Friday, 3 June 2011

A packrafting and hiking trek through the highlands. May '11

The Bar at the bridge of Orchy was busy when I got off the train. Some people were taking shelter after a day on the hills. Many were stopping over in the bunkhouse between days following the West Highland Way. I'd been at work all day and I didn't care a bit about the rain and the wind. With two weeks holiday ahead of me I was content to get drunk on cheap lager and consult my maps. So get drunk on cheap lager and consult my maps I did, and I didn't care about the rabbiting crowds (although I was itching for the morning when I'd be away) or the doom-saying weather forecast pinned above the bar. Although I was really quite tired, I stayed in the bar and knocked back pints and drams and scoured my maps (I love maps) until fairly near closing time when I scuttled and slipped along through the rain to the spot where I'd pitched my tent. I was camped next to the River Orchy and I drew water before going to bed. When I awoke the next morning the river was noticeably higher, and the spot I had drawn water from the evening before was submerged. after a breakfast of Earl Grey (half a liter thereof) and a very large pot of porridge, finished with squeezable honey and smashed up nuts, my holiday began... kind of.

The first eight or nine miles of my route followed the West Highland way along an old drove road that crosses Rannoch Moor from South to North. I shared this road with umpteen mountain bikers and groups of walkers (which wasn't exactly what I was looking for).

I found solitude when, at Ba Bridge, I cut off to the east, away form 'The Way' and into the bog. The River Ba was raging beneath the Ba Bridge, and looking back up in to the steep corries of Clach Leothad, Anach Mor and Stob Gobhar I could see the water coursing down the mountain sides.

The driest and warmest April on record had given way to torrential rain just in time for my trip. I was pleased, because the damage done by fire to many areas of the highlands during April had been disastrous. Swathes of land were affected by wild fires and the Forest of Rothiemurchus had only narrowly escaped catastrophe on more than one occasion. A sign in the Pinewoods alongside Loch Tulla reminds would be fire-starters: 'That which burns NEVER RETURNS'.

I would have had an easier trip if I had been out in April, when this trip was originally scheduled for. Unfortunately (or more truthfully through my own stupid fault) I had bought myself a ticket to broken-hand city (a nasty place if ever I've known one), spent pretty much the whole of April there, and largely missed out on what is basically my favorite time of year: For several years running trips in April have been among the best of my year (but try putting up a tent, or even stuffing away a bivy bag, one-handed). My hand gave me gyp throughout this trip, but not enough to offset the enjoyment. Neither the sharp stabbing pains or the dull throbbing aches of a healing fracture could get me down any more than could the whipping rain, stinging hail and incessant, face reddening wind (try as it might!). In fact, an amusing element of surprise was gained from the general changeability of the weather. One minute I would be paddling in calm water, with the sun on my face (for not many minutes, granted). The next, murky clouds would have gathered overhead and I would be thrashed until the sky decided to change it's mind once again. On my final day out, I was looking back to the summits I'd passed over the day before to see them blanketed with fresh snow (devoid of it as they were the day before). The photos I took on this trip were almost exclusively taken during the 10% of time when the rain / hail / snow subsided and allowed a little blue sky to show through. The photos that I took on this trip were exclusively taken on kodak disposable cameras (as you can tell from the quality of the shots) because my cameras ghost fled ahead of the trip... It had probably gotten gale-force wind of the nature of my plans and decided to 'end it all' in its own, dignified manner.

Here's what I did on my holiday...

Looking both up and down the river from the put in gave me nice views...

the glowering sky added to the experience of paddling the River Ba, veiled views of the hills all around...

on Eilean Mollach I found a good camp site on a sandy beach... with no midges!

the weather changed again and again between my camp and the Abhainn Ba... I portaged a couple of stretches but then came to to the vast Loch Laidon...

after lunch on a beautiful sandy beach on Loch Laidon I looked onward toward the rest of the slog!

the Garbh Gaur looked inviting to start with... and for the first couple of km or so I floated blissfully, watching the birds and barely paddling. the name of the stretch had given away its nature in advance, however, and I was ready to pull my boat out of the water (as I presently did): Garbh is 'Rough' in Gaelic.

After a portage of a few miles with my boat strapped to my back I reached the end of the end of the Garbh Gaur and paddled across the unpronounceable Loch Eigheach. Once at the end of the loch I had another portage to avoid weirs and some natural falls before I could get back onto the water in the dusk.

Although I had to pull out and scout for some stretches, I enjoyed my paddle down the River Gaur. I eventually decided to just deflate and walk when the darkness began to crowd in (9:45ish) and from that point walked along the road, over the Bridge of Gaur and found a camp not too far from the River.

