Jessica and Chris’ TGO Challenge Part 2: Drumnadrochit to Aviemore

It dawned on us as we were leaving the Lochness Backpackers lodge at 7am on day four, that we had forgotten, in our planning stage, to factor in just how long the walk to the port to catch our ferry across Loch Ness to Inverfarigaig was. After walking for about an hour across Drumnadrochit, we reached the ferry to find 10 other challengers waiting patiently for the boat man. Gordon Menzies, who incredibly, has been running this service for TGO Challengers for over 20 years,  arrived promptly at 8am and before we knew it we were crossing Loch Ness, watching his entertaining Loch Ness monster presentation and listing to his funny stories.

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Goodbye Drumnadrochit.

The weather was lovely once again which helped make the crossing even more special. One of the aspects of the TGO Challenge that was most appealing to us was that we could plan to go to places that we had never been to before: Loch Ness was one of them.

After a very interesting scramble out of the boat and onto the so-called pier, we had our breakfast of granola and milk (powdered milk and water: you learn to love it) before starting out on what would be a lot of road walking in hot temperatures. We took the feet busting B851 as far as Aberarder house then SE uphill on land rover track to a very well positioned lunching lodge, fully decorated with deer antlers.  Once again, we could see rucksacks lining the entrance, so we sat with other challengers and snacked on some of our homemade trail mix.

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Getting onto the “pier” was a challenge. 

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As we made the final push of the day, over the hill and down into Glen Mazeran, we stopped and turned around to look back at the impressive West coast hills, only to realise that we had walked from there only 4 days ago. This was the first time that we really felt the scale of the challenge we had undertaken.

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Our campsite in Glen Mazeran

The sun woke us up early the next day, making it too hot to stay in the tent, but we took our time to enjoy our breakfast before heading off for the day.  Jessica’s ankle pain had not eased off overnight as much as we had hoped, but as we slowly passed a number of challengers, who had dotted themselves throughout the glen and were still packing up their tents, the views down Glen Mazeran did well to distract us slightly from the worry and in Jessica’s case, the pain. We then headed NE along farm tracks; the fields either side were full of different types of birds including lapwings, oyster catchers and possibly a snipe, then we turned south for a long climb up to the trig point on Carn Dubh Ic an Deoir. Along the way we met up with an American family from Alabama who were also on the challenge. We were all finding the steep ascent, as well as the heat, pretty tough when Steve Jackson, the dad, said “one step at a time, that’s all we can do” simple but true words that would stay with me for the rest of our challenge.

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Air those feet

There was a small matter of an electric fence to navigate as we descended towards the red bothy (aptly named with its red roof). After we crossed the surprisingly dry peat hags, we picked up another land rover track leading to the bothy. The land rover track is usually the annoying hard slog at the end of our mountain days, but we had now fully embraced it as a friend, that was until a steep downhill section became a problem. Jessica’s ankle had finally eased off and was not causing much of a problem now. However, the downhill had caused the pain to move to her knee but fortunately we arrived at the bothy before the pain became worse, and found a rather nice camping spot on a beach close to the River Dulnain just below the bothy.

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Heading down to the Red Bothy

Once the tent was up and dinner had been eaten, we were able to enjoy the rest of the evening being warmed by the gradually lowering sun. One thing we learned on our trip was that TGO life is a simple life, and lying down in the grass watching the clouds go by, all the while being in the mountains and away from any distractions, was a wonderful way to spend our evening.

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Another cracking morning

Aviemore was only 12km away but there were still some obstacles in the way: the so-called Burma Road, a long and intimidating track over a bealach and down to Lynwilg, and the heart-pumping crossing of the A9! The pain in Jessica’s leg made for a steady walk over the hill, stopping occasionally for feet airing and snacks. It was another very hot but clear day so we were treated to some spectacular views of the northern corries and the rest of the northern Cairgorms. As we came into Lynwilg we were very happy to find some cake in a little hut, alongside some pig food and an honesty box for money, with all the proceeds going to the children who made the cake. We had our cake and watched the pigs who were definitely after some. We did not get them any pig food. Sorry piggies.

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The Burma Road stretching into the distance. 

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Looking over to the Northern Cairngorms.

