Sunday, 22 September 2013

Spring Raftpacking - April '13

Spring Raftpacking - Scottish Highlands from david hine on Vimeo.

In April I went packrafting in the North of Scotland. I headed up north first by train, to Lairg, and then by bus to Durness. The little Durness minibus is the same vehicle that started my journey south from Durness after I had finished my west coast stravaig in 2012. So it seemed like a good way to start, and this year I wanted to cross some of the northern peninsulas and sea lochs that I had skipped last year in favour of an inland route through the mountains. I'd then head inland, hopefully taking in some summits, before paddling out towards the east coast via a confluence of rivers. Plans had been bubbling away for some time, but the best laid plans are nothing before the fickle Scottish weather. I sometimes feel that for every gram of planning that goes into a trip, two grams of pot luck go towards the final outcome.

"Been like this for 8 weeks now!" Donald the minibus driver was explaining to me how consistently fantastic the weather had been in the two months before I arrived. I was the only passenger on his bus, and we were driving north through beautifully snow capped mountains on a clear blue sky day. "There's a change coming this weekend, mind. Going to be windy.".

The change really did come that weekend and it blew away my main route plan. I don't mean to sound too sour about this, it's just the ironic timing of the change in conditions (immediately as I was setting out) which underlines to me how uncertain any plans can be. But hey, when one plan fails there are always other options. I always plan alternatives.

Another aspect of this trip was deeply unsatisfactory, too. I accepted a lift down an estate road from a bin lorry (just a few miles). While having a ride in a bin lorry was a new, and fairly novel, experience, it is without doubt at odds with the spirit of backpacking. Later on in the trip, I yet again succumbed to the shame of non-self-powered transport and detoured a whole section of the route. The first of these vehicle rides was only short, but the second created an absolute break in the trip. Hence the map below is made up of two separate parts, the section in between is the section I missed out.

Despite the issues, for the most part I had a good time. There were some great moments, some flashes of sunshine and, in the end, even being out in north of Scotland in howling weather is far preferable to not being out there at all.

Packrafting in Scotland
On the shore of the Kyle of Durness, preparing to cross.

Red flags were flying on the military firing range, and loud explosions were audible nearby. I was allowed to proceed when the military exercise was over.

At the North Westerly point of the British mainland, 'Cape Wrath'. The word Wrath in this context is from old Norse, meaning 'turning point'.

The lighthouse at Cape Wrath. Overnight it shone out over my shelter, I could see the powerful beams reaching right out to sea.

A nice spot to camp, just above Sandwood Bay. It became extremely windy overnight, and the fair weather was pretty much over after that.

Sandwood Bay is stunning. The area is protected by the John Muir Trust.

Passing through the 'village' of Kinlochbervie, with the forms of Foinaven, Arkle and Ben Stack on the horizon.

Camped by Loch a' Ghairb-bhaid Beag

a pair of stags above Loch Stack

Loch Stack and Ben Stack.

The morning after one of the toughest days I've ever had. I crossed a beallach beneath  Beinne Leoid (from Loch More), eventually down in to Glen Casserley. But the weather was horrendous, the mostly pathless ground was as bad as any in Scotland and every water course was in spate. It was a risky day, with many sketchy burn crossings, and ended in a camp spot which was far from ideal (but forced upon me given that this boulder was the only shelter of any kind I could find). I would have preferred to have kept walking, but I found myself finally trapped behind a burn it would have been suicide to try and cross. Overnight it stopped raining and by morning the water level had dropped enough to allow me to proceed.

Packrafting in Scotland
Putting in on to Abhainn an t-srath Chuileannaich (don't ask me how that is pronounced).

Some nice walking through Amat Forrest

The Alladale River looked furious in this section. Other stretches had me wishing I was traveling in the other direction so I could take advantage of it. Alladale is a nice estate, with some beautiful natural forest. The landowner, Paul Lister, is intent on re-introducing wolves to Scotland (something I would love to see happen).

Ruined crofts in Gleann Mor

Crossing the pass from Gleann Mor to Strath Vaich

Abandoned crofts at Loch Vaich

Reaching Loch Fainnich on an overcast  and extremely blustery evening.

I stopped here for a brew, on the shore of loch Fainnich. For half an hour or so I watched an RAF Sea-King rescue helicopter circling in the vicinity of Sgurr nan Clach Geala. Later I heard that, tragically, the rescue was unsuccessful, a body was retrieved from the mountain.

