Archive for November 4th, 2012

November 4, 2012

A wander on the wild west coast of Jura pt1

by backpackingbongos

There is something rather dispiriting about driving three hundred miles north to then find yourself heading back in a southerly direction.  The Kintyre peninsular demonstrates just how convoluted the west coast of Scotland is.  The ferry terminal of Kennacraig is over a hundred miles by road from Glasgow, yet a short hop by crow over the Clyde.

With a booked ferry and four hundred miles to drive Rich and I set off from Nottingham before dawn.  We both marvelled at just how early rush hour starts on the M1, relieved that the traffic madness is not part of our daily ritual.  We ended up making excellent progress, so with time to spare we had a wander around the attractive town of Lochgilphead and stocked up with travel sickness tablets for the ferry crossing.  We were then first in line at Kennacraig and spent a pleasant couple of hours sitting by the smooth glassy waters edge.  Without even a hint of a breeze the sun felt warm, hopefully a good omen for both the ferry crossing and our four day backpack.

The ferry crossing was as smooth as can be, which meant that we were able to enjoy Calmac haddock and chips.  You get proper cooked food on Calmac ferries and at a reasonable price to boot.  We were soon snoozing in comfy chairs, the ferry almost empty of other passengers.

Early in the planning stage for this trip I had managed to get Port Ellen (where the ferry arrives) mixed up with Port Charlotte (where the campsite is).  I had not realised that I would have to drive across the Island to the campsite, something I did not enjoy after a very long day.  It is disorienting arriving at a campsite in the dark, especially when you have not visited before.  We were unsure if where we pitched our tents was part of the campsite or the local football ground.  However being right next to Loch Indaal and with a nearly full moon shining on the water it was a perfect spot to spend our first night on an Island.

The day before the clocks went back, it was still dark when we got up at 8.00am the following morning.  We packed as the sky gradually lightened and the clouds that had formed overnight slowly melted away.  The campsite at Port Charlotte occupies a great location and with tip-top facilities it comes highly recommended.  It’s a community project and there is a link to it here.

Jura is the only large Hebridean island that does not have a direct ferry to the mainland (apart from a small passenger ferry during the summer months).  We travelled across Islay to Port Askaig where a small open decked car ferry plies the five minute crossing to Feolin on Jura.  We then drove the twenty five miles to the end of the A846 at the north of the island.  This took about an hour and is one of my favourite drives.  The road is single tracked, badly potholed in places and often has a nice grassy strip down the middle.  It’s rare to get a main road all to yourself, the traffic was almost non-existent.  The Paps of Jura looked stunning under the clear blue skies, their summits appearing unattainable above almost vertical scree.

Day 1 – 9.5 miles with 640 metres ascent

I parked just before the A846 becomes a minor road on the ordnance survey map, although on the ground there is no distinguishing between them.  I always get a flutter of nervous excitement before setting off on a proper wild backpack, leaving the comfort and security of a familiar vehicle.  Both of our packs were heavy with winter kit and four days food as we set off north to walk the final few miles to the end of the public road.

We could not believe just how amazing the weather was, the sky a deep blue and pretty much cloudless.  However the northerly wind had a bite to it, making us zip our jackets against its icy blast.

Passing through the few scattered buildings at Ardlussa we stopped to ask a guy if they were planning on stalking in the hills over the next few days.  Although the stag stalking season had finished the hind season lasts until February.  Stalking is big business on Jura, helped by the absolutely huge numbers of deer.  He asked if we were doing the ‘Peter Edwards walk’, which we confirmed we were.  He told us that there had been lots of people attempting and failing it this summer, not realising just how tough the west coast can be.  Peter Edwards is the author of the Cicerone guide to the Island and has a blog called ‘Writes of way‘ I suggest you visit and give him loads of hassle for not keeping it up to date this year.  If you ever plan to visit Jura he has done a few excellent blog posts describing various epic backpacks across the island.  Anyway, we were informed that no stalking would be taking place until Monday, by then we would be walking across another estate.

The lane led us past the rather impressive Ardlussa house where we descended to Ardlussa bay.  With the calm sea and blue skies it almost looked Mediterranean.  The chill air however indicated otherwise.

For a couple of miles the road climbed up and down through a beautiful wooded landscape.  Autumn was at its peak, the canopy above and the bracken below every shade of yellow and brown imaginable.  The low sun shining through the branches just added to the magic.

