Saturday, 31 December 2011

Last Day Of 2011

Well I know I said I was going to post the final day of my trip today, 31st December 2011, but I have run out of time and haven't got my blog post done yet. Sorry about this if you were looking forward to it, but I felt it is better to do it right than to rush it. I hope to have it up over the next few days. In the meantime, enjoy a photo from day 3, sunrise over 'Back Of Keppoch'. All the best for 2012!

Sunrise over 'Back Of Keppoch'

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Highland summertime bikepacking and packrafting - Part 2

Day 2

As happens with camping, I didn't sleep all the way through the night, but woke up about 2am or so. Something that was worrying me. All my 'active' clothes were soaked through, and sitting in a cold pile at the bottom of the tent. The thought of having to put them back on in the morning was not a pleasant one. I could hear it wasn't raining, and I thought I'd try to hang them up outside, maybe they'd dry off a little?

I stuck my head out the tent. I stood up, and was startled by a loud barking from behind me, about 100 meters away on the hill. At this point, I was lucky I had temporarily forgotten about the legend of the "Grey Dog Of Meoble", a gigantic, shaggy-haired Scottish deerhound whose preternatural appearances are said to presage death, and who's story was traced to a small lochen where the dogs owner in the story was torn limb from limb. That lochen lay directly up the slope from where my camp was. Not that I am superstitious, I wouldn't let a story like that scare the crap out of me sitting in a tent in the middle of nowhere by myself. No way... well... maybe a bit!

I turned round, and saw a doe and it's calf running up the hill away from me. It was a deer barking, not a ghost dog.

I got out the tent. I hadn't brought any camp shoes, so went barefoot. The grass and moss enveloped my bare feet, not a totally unpleasant sensation, cold and wet but also soft and invigorating. Now I had to move. The dreaded midge was closing in, fangs sharpened, the still night air was perfect for this macro-Dracula. I picked up my bike frame, turned it upside down, and lashed a cord to it, then the tent. I didn't think that 2 feet was high enough, but I started draping shorts and top, jacket and trousers over it. Ever hopeful.

I climbed back in, dried my feet, dozed off. I was woken again by the sound of rain, so I had to pull all my 'washing' in again. Not pleased! Don't think my efforts had worked at all.

Another few hours dozing, and I woke to light and morning. One thing I like about camping is the early mornings. I'm not usually a morning person, but when the outdoors is right there, it is great to get a fast start. My worry about wet clothes hung over me as I prepared my porridge. What was I going to do? I had to wear them, I didn't want to wear my cotton sleeping clothes. I decided that at least heating up my base layer before putting it on would be good, so whilst I sat with my legs out the tent eating my breakfast, I put my cycling shorts underneath my legs, and my merino top over them.

Porridge finished, I couldn't put off the moment any longer. I pulled on the wet clothes, now warmed up. They didn't feel as bad as I had imagined, the heating must have helped quite a lot. Encouraged, I got into breaking camp, rolling and packing everything, and hauling it down to the loch side. By this point in time, I was feeling not too awful in my wet clothes, and started taking photos again, unfortunately by this time the tent was down and packed away.

Breaking camp at the head of Loch Beoraid 

When I was planning the trip, I had imagined cycling and walking the length of the loch along the track marked on the map. However, the previous afternoons scramble up and down the glen, the steepness and bogginess of the general terrain, plus the absence of anything resembling any kind of reasonable track along the loch, the decision was an easy one. I'll try the packraft. I inflated the raft, filled up my water bladder with water from the loch, and packed the bike and kit on it.

Ready to paddle down Loch Beoraid

All ready, I climbed aboard and pushed off. I almost instantly felt happier. The feeling of sitting in my raft, floating on the calm water, my legs rested, making smooth and gentle headway down the loch - this was luxury! Due to the fact that my packraft has a spray deck, it is in fact quite a snug and dry place to be, from the midriff down at any rate. The weather had lifted, and I was beginning to see blue sky between the cloud. As I paddled, I felt my wet clothes get drier and drier. Thank god it wasn't raining today!

The loch felt lonely and peaceful, there was not a soul to be seen. The steep sides of Loch Morar rise abruptly out of the water, they seem to contain the water as if water had been pored into a giant cupped hand. I paddled on, contemplating the crossing of Loch Morar that was a few hours ahead of me. I kept trying to figure out what it was going to feel like, what the distance was going to look like. Loch Beoraid was 5k long, the crossing I planned to do of Loch Morar was 2k straight across. The sun came out, and I snapped some pics looking back down the loch, from whence I came.

