Posts tagged ‘Mazda Bongo’

November 23, 2014

Sutherland – bongo and bothies in the far north part 1

by backpackingbongos

It was dark and raining when I arrived in Aviemore. After nearly nine hours in the Bongo I was tired and hungry and needed a good long break from driving. Reuben did not look very impressed when I left him and sat in the fish and chip shop for half an hour. Thankfully all the outdoor shops had closed which meant that no unnecessary damage was done to my wallet. Reuben had the glamour of his dinner in a lay-by and a wee on the side of the A9.

The lights on the Bongo are pretty poor which makes driving in the dark a bit of a chore. I was constantly being dazzled by high-powered halogen bulbs or people who left it late to dip their lights as we made our way north. Not much fun with tired eyes. Twelve hours after leaving home I finally pulled off the road near the summit of the single track road through Glen Loth. I would love to say that when I got out of the van I was mesmerised by the star filled sky. Instead I was greeted by drizzle and even Reuben was not that keen on a quick leg stretcher along the empty road.


Ben Griam Mor – 590 metres

Nothing beats opening the blinds of the Bongo in the morning when you have arrived in the dark the night before. The rain during the night had passed and the air felt fresh and clean, a weak sun shining through the remaining clouds. As I sat and ate breakfast in the van there was a mini rush hour on the single track mountain road. It’s an obvious short cut between Strath Kildonan and the busy A9.

It was a scenic drive north to the small village of Kinbrace, which boasts a railway station on the Inverness to Wick line. The place has a real frontier feel about it, surrounded in every direction by bleak open moorland. I continued west along the single track B871, parking just south of the Garvault Hotel, often touted as the remotest on the mainland. It truly is in a wild and woolly spot, miles from anywhere, only a narrow strip of tarmac linking it to the outside world. It took me a while to work out what was missing, there were no power lines or telegraph poles along the road. The only man-made intrusion being a block of commercial forestry.

A rough track led us uphill, Reuben relishing being off lead after spending the day before cooped up in the van. The weather forecast indicated that this would be the best day of the week, the usual sorry tale of wind and rain for the days after. However it was not quite good enough for the big hills due to the wind. The Griam’s were a worthy alternative. They are perfect pyramids rising from the otherwise flat moors, not reaching the magic 2000ft but dominating the area for miles. I thought that they would be great viewpoints over the Flow Country.

The track was soon left for a direct assault across boggy tussocky ground and then the final steep slopes. The view from the summit was as good as I had anticipated, one of the wildest areas of Scotland lay at my feet. It was the Flow Country that really caught my eye, its vast flatness is truly impressive.

A couple of showers rattled through on the strong wind, the sky alternating light and dark with rainbows providing colour. I had planned to climb Ben Griam Beg as well but I decided against it, giving an excuse to return to this magical place (actually more down to laziness). Instead I descended to the north down very steep grassy slopes to Loch Coire nan Mang, the rough track then gave easy walking back to the Bongo.












A car park is marked on the OS map south of Dalvina Lodge in Strath Naver, along a track roughly a mile from the road. There was no actual sign indicating this when I turned the Bongo off the road later that afternoon and I was a little nervous as I drove down the track. The well hidden car park did actually exist, the starting point for a walk to the clearance village of Rosal. Unfortunately darkness was quickly approaching and I did not get time to explore. However it was a perfect spot to spend a peaceful night in the Bongo.


Loch Strathy Bothy

I last came to Sutherland in 2011 and walked into Loch Strathy bothy with Pete from Writes of Way. This wonderful bothy is located right at the edge of the Flows Nature Reserve, slap bang in the middle of one of the UK’s most unique landscapes. I wanted to visit once more before this area is industrialised, buried under miles of tracks and the concrete foundations of numerous giant wind turbines. Since I last visited the Strathy north power station has been consented and is under construction, although the turbines themselves have not gone up yet. The more damaging Strathy south is currently with the Scottish Government awaiting their decision. One more visit for me before the area is bristling with giant spinning machines.

I parked close to the access road to Rhifail, a track taking us past the numerous buildings and directly onto the moor behind. It was a bright and sunny morning but the wind was very strong, making walking difficult. A very wet argocat track went in our direction for a while before deserting us in the middle of some impossible bogs. Alone I was cautious as I slowly walked east towards the block of forestry in which the bothy sits. The final obstacle was a high ladder stile over a deer fence. This proved to be very tricky to get Reuben over on my own, luckily he just froze and let me do what needed to be done.