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Some tasty treats inside

 

It was a lovely walk through birch woodland as we descended the glen, and crossing the A9 was not as hair-raising as it could have been. It had been a painful descent though and although we had reached the safety of the Aviemore Backpackers Lodge and had a delicious pint of beer in hand, knowing that there was still a long way to go, I could not help but think that our challenge attempt was in jeopardy.

Day 4: Drumnadrochit to Glen Mazeran –  26km + 3km from hostel to ferry port (12 hours including a 40 minute ferry)

Day 5: Glen Mazeran to Red Bothy – 19km (8 hours)

Day 6: Red Bothy to Aviemore – 12km (7 hours)

 

Stanage: Intro to Grit Stone

Stanage Edge is a 4km wall of grit stone located on the Hallam Moors east of Sheffield. It is separated into three different sections: Stanage North, Plantation and Popular. All of this together offers you over 1300 climbing routes, giving you plenty to go at no matter what grade you climb.

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Stanage Popular

We had two days in which to sample the most popular climbing venue in the UK and after a delicious breakfast of French toast, we headed up the short hill to the base of the crag. This only took us 5 minutes. We wanted to start on something simple, having never climbed on grit before, so we chose an easy looking gully for our first climb. We both thought that we would be in for a tricky couple of days, as our easy gully proved to be cold, slimy and awkward.

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#vanlife

However, as the sun began to poke through the morning clouds and after getting a couple more climbs under our belt, we started to get the feel for the grit stone. It was new to us both and the super wide cracks and sloping edges do take a bit of getting used to. By the end of the first day we had climbed over 10 routes including: Crack and Corner S 4b, Mississippi Buttress Direct VS 4c and the classic Flying Buttress HVD 4a.

As day two began, after more French toast of course, we were back on the grit and flicking through the Rockfax guide book for the next climb. We never had to look far. Be warned though, when the guide book says it’s a popular crag, it really means it. We were staggered by how quickly the car park would fill up and just how easily your plans for your next route could be thwarted by other enthusiastic climbers. Everyone at the crag was friendly and it made for a great atmosphere and a real buzz about the place which was brilliant to be a part of.

Having added Bishop’s Route S 4a and the brilliantly intense Hollybush Crack VD to our ever increasing tally of climbs, the sun was setting on our Stanage adventure. We had been here for two days and we had barely scratched the surface of what’s available. After our cold and awkward start we were both leaving with fond memories and the fact that this is a terrific place, well deserving of its superb reputation. We can’t wait to get back some time in the future.

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Sun setting on the last climb of the day.

Top tips:

Be sure to get there early as the car park fills up quickly so by mid-afternoon you may be struggling for a space at Stanage Popular.

Bring big gear, and lots of it! You will find plenty of use for your biggest hex, torque nut or cam.

Knoydart: beautiful and wild

From the moment when I first heard that the Knoydart Penninsula is the most remote area on the UK mainland, I have wanted to visit. At Easter, we finally made the trip.

The Knoydart Penninsula sits between Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn on the west coast of Scotland. It has no road links and can therefore only be accessed by boat or by foot. We decided that several days walking here would represent great training for our TGO Challenge, which is now only a few weeks away!

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The stags were waiting to welcome us into Knoydart

We decided to start our walk from Kinlochourn, which is reached via a long drive down a very bumpy single track road off the A87. We encountered a lot of red deer in the road so drive carefully. There are two car parks at the end of this road: one for day parking and one for overnight with a £1 charge per night. We left the van there on Thursday morning and set off along the path on the south side of Loch Hourn.

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Setting off along Loch Hourn

It is instantly beautiful. The loch was peaceful with just a pair of grebes floating nearby and the surrounding hills dropping steeply to the shores. The path was muddier than we had anticipated and we had to stop after just 10 mins to put our gaiters on: an early sign of what was to come!

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Barrisdale Bay

The path follows the loch shore for about 8 km before it turns south and heads inland as a landrover track to Barisdale. This area is relatively bustling compared to much of the rest of the penninsula, presumably because it can be accessed by boat and there is a path linking it to Inverie. Camping here is restricted to the campsite opposite the bothy; there is a £3 charge per night for both. Also, if your gear is wet, there is no longer a fireplace in the bothy, but there is running water and a toilet.