Decision time in the bar of the Ledogowan Lodge in Achnasheen (a very fine place indeed. One in which I, and my muddy trailrunners, were most out of place). The weather had worsened, and was expected to get still harsher. My planned route would have been fantastic, it was pretty much the part of the trip I was looking forward to the most. But it involved a number of river or burn crossings, which I expected would already be impassable. There were high passes to contend with, too. Maybe because the sound of the Sea-King was still whirring in my ears, maybe because it was just the sensible thing to do. But I decided to skip a section, first by hopping on a train to Stromeferry and then by hitch-hiking round the the Cluanie Inn. I hate that, it completely breaks with the spirit of a backpacking trip and destroys the feeling of self-reliance you feel in passing through the landscape around you. But if I had chosen to wait out the weather, or detour around, I probably wouldn't have had time to spend in Glen Affric, and paddling out down the rivers Glass and Beauly (also aspects of the trip which were high on my agenda).

Hiking off the shame of motorised transport. My pictures don't do it justice, but Glen Affric is stunning.

Honestly, it really is beautiful. There is a remote hostel up Glen Affirc (Alltbeithe), which can be reached only on foot. It was still shut up for the winter when I arrived, but a sign in the window confirmed they had left one of the back buildings open in-case anyone needed shelter. I spent a comfy night in there while the wind rattled the corrugated iron roof.

Packrafting in Scotland
Putting in on Loch Affric. Even though the wind was behind me, it was soon too strong to paddle in. I took out and walked up the glen instead, through old growth Scots Pine.

With views of the mountains, and old growth Pine trees, I didn't mind too much that I wasn't paddling the Loch.

The River Affric as it interconnects Loch Affric and Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin.

Camp beside the River Affric.

Packrafting in Scotland
Putting in on the shore of Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin.

It was a great morning of paddling on Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin. The loch is studded with pine covered islands, which I paddled in between. Looking back, the view was of snow capped peaks.

Packrafting in Scotland
Putting in on the River Glass. The river wasn't particularly exciting, but became a lot more scenic as it turned into the River Beauly.

Packrafting in Scotland
The river Beauly is pleasant and tree lined, but flat water so not exciting from that perspective. Down the river is the Aigas Gorge, which is quite dramatic. I don't have any good photos form that section, but it can be seen on the vid attached to this post.


  1. Hi David,
    You seemed to have done some well thought planning for this trip. This looks again like a fantastic trip through typical breathtaking Scottish scenery with some nice packrafting sections thrown in! The strange spot where you are packrafting between the trees almost at the end of your video, where is this spot and what is going on there with these trees?

    1. Thanks Joery. I was surprised to find those trees submerged. The water level of the loch was particularly high, unfortunately at the eastern end the loch has been damned in order to provide for the Fasnaykle hydro power station - I can only think they were between releases at the time. It had been extremely wet in the previous couple of weeks. It is fairly unobtrusive as dams go, but still a shame when you get to the end of a beautiful loch and find concrete.

  2. and not one shot of angry squaddies, or the binmen of the northwest?! Still beautiful and thrilling stuff David. Cannae wait for Torridon

    1. Aye, I've got Torridon routes buzzing around my mind at the moment! Thought it best to leave the angry squaddies out of it ;)

  3. Packrafts do open up so many fine routes. Thats a fine recap of some fine walking and use of a boat. Enjoyed that.

  4. Wow, great trip! Lovely photos, although it looks like you got more rain in one trip than we see in a year here in San Diego...

  5. We will ask counsel to go, I love your travel. Congratulations
    In May we traveled from West to East of Scotland hope you like this video:
    Planeta Packraft.

    Thank your for sharing

    1. Thanks Ivan. Your video is really great and it looks like it would have been a good route to take for a coast to coast that takes in the River Tay.

      I hadn't seen your website before so thanks for the link! Hope you get to enjoy Scotland again sometime.

    2. David, I've put on our website your journey as a "Noticia" (new)

      Thank you for your words

  6. Absolutely brilliant effort. I know exactly what you mean about the weather 'modifying' plans like this even though I've never attempted anything quite on the same scale. Great photos, love the ones at the end with the raft and scenery together.
    In the video, is the gorge towards the end the Aigas gorge by any chance?

    1. Eagle eyed coo! It is indeed the Aigas gorge. Most interested part of the river by far, I'm sure you'd agree


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