The next morning I put in below the Bridge of Gaur and floated out into Loch Rannoch. I passed a castled Crannog (now overtaken by a noisy colony of birds) and paddled increasingly rough waters until coming ashore at the foot of The Black Wood.

The great trees remind you of that which is lost to this country (Scotland). A polished path leads you through the expanse of the true Caledonian woodland area. The woodland surrounding the reserve is mainly insidious commercial plantation. You can leave the path and wander through the Black Wood (as I did) but, unfortunately, you are unlikely to ever get lost.... shouldn't you be able to get really and truly lost in a "Forest"? Not here... but there are some nice, old trees, all the same...

after dropping back down to Loch Rannoch from the Black Wood I put back in to paddle the remaining distance to Kinloch Rannoch. As I approached the sleepy village a rainbow broke over the landing spot I was aiming for. Lambs scattered as I landed...

I had a nice view looking back up Loch Rannoch..

After a night camped at the foot of the East side of Shiehallion I walked up to the rocky summit in the morning. The conditions switched from sunshine to hail and then back again within ten minutes as I brewed a cup of tea beneath a boulder at the top.

After descending the west side of Shiehallion I found a small bothy I hadn't previously known to exist. Although I had only had a short day I decided to stop for the night. A sign inside the bothy introduces the bothy ghost. His name is Hendry and apparently he "died due to dust inhalation... some bugger burned the brush!" I noticed that the brush propped in the corner of the small turf clad stone refuge was made of metal. I made a fire of dead heather storks and was thankful for it when the evening chill came.

The next day began with a climb up and over a hill called Gael Charn, also with a little bothy constructed near the summit.

After a very rough and boggy walk I was on the cloudy summit of Carn Mairg.

Occasionally the ridge crept out of the clouds as I made my way along.

Occasionally I got more than glimpsing views of the rest of the ridge, and my intended hills for the next couple of days (the Ben Lawers and Tarmachan ridges).

after descending Carn Gorm at the western end of the ridge, I made my way down Glen Lyon and towards Loch Tay. After an evening paddle, I made my camp on a little island amongst the ruins of a castle.

After slogging up Meall Greig to begin my way along the Ben Lawers ridge, I was nearly blown over on the summit. With the rain makign the rock wet, and the wind shaking my balance, I didn't fancy the scramble up An Stuc that would be required later to proceed along the ridge. I therefore descended, a little disappointed, back to the side of Loch Tay.

I walked up Glen Lochay beside the river and camped among shielings, waking up the next morning surrounded by Red Deer.

The weather remained dire, for the most part, so again I changed my plan to climb Ben Challuim and instead passed over a beallach and down in to Strath Fillan.

I had a blissful, gentle paddle down Strath Fillan with a view of Ben More (the first of the hills I would climb the next day) looming up ahead.

I made my camp for the night amongst the ruins of another castle on another island on another loch, Loch Dochart in Glen Dochart.

I occasionally caught a glimpse back up Strath Fillan and, in the other direction, along Glen Dochart as I climbed the steep grassy slopes of Ben Mor.

The wind was high and at the summit little could be seen to begin with and it took a while to find a boulder with sufficient shelter to allow my pot to boil for my brew.

When the cloud lifted I was able to look across the brilliantly named Bealach-eadhar-dha Beinn to the next peak on the ridge, the shapely Stob Binnein.

I continued along the blustery ridge over the summit of Stob Binnein, its subsidiary top Stob Coire an Lochain and down towards the Inverloch Larig via Sob Invecarnaig. Looking east I could see the river Larig meeting lochs Doin and Voil (the early stages of the route for the next days paddling).

I had expected a night camped by the River with the hope of an early start on the water. When i arrived down in the glen, however, I found a rudimentary stone-built shelter, clearly not intended for dwelling, and in it a pair of slightly sozzled climbers who had decided to avoid the high places for the day due to the weather. They had already enjoyed a bottle of wine and cans of Guiness. Their plan was to sleep in the shelter and, pleased with the like-minded company as much as the immediately proffered coffee, food and booze, I decided to stay with them. The shelter was missing a wall and we spent a breezy night with the weather howling 'outside'. On awaking we found the hills blanketed with snow as low as around 700 meters.

The River Larig was an absolute joy to paddle. The view back towards the hills of the day before was an added bonus.

Unfortunately the camera I was using was insufficient to capture the magnificent view of the beautiful Stob Binnein which I enjoyed as I paddled down the River Balvag. Standing at over 1160m (high compared to immediate neighbors other than Ben Mor) Stob Binnein's snow capped summit made a satisfying sight to look back towards as I paddled down the River Balvag. The Balvag I had entered from Loch Voil after paddling the river Larig and Loch Doin. I drifted with the current, enjoying the serenity of my surrounds, until I reached Strathyre, the pub and the bus stop. I deflated my little boat and stuffed it away in my pack. I treated myself to a cheeseburger and a couple of pints in the pub before getting on the bus to Stirling and from there catching the train back to Edinburgh. I tried my hardest to forget about going back to work...