Once past Ambraigh the route towards Inverie starts to climb. The intermittent showers also became more persistent. By this stage we had seen more deer than I have ever seen and the effect that they have on this environment was clearly illustrated by a large area on the opposite side of the valley from which they have been excluded. The deer fence marked an extraordinarily well-defined line between the short brown grass on our side and the deep heather and young trees or saplings on the other side.

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The first Bridge of Doom in Gleann an Dubh-Lochain

It felt like a long ascent to the bealach (saddle), where the wind caught us. We could now see Loch an Dubh-Lochain ahead where we intended to camp. The descent was simple enough, we just had to avoid the boggy sections: there were many! There were also numerous streams running down, crossing the path and we encountered the first Bridge of Doom (falling apart!). The ground on this part of the valley was unexpectedly and beautifully covered in primroses.

 

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Unexpectedly pretty among the wilderness

We also came across a lone highland calf which Chris announced was dead, before it got up and trotted off.

 

Our camping spot was right beside the lochan and I was very happy to reach it; I felt amazingly light and floaty when I took my rucksack off.

 

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First pitch beside Loch an Dubh-Lochain

Unfortunately it rained on and off constantly while we set up camp and made dinner, so that by bedtime we were soaked again, which didn’t make getting into the tent easier or more comfortable. By the time we were inside we were effectively barricaded in by the piles of wet boots, gloves and waterproofs in the tent porch. We did have a lovely 12 hour sleep though!

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Gleann Meadail

It was nicer in the morning so we set off wearing all our wet outer-layers to dry them out. We turned off the main path to Inverie and headed east up Gleann Meadail. This was a lovely valley and we found a wonderful spot for a camp, where we had our first snack stop, before starting the long climb up to Mam Meadail. Part of the way up, we stopped for lunch and I had just taken my boots and socks off to freshen my feet in the stream, when a big burst of heavy rain hit us. By the time we had scrambled to get our waterproofs on and everything was wet again, it had stopped; this was to be the course of the day.

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A long slow ascent up to Mam Meadail

From the highest point we could see the pointed summit of Sgurr na Ciche shrouded in cloud; we even glimpsed a golden eagle before it disappeared into the mist on the upper slopes. We were slow on the descent down to Carnoch and the marshy land around the River Carnach didn’t look very inviting.

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The mouth of the river Carnach and the BOG

We followed a track up the north side of the river, without crossing it as is shown on the map, but this soon turned into deep mud before disappearing. We weaved our way through the boggy ground, trying to avoid the wettest areas, which was extremely hard going and made for very slow progress. Tracks and paths were occasionally visible but they didn’t help much as we just ended up ankle deep in mud rather than water.

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Down the river Carnach as the valley begins to narrow

Eventually we reached a wooded area that redeemed the afternoon by being absolutely stunning! The valley here narrowed and became steeper, the river also narrowed and ran over rocks, forming waterfalls and cascades, more streams gurgled down through the trees on our left. The bank became steep and we had to climb through trees and rocks but at least it wasn’t so wet.

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Passing  around the foot of Beinn Aodainn

Then, as the river turns east around the foot of Beinn an Aodainn, we came out under a dark cliff that dropped into a gorgeous pool of clear green water. Trees hung over one end and at the other the bank sloped down gently forming a little beach. It would make a perfect campsite and a superb swimming spot in warmer weather. This section was so calm, unexpected and wonderful, I found myself thinking that it could be one of my favourite places in Scotland – on the otherhand, it could just have been the relief of getting out of the endless flat bog!

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Why can’t we camp here?

More waterfalls appeared as we climbed higher and then we were back in the bog again. Here the path on the map disappears; we followed the river, planning to ascend up to reach another path that would take us east to Loch Cuaich, where we intended to camp. However, we came to an apparent dead end when the valley narrowed again and steep crags blocked the route. My feet were tired, absolutely soaked and after such a difficult day I definitely didn’t fancy scrambling about, then walking another hard four km, so I suggested we stopped at the one small patch of dry grass beside the river.

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Waterfalls below Beinn Aodain

 We had dinner – instant custard makes quite a nice dessert – and made it into the tent just a few minutes before torrential rain started to fall. Heavy rain and hail rattled on the tent all night, interspersed with violent gusts of wind that I could hear rushing up the valley before they buffeted us and it was much colder. I didn’t have a good sleep imagining the tent blowing down and the water that was all around us rising up to flood the tent.

