myself just typing it. All you need to know is that it’s a protected Park which can only be reached by boat. Designating any single part of the surrounding region as a ‘Park’ is as pointless as awarding sashes at a Miss World contest, it’s all gorgeous! We enjoyed a small snippet of the area but suffice to say, it didn’t matter too much, which direction we headed.
Heather and I had been ambling across Canada for over a month, paddling whitewater rivers large and small. We were due to jet out of Vancouver soon, but first I’d promised Heather that we’d dip our toes in the Pacific Ocean. First, we prodded a random place name on the map…’Desolation Sound’ had a certain ‘buzz’ to it. Next, an Internet cafe supplied a solution; I typed the words ‘sea kayak rental desolation sound’ into a Search Engine and up popped the website for ‘Powell River Sea Kayak Ltd.’. I wrote down their phone number and called up to book a double kayak. I believe everything I read on the Internet, but for all I knew I was giving my credit card details to a fifteen year old in Russia.
Getting there was surprisingly unsimple. We returned our longsuffering hire car and stashed our creek boats at Vancouver Airport’s left luggage office (buying new boats would have been cheaper). Next, we caught the only bus to Powell River. This took six hours including two ferries up the coast, before we were dropped off in an unprepossessing shopping mall. We were indeed in the town of Powell River. The catch was that ‘Powell River Sea Kayak Ltd.’ were based well, somewhere else. We weighed ourselves down with food supplies at the Megamart and made the next hop, a taxi ride thirty kilometres north. A night of camping, a last supper at ‘Laughing Oyster’ restaurant (bizarrely luxurious, given that it’s located somewhere off the edge of most maps) and we were finally ready to collect our kayak.
We’d booked a Current Designs Crosswind, a vast barge of a plastic double kayak. I’d heard that the North American trend was for wider kayaks, but this was practically the Ark Royal. And why not? It was slow, but hugely stable and here was a boat that absolutely anyone could hop into and handle. Here in the UK, we sneer at sea kayaks which aren’t narrow and responsive…and then wonder why so few take up our sport. Anyway, the only catch was that this double didn’t have a centre hatch for stowing gear. This was a bit of an issue as Heather is, well, a girl. She’d brought enough clothes to sink a Dreadnought and fitting it all in required a subtle combination of lateral thinking and brute force. By the time we’d cracked this puzzle, the tide had receded leaving the boat high and dry, surrounded by large jagged oysters. These, somewhat rudely, kept spitting at us. We had to get help to lift the boat to the water’s edge, these doubles weigh some! The embarrassment continued as we weaved erratically up the sea inlet, barely in control; my UK sea kayak conditioning had told me that rudders were a bad thing, so I’d disconnected it. A quick tinker on the shore and it was back in service; suddenly we had complete control and our boat worked like a dream.
We’d launched onto the Okeover Inlet, basically the back entrance into Desolation Sound. We were against the tide, ferry gliding and eddyhopping upstream until the shores opened out and we entered Desolation Sound itself. We were wowed. Blue water below, blue sky above. Trees shrouded the hills right down to the shoreline, with a backdrop of sharp ice-shrouded peaks. We headed out into open water, with a small group of islands as our target. Leaving the shore behind, something occurred to me…we’d been in the same boat for a few hours now, and we hadn’t bickered once. Weird. This state of affairs was to endure throughout our trip. Must be something in the water?
The Curme ‘Islands’ turned out to be little more than lumps of rock with high aspirations. We chose a rock ledge directly at the water’s edge as our campsite and hopped ashore to unload. Whilst I faffed about with the tent, Heather’s organisation prior to the trip now paid off; it turned out that we had food, and good food at that. If she hadn’t shopped, we’d have been surviving on a tin of curry and a large bag of wine gums. Not only this, it turned out that she’d hidden a pile of tinnies behind her seat. Truly dire Canadian beer, but beer nonetheless. Gotta love that woman.