Being a Saturday I was pleased to get the bothy to myself, although I could not imagine what sort of person would want to trudge out there at the end of October! It was evident from the bothy book that some of the contractors from the wind farm had been living there over the summer months. Not really the intended use of bothies and it was clear that the Maintenance Organiser was not very happy about the fact. The MO is none other than Ralph MacGregor, he has a cracking column in the Caithness Courier and some lovely books on the area. A big pile of those books kept me occupied during the long night in front of a roaring fire. Bothy bliss.

It was interesting to note in the bothy book that it was three years to the day when I had visited with Pete. Further reading made me nervous about going out to the loo in the dark. There had been several recent sightings of a large black cat in the forest. Scare stories or not, the vast remote plantations could easily hide such a creature.

I had carried 5kg of coal over the moors with me, typically there was enough fuel already at the bothy for several nights. I left my contribution to the fire when I set off back to the Bongo the following morning. I wondered to myself if I would ever return, Ralph had made comments to the effect that the bothy would be abandoned if Strathy South gets the go ahead.







My unlined leather boots had due to some miracle got me to the bothy with dry feet. They totally gave up on the way back to the van. I was totally saturated from the knees down. Reuben also did not look too impressed with his walk across the flow country. With night coming early in the far north there was not much time for any more outdoor activities that day. I drove the Bongo into the Borgie forest following a signpost for the ‘Unknown’ and a night of wind and rain.


Strabeg bothy

The plan for the following day had been to walk to and spend a couple of nights in a very remote non MBA bothy on the north coast. I pointed the Bongo in the direction of the village of Tongue where I purchased what is possibly the worlds most expensive diesel. The fuel gauge on the Bongo gave up working a couple of years ago which means that I am over-cautious in an attempt not to run out in remote places.

Half an hour later I parked on a high pass, the starting point for the walk to a bothy that has long been on my ‘must visit’ list. The van was rocking alarmingly, rain sheeting down with even the lowest hills being hidden in a world of murk. My map showed a few rivers that needed to be forded along with a cliff top walk. Reuben gave me a nervous glance from the passenger seat. I drove off in search of alternative adventures.

The MBA Strabeg bothy is located a couple of miles south of Loch Eriboll, looking like a perfect alternative to my original plan. Opening the van door it was torn from my hands and nearly ripped from its hinges. I had to exit from the other side, the wind being so strong. I got my pack together and added a bag of coal and kindling. Nights are long and I did not want to spend one without a fire. Reuben was coaxed out from his warm and comfortable spot during a brief break in the weather. He had earlier refused to even go out for the toilet.

What I thought would be an easy straightforward walk turned into a nightmare. The good track soon turned into a boggy ride across very wet ground. The first stream on the map was totally flooded, I could not even get within twenty metres of the crossing point. I sloshed upstream and found a knee-deep calm section which I crossed carrying Reuben. I really should have turned back at the stream just before the bothy itself. It was a foaming torrent of white water. I found the widest point, dumped my pack and set off with Reuben in my arms. The water was just below my knee at its deepest but a combination of the force and an uneven stream bed made the going very difficult. I deposited Reuben and returned to collect my pack, then made a third crossing. My boots made squelching noises as I climbed the last few metres to our home for the night.

I quickly made myself comfortable, changing out of wet clothes and lighting the fire and some candles. I was very impressed to find that the bothy has a proper flushing loo. A warm and relaxed night was had, wind and rain battering and shaking the bothy. As the rain continued to fall all night I would be lying if I said that I was not worried about getting back to the van the following day.







November 16, 2014

Certified in the Peak District

by backpackingbongos

I found myself wandering to the shops on Friday wearing a pair of Crocs. The main issue is that I felt no shame in doing so. This clearly demonstrates that at least half of my life is now behind me. The first sign of this was late last year when I purchased a membership to the Camping and Caravan Club. This is the preserve of pensioners and people who put lamps and bunches of flowers on the table at the back of their caravans. Those not in caravans tow small cars behind large mobile homes (this is really just backwards caravan behaviour). I now walk amongst them, although quietly as the sites can resemble something from the Stepford Wives and I might get told off. The loos are nice and clean though.

Obviously manicured lawns, measured pitches and having Julia Bradbury as club president are all very well. The most alluring thing about membership is the Certified Sites. There are literally hundreds dotted around the country, tucked away in fields and farms. A maximum of five campervans or caravans and members only mean that they are nice and quiet. It’s proper old fashioned camping with the toilet in a barn and a big spider on the wall. You are also unlikely to have a kid called Tyson kicking their football at your tent.

