Tuesday, 7 June 2016

29th May-1st June 2016 - The Garvellachs


With just a stop for chips in Inverary, the journey North seemed to fly by and after no time at all we were pulling into a small carpark in Arduaine. Built specifically for the Aryll and Bute sea kayak trail, a sign offered us information about the local area and tides and a nicely built path an easy way down to the shore.  Despite being light, it was actually quite late and the glassy waters of Loch Melfort would have to wait till the morning.

Looking out from the car park over our play ground for the next few days
The waters in this area can move at an alarming rate and even though we were on neaps, careful planning would be required in order that the tides would help, rather than hinder us.  Dick fortunately excels at tidal planning and so it was that our departure would be timed to ensure arriving at Cuan sound for the West flowing stream to take us through.



It's always great when a plan comes together and sure enough we enjoyed the ride through the sound, requiring only minimal effort on our part.  While the tide was right for going through Cuan, we would need to wait for an hour before it was set to aid us on the next part of the route, South towards the Garvellachs.  A small rocky beach on the North West corner of Luing afforded a good resting spot and a chance to look close up at the slate that was once a major source of industry in these islands.

The slate itself looked almost iridescent and it's surface made all the more spectacular by the cubic crystals of fools' gold embedded in it.  In places this had rusted away leaving small, square holes and we wondered if this slate was ever used for roofing!

It was terrific to watch the direction of the flow in the sound change over the course of a few minutes and with the onset of the Easterly flow, we were spurred into action and set our sights on the Fladda lighthouse in the distance.  A slight course change then brought us to Belnahua, an island whose slate heart has been removed, leaving large lakes and abandoned buildings, echoing how busy a place this must once have been.



Lunch on Belnahua
On leaving the slate beach we made our way towards the most Northerly of the Garvellachs, passed by a lone porpoise and then wound our way between them, passing incredible cliff architecture complete with a spectacular natural arch.  At the Southern end of the island chain we entered a narrow harbour, once used by the monks visiting the monastery that now lies ruined here.






Boat landing once used by monks in their curraghs
Why monks, whose day job here must have just been surviving interspersed with a bit of contemplation, can produce a much better camp site than people whose day job is running a camp site I'll never know, but it was nice when each peg slipped effortlessly into the ground.

The ruins of the monastery are well worth exploring and we spent a good while sitting next to the alleged grave of St Columba's mum looking out over an incredible vista.  Hopefully she won't have minded too much as we were drinking Murphy's at the time.

The monastery enclosure from what is alleged to be St Colomba's mother's grave

Islay in the distance

The famous paps of Jura
Camping on the East side of the island, the sun soon dipped behind the hill side leading to a sudden invasion of midges and therefore a very early bedtime.

The sun beat down on the tents in the morning though and we were able to eat our breakfast without being eaten for breakfast. Our view across the sound showed a steady Northerly force 4 and the entrance to the Grey Dogs about 5km away.  This was to be our longest open crossing of the trip and once again our arrival time needed to be planned with precision.

Leaving the Garvellachs

On the crossing to Scarba

Landing on Scarba

Tidal planning is at its best when it involves an hour long sojourn lying on a sunny and sandy beach, chatting with locals and watching a sea eagle heading out to hunt.  In the back of my mind though was what was around the corner, though not as infamous as its neighbour the Corryvrekan, the Grey Dogs still have a reputation and tales of rescuing kayakers from it from a local boatman didn't do anything to calm my nerves.  His final, "But you'll be all right if your heading through now" though, did instil a little more confidence.

Passing through the Grey Dogs

Beautiful beach lunch spot on Lunga

"Adventure is just bad planning" they say and as Dick's planning was perfect I think he was seriously disappointed as we were carried through the watery col with barely a ripple around us.  A building sea breeze causing rougher seas as we approached the West coast of Luing and our camp site for the night.


Heading for the Grey Dogs

End of the day on Luing, with the Grey Dogs behind
Luing campsite
What a camp site too.  Wood for a fire, sunlight till well after I'd gone to bed, no midges, mini volcanoes, otters, fresh water and hardly any carry to the water.  It really doesn't come much better than this and hopefully it was a little tidier after our visit too.

Mini volcanoes?
Cooking tea

Planning tomorrow's route

Looking back to the Grey Dogs

Mull in the evening sun
Mountains of Mull at 2am

Ready to leave Luing

Holes left by the rusting away of the iron pyrities

Laurence (the green camper) comes into view

Journey's end

Saturday, 30 April 2016

29th April 2016. Back underground again

Memories bring back a yearning for the old days.  After working a 39 hour week (yes actually working!) my mind automatically fell back nearly 10 years to the fact that it was Friday and the end of the working week.  The start of the weekend must be celebrated with a caving trip!  Problem was, unlike 10 years ago, the enthusiasm of the team for trips underground was severely diminished and the reply to a text to the one remaining keen member of the TNC showed that numbers were reduced to one.  So, what to do?  A trip underground was necessary to finish the week, but the weather forecast was not so good and solo caving meant it had to be a manageable and safe option.