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Dinner preparations after a hail shower

However, everything was absolutely fine (I feel bad to have doubted our little tent!) and in the morning the hill tops were all covered in snow. It was dry for breakfast and we set off eastwards to follow the north side of the river to Lochan nam Breac as described in the hill tracks book. Five minutes later and that route was clearly impassable without getting into the river, so we back tracked and scrambled north up the steep slope, aiming to hit the track somewhere above us. This worked and gave us some fantastic views of the whole valley in both directions, before making our way east again. This valley feels seriously wild and committing, it’s a very dramatic, craggy and remote landscape.

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View back down the River Carnach on the last morning

By 11am we were north of Lochan nam Breac and stopped to look at the map; it had taken us nearly 2 hours to walk about 2.5 km. We were astonished! It had felt like we were moving well, but the boggy ground was clearly slowing us down and it was still raining. We had intended to head back to Barisdale along the Abhainn Chosaidh and then through Glen Barrisdale but those valleys were riddled with streams and were not recommended for wet days! Adding that to our slow progress and a big potential river crossing, we decided it was safer to turn back and return via Gleann Unndalain instead.

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Lochan nam Breac

Once we started climbing Mam Unndalain, the bog reduced dramatically and we made much better distance. Glenn Unndalain is a lovely valley but felt much greener and friendlier; the sun even came out for a while, making the numerous streams and waterfalls sparkle.

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Out of the worst of the bog at last and climbing Mam Unndalain

By 3pm our progress had improved so much, we were back at the Barisdale campsite, where we had a hot chocolate before carrying on, intending to camp on the tip of land pointing out to Fraoch Eilean. Howewer, it was only about 4.30pm when we got near and we decided that it would be good training to do a longer day, so we pushed on back to the van. It turned into a beautiful evening as we marched back along Loch Hourn, with the evening sun coming out between showers to light up the moss, dead bracken and granny pines on the shore.

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Granny pines after ANOTHER shower

We got back to the van at about 7pm, sorted out our kit and made an excellent dinner with all our remaining food!

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Evening on the shore of Loch Hourn

Details

Distances: Day 1 – Kinlochourn to via Brisdale Loch an Dubh-Lochain ~ 18km; Day 2 –  via Gleann Meadail and up the River Carnach to the most northerly bend ~ 18km; Day 3 – back to Kinlochourn via Glean Unndalain and Barisdale ~21km

Total: 57km

Comments:

Knoydart is an absolutely incredible place, I would highly recommend going! However, good care and planning is required as the terrain can be difficult, weather forecasts are unreliable and it is very inaccessible and remote: in three days we saw 7 people between Kinlochhourn and Barisdale, and only 1 other person beyond that. Ensure you have plenty of supplies, escape options prepared and enjoy the heart of Scottish wilderness.

#makewintercount

About a month ago I received an email from the British Mountaineering Council informing me that I had won the #makewintercount competition that they had been running all winter with Lowe Alpine. I was astonished! This grand prize consisted of two nights in a hotel and a day out with British Mountain Guide Andy Cave for two people. Chris and I were obviously thrilled.

We spent a week or so wondering where we would be going, before finding out that we would be based at the Isles of Glencoe Hotel, which looked wonderful. Andy got in touch with us and we gave him our experience and what we hoped to get out of a day with a mountain guide. We then watched the weather forecast extremely closely for the week before the trip, excitedly trying to guess what routes we might be able to do.

We escaped the Glasgow rush hour on Friday evening and made it to Glencoe before Andy, who was driving up from England. From the hotel reception we could see the pool, and to reach our room we walked through the lounge and dining area, which had a lovely atmosphere. Our room was far beyond our expectations: large, with doors opening out onto Loch Leven.

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View over Loch Leven from our bedroom door

Upon meeting us for dinner in the restaurant, Andy also gave us two new Peak Ascent rucksacks, provided by Lowe Alpine as part of the prize. The food was delicious and we spent a very pleasant evening getting to know Andy, discussing our options for the following day and making our plans.