Next morning, we had a lie-in to compensate for a lousy night of sleep. Our rock ledge had turned out to be whatever the equivalent of a nightclub is for seals. Hang about. Seals. Clubbing. There has to be a joke there. Anyway, we’d missed the tide…it was a ten foot drop to the water and loading and launching was a bit of a comedy moment. Once on the water, we crossed to nearby Mink Island and our outing practically ceased motion hereabouts. The woman in the front of the kayak studied Ecology at University and Mink Island’s coast was apparently all of an ecologist’s dreams come true at once. Every few yards we had to halt whilst Heather pointed out all creatures great and small; deer, seals, gulls various, mussels, a bald eagle, oystercatchers, whacky jellyfish, seals, sea lions, a porpoise, grebes and more seals. Flora and fauna has to try hard to get me excited, but even I was freaked by the starfish and sea stars. These were absurdly enormous, colourful and well, everywhere.
When we finally left Mink, it was mid-afternoon and darned hot. Ice cream emergency! A check of the chart and an hour later, we pulled into Refuge Cove. This was a tiny mooring hidden up an inlet with float planes being the only outside link. When we pulled up alongside the quay, we were redirected…to the kayak quay. I thought we were the victims of a wind-up, until we rounded the corner and found a pint-sized landing stage with a sea kayak already moored. Surreal. Refuge Cove basically amounted to a ramshackle store but what a store; anywhere that stocks thirty flavours of ice cream gets my vote.
The target for the evening was a campsite at the head of this inlet but frankly, we couldn’t be bothered. The sun was shining, the water was warm and lethargy hit hard after we left Refuge Cove. The first beach we saw was good enough and we sunbathed and swam until the sun went down. Ancient logged trees formed a natural table and chairs to enjoy a spectacular sunset.
The stars came out and utter darkness ensued. Something wasn’t right. The sea looked…wrong. We skipped stones out onto the water and, bloody hell! The sea lit up. Phosphorescence. We had seen this phenomenon before in British waters but only as a mild sparkling effect. Here, it was, whoa, who switched the headlights on? We hopped into our kayak and paddled out into the black. Incredible, our paddles generated luminous swirls of plasma in the water. Green, pink, blue. Most astonishingly, long glowing tunnels appeared in the water around us…fish swimming! I don’t hold an ecology degree, but I can hazard an explanation; the sea in this part of the world is warm (79F) and utterly dense with teeming life; every inch is crammed with plankton and microscopic jellyfish. When this lot lights up, you get a lightshow that makes November 5th look lame. We’ve been around a bit and seen a few things…but we will never forget what we saw that night, let alone find adequate words to describe it.
In the morning we locked and loaded, and headed out again. Our pressing need was for fresh water, and we were able to find a lone house across the way on Cortez Island with a tap and an obliging owner. Plodding back into Desolation Sound, we made an open crossing and eventually made landfall on a beach at the head of the Malaspina Peninsula. Hilarity ensued when I realised that we’d left the tent poles behind at our last campsite. Well, I thought it was hilarious. Heather seemed to believe it was entirely my fault and wasn’t especially appreciative of my ‘Blue Peter’ attempts to keep our flaccid tent erect.
Our beach was back on the mainland, but a long way from any MacDonald’s. Heather now produced a mysterious bundle from a deep recess in the kayak; it was a fishing rod, bought in a moment of (presumably) complete insanity. We paddled around in circles near our campsite. I provided the propulsion whilst Heather fumbled with the rod in the front. Neither of us had fished before (and proud of it!) so a modicum of incompetence ensued. Eventually the line went taut. I laughed my socks off…of course she had snagged the hook on the bottom. But she hadn’t. A rather peeved looking rockfish popped up and was bagged. The hook went back into the water, and another fish emerged, in under a minute. And so on. It was ludicrously easy, the fish were practically jumping into the kayak. How can this be sport? Back in camp, it turned out that knife-wielding Heather knew how to convert these unfortunate fish into food. The things I don’t know about my wife, you could write a book. Dinner has never tasted better. So, you heard it here first; fishing is great fun. From now on, you can find me on the riverbank, hurling abuse at paddlers and claiming to own the place.
