Reuben in the photo below is weighing up the ascent of the 514 metre Cracabhail (Isle of Lewis). Such places show the folly of defining a mountain simply by height. The Uig hills only reach 574 metres, yet they rise head and shoulder above much loftier heights. A couple of days walking here and a new pair of leather boots looked ten years old.
The wind blew incessantly, first from the west and then from the north. One night the Bongo felt like a ship at sea, the wind rocking it violently from side to side. I’m glad that I did not take a tent. Low clouds shrouded the mountains whilst a succession of weather fronts rattled through. It was only on the last two days that temperatures nudged into double figures.
I have long wanted to visit the Islands of Harris and Lewis, which is actually one land mass. The Bongo was home and transport for Reuben and myself for 12 nights. It did me proud on the 1200 mile round trip, its only demand being a constant thirst for diesel.
There were fleeting glimpses of sunshine but it would often be raining again before I had a chance to remove waterproofs. The pitter patter sound on the Bongo was a regular wake up call each morning. Despite this the landscape blew me away, it was like arriving in a different country. Fine sandy beaches could not be a greater contrast to the rugged, barren interior of Harris and South Lewis. A fantastic uplifting place to be. North Lewis just made me feel sad and melancholic.
I’ll do a couple of posts in due course. Whilst I was away I uploaded a few photos on Twitter and Instagram. I have included them below. These were taken on my mobile and they are meant to look as they are. No anti Instagram snobbery please!
The Quiraing, Isle of Skye.
Calanais stone circle, Isle of Lewis.
View from Beinn Bhragair, Isle of Lewis.
Reuben killing seaweed on Traigh Uige, Isle of Lewis.
The view from the summit of Mealasisbhal, Isle of Lewis.
The view from Griomabhal, Isle of Lewis.
Locals on the Isle of Lewis.
Evening sky at Huisinis, Isle of Harris.
The very rocky Roineabhal, Isle of Harris.
Reuben deciding that he has done enough walking for the day.
View from the remote summit of Stulabhal, Isle of Harris.
Sunshine at the end of the very last day! Descending from Uisgneabhal Mor, Isle of Harris.
With a four day bank holiday I had planned to stay at home and relax. However come the Friday afternoon I found myself feeling restless. Two whole weeks had passed since I had slept outside, the wild camping addiction is a hard one to break. Maps were taken off the shelf and a quick and easy backpack was devised, leading to a spot I have fancied pitching on for a while. Texts and emails were exchanged with Rich and Chrissie and plans were made.
Rich and I met with Chrissie in a lay-by on Bradfield Moor at 5.00pm, just as the day trippers were heading home. She was dropped off by Geoff her husband / chauffeur / maker of fine cakes. He would pick us up at noon the following day from the Strines Inn a few miles away. That meant that we could do a good circuit on the moors without any road walking.
The bridleway of the Dukes road meant that we made good progress across the moor, until we left it at the head of Abbey Brook. Here the ground turned to awkward tussocks. We were in the land of the mountain hare, in every direction they ran, tails still with a hint of winter white. Reuben was quivering with the sheer excitement of it all. We passed a well camouflaged leveret, unnoticed by Reuben who walked within a few inches.
We headed to the chosen camp spot, hopeful that the tussocks would disappear. They did to some extent, although the ground remained rather lumpy. A good spot to pitch the tents, a feeling of height with great views all around. Sadly the conditions were very murky, no chance of a sunset and rubbish light for photography.
There was water within a five minute walk, although the colour of brown ale it was palatable after filtering. The stream we took it from even had a good beery froth to it.
Without a breath of wind we all sat outside to eat and socialise until after dark, the first time I have sat outside late this year. Reuben had kindly carried a couple of cans of beer for me in his panniers. It was a treat drinking them on the moor. A nice convivial evening.
The wind did pick up in the night, shaking the exposed tents. After spending the last trip in my Trailstar I had forgotten just how warm and cosy a ‘proper’ tent can be. Despite a period of doggy dreams where Reuben did a bit of wuffing and a mini howl (I reckon his head was full of mountain hares) I slept really well.
We woke early to wind-blown drizzle, the world outside looking less than appealing. Our agreed setting off time was not until 10.00am so I had a relaxing laze with lots of coffee and the compulsory bacon Supernoodles. Rich even made a delivery of homemade banana and chocolate muffins. I had a very full belly by the time we hoisted our packs and walked into the drizzle.
We headed for Back Tor, initially along Cartledge Stones Ridge. Thankfully soon after setting off the rain stopped and a hazy sun came out. Three sets of Paramo were hastily packed away.
Back Tor is a great spot, its rocky summit reminiscent of Dartmoor. It is an easy scramble to its trig point, although it took some pushing and lifting to get Reuben up there.
A simple yomp down Foulstone Road led us quickly to the Strines Inn and a waiting Geoff. It was then a short drive back to my car.
Another trip that shows that backpacking does not need to be a huge epic or involve much planning. Throw some gear in your pack at the last minute and pitch on a hill. Even more enjoyable with good company.
Chrissie’s version of events can be found here.
Day 4 – 23 kilometres with 590 metres ascent
It was probably one of the worst nights that I have ever had for condensation. No wind, next to a stream and temperatures around freezing meant the walls were dripping by morning. That was in a huge drafty shelter with no door, my Scarp would have turned into a chilly sauna. Rather than start moving about and get everything wet with drips I decided to lay in my sleeping bag until the sun hit and dried everything out. Therefore it was once again gone 9.00am by the time I got up, no great hardship. I was spoilt by another alfresco breakfast, stretched out on a groundsheet in the warm sun. I wish that everyday could start like that.