A couple of months ago a new camera had been acquired (Oympus Tough) that is waterproof to 15m, shock resistant from 7m and 18mp.  Great results had been gained from sea-kayaking trips (see last blog) but the camera had yet to be tested underground so the idea formed of doing a straight forward trip to test the features of the camera. So off i went to explore Great Douk above Ingleton.


On arrival, the weather to the south looked heavy, while to the north it was sunny!  Not the heavy, wintery showers forecast at all.  Ingleborough looked sublime in its snowy covering and heavy clouds above, lit up by the sunshine.


Walking across the moor to Great Douk entrance the sunshine got sunnier but the air temperature remained at about 3 degrees C!


Climbing into the entrance by the waterfall.  The camera's 12 second timer gives you plenty of time to set up the shot


Being waterproof give you other options of where to place the camera on its mini tripod.  in this case in the stream above the waterfall.



The flash illuminates the scene well, once I had realised that the camera had to focus before setting off the timer.


This shot was taken from in the stream



A great facility that we are sure to use loads is called 'Live Composite'.  Images are combined by the camera 'live' so you can watch the picture build up on the screen as you wave the light over the scene.  This allows darker areas to be filled in.  this photo of the stream passage was taken entirely using the helmet light.


The passage goes from walking size to flat out crawling in water quite quickly.  The water was freezing!  This photo illustrates one of the slight problems with using the camera solo.  t
getting it to focus on the subject in the dark!  



 After crawling through the hole in the roof that leads to the exit I popped out into the sunshine but it was freezing cold!   A quick walk back to the car warmed me up a bit and the weather hadn't been anywhere as bad as forecast.   The real fire and pint of Black Sheep in the Hill Inn soon had me warming up while i looked at the photos I had taken.

So opinions about the camera?   The photos that worked are great, clear and sharp with good colour saturation, but the flash doesn't always fire if the camera has not focused on the subject first.  Maybe with two people it would be easier to illuminate the subject before pressing the shutter.  The live composition works well but needs a mini tripod and the illumination needs to be from behind the camera to be able to see the image building up.  more practice will improve technique.  The ruggedness of the camera is great and being able to put it in water is a bonus.  i am not sure how long the pretty red casing will last as it is scratched after the one trip (you can see the scratch on the right side of the first photo) but the case is certainly strong.  As with all cameras underground a problem was water on the lens and despite carrying a microfibre cloth it was hard to keep the lens clean.  Overall, however, its a great little camera.

Friday, 1 April 2016

29th-31st March 2016 - Raasay and Rona circumnavigation


As the days went by, a forecast three day weather window seemed to be holding fast and so we made plans to head north to try to circumnavigate the islands of Raasay and Rona off the East coast of Skye.

Monday morning saw me loading my kayak before heading shopping, ably assisted by my eldest.  Provisions for five days acquired, we picked up the rest of the family and headed to Dick's.

Having swapped over my roof-rack and boat to Dick's van we said our goodbyes and headed for the M6. Unlike recent journeys, the motorway was mercifully clear and we were soon crossing the border. A brief stop in Fort Bill afforded me the opportunity to feast on one of my favourite traditional Scottish dishes, a king rib supper with curry sauce. I'm presuming the reason you don't see this on every episode of Masterchef is that it would be regarded as unsporting. 

The hills of Kintail, Eilean Donan castle and the Skye bridge were passed and we were soon pulling into the car park for the Raasay ferry at Sconser. Huge thanks to Dick for a superb stint at the wheel. 

Unlike when it's due to pressures of work, there's something great about not being able to get to sleep with excitement, just like on Christmas Eve as a kid. How would the morning dawn?

The journey begins 
With hardly a cloud in the sky and in the shadow of snow capped hills, we quickly packed the boats at a superbly sited slipway and at 9:33 began the crossing to Raasay on a glassy sea.

Crossing to Raasay 

Looking back to Skye

Fish garden ornament 
Arriving at the Raasay coast we passed a fantastic Grand Designs house, complete with great garden ornamentation.  We were also joined by the first otter of our trip, swimming nonchalantly in front of us, only occasionally checking over his/her (my otter sexing isn't great) shoulder to check where we were.

Selfie with the highest point of Rasaay behind
After a brief stop for first lunch and rearrangement of clothing, we carried on North, passing impressive cliff scenery and a waterfall that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Jurassic Park film.