Our final morning saw an early start; we were on a schedule to reach Vancouver that night. Suddenly, we seemed able to paddle like we knew what we were doing; a bit of co-ordination and we ticked off the miles effortlessly. Our barge seemed to have become a much sleeker craft (because I’d finished all the wine gums?) and we literally shot along south. We passed the length of the ‘Copeland Islands Marine Park’ in pretty much the amount of time needed to say that, pausing only to note that it was a reserve for the protection of rockfish…oops, at least they had tasted good. The scenery was grand, an open vista past innumerable islands right across to the far glaciers of Vancouver Island. We were winding up our trip, but all we could see in each direction was more trips; we’d barely dipped our toes in the region’s possibilities.
As we pulled into the harbour of Lund, we really did not want to finish. We returned the kayak to Powell River’s offices there, and stuffed our gear into rucksacks. We’d been privileged to glimpse one of the more beautiful corners of our planet. Not only that, we’d briefly existed in a parallel universe where sea paddling is…well, cool. Our fantastic voyage had ended far too soon, but now we had a plane to catch. Could we be in Vancouver before nightfall? We stuck our thumbs out and mission impossible commenced…
Mark Rainsley thanks Perception Kayaks and Nookie Equipment for their continuing support.
Further info… http://www.bcseakayak.com – Powell River Sea Kayak and Rockfish Kayak companies; they hire equipment and organise guided trips.
http://wlapwww.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/desolation.htm – Official bumf on the Desolation Sound Marine Park.
Full Gallery of Desolation Sound photos
This article was published in 2005. Our trip to explore Bolivia’s rivers was perhaps the finest white water trip I’ve ever been on. Amazing rivers, scenery and culture – but best of all, great times shared with great friends.
The Tibet of the Americas
– White Water Bolivia
“Where am I? Oh man, my head is fuzzy. I seem to be in a rather chic Salsa club, wow those folk can really dance. But why do I keep walking into walls? Must be something to do with this stuff I’m drinking. Why am I panting and out of breath? Who are all these people with me? That’s Andy, Chris, Kev etc…the usual boating crowd…but who are the well dressed folk who’ve actually washed? Oh right, I remember…they’re from the Bolivian Ministry of Tourism. What’s it all about? What in the name of surreal experiences am I doing at high altitude in a trendy Bolivan nightclub, beered up to my eyeballs with posh people? Oh, it’s all coming back to me now. I’m on an EXPEDITION.”
Why Bolivia? It doesn’t appear on any whitewater wish lists that we’ve ever seen and when the place was first suggested, we weren’t entirely clear which corner of the globe it could be found in. Reaching for an atlas, we had a hurried self-taught Geography lesson. We discovered that Bolivia lurks in the centre of South America and it’s the size of France and Spain combined. It’s landlocked but contains Lake Titicaca, a vast inland sea. Titicaca and the capital La Paz are perched at a dizzying altitude of 13000 feet above sea level, on a desert plain called the Altiplano (‘High Plain’). The Andes are close to hand, with peaks stretching 20000 feet into space. Behind the Andes and three vertical miles below is something quite large, called the Amazon Rainforest. All rather impressive, but the most intriguing thing was numerous blue and brown lines wiggling all over the atlas page…rivers and contour lines combined. This was good enough for us. We booked flights.
The following Easter. We stepped onto a plane, leaving behind a cold and agonisingly dry whitewater season back home. We then stepped off the plane, to be confronted by the searing heat of Bolivia at the tail end of the rainy season. By some unseen logistical miracle, our eight creek boats had turned up too and our two vehicles and drivers were waiting for us. After hasty introductions with Gary and Renaldo, we loaded up their 4WD’s and sped straight out of town to find ourselves a river.
Culture shock! Lonely Planet had breathlessly described Bolivia as the ‘Tibet of the Americas’ and they may well have a point. We were indeed breathless (no oxygen!) and our atlas page assumed dramatic 3D real-life proportions as we drove up above 15000 feet, over the Andes. When we weren’t fixated in terror by the tiny gap between our wheels and the cliff ledge, we were gobsmacked by the locals. Women wore traditional dress of bowler hats and garishly coloured shawls slung across their shoulders, usually with a baby and/ or the week’s shopping propped efficiently underneath. Llamas were ten a penny, big hairy loping things not unlike a cross between sheep and giraffe. They looked pretty cool, and made for great knitwear and steaks. If you got close to them they spat at you with impressive range and accuracy, not cool. Anyway, you get the gist…Bolivia was something very different.