A bridge just before the house at Lealt gave a satisfactory perch on which to eat our lunch.  The house which we passed is idyllic, sheltered from the elements and like a posh version of the Good Life.  A small wind turbine and a bank of solar panels looked like they were doing a good job at supplying power, greenhouses supplying vegetable goodness.  I think I could manage to be rather happy living there.

Past the house the landscape began to open up, the shelter of the trees left behind.  The road began to deteriorate further, becoming little more than a gravel track for the last mile or so.

There was a solitary car parked at the small disused quarry at ‘Road end’.  I did not expect to see any vehicles there on a Friday afternoon at this time of year.  I immediately assumed that they had headed for Glengarrisdale bothy which we had planned to call home for the night.  We were both a bit disappointed as we had assumed that we would get it to ourselves for the night.  We left the road before the quarry and dropped down to a bridge that had seen better days and crossed the Lealt burn.  The sunlight on the extensive autumn grasses was spectacular, although there was the knowledge that those brown tussocks could well be causing us some difficulties later.

The plan was to climb Ben Garrisdale before dropping down to its namesake bothy.  On my last visit to Jura the 371 metre peak managed to defeat me as I was unable to find its true summit, which sits a kilometer away from the trig point.  I had descended via a wet argocat track which gave good progress across the sodden tussocks.  The same argocat track meant that we were able to gain height quickly and cross the shoulder of Carn nan Gillean.

The air was crystal clear giving extensive views across the Sound of Jura and the mainland.  Sadly this beautiful part of the Argyll coast appears to be sprouting large industrial windfarms at an alarming pace.  We spotted three on the hills above the coast, from a distance looking like giant pin cushions.  A huge contrast to the small solitary turbine at Lealt providing local power.

We turned our backs on the industrialised mainland and headed deeper into the wilds of Jura.  The distant Paps looked impressive in the late afternoon light, rising up above row after row of low rugged hills.

After a long day of travelling and another early start we were both beginning to flag, the small peak of Ben Garrisdale appearing to take on gargantuan proportions.  In reality we only had to climb 150 metres but this took a large amount of effort with heavy packs and wobbly legs.

The wind was getting stronger with height, the temperature dropping enough for the ground to be partially frozen underfoot.  Close to the summit we found a sheltered spot out of the wind, a place to refuel and take in the huge views, trying to guess the large conical mountain in the distance.  My money was on Ben Cruachan.

The summit itself was marked by a surprisingly large cairn sitting proud on a rocky outcrop.  The views were extensive for such a low summit, being on an island close to the sea does that.  It’s height makes it a hill, although when standing on its craggy summit it is definitely a mountain.  Mountain or hill it was perishingly cold, my Kestrel 3000 device measured a wind chill of minus six celsius.  It would have been good to linger but the light was beginning to fade so we set off towards the west coast.

The original plan was to head across to the trig point and follow the ridge down to the bothy.  However at Loch Fada Ben Garrisdale lassitude began to set in and we could not be bothered to do any more climbing.  In retrospect this ended up making the rest of the day much harder.  Instead we started a contouring descent into Coire Gorm.

The bothy appeared far below us spurring us on, but the terrain meant that the going was slow through bog and tussocks.  We would find a deer trail and follow it for a while, the groove worn by hooves making walking much easier.  However the deer rarely went where we were heading and it was soon back to a descending lurch through deep vegetation.

It was with relief that we reached the boggy floor of Glen Garrisdale.  The river was easy to cross and we managed to pick up a well-defined track to the final ford just before the bothy.  We expected in the gathering gloom to see smoke drifting from the chimney but there was none.  It was a pleasant surprise to find no one at home after expecting to find the place occupied.  We were both so knackered that we could barely speak, so were relieved that we would not have to make small talk with a stranger.  It was too late to go off in search of driftwood so we made a fire using a small amount of the wood that was already there.  Bothy karma after leaving fuel in previous bothies.  After dinner we retired to our sleeping bags, each of us having one of the downstairs rooms for a snore free night.  It did not take me long to drift off.

Day 2 – 7.5 miles with 550 metres ascent

Dawn came late once again and we had breakfast by torchlight.  As the sun came over the hills and warmed the bothy Rich set off to explore the bay whilst I shuffled around the bothy, enjoying the surroundings.  The bothy occupies a lovely spot and is very well cared for.  It’s whitewashed walls and red roof give it a homely atmosphere in such bleak and rugged surroundings.