It was yet another morning where the blue sky looked unreal such was its brilliance.
I followed the River Eskin for a while until it met a series of streams flowing down from Coire Seilich. Once again I used a series of grassy rides alongside the streams to guide me through the peat and heather on the climb to the north. Along one such stream I came across a large lurid green bog. A prod with my Pacerpole failed to reach solid ground. Not a spot to unwittingly stumble into, especially with no one to pull you out.
The last couple of kilometres to the summit of Carn na Saobhaidhe was particularly unpleasant, height did little to tame the vegetation. Time was spent lurching and cursing under the hot sun, feeling like the summit was not getting any closer. Height however did increase the views and I could look east and see my route for later in the day.
As I was approaching the summit I kept spotting a bright yellow object, this would move about and then disappear. It was difficult to work out what it was from a distance. As I eventually reached the summit plateau I could see it was a man in a high-vis tabard taking 360 degree photos on a large camera. For me there could only be one reason he would be there and I asked him if he was taking photos for a wind farm. He confirmed that he was. There then took place a short and polite conversation about wind farms. He said that he liked them for their beauty and they give him employment. I asked him a series of questions and he obliged by answering them.
As I am an Independent Advocate in my professional life I am aware that you need to talk to the right person if you want to influence change. I have my personal feelings about building wind farms in such places but it was not really appropriate to inflict them on this guy. At the end of the day he was a very small cog in a huge machine. I did think of various uses for his tripod though.
I decided to shuffle off and seek some shelter in which to have lunch. A mound of peat with grouse grit on top was the only such shelter on the exposed hill. I could also turn my back on the man in the fluorescent tabard and enjoy the view to the north. Ben Wyvis was clearly seen and I could just make out the Kessock bridge near Inverness. My phone even received a signal when I turned it on giving me the opportunity to call my wife.
It really was rather pleasant in the sun and I had to resist the temptation to have a bit of a snooze. Back on my feet I once again passed the guy taking his panoramic photos, this time without his bright jacket. I had mentioned to him earlier that he was visible from miles away, perhaps he decided he did not want to draw attention to himself again. As I left the hill I registered my protest by ensuring that I walked into shot.
I have heard about the track that leads to the summit of Carn na Saobhaidhe from the north. However nothing could have prepared me for just how destructive it was. A deep gash bulldozed through the soft peat, mounds piled up to ten feet high on either side. It really was spectacular in its hideousness. What made me chuckle however was that the chap doing the wind farm panoramas could not get his vehicle up it as it was full of snow. Once away from the monstrosity, the cairn on Carn Mhic Lamhair was a nice place to sit down again.
Rough ground was crossed before dropping down to Allt Odhar and an easy track to the cottage at Dalbeg. This occupies a prime spot on the upper reaches of the River Findhorn. If the owners are reading this and fancy letting me stay please get in touch!
This part of the Findhorn is simply lovely, an area where I enjoyed a wild camp during the 2011 TGO Challenge. A good track led me rapidly towards Coignafearn lodge, my pack feeling heavy and feet hot under the cloudless skies.
I took a track that branched off up the Elrick burn and I was now at the lowest spot since the beginning of the trip, a lowly 450 metres. There was then a long steady climb ahead as I wanted to cross the watershed into the upper Dulnain before the end of the day. The track gave easy progress up the scenic glen, the river a lively companion to my left.
I had planned to cross the burn at a footbridge but this was now in pieces beside the track, only steel girders remaining. I continued to the ford further upstream where boots and socks were removed. The ford was wide but reasonably smooth bottomed meaning it was not too painful on bare feet, the freezing water on the other hand initially made me gasp. With it reaching my knees there was no way to cross dry-shod whilst wearing boots.
The track soon started to zig zag up the hillside to the left, I climbed up this for a while before branching off on an unmarked track that just happened to be going in my direction above the stream. This contrasted hugely with the great scar I had witnessed near Carn na Saobhaidhe, with a little effort hill tracks don’t have to be huge monstrosities.
When the track petered out it was a simple case of following grassy banks along the infant stream to its watershed, this being hidden under lingering snow banks. It was like a game of Russian roulette as I gingerly crossed them, aware of the sound of running water. Once again it was a glorious evening, the low sun casting warmth and shadow across the heather clad hillsides.
I was tired when I finally reached the wooden bothy, so decided to spend the night inside rather than pitch the Trailstar. The hard wooden floor was unforgiving but it would enable an easy getaway the following morning.
Day 5 – 11 kilometres with 160 metres
After spending nights on beds of moss and grassy river banks, a hard floor meant I did not sleep very well. I had a long drive ahead of me later that day so I was off and away before the sun cast away the shadows around the bothy. The track that would lead me directly back to Kingussie was at an easy gradient. I felt a bit sad as I had a final look over my shoulders into the wild heart of the Monadhliath before the trudge back to the car.
The final stretch of tarmac between Pitmain Lodge and Kingussie was a bit of a bore, especially with a rumbling belly. I had eaten the last of my food for breakfast, supplies being rationed the previous day. The Coop was raided for carbohydrate and sugar based foods to set me on my way for the 400 mile drive south.