Type-2 Holidaying - Loch Hourn Sea Kayaking
I'm sitting here at my desk whilst rain literally lashes the window. It's Tuesday evening, nearly 72 hours since we arrived home from out half term holiday. I'm tired, my hands are sore with swollen cuts, my knees ache, and I feel run down. Quite the opposite of how one is supposed to feel after a week off work. But if you strip back the aches and pains, the real batteries, the ones that matter most, the deep-down life-source kind of batteries, are fully re-charged and ready to go!
Was it a holiday? What is a holiday? To many it's probably defined as an excuse to simply be, to do nothing and to relax. I'm usually a little tongue tied when people tell me how much they enjoy doing nothing, I literally don't know what to say to them. The prospect of sitting doing nothing fills me with dread and is something to be suffered when ill or injured. A week in the wilds of Scotland probably doesn't qualify as a holiday for most, but neither was it really a fully fledged expedition. An expedition requires a team, planning, a journey, bags of kit, and an objective. Actually, though it may not have been months in the Arctic, it actually did tick all those boxes and more. And it probably felt pretty wild for little A who turned 5 on the trip just three days after summiting his first Munro, and for two of the three dogs who started out the week in good health, but ended it literally on three legs.
It all started last year. May half term has long been a week of solid and generally reliably good weather on the west coast of Scotland. Two trips to Mull, one to Arisaig (and an anomalous one to a very wet Skye) lead to a mega trip to Loch Morar, Loch Nevis and Inverie on Knoydart a year ago. We dreamed up that trip with the aid of Google Maps, laid the foundations, and quickly realised that we were woefully under resourced. So began the great kit scramble of 2016 culminating in a flurry of sea-worthy kayaks purchased from eBay and picked up literally en-route to Mallaig. The weather was more than kind, it was sublime. There were midges, but in manageable numbers. We kayaked and we portaged, we made driftwood bonfires and toasted marshmallows. We even lost a boat to a higher than expected tide, but it was kindly returned to us by the ferry man. It was all very much Type-1 fun. A holiday.
The seed had been sewn, the hooks were hooked. We wanted it again, but we wanted more. Winter evenings in front log burners with whiskey and fond memories, get-togethers for the perusal of maps and kayaking blogs, and the creation of numerous messenger groups and shared spreadsheets ensued and a plan began to emerge. Kinloch Hourn sits at the head of the UK's longest one-way road. Unlike many one way roads in the West of Scotland this one has no ferry serving it, just a rustic B&B and a rudimentary campsite next to an ancient boat ramp. From Kinloch Hourn it's a 7 mile kayak past islands and waterfalls, and through the infamous 'narrows' to the sandy bottomed bay of Barrisdale. The blogs tell us that although it's a sea-loch it apparently has the feel or a Norwegian fjord, with steep and inaccessible sides. Google has again laid the foundations. We find a rough trail which wends its way overland to Barrisdale allowing access for the dogs and those of us who our flotilla of kayaks can't accommodate. Keen to get away from the bothy in Barrisdale which will surely draw others, we spy alternative potential camping spots, but it's impossible to know whether they will fit us all on, or indeed whether they will be occupied by other explorers. But that's part of the attraction, not pre-booking your accommodation.
Whilst the accommodation remained uncertain, the food was something we could plan with gusto. A few years back I reviewed a large dehydrating machine. We calculated our needs and shared the job of preparing meals for 30 people for 7 nights, drying and bagging them to save on precious space and weight. The precious space and weight was reserved for whiskey and chocolate! More get-togethers resulted as we the divvied up 10kg of rice, 8kg of gas, 10kg of porridge oats, 50 packets of custard (don't ask), Super Noodles, and a small mountain of other goodies.
Two weeks before leaving we threw a spanner into our own works by getting a dog. A rescue dog, from Crete no less! It'd been some time in coming, but the timing could hardly have been worse. It'd be poor form to kennel it or send it back to its previous owner for a break just two weeks into the bonding process, but it would be equally crazy to expect it to have its first night in a tent in the middle of nowhere., committed by that time to a week in the wilds. Of course we opted for the latter and in true resilient dog fashion he rose to the occasion magnificently - the only one of the three pooches with us to remain fully fit and able for the week.
Those two weeks were also fraught for another reason. As we are now blessed with the wonders of modern weather forecasting services we started to keep tabs on the long term outlook and it wasn't good. And got worse. We kidded ourselves that our plan B would be to follow the sun and simply find an alternative if Loch Hourn looked too grim. The reality was that it had taken a good amount of time to dream up this plan, and that there aren’t that many alternatives that would accommodate a group of 30 with no advance warning, and still give us a dose of proper wilderness. It also became increasingly clear that nowhere in the country was going to be sunny. So in the spirit of many an expedition we doggedly pushed on.