Enough of culture, we were there for the paddling. En route down to the jungle, we detoured to inspect the Rio Unduavi; one of our drivers reckoned had been paddled before. It looked terrifying, falling out of the sky…what exactly had we got ourselves into? Even more worrying, the river valley was improbably steep-sided; we realised that getting in and out of Bolivian rivers was going to be a mission in itself. Our pre-planning had involved identifying vaguely intriguing rivers using charts obtained from the US Military. These small-scale maps only depicted objects visible from Mars…so I suppose that we shouldn’t really been surprised to discover that Bolivian ‘road-side’ boating heavily involved ropes, machetes and vertigo.
Back on the road, in darkness. Kevin – the team’s doom-monger – was helpful enough to inform us that we were driving along the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’, based on the number of vehicles that fall off every week. Just then, our Landrover slid off the road. We’re here to tell the tale as a luckily-placed cliff stopped us from toppling over completely. Later on in the trip after crossing it numerous times, we’d become immune to the WMDR and joked merrily about it. That was, until the day when we were press-ganged into a rope-hauling crew, retrieving corpses from a car wreck down in the abyss. That wasn’t funny, and they didn’t smell too good.
We warmed up on the easy Rio Huaranilla and progressed to the Rio Choro. Accessing the Choro involved hauling boats up and down the cliffs, in sweltering jungle heat. I learned that leaning on a tree swarming with bull ants is a bad idea, and Andy L gashed his hand on a rock, putting him out of boating action for much of the trip (no worries, he’s a bit of a museum connoisseur anyway). The Choro proved to be a superb Grade 5 gorge, more than enough to justify the entrance price. However the pattern established here was to become familiar; fantastic boating coupled with access logistics strenuous enough to generate more than one hissy fit. Ever seen a grown man fling his beloved kayak off a cliff in beat-down despair?
Staring at the Rio Unduavi again, it still looked heinous. Some of my ‘friends’ salivated at the super-steep gnarl, worrying. I whipped out my GPS gadget and proved that the river below was insanely steep and we were all going to die. Phew, sanity prevailed and we launched a few miles downstream. Our Rio Unduavi mission was on, what a river! Kevin inspected the first gorge and confidently dismissed it as “flat”. Whilst being smeared all over it, I recalled that everything looks flat from a hundred metres above! All good fun. A few exhilarating hours later, we found ourselves fighting for eddies…we whipped out the walkie-talkie. High above us, our drivers confirmed that the gorge ahead was Grade 6 and unportageable. Two hours of daylight left, a perfect point to call it a day and climb out. Except that, we couldn’t. We headed off in various directions up scree slopes, and one by one we all ground to a halt. The problem was that the scree was steep and terminated in cliffs. We were stuck. And it was now dark. Oops. Blessed salvation came unexpectedly. A Bolivian fellow and his family popped up from nowhere and ran off with our boats. Yes, they ran right up the scree which we couldn’t climb. They returned and guided each of us to the road, one by one. The relief of reaching safety was tempered by the humiliation of being rescued by a small children and grannies, none of them taller than our chests. Gary had been pretty concerned about us, and presumably wondered about the calibre of the men he was driving around. “Guys, I have to ask…is this normal?”
Somewhere up north, we gained permission to sleep in a school. The school kids were outside with their faces pressed to the window, entertained and bewildered by our cooking efforts. We were just as bewildered, cooking for ourselves was a new one on us. We discovered; vacuum-packed pre-cooked expedition meals, bad, dried expedition meals, really bad, Andy Mc’s Scottish porridge, terrible. We now knew for sure that we were on a proper expedition; the clues were the inedible food and the scary fact that ‘Lonely Planet’ didn’t know where we were. We did locate our river though; the following morning found us all white-faced and bug-eyed on the Rio Camata. This sizeable river was a bit too sizeable, with a slight excess of water and a tendency to head downhill quite vigorously. The Camata was certainly democratic; everybody got pasted sooner or later. Amazing stuff…break out and brace for the ‘kick’ of the current, pray it carries you past those holes and deposits you in another eddy…because you sure won’t get any say in the matter! By the end of the day we were shamelessly portaging as much as paddling, and a little rain overnight meant that the following day was even more humbling.