Tropical!? waterfall 

Bit of a doer upper - Brochil castle
For our second lunch we landed at Brochil to admire what must have once been an impressive fortress. Returning to the beach we were hit by a brief but heavy squall that whipped up the waves instantly and made launching look like a daunting prospect. As quickly as it had arrived though it passed and we once again launched onto a benign sea.

End of day one, North Rasaay 
All too soon navigational marks denoting the entrance to Caol Rona appeared and we escorted to our landing spot for the night by seals from the resident colony.  While the camping spot just above our landing point looked superb, a short walk brought us to an even more inviting bothy.  Having ferried our belongings from the beach, we set out on a short walk to the hillock above the bothy.  The sweeping vista reached from Applecross, past the Torridon hills, shrouded in cloud, over to the Isles of Harris and Lewis in the far distance and finished with the Game of Thrones like coast line of Skye.

Looking over to Rona from above the bothy 


Stunning bothy
After tea we once again headed up the hill and on returning I thought Dick had succomed to cabin fever, as he seemed to be talking to himself.  The reality was that another sea kayaker, a day ahead of us on the circumnavigation had returned to the bothy having paddled round Rona that day.

Start of day 2 with James our bothy buddy
Waking up to another sunny day in paradise we set off across the short Caol to Rona and got our otter quota for the day in early, surprising two very furry sunbathers, drying themselves on the rocks. Having seen eagles circling high above on day one, we were treated today to seeing two perched on the skyline of the ridge above us. Given they were still a good distance away, they must have been huge as even at this range they loomed large.

Winding between islets on the NE coast of Rona 
Threading our way between islets and ever more aware of the NATO base at the North of the island, we popped out of a narrow gap and into our first ocean swell of the trip. Conditions though we're probably perfect for rounding the headland, with virtually no wind but still with the excitement of the swell crashing onto the many skerries.

Our most northerly point, rounding the top of Rona 
With a following sea, we pointed the bows of our kayaks southward for the first time on the trip and began to fly down the East coast. Realising we hadn't stopped yet, we sought shelter in a little inlet for lunch and for Dick to catch up with a bit of work.

Lunch stop on Rona

Dick catches up with a bit of work from a stunning office
The 1 o'clock weather forecast caught us a little off guard. We knew bad weather was on it's way, but it was now forecast to arrive earlier. Rather than a short day, with another night in the bothy, we now felt we needed to get as far South as possible, neither of us fancying paddling against the predicted force 5-7 winds.

We surprised even ourselves with the speed with which we returned to Caol Rona, my navigation being well and truly caught out. Fortunately we recognised local landmarks and we're soon safely at our beach. The tide though was on the ebb and so we paddled a few hundred metres further through a tiny, drying gap separating two islands. While this meant a slightly longer carry with our gear and a more exciting launch from what would become a rock platform a few feet above the sea, it would save us a few kilometres of paddling and we needed to do anything that would hasten our southerly journey.

Rocky landing 
We quickly packed and felt pleased with ourselves when on returning to our boats, the channel behind them had now dried. Once we realised we would need a line on the boats to hold on to them after we had lowered them into the sea, the launch went without incident and with a now larger following sea, we made for another short cut between islands.

Only an hour before low tide, a narrow, dry causeway lay between us and the continuation of the channel, but the inconvenience of a short portage was more than made up for in terms of the time saved.

The freshening northerly brought short, sharp squalls and steepening seas, but it also kept our speed up. We kept glancing enviously at the coastline to our left, vowing to return to explore it properly in the future.

Somewhere under the rainbow...

Brief squall

The sun setting at the end of day 2
The sea began to ease as the ferry port came into view and after a nearly ten hour day in the boats we slid thankfully onto a beach in the harbour.  With Dick in charge of shelter and myself tasked with food, we were soon sat in the warmth of our tent, hunger satisfied and thirst quenched. Hatches battened down, I slept fitfully, awaiting the coming storm.
Not the prettiest of campsites - but very welcome 
The following morning dawned crisp and bright with not a ripple in the harbour. Leaving the shelter of the tent to use the superb facilities at the ferry port gave us a view back across to Sconser and the barely rippling sound between. We were still ahead of the coming storm.

Storm clouds gathering!?
Aware of the speed with which the weather can change, we decided we would still head straight back to Sconser and we enjoyed the short, hour long crossing, drenched in sun.

Returning to Sconser 


Journey's end

Closing the gate to the wilderness 

This is a fantastic trip and it deserves much more time than we were able to devote to it. I'm sure we'll be back. Fortunately the predicted storm arrived much later and we were treated to a stunning drive home, flanked with snow capped hills.

Massive thanks to Dick for doing all the driving and for sharing the adventure and to Emma and Sharon for keeping the lads entertained while I was away.