  1. We met in Glen Lochay. I made you jump and spill your brew by the big rock. That or there was another backpacker with a packraft and rucksack the same as yours.? Fantastic trip you had. What a brilliant way to to travel the hills.

  2. Yeah that's right Martin... small world! minor scald to my hand but there was plenty of rain to damp it down! Hope you had a good time despite the weather!

  3. David, My husband and I really enjoyed reading your post. The pictures and text were marvelous. I am just beginning my research for a trip to Scotland next year (we live in Florida, USA). Yours was the first thing I read and it just made me want to jump a plane tomorrow! Thank you for sharing. Barbara

  4. Thanks Barbara, I hope you enjoy Scotland. Don't miss Assynt (in the far north) or Loch Maree (v beautiful).

  5. Excellent. I've looked at the possibilities for packrafting Loch Laidon but I hadn't thought to start from the Ba Bridge. Your post has inspired me to look again.

    I've got a trip planned in Sutherland in September but we are just using the rafts to cross Lochs, rather than to cover any great distance (apart from down Loch Veyatie). I've gone with the lighter (and flimsier) Flytepacker since I'm not sure how much difficult water I'll be paddling.


  6. Hey Johnny, I've a trip to those parts lined up for Aug too! I reckon among the lochs Sionascaig looks the best.

    From the Ba Bridge along the River Ba was the highlight for me... good current, good water level, absolutely amazing views to float through..

    Hope you enjoy your trip!

  7. I'd love to do a ps leaching trip in Scotland so etime. Kind of a TGOC style crossing by water and foot. My only real problem is I don't want yo do it solo (sure coming over from the Srates is a pain took). Maybe someday it'll happen. It always comes down to logistics.

    David, fo you have a map showing your route you can share

  8. Hi Kenneth, hope you get to Scotland sometime...I hope to make it to the states one day, too. I don't have a map of my route sorted, but I tried to get one working superimposed on to google earth - couldn't get it going (not great with technology...yet!) .I'll send it yo if I get it sorted. cheers

  9. Sionscaig looks great. Camping on one of those islands would be amazing. It's a shame our route can't be contrived to go there - we paddle down Veyatie before climbing Cul Mor and Cul Beag. We could detour to Sionascaig but it's less elegant and a bit of a detour.

    Still, that'll give me an excuse to go again.

    Finding rivers with enough water, not much portaging but not too much white water, whilst joining up interesting mountains - that's the trick. I think I'm going to spend a few years exploring the possibilities.

    My paddle came today. That's me all set - off down the Tweed soon for a bit of practice.

    You work in Edinburgh? There are a couple of packrafters in Edinburgh now (me - soon, Phil Turner, and you).

  10. Your site is building up a nice stash of info about packrafting in Scotland. Good stuff!

  11. Hi David, myself and a few friends are planning on paddling down the Fillan from Tyndrum to Loch Dochart. Do you think it would be possible to take a 4 man raft down that section of the Fillan? we would have camping equipment as well

    1. Hi - The Fillan out of Tyndrum is very bony and only really gets going after it is joined by the River Cononish. There is a weir part way along (can't remember exactly where, but you would probably want to go around that). As for whether a four man raft would make it that really really depends on the water level. I've been down it twice, both times starting below the weir. On the first occasion there was plenty of water and I'm pretty sure a larger raft would have been completely ok with it. But on the second time there was so little water that my packraft barely managed it so a loaded down large raft would have had no chance. Spring would probably be your best time water level wise. The nearest water level gauge (for the same confluence of water) is on the Dochart at Killiin - if you keep an eye on the level of this it should give you an idea of how high the water is upstream on the Fillan. The online readings for the gauge are here:

      Have a good time, good luck!

    2. Hi David, thanks very much for getting back to me about that and for the link. Yeah we are heading there this weekend - from the online gauge do you reckon it would probably be a bit on the low side for us? looks pretty low from what I can tell

      thanks again for your help

      cheers, Innes

    3. Hi Innes - the gauge is running v low at the moment, and it has been really dry for the past few weeks. I also doubt that the snowmelt has got going yet, which is when the water level will really rise. I doubt you'd get a large loaded raft down it at the moment which is a shame. But you could try asking on 'song of the paddle' (a website forum you could google) as they have loads o members and maybe someone who lives nearby who'd know better. Depending where you are coming from and looking for maybe there are other options to consider?


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