Our bruised egos needed a massage; and we got it when we explored the nearby Rio Calaya. On paper, it was a ludicrously steep no-go but the Rivergods smiled upon us. We discovered a perfect water level and endless clean drops, adding up to one of the best sections we’ve ever done. Bring it on!
We’re none of us survivalists; sitting in a puddle in a rain sodden jungle trying to light a fire isn’t our idea of fun. But there we were and so it was. This was our mission to conquer the Rio Zongo, but it was conquering us. A fabulous journey from La Paz had seen us climb to lung-shredding altitudes, glaciers almost touching the road. There was barely time to admire, the bottom dropped out of the road and it plunged 12000 feet in switchbacks. At the road’s end, the Zongo looked gorged-up and pretty feisty. Hmm. We loaded the boats for several days and followed a self-appointed local guide into the gorge. An hour later he was still claiming “Just twenty minutes further”. Harsh words were muttered as we abandoned him, climbing down a gully to the river. With minutes of daylight left, we had to ferry across the river, lash our boats to trees and then wade, armpit deep, to a tiny camp spot. Directly downstream, a rather lumpy Grade 5 rapid made us wonder what we’d taken on. Perfect, just perfect. Did I mention, it was raining, too?
…and they all lived happily ever after. The following morning really did turn out perfect, if we forget the porridge. The fear of a few days spent blubbing with terror whilst running unportageable gnarl had made us seriously consider jibbing out (yup…12000 feet up and over the Andes again) but our fears proved ungrounded. We paddled around the first corner; the gorge opened out at once, the rapids were friendly and all was well! We knocked off the Zongo in one outstanding day, gradually easing through the Grades from 5 to 2 along its 35 mile length. Our lunch stop provided a Comedy Moment. Bizarrely, our sweaty thermals were swarmed by millions of bees. We had to abandon them and make a run for the boats. Ten miles downstream, we were still extracting angry bees from under our sprayskirts. How we laughed.
Back in La Paz, it was time for reflection. Over llama steaks and ‘Pascena’ (the local excuse for beer), we counted up the scores. In a hectic fortnight, we had managed to paddle on all except two days, enjoying (or surviving, depends upon your perspective) nine different rivers. At least two of the rivers were probably first descents but more importantly, the quality of the paddling was usually very high indeed. Put another way, Bolivian paddling is fantastic…just remember take the GPS, rope and machete! Anyway, the ‘Pascena’ flowed and the evening took a weird turn. The ‘Viceministerio de Turismo’ turned up and interviewed us about Bolivia’s potential for river-running tourism. It then emerged that our driver Gary was her boss! We’d been sleeping rough and sharing awful porridge with the ‘Director-General de Turismo’. My memory gets hazy from that point, ‘Pascena’ isn’t very strong but sure packs a punch when combined with altitude. We were dragged by our Ministerial chums off to tour the nightlife of La Paz…which is where I think this story began…
Mark Rainsley paddled with Kevin Francis, Marcus Holborn, Andy Levick, Andy McMahon, Ferdinand Steinvorth, Chris Wheeler and Simon Wiles.
More info on boating in Bolivia can be found at www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk
I’ve just been sorting through old files and have found a large pile of old magazine articles that have never been posted here. I’ll put some up in the weeks to come; this one was published (2004?) in the now-defunct ‘Paddles’ magazine. Hope it’s useful/ interesting.
Mingulay and the Bishop’s Isles
What care we though, white the Minch is?
What care we for wind or weather?
Let her go boys; every inch is
Sailing homeward to Mingulay.
Mingulay Boat song, composed 1938
Mingulay? Bishop’s Isles? What? Where? Mingulay is the largest of the Bishop’s Isles, which are themselves the southernmost outliers of the Outer Hebrides. Viewed on a map, the Outer Hebrides resemble a curving spine of some prehistoric dinosaur. The Bishop’s Isles form the tail, flicking out into the open expanses of the Sea of the Hebrides. For sea kayakers, these Isles represent nothing short of wish fulfilment; superlative scenery and wildlife, and even better, the chance to paddle right out to the most exposed and remote margins ofBritain.