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My first try at making and using coils

We usually have very early starts when going out on the hills, so we had expected we would miss breakfast on Saturday, but Andy assured us there would be plenty of time, which made Chris happy. Having packed our new rucksacks, we set off just after 8.30am to Glean Spean. It was warm, with freezing level above the summits, so there was not going to be much ice. Andy had suggested climbing a little-known ridge in the Creag Meagaidh hills, which he knew well, and where there would be a suitable route whatever the conditions. Here, Chris and I could get ourselves up, with Andy demonstrating new techniques and providing guidance. This suited us perfectly, as although it would have been fun for Andy to lead us up something difficult, we had decided that we wanted to use the day as an opportunity to develop our own skills and gain the confidence to try more technical winter terrain by ourselves. Chris has some winter climbing experience but I have only walked in winter, and although I have been on a couple of introductory winter skills courses, when we are out together, we generally avoid steep ground.

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Andy showing Chris methods for getting us safely over short steeper sections

We had a leisurely start, with Andy showing us some of the gear he uses, before setting off along the forestry tracks on the north side of the A86 east of Tulloch.

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Andy ahead and Chris with the coils as we climbed a snowy slope. Note his shiny new Lowe Alpine Peak Ascent rucksack. It’s a great colour!

After a small river crossing and a sandwich pause, we emerged from the forest and headed west towards the steeper slopes. Visibility wasn’t great, so we made sure to get a few navigation and decision making tips. We headed for the east ridge of Beinn a’Chaorainn, trying to choose the least boggy route. Once properly on to the ridge and with less grass between the snow patches, we stopped to put our harnesses and helmets on and get our axes out. As the ridge got steeper, Andy showed us how to move together and to make coils with the rope to give the other person confidence and support against small slips. Chris usually leads whenever we are out in the mountains, whether walking, scrambling or climbing, so having Andy with us, gave me the opportunity to lead a bit and practice some rope skills myself.

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Getting used to moving together

Andy gave us a good range of helpful suggestions for moving on steep, but not overly dangerous, ground without having to stop and climb pitch by pitch, which will be really useful for us in the future. By staying on the ridge we also avoided any risk of avalanches; we could see the debris of these in the coires either side of us.

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Having fun!

Once onto the the flatter ground near the summit, Andy told us how it can be useful to keep the rope on in poor visibility; by keeping a good length of rope between you, the person behind can catch the other if they fall through a cornice! He also demonstrated that it can be advantageous to calculate the bearings and distances you will need to use after topping out in order to keep away from the edges and the cornices, before you start climbing, not when you reach the top.

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Nearly at the summit: protecting ourselves from the risk posed by invisible cornices

We used bearings and timing to navigate from the summit in the cloud, walking one in front of the other, rather than together, to help keep ourselves accurate. Then we headed down the south ridge until the cloud started clearing and we got some lovely views of the mountains to the south.

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Summit selfie!

We made our way back down to the forest as the sun was getting lower, dousing the landscape in a beautiful light, and followed a stream through the forest to the track which took us back to the car.

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Mountains just appearing through the cloud

Happily we made it back to the hotel in time for another very large and delicious dinner. After dinner Chris and I said goodbye to Andy, who would be leaving early on Sunday morning, and had a final drink on the sofas by the fire in the lounge area.

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Descending in the sunshine

In the morning, Andy had indeed left before we were up, but we stayed to test out the pool and the sauna, before consuming an enormous breakfast from the buffet.

It was a brilliant weekend and a fantastic prize. We learnt loads and Andy gave us lots of recommendations for places we should visit and routes we should try. We left full of new confidence and inspiration to get out on even more adventures.

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Post-mountain dinner (photo credit: Andy Cave)

Thank you very very much Andy, Lowe Alpine and the BMC!!!!

The Great Outdoors Challenge 2017

In May, we will be taking part in the TGO Challenge. This is a non-competitive backpacking event in which 300 participants walk from the west coast of Scotland to the east. It has been running every year since 1980.

Chris and I discovered its existence separately last year: I heard about it via Twitter, and Chris heard about it by meeting a Challenger in the Cairngorms during his Mountain leader assessment. We had been vaguely considering undertaking a long trip, with Chris mentioning the Cape Wrath Trail every so often, and we quickly decided to apply for the TGO Challenge. A really interesting aspect of this challenge is that every group plans their own route, so although 300 people are crossing during the same fortnight, we can all go different ways. It therefore combines a long-distance journey and wilderness, with a sense of camaraderie and companionship.