Looking back down Loch Beoraid, Gleann Donn in the center

By now, with the effort of paddling, I was totally dry. I was surprised very happy about this. Lesson learned, the best way to dry clothes is to wear them.

Paddling past the island on the loch, I saw a small hut. It seems that the only use of the loch is for fishing, and I guess this is a place for the fishermen to have a sandwich and maybe a wee dram at lunch. I had a hip-flask of whisky with me, but I hadn't touched it the previous day, and now wasn't the time for that either.

The steep wall of land that rises out of the end of the loch was close by now, about an hour and a half after starting my paddle, I was almost there. I turned the 90 degree corner at the end of the loch, to be greeted with a pleasant and calm pool, trees hanging over it, and a small slipway. It struck me as looking somewhat Japanese. I landed and got out.

The other end of Loch Beoraid, packraft just landed

Time for another transform, I have a bit over 4k of track going through Meoble before getting to the big bad Loch Morar.

Boat and bike

Deflated packraft, ready for rolling up

Bike with camping gear on handlebars, food, maps,
and cooking stuff in framebag, and boat on rear rack

Here's another great thing about the combination of packraft and bike. Using one right after the other is just such a weird feeling. They use opposite limbs - packraft mainly arms, bike mainly legs - and the sensation of moving in each of them is so different. The packraft is slow and fluid, the bike faster and bumpy. I just love the changeover, quite apart from how cool it is being a human powered watercraft one minute, and a landcraft the next.

The track was quite well made, the usual rough sand and pebbles that constructed landrover tracks have in this part of the world. This track was different however - it has no connection to any other track or road at all. It simply goes from one loch to the other. It's kind of strange to think that here are vehicles that use it, but there must be, I see tracks.

I stop and take a picture. Up ahead is the settlement of Meoble. I feel strange cycling through it, it seems such a private little corner. It was used as a WWII Special Operations Executive training camp, and you can still see the helicopter landing pad on the satellite photos. I didn't have a clue what went on here these days, and I didn't want to pry too deeply. I see a few scattered buildings, and far off by the white house, a white Landrover, probably the only vehicle on the road.


I climb back on and cycle through. Past a shed with a couple of lads working on something, then toward the Landrover. I pass it before I realise there is someone in it, and another chap outside, leaning in, having a chat.

He spots me as a cycle past. "How did you get that in here?" he shouts after me.

Shall I stop for a chat?

Part of me felt that it would have been nice to stop for a blather, but I enjoyed the thought that they would be left wondering what kind of crazy cyclist I was, and I could leave it to my imagination what top-secret nefarious activities go on there, and remain blissfully ignorant about the no doubt mundane realities.

There was also a part of me that felt that if I explained to the locals that I was just about to inflate a small dingy that I was carrying on the back of my bike, slap the bike on top of it, and paddle it straight across Loch Morar, they would have put a considerable amount of effort into trying to dissuade me from my plan.

"Boat!" I shouted back, patting the bagged packraft. On I cycled.

Around a few more bends, and I start to see the banks on the opposite side of the loch. They look quite far away. Further on, I start to see the water. It doesn't look like friendly wee Loch Beoraid, Loch Morar is quite obviously a large body of water in motion. I can only keep going and see what it is like up close. Soon enough, I arrive at the shore. It is a bit windy, and there are certainly waves on the loch. There is a large but rickety pier, and some sheds, and a sand and pebble shore, more like the sea than a freshwater loch. I lean the bike against a shed, get out my map, and check my course. It starts raining.

Camas Luinge, Loch Morar, looking over to Swordland

I spot the small white boathouse on the opposite side of the loch, this is the landmark I plan to paddle straight for. I shelter under the doorway of the shed for 5 minutes, letting the shower pass, fueling myself with a mars bar. The rain eases off, but there is still a constant wind blowing down the loch, and the waves towards the middle have some white tops - not a good thing. I decide that conditions are not ideal, but what I will do is head out in the raft and see what conditions are like. I promise to myself I'll turn back if I'm not happy.

Pushing off, I remember how deep this loch is - 300 meters, and I am going right over the deepest bit. We're not in the Musselburgh Lagoon anymore, I say to myself, looking over the 2 kilometers to the white speck on the opposite shore.