Most folk will have heard of the island of St Kilda, world famous for its inaccessibility, immense cliffs and huge sea bird populations; perhaps even more famous for being inhabited against all odds until final abandonment in the 1930s. Mingulay is much less well known, but bears close similarity. Like St Kilda it is difficult to visit and is guarded on three sides by cloud reaching cliffs harbouring a huge sea bird population. Like St Kilda, it had a well-established community which departed early in the twentieth century, leaving a deserted settlement. Unlike St Kilda however, today it remains uninhabited year-round.
Paddling south from the large inhabited Isle of Barra, there are five main islands. Vatersay is reached first, and is populated and connected to Barra by causeway. Next is Sandray, then Pabbay, then Mingulay and finally Berneray. After this there is only ocean…the Isles have gone by various names, but ‘Bishop’s Isles’ is most common and stems from their sixteenth century ownership by the Bishop of the Isles.
Getting Out There
The Edge of the World doesn’t come easily, quickly or cheaply. Your starting point is the mainland port of Oban. Those familiar with the West of Sctland will need no introduction to the ferry company of Caledonian acBrayne. As the rhyme goes,
“The Good Lord above made the Earth and all that it contains
Except the Western Isles, for they are all MacBrayne’s”
Calmac sail to Castlebay on Barra most days of the week, taking about six hours. The latter half of the voyage is across the exposed waters of the Minch strait, whence over-the-side vomiting may be encountered. Taking a car is expensive and unnecessary. Calmac charge about £20 each way for foot passengers and another £5 for you to carry or ‘trolley’ your sea kayak right onto the car deck. On arrival you can launch right into the water beside the ferry, or camp outside the Police Station (no, really). Castlebay has a good supermarket and is the place to stock up for your trip. There are no more shops southwest of here, until you reach Brazil!
The Isles form a chain, each being no further than two miles apart from one another. From Castlebay direct to Mingulay is only 12 miles. They are however exposed to wind and swell from all sides, and can strong tidal flows can be generated in the Sounds between them. Before setting out, you need several guaranteed days of calm weather and seas. Spare a thought for the group of sea kayakers from northwest England who spent an unscheduled week stuck on Pabbay in May of this year, before being extricated by the Castlebay lifeboat. The Isles may be very near to Castlebay, but if the weather turns against you, ‘near’ becomes a relative concept.
Outside communication is limited. There is no mobile phone reception from Castlebay southwards (teenagers in your group will slowly go insane). VHF radios will be able to pick up Stornoway Coastguard’s useful weather and maritime safety bulletins, but these get harder to receive when sheltered among the Isles. Contacting them yourself is a lost cause with handheld VHF. The seas are quiet, with only the occasional fishing boat to be seen. It’s pretty lonely out there. This is why you came, right?
Perhaps it isn’t quite so lonely and quiet. The Isles may not be inhabited by humans, but they have plenty of residents. In the waters around, seals and porpoise are common, and encounters with whales are not unheard of. Heading south from Barra, the skies become increasingly thick with sea birds. Cormorants and Shags (Shags are the thinner greener ones) fish from every rock above the surface. Both Common and Black Guillemots are there (no, we didn’t know there were two types, either) and the Isles are home to 15% of Europe’s population of Razorbills. Skuas (‘Bonxies’) nest on the hills of Mingulay and fiercely harass anyone unfortunate enough to wander into their territory. Gannets dive-bomb the seas with their daunting speed and mass. The Puffin, everybody’s favourite sea bird…spotting your first pair of puffins on the paddle south is always exciting. Very soon after, the novelty has worn off and the skies are so thick with the little blighters that you can literally swat them out of the air with a paddle swing. Some numbers; the Isles support about 10 000 puffins, 45 000 razorbills, 60 000 guillemots…take a clothes peg.
A further thought…perhaps the most numerous locals are that most deadly and evil of all beasties, the Scottish midge. Take a head net? The good news is that days when the breeze drops enough for the little b+st+rds to fly freely are rare indeed!