Having been accepted, we are now deep in our route planning! We’ll keep you updated as our plans progress.

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Our living room is currently carpeted with OS maps. A little furniture rearranging meant that at one point we were able to fit in the whole width of Scotland!

Isles of Lewis and Harris: beaches and eagles

Lewis

Having had a fantastic day on Liathach in Torridon on Sunday, our plan was to spend the rest of the week getting a taste of the Isles of Lewis and Harris on our very first trip to the Outer Hebrides.

So, on Monday morning we caught the 9.30am ferry out of Ullapool to Stornoway. The water was incredibly calm and remained so for the entire crossing. We saw gannets for the first time, skimming just above the sea, identifiable by their large pale beaks and black wing tips contrasting strongly with their white bodies. We also caught a glimpse of two small fins side-by-side behind the ferry, but we couldn’t tell whether they were dolphins or porpoise. We spent some time during the crossing with all our guide books, climbing guides and maps (of which we had many!) out, constructing a plan of action for the next few days.

The ferry arrived in Stornoway in the early afternoon; we had read that this was by far the largest settlement on the islands, so we went for a wander around. Unfortunately we were rather underwhelmed and soon headed off for wilder areas.

Our first destination was the beach, Traigh Uige, at Timsgearraidh on the west of the island, which I think we read was the nicest on Lewis. The drive lasted about an hour, mostly through empty low-lying bog, containing very little but short brown grass and lots of lochans. This doesn’t sound very appealing but in the sunshine it was surprisingly attractive, with the golden brown contrasting with the bright blue of the sky and water.

We drove to a spot marked on the OS map with parking and a picnic area, just north of Eader Dah Fhadhail, and found it to be a designated camping area with toilets, showers and a utility room, run by a crofting association. The beach is just behind a small band of sand dunes and is lovely: beautiful white sand and sea so clear and blue, we quickly decided that we had to have a swim!

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Sunny Traigh Uige

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Eventually, feeling invigorated, we headed back to the van for dinner. The following morning, the sun was still shining and we drove up to Aird Uig to look for some sea cliff climbs. We parked at the end of the road opposite a house that is being run as a cafe and craft shop, or “open house” when the cafe is closed: a lovely idea. Aird Uig looked like a very unusual place, full of long low buildings with flat roofs. Some of them were nicely done up as holiday accommodation, others appeared to be in the process of renovation and quite a few were in very poor condition, lacking windows and surrounded by broken cars and engines. Apparently it is an old RAF base and the community are now doing lots of work to bring in visitors and provide jobs and business for locals.

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So where are these cliffs?

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We headed west from the centre of the village along a track and then down towards the north side of a lochan and the cliffs. The views were great but we weren’t very successful at finding the climbs; unfortunately, this seems to be a regular occurrence for us with sea cliffs. In the early afternoon we headed back to the van for the drive down to North Harris.

Harris

As you head south from Stornoway, the landscape changes: it starts to get hilly, and we drove along a really beautiful valley, with Loch Aireasort in the bottom, before reaching much more rocky terrain. We were looking for a shop to stock up on milk but didn’t actually find one until Tarbert the following day, so make sure you plan food shopping carefully!

We turned off the main road just north of Tarbert and drove west along a narrow, single track, windy and humpy road.The next day’s walk was to start from this road and I had spotted a small beach and a parking area at the end of it, which I thought might be somewhere nice to stay for the night. This road gives easy access to the Forest of Harris and part of the way along it we spotted a sign for a Golden Eagle observatory, which was very exciting: Golden Eagles were one of the things I was particularly hoping to see. At the end of the road, we did indeed find a lovely beach, parking, a wild campsite and a toilet, again run by the local crofting association. Be prepared to have to get out and chivvy the Highland cows out of the road though, they really weren’t bothered by the van at all. That evening we were able to have dinner with van doors open looking right down onto the beach.