The boat is feeling ok, although the waves feel much bigger when you are in amongst them. I figure the wind is about 15mph tops, and the waves about a foot. It seems manageable, but not easy. I push on, keeping my eye out for larger swells. When I see one, I turn into it so as to cut through it rather than get pushed down the loch sideways by it. I can't stop paddling now, if I do, the wind quickly pushes me off course. I put my head down, turn into the next wave, paddle, repeat. I'm getting further out now, but I have to focus on the next wave, no time for taking in the view, I must keep the raft moving and under my control. A larger swell catches the stern and wets my back. I brace myself and keep paddling, cutting through wave after wave, occasionally looking up and seeing the white boathouse getting a little closer each time.

This goes on for about 40 minutes, and I am now within maybe 300 meters of the shore, almost there! Suddenly, a wave catches me unprepared, and the bike shifts on the bow. I counter-balance by leaning the other way and try to keep paddling, but it shifts a little more. This is bad, I am going to loose all my kit overboard. Although it is all tied together, and tied to the boat, and I have practiced hauling it in and reloading,  that is not something I want to do in these conditions. I have to stop it falling. I put the paddle down, and stretch forward, tugging at the load, trying to pull it straight again. It isn't moving, it's quite heavy. I try again, it shifts a little. I pull it again, it is more central now, not ideal, but it will do.

I look up. Where is the boathouse? In the half minute or so I was rescuing my load, I have drifted at least 150 meters down wind of my planned landing at Swordland. I scan the shore for a possible place to get out. It is rocky, but doable, but I have second thoughts. I want to reach the boathouse. Putting my head down again, I battle directly into the wind. This is very slow going, and my arms are tired now, but eventually I am in the calmer bay, a few other boats bobbing about with me. I make a beeline for a pebbly shore beside the pier, climb out the boat, and almost fall over - knackered.

Packraft at the pier at Swordland, Loch Morar,
after the crossing from directly opposite

I could have kissed the ground. That was quite an intense crossing, I'm overjoyed to have made it over in one piece.

It must be lunchtime by now, so I assemble my bike and head over to the concrete end of the pier, set up the stove, have some oatcakes and cheese, and take in the view. The sun came out, and the wind died down. Bliss.

Having lunch on the pier, Swordland, Loch Morar

I really took my time here, it was great just to hang out, sit at the end of the pier with my legs over the side. After my lunch, I pull out my hip-flask, and pour myself a cap-full of whisky. I sip it slowly, savoring the smoky taste of the Lagavulin. After drinking about half of the cap, I poured the other half into the loch, as a thank you for giving me safe, if demanding, passage.

Now into the afternoon, I had the path along the side of the loch to the village or Morar to do. It had got a bit warmer now, with the sun out, and the initial climb (walking) up the hill away from the loch edge told me what was in store - a somewhat rocky and rough path lay ahead. Up past the seemingly misplaced Swordland Lodge, with fancy old armchairs looking out it's windows, and scraggly sheep looking in. Sleeves got rolled up, jacket taken off, sunglasses put on.

The track offered fantastic views of the loch, but didn't offer that much in the way of good cycling. I had been on the go all day, and didn't really have it in me to try to beast my way over every loose rock and through every muddy hollow. I did cycle when possible, but if the way got difficult or much inclined, I didn't hesitate to get off and push. I think the track would be easier riding with fresh legs and an unloaded bike for sure!

The afternoon was showery, with my jacket coming on and off every 30 minutes or so. The wind kept blowing behind me the whole way. It did seem to take a long time to get 'in front' of Camas Luinge on the opposite side - it felt as if I had done two sides of a triangle. I had to admit, it would have been much faster just to have packrafted down the 9k of the loch, especially with that wind pushing me all the way. But I was here for the views and the routes, not to get from A to B as fast as possible, so I took my time and enjoyed the path, snapping photos as I went.

Rusty hut on Loch Morar

The further along the path I went, the thirstier I got. I had had water, but I felt somewhat reticent about gulping down gallons of loch water. It was something I was just not used to, and to be honest next time I do this I'll be taking a filter of some kind, even just to get rid of the 'floating things' that there is a surprising number off in every cup! Anyway, my craving was for carbonated drinks. I couldn't get it out of my head, it started to drive me on, my fizzy pot of sugar at the end of the trail. I had some glucose tablets and some more water, but it didn't really hit the spot.

The islands at the end of the loch got closer as ever-changing weather rolled down the loch. Past the houses at Brinacory in various state of ruin, then the same distance of path again till Bracorina.