Vatersay is only a mile from Castlebay. It forms the southern edge of the bay and its sandy coves may be your first stop-off from Castlebay. Vatersay is linked by causeway to Barra, with a population of about 90. If you find yourself on Vatersay with time to kill, explore the beaches and dunes which link the two halves of the Isles in a 500 metre wide strip. The glorious white beaches here (like all of those in the region) are composed from ground down seashells. Nestled among the dunes is a memorial marking the mass grave of 350 passengers of the ‘Annie Jane’. These emigrants were sailing to the New World in 1853, when a storm wrecked the ship in the bay. Also to be found among the dunes are the remains of old cars and household appliances, an unfortunately common sight in the inhabited parts of the Western Isles. Heading south of Vatersay, this is it…you are now leaving the inhabited world behind.
Sandray is only a mile from Vatersay across the Sound of Sandray, and is aptly named. The entire eastern part of the island is composed of massive sand dunes, linking two beaches on opposite sides. There are no major cliffs on Sandray, but the rough and indented coast is well worth exploring. If you have time to explore inland, try crossing the island by the central valley and ‘bealach’ (pass), or perhaps ascend to the dramatic ruins of a galleried ‘dun’ (fort) perched on the west flanks of Cairn Ghaltair, the highest hill. Although Sandray is the nearest of the uninhabited Isles to Barra, it is generally agreed to be the least visited. Spend a night in gloomy Glen Mor, camped among the scattered and broken remnants of past settlements; if you don’t feel spooked, you are braver folk than us.
Pabbay is reached by a more serious three mile crossing, directly exposed to the Atlantic swell. The best landing spot is Bagh Ban, the almost Caribbean white sands on the eastern side. Behind the beach are more dunes, where excavations have revealed a Bronze Age settlement. A rocky burial mound has a metre-long decorated stone laid upon it; this Pictish inscribed stone is almost unique to the Western Isles, being more usually found in far-away Orkney and Shetland. Pabbay’s west coast is much more impressive than Sandray’s, should the weather be good enough. The highlight is the ‘Arch Wall’, an enormous overhanging cliff of smooth granite.
From Pabbay, it is two miles further across Caolas Mhiughlaigh (the Sound of Mingulay) to Mingulay itself. The excitement mounts as you approach the landing beach on the eastern coast; the skies thicken with puffins from the colony on the northern edge of the bay, and the resident seal colony swim out to greet you. Keep a lookout for the tide races which can sometimes make approaching the Isle awkward, and be aware that landing and launching may be a problem with swell from the east.
Was it worth all the fuss? Oh yes. Among the dunes facing the beach is the old village, which is remarkably intact. The thick walls of abandoned blackhouses stand proud against the encroaching sand, which is slowly but inexorably burying the whole settlement. Two larger buildings stand separate from the village; the Priest’s house had its roof blown clean off in the ‘90s and is now ruinous, whilst the schoolhouse has been re-roofed and is used by occasional visiting shepherds.
Behind the village, the fields are still – inexplicably – clearly delineated and clear of weeds, and the remnants of an old mill can be found beside the main burn. Heading up the hill towards the obvious pass, a genuinely heart stopping sight awaits those fit enough to ascend to the top. As you close on the cleft, you feel the breeze rising from the western side of Mingulay, and carried on it is the screeching noise and dank stench of a billion defecating auks. You have reached the cleft of Bulnacraig. Below your feet are eight hundred feet of air, a deep cleft walled in by some of the largest and sheerest cliffs in the British Isles. You’ve never seen anything like this.
If you have a guaranteed period of settled weather, you’ll want to camp here and explore further. The best of all possible worlds would be to have calm enough seas for the paddle around Mingulay and Berneray. Unsurpassable caves, clefts, stacks…incredible. As you pass the three hundred foot high stack of Lianamuil, spare a thought for the villagers who used to climb it in search of tasty seabird. This paddle offers simply the most staggering sights that the U.K.’s (World’s?) coast can offer. Go see.
Berneray is the final island, mainly notable for the Barra Head lighthouse which sits atop the south facing cliffs. Landing is awkward due to the lack of a beach, but a small jetty can be reached a mile across the Sound of Berneray from Mingulay. A track winds up to the lighthouse, beside which the remains of Dun Briste (much depleted for the lighthouse construction) can be explored. Should it be possible, the paddle around the exposed side of Berneray, Barra Head, is a final treat. This is the place. The World ends here.