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Traffic jam

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Dinner with a view at Huisinis

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Breakfast in the sunshine

After a sunny breakfast on the picnic benches above the beach, we headed off to start our walk; this time the cows were lying in the road and wouldn’t move until I went and stood over them. The walk starts at the access road to a power station about 3/4 of the way along the road, just before a little castle (Abhainn Suidhe) if you’re coming from the west. It follows a tarmac track up past the power station, but before we had even walked 1 km, we heard a raven making a lot of noise and realised that it was mobbing something very large indeed: my first Golden Eagle sighting! The eagle dwarfed the raven, which chased it round the valley before we lost sight of them over the hills. I couldn’t believe it and was so excited as I hadn’t really expected to see one. However, the Forest of Harris reportedly has some of the highest nesting density of Golden Eagles in Europe, so it’s a good place to spot them.

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Glen Ulladale

Once past the power station, the track gets steeper and climbs up to a small dam at the end of Loch Chliostair. Here, a path follows the west side of the loch; there is steep hillside on both sides and I spotted another eagle come over the top and slowly circle it’s way around to our left. Then we heard a strange yapping sound and another came into sight near the first and they circled together for a while before splitting up. The one that was yapping made a sudden drop towards the hillside at one point and we could see flashes of white on its underside, suggesting that it was a juvenile.

The path continues to another smaller loch before dropping down into Glen Ulladale (Gleann Uladail). As you descend, Sron Ulladale starts to come into view on the right. This is a massive fist of rock that bursts out of the hillside and towers over the valley as a magnificent overhanging cliff. It has been described as the finest inland precipice in the UK, and if you are a climber, it hosts some famous long hard climbs. Great big boulders litter the grass below, which are quite fun to climb around, and stags were roaring just the other side of the valley.

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Photos just can’t do justice to Sron Ulladale

We returned by the same path, and nearly bumped into three red deer, fortunately without a stag. We also saw two Golden Eagles above Creagan Leathan, soaring close together and occasionally diving towards each other, whereupon one would flip upside down and they would clash talons. It was amazing to watch. Our last sighting of one was a juvenile again, with white patches under its wings flying low over Lag MacCodruim.

Once back at the van we made for Tarbert, which isn’t very big but there was a shop, so we stocked up on milk, bread, and the real essentials: hobnobs, twix and twirls. We also had hot drinks and cheesecake in the hotel next to the ferry port. Then we carried on towards West Harris, making for Luskentyre (Losgaintir). Right at the end of the road, there is parking, more toilets and a beautiful beach (Traigh Rosamol), where we watched the sun set; the calm sea only broken by a cluster of fins crossing the bay. Then we drove back along the road a short way and camped at one of the designated spots.

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Traigh Rosamol

When we woke up in the morning, the tide was out, leaving a vast expanse of sand, upon which we made dams and drew giant penguins as we waited for it to warm up a bit.

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Traigh Losgaintir: where’s the sea?

Then we moved on to explore some of the other beaches, which were all absolutely stunning: probably some of the nicest beaches I have seen.

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Traigh Lar

For lunch, we parked at the end of the road beyond Northton (Taobh Tuath) and ate overlooking another beautiful beach, before taking the track through the gate, which leads to a string of small pretty beaches. The sea looked so gorgeous that we braved the cold again and went for another swim!

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Traigh na Cleabhaig

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We couldn’t resist a final dip

We had to head back to Tarbert that night as our ferry was very early the next morning, so we began to make our way northwards again. The very large beach of Traigh Scarasta looked very inviting for a final walk, but we could not find an obvious way to get onto it from the A859, so we carried on a little further to a parking/camping and picnic area just north of the golf course. From there, if you walk north along the road a little way, there is a gate into a field with information about the standing stone, and from there you can walk down to a more hidden beach behind the dunes. There was no-one else there, so we tucked ourselves into the edge of the dunes and made ourselves hot chocolate, with just a seal and a dolphin/porpoise for company.

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Hot chocolate and hobnobs on the beach….what more could you want?

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Comments

These islands are a wonderful place to explore, with some absolutely stunning beaches and they are ideal for campervan trips. Just make sure that you have plenty of food with you as there aren’t many shops open out of season except in Stornoway and Tarbert.

CalMac Ferries: Ullapool – Stornoway £67.90 ; Tarbert – Uig £42.20 for two people and a 6m-long van.

Exploring the West Coast: Northern Kintyre and our first otters!

Last week it was our birthday (we have our birthday on the same day!), so we planned to go away for a trip in the van over the weekend. Originally we were going to leave on Friday evening, but one of our gifts was two MASSIVE steaks, which we really wanted to eat, so Friday night became steak (they were so big we had to share one) and wine night and we set off on Saturday morning instead.