We set off at about 10am under clear blue sunny skies.  In retrospect it would have been better to have set off at dawn to beat the wet weather that quickly enveloped us later that afternoon.  There was a real feeling of the calm before the storm, the wind had totally dropped and we were soon down to base layers as we climbed to a low boggy col before dropping down to Bagh Gleann Speireig.  It was nice to be walking close to the water’s edge, the smell of the sea in the air, rocks crunching underfoot.

At the end of the small bay we started climbing through a tangle of dead bracken as we were not sure if the coastline ahead was navigable or not.  The climb was worth it for the views across the bay.

The going underfoot was easy so we ended up climbing higher than originally planned.  My eyes kept on being drawn to the island of Scarba across the Gulf of Corryvreckan.  It is pretty much just a single hill rising from the sea and is uninhabited for much of the time.  I dream of chartering a boat to drop me off there, returning a few days later to pick me up.  An open bothy could provide shelter if the weather turned bad.  Maybe next year.  Maybe.

Walking across the grassy plateau we noticed that the cliffs on the other side of Glendebadel bay became higher, the hills above those cliffs bigger.

From an airy perch above the bay it looked like it would be possible to follow the coastline to the headland.  From our position we could not tell what was beyond.  With pathless coastal walking you never really know what is round the corner.  A map often only tells half a story.  Is the flat area next to the sea going to be easy grass or greasy rocks at a difficult angle?

As we descended down to the bay we noticed that the weather was beginning to change dramatically.  The clear blue sky had been chased away by a wall of grey and a breeze had started to pick up.  Although early we decided that the sheltered bay would be a good place to stop and sit for lunch.  The beach itself was made up of large smooth rounded pebbles, the sort that would make a great feature stacked next to a slate fireplace.  They look lovely but are a real bugger to walk across, they’re also not that comfy to sit on.

A few early spots of rain got us pulling on our waterproofs as we headed round the bay.  What had looked like easy walking from above turned out to be slow going and awkward as we boulder hopped above the shore line.  It was with relief that we found a section of grass to walk along, even tussocks are easier than slippery rock.

Our luck soon ran out and the coastline looked like it was going to become increasingly difficult.  By sticking religiously to the water’s edge we realised that it would take us hours to get to our planned camp spot for the night.  We were also aware that the weather was going to start deteriorating.

We therefore climbed onto the hills above, following a succession of deer and goat tracks.  Both of these mammals are numerous along this stretch of coastline.  Wherever you look there is often a stag staring at you from a lofty perch.  Suddenly it will become spooked and you will see it running nimbly across the hills, hinds in tow.  Occasionally we would pass a patch of bracken with a pair of antlers sticking out.  Then all of a sudden a herd of well camouflaged beasts will be scattering up the hillside.  The goats often tend to stick closer to the coast, lines of them walking precipitous paths above the cliffs.  Once we got a good whiff of them, not a pleasant smell and one of the reasons I no longer eat goats cheese!

At one point we found ourselves nearly a kilometre inland and one hundred and fifty metres above the sea.  We ended up ignoring the map and simply picked our way across the moors, determined to avoid as much climbing as possible.  This was difficult as a series of ill-defined ridges fall towards the coast.  Therefore it feels that you are always going up hill, level ground being in short supply.

The end of the day was spent walking in persistent rain, the wind picking up.  It was forecast to get worse through the evening and night so we decided that we would find as sheltered a campsite as possible.

A line of cliffs finally gave way to Corpach bay below us.  As we approached the cliff edge we spotted a mass of goats and deer legging it to safety.  I suppose that they have a reason to be fearful of humans as there is the likelihood of being a target of a gun.  Even the goats are hunted on Jura.  There was no way directly down to the beach so we contoured inland above the cliffs, before finally picking a way down to sea level.  Corpach bay had some great grassy pitches right next to the beach but they were not sheltered from the now strong wind.  About a kilometre down the coast was marked another bay Traigh a Mhiadair, which had looked a much better proposition from above.

A section of raised beach between the two bays made the going difficult.  However once we reached the other bay we were glad we had made the effort.  It was a splendid spot with large flat grassy areas above a lovely sandy beach.  We wandered around for a while, trying to find a spot that provided shelter from the wind.  I quickly pitched and was glad that I had brought the Scarp1, which stood up fantastically to the constant battering.  Rich’s Laser Comp however caused him a little bother and proved difficult to pitch in the wind.  I collected water from a nearby waterfall and bade Rich a good night.  Although still early it was not an evening to be sitting around outside.  The original plan of having a driftwood fire in a cave had diminished in its appeal.  It was with relief that I got into my tent and stripped off my wet clothing.