There is a superb one just below Chrome Hill in the Peak District, which I visited with Reuben and Bona-fide pensioners Geoff and Chrissie a few weeks ago. Three dogs was no problem for the farmer and she put us in a field away from the cows. Free to roam Reuben still thought it best practise to avoid the labraloony and grumpy boxer (they are actual real dogs and not my nickname for Chrissie and Geoff).

A day walk was sandwiched between a couple of nights being fed by Geoff and drinking whisky in their van which has mod cons like heating. I had to drag myself away each night to the small and rather cold Bongo which felt like slumming it after being in their palace on wheels.

The walk was planned and led by Chrissie, selected from a guidebook called ‘The most neglected and overgrown paths in the Peak District’. The initial climb up Chrome Hill as always was a cracker. There then followed a succession of ‘paths’ that have not been walked this century and perhaps the last. We emerged back at the vans stung and bleeding but somehow still talking to each other.

To round off the day nicely Reuben found a large and very wet pile of fox poo to roll in. He was actually dripping in the stuff. I got the last laugh though with a bucket of cold water and loads of washing up liquid.

It then rained. The end.









November 2, 2014

Video diary – wet and wild in the far north

by backpackingbongos

I have just got back from a ten day trip to Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. To be honest the weather was rubbish and I did not get to climb many big hills. Thankfully I had my faithful Bongo to provide shelter and I made use of a couple of superb MBA bothies. I recorded a few video clips in which I babble into the camera whilst the wind does its best to drown me out.


June 24, 2014

The Outer Hebrides – A Bongo on Harris and Lewis pt3

by backpackingbongos

As I drove past the car park at Huisinis it was rather comical seeing all the campervans lined up with barely enough room for them to open their doors. It’s not exactly getting away from it all when you can hear your neighbour snore.

We stopped off at Tarbert, the capital of the Isle of Harris, which to call a one horse town would be unfair to towns with one horse. It’s a dreary sort of place only enlivened by the fact that there is a tap outside the tourist information centre. I did however contribute to the local economy by handing over my credit card in the Harris Tweed shop. A birthday present for my wife procured with some relief with only a few days to spare.

The plan for the day was to do a circuit of South Harris in the Bongo, visit a cafe and climb a hill. The Temple Cafe at Northton is worth a visit, a contrast to the bleakness of the island. Nice hippy type vibes, great views and some real food to set me up for the day. My wallet was considerably lighter when leaving though.

I had planned to climb the 368 metre Ceapabhal after lunch but from the cafe it looked like a long, dull and steep plod up to its summit. I’m sure that the views would be exceptional though, along with the walk around the surrounding coastline. Instead we headed for a rocky beast just outside the village of Leverburgh.

Roineabhal – 460 metres

I just about managed to squeeze the Bongo off the narrow single track road a kilometre north of Rodel. It was then just a case of bashing through the heather, bog and rocky outcrops to pick up the wide southern ridge. We then found ourselves in a totally surreal and barren lunar landscape, almost devoid of vegetation. It really was an exceptional ascent, made all the better by the surrounding seascapes that were gradually being revealed.

Being a relatively small hill the summit was reached in less than an hour, even with dawdling. The view to the north took my breath away, a landscape of lochans, low hills and rock. Lots and lots of rock. I think that I should let some photos do the talking.










Safely back at the van we headed north on the narrow and twisting road along the east coast of Harris. I kept my eye out on suitable places to spend the night in the van but options were limited. The only good spot already being occupied by another retiree tour bus. The interior of south Harris is somewhere to head as a backpacker to seek out some truly wild spots. However I’m not sure if there would be any suitable pitches that are not rock, water or bog.

Late in the evening we ended back on North Harris at the mouth of Gleann Mhiabhaig, only a few miles short of Huisinis where we had started the day. Once again the Bongo received another Hebridean battering that night, the hills that I planned to climb the following day hidden under a blanket of dark cloud.

Stulabhal – 579 metres, Teileasbhal – 697 metres, Uisgneabhal Mor – 729 metres

I woke to another world of murk so went back to sleep. The forecast was for slowly improving conditions with a bright sun symbol for early evening. We finally set off on a thirteen mile walk after midday, the surrounding hills yet to shake off their morning blanket of cloud.

The day started off easily enough, following a landrover track north, deep into the wilds of the North Harris hills. We passed the eagle observatory and several people who had failed to spot anything due to the low cloud. I was to see six later that day.