Loch Morar, looking toward the islands at the start of the loch

Tarmac! The sensation of rolling on smooth road was very welcome at this point, only tainted by a few steep hills, then a fast downhill and right into Morar. I made a beeline straight for the nearest shop (the petrol station), and got a Lucozade. I necked it as fast as reasonable, then went back in for a Coke. I've never had such a craving for crappy fizzy drinks, but there it was. Thirst slaked, I phoned my family to let them know I was ok, then pushed back up the hill again. I had someone to call on.

In the holiday villa I had spent a few days prior to my trip, there was a book I read cover to cover called "Rough Passage: A Life of Adventure" by a man named Tom McClean. Tom had come to my attention earlier in the year via my research on islands around Scotland. As only the internet can do, one thing led to another and I ended up watching news footage of him jumping onto Rockall, a tiny islet in the rough Atlantic Ocean, 160 miles out from the Scottish island of St Kilda. In what must be at least a 12 foot swell. I went on to learn that he had rowed across the Atlantic single handed, and subsequently sailed across it in the smallest boat. He had settled in Ardintigh, setting up an adventure camp there, and then got a house in Morar itself where he and his wife run a B+B. I had passed his gate on thw way down the hill, and he has a picture of his record breaking Atlantic boat at the gate, so I reckoned he wouldn't mind a fan calling by.

I rang the bell and was greeted by his wife, who then went and got Tom. We had a good chat for half an hour or so, I showed him my bike with the boat on the back, showed him some of the pics on my camera, and told him of the wee trip I was on. He showed me his shed with the rowing boat he spent 70 days on crossing the Atlantic, together with the tiny box which was his only shelter on Rockall, and various other bits and pieces. His expeditions made my wee trip feel like a walk in the park.

Tom McClean's boat

He very kindly invited me to camp on a plot of ground in front of his house, overlooking the lovely Morar Bay. It looked a cracking spot, but I declined, for a few reasons. First of all, I wanted to get a bit further on that day, it was a little early to stop (and the caffeine in my tooth-rot fizzy drinks had kicked in). Secondly, I knew there were fantastic beaches and campsites along the coast toward Arisaig. Third, and mist importantly, I knew there was a pub in Arisaig where I could have a good feed and maybe a beer or two. So with a promise to email him when I got my pictures up on the internet, I was away.

The weather by now was warm and calm, and the coast road was a real pleasure to cycle down. The sands on this area have to be seen to be believed - pure white, making a striking view all along the coast. I called in at one campsite, but they were full, and told me to go to another one down the road in 'Back Of Keppoch'. I freewheeled down the back road, and found the site.

Looking over the main road to Back Of Keppoch

I found a house that looked like it may be the owners of the campsite. I rang the bell, and was greeted by a friendly woman. Yes, she had room. Perfect. We chatted, and the conversation got on to my travels. I told her about crossing Loch Morar. Her reply? "If you were my son, I'd have given you a spanking for that!". I thought that was quite funny, as I am in my 40s now... but I may look somewhat younger.

She did go on to tell me about a few tragedies that have claimed lives on the loch, including one where two small boys and their granddad were fishing from a boat on the loch, when one boy fell overboard. The grandfather jumped in to try to save him, but tragically they were both drowned. The boy that was left had to be rescued, as he didn't know how to work the boat. Terrible. In light of this, her reaction was understandable. It did make me review my safety, although I think I did the most I could to ensure I could deal with all situations, and had a really strong backup in the form of my Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB. This little device is basically a one use panic button. When activated, it sends a distress signal, along with the exact GPS coordinates, to the search and rescue HQ. Without this device, I don't think I would have done my crossing. Swimming 1k in a heated swimming pool is all very well, doing the same thing in a cold deep loch with a swell on it, clothed, is quite another.

I set up camp and got changed and somewhat washed (there were no showers at the campsite unfortunately). I had been advised by Tom of the Cnoc-na-Faire Inn, just up from the campsite. I was hungry now, and headed up for a very pleasant supper, washed down with cold lager. Lovely! Well fed and watered, I rolled down the hill into camp, and strolled out to the seafront to take some pics.

Highland sunset

It had been an excellent day. I walked back to the tent, and got ready for sleep. Some neighboring campers were playing a banjo, not very well. This kept me up a for a wee bit, contemplating the advantages of solo camping versus being in a campsite. Soon enough they put the banjo down and turned in. It had been a full and successful day for me. Contented, I fell asleep, dreaming of paths and lochs.

(to be continued Sat 31st December...)