The tide begins flowing east between the Isles 5 hours and 5 minutes after High Water at Ullapool. It begins flowing west 1 hour and 40 minutes before High Water at Ullapool. In the Sounds of Sandray and Mingulay, the tide flow reaches 3 knots at springs. In the Sound of Pabbay, the tide reaches 4 knots. The east-going flows are stronger and tidal races can be encountered at the eastern end of each sound.
Berneray is slightly different. In the Sound of Berneray and south of Berneray, tide flows reach 2.5 knots. The tide begins flowing east 6 hours before High Water at Ullapool, and flows east for 4 hours and 15 minutes. It begins flowing west 1 hour and 45 minutes before High Water at Ullapool, and flows west for 8 hours and 15 minutes.
Not Ready Yet?
The paddles described here are best suited to experienced sea kayakers, or at least, groups supervised by those who know what they’re doing. If you want to sample the fantastic sea kayaking of the area without the commitment, a visit is still recommended. The coasts and beaches of Barra offer many sheltered options for day trips with civilisation still in sight. Those wanting to dip their toe under supervision may want to contact Clearwater Paddling (www.clearwaterpaddling.com) who have a base in Castlebay and run guided trips. Even if you don’t feel up to the paddle to Mingulay, a day trip on a local fishing boat is recommended…see the Tourist Office near the ferry terminal.
‘Western Isles Pilot’ by Martin Lawrence, Imray Norie books
‘Mingulay’ by Ben Buxton – unfortunately out of print and hard to find!
‘Barra and the Bishop’s Isles, Living on the Margin’ by Keith Branigan and Patrick Foster
‘The Scottish Islands’ by Hamish Haswell-Smith
‘Admiralty Chart 2769, Barra Head to Greian Head’ – detailed chart of the Isles
‘Imray Chart C65, Crinan to Mallaig and Barra’ – overview chart
Ordnance Survey Explorer 452 – Barra & Vatersay
‘Scottish Sea Kayaking’ by Doug Cooper and George Reid
www.calmac.co.uk – ferries
www.lonely-isles.com – great intro
www.nts-seabirds.org.uk/properties/mingulay/mingulay.aspx - birdlife
www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk/mingulay - photos.
www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk/forum - advice
http://web.ukonline.co.uk/mountains/barra5.htm - photos
www.isleofbarra.com – contacts for boat charters, accommodation, etc.
The Rhins of Galloway is the long thin strip of land stretching north-south in the far south and west of Scotland, parallel to the nearby Irish coast. When I paddled around Scotland, I passed through here, of course; although I paddled in dense fog and feeling rather ill, I saw enough to realise that there is some truly exceptional coastal scenery. It was a pleasure to return to the area with Heather at Easter (who was completely hooked) and explore some of these shores more fully. I think it’s fair to say that the Rhins see relatively few paddlers. That said, we ran into several paddlers whom we already knew! Our shores are clearly far too small.
Heather and I enjoyed a glorious hot day paddling from Port Logan to the Mull of Galloway, Scotland’s southernmost point. The coast is notable for some outré geological features. We ran into Kate D here, entirely by coincidence. We arranged to hopefully catch up with her later in the week, further north. Embarrassingly, a leisurely start and Spring tides meant that H and I completely failed to paddle around the point below the Mull of Galloway lighthouse – the tides were flowing too fast against us, and more pertinently, the tide race was too flat and featureless; there were no waves or rocks to help us hop upstream. We had to beat a shameful retreat.
Later in the week, we paddled the section from Portpatrick to Port Logan, in grottier weather. Although less spectacular, this section still rates highly. The company was good; we were joined by Glasgow paddlers Jim W (whom I know through WW paddling) and Douglas W, who is absolutely passionate about SW Scotland, infectiously so. His blog is extremely popular, perhaps because he’s impressively active; his blog is very much about doing rather than commentating, and he has inspired many to explore Scotland’s western shores. Although I’ve met him before, it was good to hop on the water with him on his home turf, so to speak.
The Rhins of Galloway; you really should check it out, it’s an oddly-neglected British classic.