The track finished at a fishing hut at Loch Bhoisimid and we took to a well engineered stalking path. Crossing a stream and stopping to fill my water bottle I made an unpleasant discovery. My Pacerpoles were strapped to my pack as I had been walking Reuben on his lead up to that point. Somehow the bottom two sections of one had escaped since leaving the van. I was annoyed that I had not tightened them up properly, but to return perhaps all the way back to the Bongo would have put an end to a day in the hills. I decided to continue.

The security of the stalkers path was soon left to climb very steep and rough ground up the north-west ridge of Stuabhal and into the ever shifting clouds. The base would rise and fall like the sea, giving either zero visibility or uplifting views.

The scenery as we curved round and over Teileasbhal and Uisgneabhal Mor was outstanding, the swirling cloud and shafts of sunshine adding to the atmosphere. There was a sublime moment on the summit of Uisgneabhal Mor when a golden eagle loomed out of the mist, flying a few metres overhead, silently being swallowed by the cloud. I was grinning from ear to ear.

It was on the final long descent of the day when something truly special happened. The cloud started to break up properly, patches of blue sky appearing before being engulfed again. Often it would be clear on one side of the ridge whilst the glen on the other would be full of cloud. Several times I saw a perfect Brocken spectre, a halo of light with rainbow colours and my huge shadow in the middle. It would last a couple of seconds before the clouds were snatched away, returning for the briefest of moments. Sadly I was not quick enough with the camera.

Finally the cloud dissipated leaving clear blue skies. I lingered and took my time descending back to the van, the weather had finally played ball for a last day on the hills. It was a very tired man and dog that got back to the Bongo at past 10.00pm.




















Reuben was a broken dog the following morning, he would have preferred to stay in his bed rather than getting up for the loo and food. It was probably a good thing that we were getting the ferry back to Skye and starting the drive home that afternoon. I don’t think he would have been very happy being taken up another mountain.

Typically the day started warm and sunny, even the cold wind of the past week had dropped. The weather always seems to turn for the better just before a long drive home from Scotland. I thought that with a few hours to spare before the ferry it would be nice to visit Luskentyre, often listed in the world’s top ten beaches.

Although I did not go right to the end of the road where the beach is meant to be at its best, I found a spectacular spot to hang out for a couple of hours. Once presented with all that empty sand Reuben forgot he was tired and raced around as fast as he could.

I will be back to the Outer Hebrides sooner rather than later.




June 19, 2014

The Outer Hebrides – A Bongo on Harris and Lewis pt2

by backpackingbongos

When I stuck my head out of the van door the cyclist, motorcyclists and campervan had gone. Peace and solitude had been restored to my wild camp spot. I was disappointed to see that low cloud hung over the peaks I had planned to climb, the day when it was actually meant to be sunny had not materialised. Time for a second breakfast before slinging my pack over my shoulder and setting off with Reuben.

Laibheal a Tuath – 505 metres, Naideabhal a-Muigh – 452 meters, Griomabhal – 497 metres

The names of the hills that I was climbing do not exactly slip off the tongue. The mass of contours on the map are equally indecipherable. Noticing cattle and fencing on the nearby small hill of Taireabhal we walked along the road for a bit before launching directly up rough slopes. The aim was to gain the wide western ridge of Laibheal a Tuath, this would then give a straightforward ascent to the summit. The going was indeed easy until we were swallowed by the clouds. It was then that one boulder strewn bit of hillside began to look remarkably like the next. I’m not ashamed to say that I pulled out my Satmap GPS at the summit cairn just to double check that it was actually the summit. Thankfully it was.

It was a case of counting the lochans to the minor summit of Laibheal a Deas. Distances and slopes being distorted in the mist. Suddenly patches of blue appeared overhead, sun lightening the swirling mist. The clouds were torn apart teasing me with a view for a few seconds before enveloping us again. They finally dissolved leaving a few wispy tendrils above and below, revealing a spectacular landscape.

It was a land of rock and sparse vegetation, slow progress when picking your way through boulders and small crags. I misjudged one step and turned my ankle, the pain making me gasp. I had horrible thoughts about how I would get down with a broken ankle. Luckily this was not the case, although it was painful to walk on for a few days and still twinges now.

These are amongst the most spectacular hills I have walked and remarkably undiscovered. They deserve to be teeming with folk but I’m glad that they are not.

As we reached Griomabhal, the final summit of the day, I noticed that low cloud was creeping along the coast to the north west. Banks of cloud were also beginning to engulf some of the lower hills in the wild hinterland directly to the north. It looked like there could have been the possibility of an impressive inversion later that evening. However with a grumbling stomach and the real possibility of just being engulfed in cloud we made our way slowly down the rocky west ridge and back to the Bongo.