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Loch Shiel and Loch Morar - highland summertime bikepacking and packrafting loop

I had been kicking about a plan since early in the year to do a multi-day bikepacking trip in the summer, starting from near Acharacle on the West coast of Scotland. Various plans had been made, possibly a group trip involving boats at a few points, and a trip round the Ardnamuchan Peninsula. The group trip idea didn't come about, so I changed my plan to a solo trip involving the use of my newly acquired packraft.

The route i decided on started at Castle Tioram with a cycle to Loch Shiel, across and up the loch, then cycle the rest of the loch up to Glenfinnan. From there, I'd cycle up the glen, then take a left at the lodge up Coal-Ghleann and down Gleann Donn to Loch Beoraid, along the loch, then out and across past Meoble to Loch Morar. Across Loch Morar, then along the loch to Morar itself, down to Arasaig, then round past Glenuig, into Loch Moidart and back to the Castle.I reckoned three days would do it at a relaxed pace.

Day 1

It's funny how much pressure and expectation I felt as the planned day came closer. I had invested a lot of time and not an inconsiderable amount of money into preparing for the trip, not ending up doing it would be a big letdown. A few days before, I kept my eye on the weather. The main thing was the wind - too much of that makes cycling, camping, and most of all packrafting difficult, heavy going, dangerous, or plain impossible. The day before the trip was windy, and I took a look at Loch Shiel... 20 mph gusts and 2 foot waves were rolling down the loch, enough to make it a no-go if it was like that the next day.

The day of departure came. I looked out the window - rain! Well, at least there was hardly any wind. Everything was packed the night before, so just a quick shower, then breakfast, a midgy farewell to family, and I was off.

The first section felt great. I was rolling on roads and tracks alongside the River Shiel that I knew so well. It was raining, but only softly. The feeling of freedom and of expectation, as well as relief to be on my way, was something I hadn't felt so profoundly before.

Onto the A 861. Past 'Fergies', a hotel and bothy bar once run by accordion legend Fergie MacDonald, now by his daughter. No time for a friendly nip now, onwards on the single track main road, then off down to Dalelia, past a pier on the side of Loch Shiel, and onto a landrover track, chase some sheep across a field, and to my first 'transform' from land to water.

I unraveled the boat on the red rocky shore, and started inflating it. I had practiced the transform enough that it was now easy to me. Boat ready, I packed the bike and the two dry bags onto the bow. I could wax lyrical about how atmospheric this spot was, looking over to The Green Isle (Eilean Fhianain) to Ben Resipole blanketed in rolling cloud and low mist. But that's what photos are for.

Ready to cross to Eilean Fhianain

I took a short float over to the island. I had visited it once, but that was a long time ago. Most of the land is taken up with a burial ground and the ruins of St. Finan's Chapel. I walked up to it, and it was impossible not to feel the history of the place. The ancient graves, the small ruined chapel with it's alter, cross, and bell, the mist rolling amongst the trees in the mainland all about me.

St. Finan's Chapel alter, cross, and bell

I'm not a religious person, but I rang the bell and said some words to myself, asking for a safe trip. A shiver ran down my spine.

Down to the boat and out onto the loch again, I had at least a 3k paddle in front of me. The air was dead calm, not a breath, just gentle drizzle on and off.

Looking up Loch Shiel to Polloch
It was serene to just be floating by myself, paddling on flat calm water. The packraft isn't the most streamlined of small human powered watercraft, they seem to do about 3kph with a steady paddle. Like walking, you need to put one foot (paddle) in front of the other to make way, the boat quickly stops and spins round if you stop paddling. So it's 1, 2, keep going, but plenty of time to enjoy the view. I like keeping close the the shore where possible, seeing everything from this unique perspective is one of the joys of being in my wee boat

I didn't keep a track of the time much on my trip. I don't wear a watch, and my mobile phone was turned off in a waterproof bag deep in my rucksack - but when I got to the Pontoon at Polloch, I knew it had to be lunchtime! After a quick transform into landcraft, I got the oatcakes, cheese, and cup-a-soup out, and tucked in. 

Polloch Pontoon

 I did this a few times on this trip, and there is something great about sitting on a pier, jetty, or pontoon after a few hours paddling and cycling, and just relaxing, listening to the water against the pier. They will be the transition and transformation points most of the time on this trip, the flat and uncluttered surface making a great spot to eat, contemplate where I have come from, and where I am going to next.