The final school bell of the term signalled the start of our odyssey. A small fleet of vans and kayaks threaded their way through the Peak District and onto the M6. The Scottish tourism agency must have been livid at the frequency of the electronic motorway Amber Flood Warning signs which accompanied us all the way past Glasgow, not at all welcoming. Nor accurate as it turned out. Saturday dawned bright, sunny, and warm in Glen Etive, our annual rendezvous. A swim in the pools, a stop over in the insanely busy Morrisons at Fort William and we were off down the 22 mile road to nowhere. I'd been keen to drive the road in daylight and it didn't disappoint. Wild, rugged and narrow, it plunged down to the coast at the last possible minute via a series of improbable switch backs on decaying tarmac, to deliver us to Kinloch Hourn at last.
With room enough for vans and boats we set about packing, re-packing and generally faffing about by the loch-side until the midges came out to play. Dehydrated meal 1 of 7 was eaten whilst walking briskly around in search of a breeze and soaking up the incredible atmosphere of what wqas already a very remote location. But the super-storm didn't materialise.
Day 1 was an exercise in logistics, moving 30 people (14 of them between the age of 6 months and 10 years), 3 dogs (one of whom was definitely a rookie), 7 kayaks, a Canadian canoe, and a mountain of kit, from a wild and remote part of Scotland to an even wilder and more remote part. The weather was kind (dry), and the scenery stunning. Rhododendrons were in full bloom and reflected on a mirror-like loch surface. Jelly fish swept by on unseen currents whilst herons and cormorants kept a wary eye on our progress. Though there were countless potential camp spots along the coasts we pushed on to a small headland a mile or so north of Barrisdale. It looked from Google Earth as if it would suit our needs - flat, exposed to the wind, with a water source nearby, and views in all directions. We were not disappointed. Dragging the boats up the beach shivers ran down my spine as I took in what was to be our home for the next week. It could hardly have been more perfect. At high tide the sea on each side of the headland closes to within a few metres of itself all-but cutting it off from the mainland. We emptied the boats and made camp before returning to Barrisdale to pick up the walkers for a quick paddle across the bay, saving their legs the last 4 miles of a 10 mile walk.
The next week was truly awesome. The weather was testing at times, and the midges plentiful, but spirits were always high, fuelled by swimming, crabbing, coasteering, fire building, stick whittling, games, music, dancing, cooking, eating, resting, fishing and walking. It's hard to imagine, sitting at your desk filling a day with work, how a sixteen hour day can disappear doing so very little, but on closer inspection it's the little things which take the time when you let them. On the windy day we spent a couple of hours re-pitching tents, reinforcing poles and fashioning creative ways to stop our mess tent from blowing away. On the sunny day we went for a wee walk - we took twelve hours, but only covered about 8 miles. On the rainy day we ate pancakes for 3 hours and played Werewolves for longer than that. When you have time at your disposal it's a pleasure to spend it slowly. One morning I accompanied my youngest to the loo and we didn't return for over two hours. We scrambled around the whole headland, stopped for a skinny dip, and watched the seals watching us. Granted it would have been nice had the sun shone more, but when you are dodging showers it concentrates the mind on making the most of your time whatever the weather. Every one of the 30 will have come back from that beach with a different set of experiences and memories, but all will be richer for them.
Heading back to civilisation was another logistical headache - akin to the riddle where you have to transport a chicken, a fox and a bag of grain over a river. A couple of hours were spent weighing up the different options, but in the end it came down to a mass effort to paddle out the kit, and walk out the dogs and kids, with another return journey part way up the loch to collect them. This time however we had time for a sojourn to a set of waterfalls on the loch side which we'd spied on the inward journey. Though only a few hundred metres from the beach, getting the whole group to the main fall proved an adventure all of its own. This little river, probably with no name, has cut its way down the steep banks of the loch via a series of dark and brooding canyons bubbling with white water, but accessible, as if by magic, by a series of hidden steps literally in the flowing water. Not for the faint hearted, the scramble lead to a large plunge pool in the heart of the hillside below an 80 foot curtain of falling water. Swimming in that pool, shouting to be heard, and braving the falling water itself felt like some sort of cleansing process before re-entering the real world the following day. It was with reluctant hearts that we left the beach below the falls for the very last paddle back to the vans and the drive back South. The sun shone, as it invariably does on a trip where the weather has been sub-optimal, just as a reminder that it's worth returning.
Heading north into the storm
The annual breakfast plunge at Glen Etive en route to the west coast.
Tea time at Loch Hours. It should be raining cats and dogs, but it's not.
Too many bodies to fit in the kayaks so some have to walk.
Arriving at camp the hard way!
Our piece of paradise for a week.
Moody skies back towards civilisation
Not moving with the locals
This one got through
Time for the dishes
Time for exploring, and finding a purpose skull!
Time for reflection
Time for dancing
The Windy Day
The Walking Day
Adventurous kids (and dogs!)
Our camp from 3,000 feet
Our camp from close up
A Loo With A View (The Coasteering Day)
The Swimming Day
The Crabbing Day
The Lazy Day
The Fair Weather Dog Day
The Last Day (our 'walk' took in the horseshoe of Ladhar Beinnh)
Most Of The Team