Later that evening I realised that I had made a good call when cloud engulfed the summits and slowly crept its way down to just above sea level. The gloom was atmospheric and I was lucky to have such a wild and beautiful place all to myself that night.












The following morning the cloud was resolutely hanging low in the sky, barely above the roof of the van. Ruling out exploring the hills we returned to the great expanse of beach at Traigh Uige where Reuben indulged in chasing a ball and killing seaweed. I treated myself to a hot shower, the best pound I spent all week.

There is a community shop that sells fuel at the nearby village of Timsgearraidh. It is surprisingly well stocked and puts my local Co-op to shame. Even the diesel was only a couple of pence more expensive than on the mainland. What I enjoyed the most however was the dourness of the woman behind the till. I don’t think she could have been anymore unfriendly. It was like being in a surreal comedy sketch as she scanned each item with an incredible slowness. I felt like I had told an inappropriate joke about a dead relative. I was tempted to ask if they sold tofu and the Guardian but thought better of it.

Driving back along the lengthy cul-de-sac road I spotted what I thought was someone tied to a telegraph pole. Thankfully this was not the case, instead a rather quirky scene which invited you to ‘join the band’, if the weather had been kinder I would have spent time encouraging Reuben to do so.


One of the areas which I was most keen to visit was the peninsular called Pairc. This is the wildest and remotest part of Lewis, appearing almost as an island on the map. There are some very remote hills and coastline, really only accessible by the backpacker or boat. It has one of the highest densities of eagles in Europe. Sadly this little known area has come into the spotlight due to the 33 turbine Muaitheabhal wind farm and the 6 turbine extension that have been consented for the area. Although they have yet to be built. There is now another 20 plus turbine extension to the south being planned. All in a vast swathe of wild land. I wanted to have a look at the area before it is lost.

The single track road there is in very poor condition with few passing places. I was constantly hoping that I did not meet anyone coming the other way. The plan was to climb the 327 metre high Feiriosbhal where most of the turbines will be located. Sadly the weather was not playing ball. The cloud base remained below one hundred metres for the whole day. There was no point in trudging across rough moorland in the mist.

There was however a spectacular moment when a golden eagle soared a few metres above the Bongo, a memorable sight. This on the other hand was tinged with sadness as I could make out several wind monitoring masts nearby, their tops lost in the clouds. I personally don’t understand the rationale of putting 150 metre turbines where there are so many eagles.

The night was spent a few miles away on the road high above Reinigeadal, with the hope of great views along the coast. Instead I was treated by low cloud, strong winds and heavy rain. It was a noisy night as the Bongo took on another Hebridean battering.

Huisinis, Isle of Harris 

A couple of good friends just happened to be visiting the Outer Hebrides at the same time as myself and Reuben. They had sailed to South Uist from Oban and were working their way up to Harris. We agreed to meet one evening at Huisinis and spend a couple of days together.

Huisinis is located at the end of a long single track road on the North Harris Estate. The scenery along the way is a perfect mixture of mountains and coast as the road snakes up and down the toes of the hills as they dip into the sea. I frequently pulled over the Bongo to sit and stare at the scenery, I did not actually get out of the van as the weather was truly dreadful. Reuben was dead set on enjoying the scenery from the comfort of the passenger seat. Declining to even contemplate going outside I did worry about the strength of his bladder as he had earlier refused a morning toilet trip.

The beach at Huisinis is small but perfectly formed. A crescent of sand with water that would put many tropical paradises to shame. The car park however is also tiny and was filled with camper vans. I noticed a sandy track leading to the north and the jetty that overlooks the Island of Scarp. It turned out to be a peaceful spot but also unsheltered from the very brisk and rather cold north wind that blew for the next couple of days. Thankfully that afternoon the rain finally stopped and we got to explore the headland and the small hill of Cnoc Mor.

Graham and Rae appeared in the evening, pitching their tent above a small sandy bay just to the west of the main Huisinis beach. Attempts to be sociable were soon thwarted by the weather, showers once again rattling in on a cold wind.

The plan the following day had been to walk north around the coast to Loch a Ghlinne and then take to the surrounding hills. The strong wind made that a less than pleasant prospect, so we settled on a few hours slowly exploring the coastline. The surrounding area has some of the best beaches you are likely to find anywhere, even under cloudy skies the waters are a bright turquoise. I’m going to have to return with a tent and spend a few days camping on some of that short-cropped machair right by the waters edge.

We did have a successful evening sitting at Graham and Rae’s ‘private’ beach. Even so the cold wind made it a down jacket affair even though it was the end of May. A good price to pay as it also kept the midges at bay.