Something happened on the pontoon that I had not seen before. You can see in the photo above that the water is flat calm. Well not long after the photo was taken, and for no visible reason, a swell suddenly got up. It was like someone had turned on a wave machine miles away. No announcement, no gradual change. If you look at the above photo, you can see a lighter area of water to the top. I looked at other photos I took there, and indeed it is the swell approaching. It made me appreciate I had a calm loch for my journey.

Leaving the pontoon, I had a 10k cycle along the logging road that runs up the South bank of Loch Shiel. I had done this road before, so I know what to expect - a compacted sand and pebble road rolling up and down all the way along the banks of the loch.

The logging road along Loch Shiel, looking toward Glenfinnan
Despite the somewhat soft and wet surface, I got to Glenfinnan in reasonable time. It was funny crossing through - I hadn't seen a soul all day, and now there were tourists and cars and trains and boats. Quite a metropolis! I carried on to the singletrack road up Glen Finnan, under the Viaduct - the bike poses for a picture.

Glenfinnan Viaduct, no pottering about

By now, it had decided to rain fairly heavily. Still, my windstopper trousers and jacket seemed to be bearing up. The single track private road up Glen Finnan to the lodge / Corryhully Bothy was really quite pleasant, no big hills, no cars, and a nice roll on tarmac. Once at the lodge, I turned left up it's access road, then it was straight on for me, off road.

I was immediately confronted with a wall of a climb... this was the quad bike stalker track I would be following for the next 2k. Off the bike, I pushed up the steep embankment, squelched through a wet boggy patch, turned a corner, then jumped on where the track leveled off, and started my assent up Coal-Ghleann. The rain really was lashing down now.

Although the quad track was reasonable, endless waterbars and cross-drains together with large rocks and a generally rough surface, combined with the added weight on my bike, made me walk more than I would have liked. I had a strange sense of isolation, after the bustle of Glenfinnan. I knew I was heading for an overnight camp miles from anyone, miles from any road, well off the beaten track.

A brooding and wet Coal-Ghleann

Pushing on up, I was starting to feel wet now. Wet, but certainly not cold. I run hot anyway, and a merino base layer over my jacket keeps me warm winter or summer. The Allt a' Chaol-ghlinne stream was full of water, enough rain had fallen to fill all the burns and streams in the area. The higher I got in the glen, the less of the path there was. I was walking more then cycling, until I found myself only walking. The quad track had turned into a rough walking track following the river.

At this point, I have to admit, I started to wonder what I was doing. I had been on the go for about 7 hours now, surely it was time to have one last splash in a puddle, then get home for a plate full of pasta and a nice cold beer? No, I knew I had another 4k of glen to walk through, then a solo camp at the head of Loch Beoraid. Wet and tired, and not a little lonely, I was now officially out of my comfort zone.

The trudging had got more boggy now, the path barely a hint. Still, the bike was not too hard to push about, I think having weight in the framebag really helped here - low and central. The path disappeared as I neared the top of the glen. On each side of the glen, burns cascaded down from above. I stopped and looked round. It seemed all about me was movement and noise, dramatic and timeless. I felt lucky to see the show.

Waterfall at the top of Coal-Ghleann

It was great to be at the top. despite there being no path, and just soggy ground, interspersed with marshy bits, and then some wetter bits that turned into streams. Out came the map (thank goodness it was waterproof!). I had to find my own way. I hadn't decided beforehand what side of Allt a' Ghlinne Dhuinn I was going to go down, and I needed to make a call as I didn't want to have to cross it in spate. From what I saw on the map, and what was in front of me, I decided the left hand side was the way.

Pressing on, and the walking was really heavy now. I was picking my way through ancient moss covered boulder fields, walking over them and trying not to stick my leg into a gap,  hauling the bike beside me, wheeling it over, leaning on it for support. You would think it would have been a real burden, but it felt ok. I am sure it slowed me down a lot compared to having just a rucksack, but I felt light on my feet, the bike was carrying the weight.

100 meters on, and I found myself looking down onto Loch Beoraid. It was wonderful to see it unfolding before me. Even with, or perhaps because of, the rain, it really felt like a hidden treasure, a sight only a few walkers, stalkers, and anglers get to see. No one gets to see this without putting in a fair amount of time and effort.

Looking down Gleann Donn to Loch Beoraid
 Now things got serious. The glen was steep, much steeper than on the way up, and with no path, I had to constantly consider my way. I thought about stopping for a cup of tea, but elected to bash on, afraid that stopping would see me reluctant to start again. More tough ground, boulders, and marsh. The glen gets steeper, and I decide to keep uphill of my bike, in case it gets snagged or tips over - I don't want to be underneath it and get pushed over myself. The sides of the glen are over 45 degrees now, and I have to cross a good few burns in full spate, filling up a roaring Allt a' Ghlinne Dhuinn below.