The forecast wasn’t great and we had been so busy we decided to explore the West coast rather than climb mountains. Our planning consisted of checking Google Earth for nice looking beaches and driving to them! I decided we should aim for Kintyre, but with just two days we weren’t going to be able to drive far south so we decided on a route that stayed north with some nice beach options.

We set off around 10.30am on Saturday, and drove around the bottom of Loch Lomond to Arrochar. We have been to Arrochar a good few times to walk or climb in the Arrochar Alps, but I had never been any further than than, and Chris has only been as far as the Rest and Be Thankful pass: a nice view point that looks down Glen Croe. From then on we were in new territory for both of us.

We carried on along the A83 to the tip of Loch Fyne, where we stopped to check out a brewery (Fyne Ales) that we had heard good things about in Achadunan. It seems very nice and we bought a few bottles to try; it definitely looks like the perfect place to stop off on the way down from Beinn Buiddhe one day.

Further on, Inverary looked nice and the castle is very impressive. We stopped for a wander at Port Ann and followed the marked trails down to the abandoned Otter Ferry (we didn’t see any otters there).

We then carried on until the turning right approx. 3km beyond Ardrishaig, where we took the B8024 across to the west coast and the edge of Loch Caolisport. We paused for a cup of tea and biscuits just beyond Tighnahoran, but the beach I had been hoping for didn’t look as inspiring as I had imagined; it was a very calm place though (all the beaches were disappointing on Saturday, but we later discovered it was simply because the tide was in!).

We carried on going, whilst starting to think of finding somewhere to stay for the night. There is really very little in that area: there were hardly any cars on the roads and just a few scattered houses and farms.  Kilberry has a shop (I think I remember one) and a café/restaurant/pub but there’s not much anywhere else, except a campsite about 2km before you reach Kilberry.

We drove right down to Loch Stornoway, where we got out to have a look. The water was amazingly still and came right up to the grass, which I had never seen before; we didn’t stay long as the midges quickly found us!

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Loch Stornoway at high tide

We parked for the night in a layby above Port Mor and from the time we arrived to our departure around 11am, we only saw about 4 cars! The beer from the brewery was very good.

In the morning the sun was shining and we could see the sand at Port Mor, so we found a gate and a muddy path down to the little bay. It was perfect, nobody around, nice white sand, clear blue water and just enough sunshine.

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Our private beach, Port Mor

Two seals were watching us from some rocks just off the beach along with a collection of shags or cormorants (I’m not very good at distinguishing them).

p1050349The sea was too inviting to resist and not as cold as we expected! We spent a good while swimming, wading, finding beautiful shells and introducing Chris to hermit crabs (which are very cool!), before drying off and finishing our birthday cake (thank you Kirstie!).

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We then moved on to Ardpatrick: there is hardly anywhere suitable to park but we managed to tuck the van in, and followed a track past Ardpatrick House to another small bay. Seaweed and layers of massive shells lined the top of the beach but beyond that was a large expansive of beautiful sand.

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Is this really Scotland? Who needs to go abroad!

As we climbed over the rocks to see what was around the corner, I spotted something in the water ahead of us. After a couple of seconds I realised it was an otter, and, amazed, we stopped to watch. We quickly realised that there appeared to be another on the rocks: in fact, there were three, a mother and two youngsters, who she was fishing for. It was incredible; I have always wanted to see otters but had never found any before. We were about 25m away and watched them for nearly an hour; the mother fished almost constantly, and made an unexpected amount of noise when she found something suitable for the young ones, which would promptly leap into the water. Otherwise they would just swim around the shore and roll about on the rocks. Eventually we left them and moved on but ended up just above them. The mum eventually noticed us and dashed back, making a very peculiar huffing noise and led them away tucked in either side of her. They weren’t that bothered though as we saw them again all curled up together on some rocks just around the corner!

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Otter family!

On the way back up the beach, we couldn’t resist another swim, the water was too nice. Then we headed home, following the road to Tarbet and then the A83 back to Arrochar again, via another tea break in Inverary. Overall, it was an absolutely wonderful weekend and we felt like we’d been away for much longer than the two days.