This is truly the point of no return, I have to get down this glen. I can feel my focus sharpening, I am in wild country, I am on my tod, and I have to use my own resources to get through it. I leave the bike and do a recce, decide on a route, go back and claim another 50 meters, before doing the same again. I'm in the trees now, but the glen is getting steeper still. The noise of the water is getting in top of me, I start wondering if I am going to get down from here at all. 

The next recce presents me with two choices - go high and try to cross a steep grassy slope with a vertical rock face to the upper side, and vertical drop to the other, or go straight down the glen where a 7 foot almost vertical slab of rock is the only way down. I decide on the latter. This really is hard going. I am soaked through, exhausted, but I know I have to keep traveling. I lower the bike down the slab, going onto my stomach and stretching down, holding the front wheel. The back wheel is still a couple of feet from the bottom, but I don't really have a choice. I let go, and the bike slides down and comes to a rest - no damage, thank goodness. I try to lower myself down gently, but end up sliding down the slab as well. I get to the bottom, with a scratched hand for my trouble.

The glen starts to level out now, with grassy banks among the open wood. There are still burns rushing down the sides that I have to cross. At a fairly deep and large one, I put the bike in downstream - bikes are quite streamlined for this use, the spokes presenting no resistance to the rushing water. My tired legs on the other hand are grateful for the support, this water is moving fast, and the last thing I want is to loose my footing and fall into the fast cold water.

The grassy banks give way to unsurprising marsh, the ground almost flat now. This is more slow and heavy going, I really don't have any energy left, but there is nowhere to camp here. I'm at the flat marshy area in the center of the picture below. I have really had enough by this point, when the idea strikes me - time to float! It makes sense, I feel trapped and need to free myself up out of this waterlogged ground. I walk to a small tree by the side of the river, and go into transform mode.

Allt a' Ghlinne Dhuinn flowing into Loch Beoraid
I start to feel the midges. The midge lotion goes on, and I carry on with inflating the packraft, and securing the load. I am trying to be careful and safe here, I don't want to loose my cargo - the tent especially. I slide into the boat and push into the river. Marvelous... what a fine sensation. After being on my feet for hours, I am floating, getting carried to the loch with little effort, sitting down! This is the true packraft advantage - walk, ride, float.. What was impossible and impassable, becomes easy, pleasurable, practical. Water is just a different kind of path.
I get spat out into the loch. Daylight is fading - it is past 9pm by now, and it really is time to find somewhere to camp. I consider the small island in the loch, but it is quite far (about 4k), and it would be dark by the time I got there. I don't even know if it would be habitable. Scanning the nearby banks, I see a sandy beach tucked into the head of the loch. Sand! Not marsh, or bog, or river, or rock, but soft, well-draining sand. I head straight for it, I can camp right there! Landing, I pull the boat out the water. I look at the sandy shore... well I could camp there, but I hate getting sand everywhere. I wander up a bit, the ground is rough and I cross the faint wisp of the barely used path that goes along the loch. Up a bit more, and there is a raised hillock. I climb up it. It's somewhat flattish. No more procrastination, decision made, I am camping here. I get all the gear in a few trips, deflate the raft, and put the tent up on top of it, and fall inside.

I'm in total autopilot now. All my clothes come off, and I dry myself with my camping towel - it was a good call bringing that. I put on my dry boxers, t-shirt, socks, and woolly hat. Luxury! ok, food. I get out the stove pan, water. Dump some water in, and let it boil, put in my pre-measured ration of pasta, then close the lid and dive into the tent again. Mat inflated and sleeping quilt unpacked, I get inside. I have never felt so warm and comfortable, I was so thankful for all the amazing camping equipment available nowadays, I was carrying it all on my handlebars, tent, quilt, mat - they all pack so small and light.

Now I have my head down, I am exhausted. My eyes close, I relax. I'm not really hungry, but I know I should eat so I have energy for tomorrow. I slip in and out of consciousness in my warn cocoon. I open my eyes - the pasta! Not sure how long I was 'out' for, but I have burnt my food. Ok that's not good. I empty it out and put another portion in. Concentrate this time. Make food. Eat food. I force myself to do this. No enjoyment, but I know it is doing me good. Finished, now I feel really drowsy, now drifting off, now sleep...

(to be continued, next installment 24th December 2011)

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Pentlands Pathfinder Ride December - Listonshiels to Thieves Road

You can see a map of the final route at 

I had been meaning to check out an unknown, possibly unused route in the Pentlands for some time now. This route is shown on old maps, bit not new ones, and connects Listonsheils with Thieves Road. This connection would make new loops possible, especially with access to Theives Road from the Cauldstane Slap down to West Linton. This route had been explored part way by druidh - his write up is at

My plan was to do a big route, starting from Red Moss car park, then on the road round to the dirt road opposite Temple house, going up to Listonshiels, then across to catch Theives Road, down to West Linton, along to Carlops, then on to 8 Mile Burn and up past Eastside Farm, up the hill top Red Road, then back down to the carpark at Red Moss. Quite a long route, too long for today as it turned out.

Everything started out fine. It wasn't too windy, and the day was nice and bright.

The road from Red Moss is always a nice cruse.

I followed the road round, up to Listonsheils, and across following Druidh's map. The going on this part was fine. Although I lost the track several times, the ground was short grass and short moorland heather. It was firm and flat enough to cycle most of the way up till the point in the next photo, looking toward the scraggly trees of Thrashiedean Plantation, with East Cairn Hill on the left, and West Cairn Hill in the distance on the right.

I totally lost the path going down to the plantation, and the ground was getting a bit more lumpy. Anyway, it wasn't far. I found the old wooden stile Druidh found on his wanderings.

Over the stile, across a small burn, and I had a look round the old building in the woods. Seemed there was a more recent addition of a red brick chimney, and inside connected to it was a large metal bowl set into the brick. I have not a clue what that would have been used for, way out here.

There was also what looked like an other newer addition to the ruins, a concrete corridor. At first I thought it would be for some kind of water power, but there was nothing connecting to it. My best guess it it was for sheep dipping, and maybe the big bowl was also for that (making sheep dip?):

My curiosity satisfied, I set off over the moor to Thieves Road. This part of the journey is where the plan started to fall apart. First of all, it started raining and got generally colder and wintry, and I couldn't see any obvious path over the moor. Thoughts of turning back crossed my mind, but I couldn't do that, I had to keep going.

I decided to head for the higher ground, up toward East Cairn Hill. The ground underfoot immediately got worse, very soft, thicker vegetation, heavy going. I followed a deeply cut burn up towards the hill, then crossed it and headed along south-west. The moor was featureless, and I spent a lot of the time with the bike over my shoulder because pushing was impossible. The ground seemed to get worse and heavier, it was hard going, and the weather was really closing in.

The wind was about 15mph or so, and the rain had turned to a selection box of sleet, snow, and tiny hail stones that stung! Humor was fading, and as I trudged on I started to consider that trying to do the whole Carlops loop may be a bit silly. I formulated a bail-out plan that when I hit Thieves Road, I could take a right back to Harperrig instead.

After some more walking, carrying, head-down trudge, without warning, Thieves Road appeared only a few meters away. The crossing from Thrashiedean had only taken about 1/2 an hour, but it felt like longer.

I looked at the time; 2.30. The decision was made for me, it was way too late to do the big route. Now cold, and getting wet, I wolfed down some oatcakes and cheese, and headed toward Harperrig: 

This section of Thieves Road is known for being wet and boggy, and I joked to myself that I should have taken my Packraft. The joke soon turned on me when I saw some of the wooden planks that have been laid on this path submerged in water. However, the going was surprisingly good - overall, the route was no more waterlogged than the last time I has seen it, in the middle of Summer. Perhaps the moorland trudge had made me appreciate the worthiness of a man-made path which I could cycle at least 50% of the time.

Once I got to Harperrig, I scooted round the buildings and jumped onto the road near the dam. I was not in the mood to brave the walking section over the bridge to Little Vantage. I took the main road, then off to Leithhead and up the usual way back round to Red Moss.

I got back just when light was falling. I had set out too late for the big loop, and the weather had turned for the worse, but was satisfied to have tried the mystery path, which I had been meaning to do for a while. However, I'm really not convinced it is going to offer a useful shortcut to Cauldstand Slap. Even if a reasonable path was found for the second leg from Thrashiedean Plantation, it would still leave us 100 to 150 vertical meters below the Slap, and 1 to 2k away from it. Taking the road to Harperrig would probably take about the same time. I may attempt it again in better weather, perhaps trying a higher route off of the landrover track up the hill, then following the base contour of the hill round. One for summer I think...