Tuesday, 13 September 2016

sandwood bay and the 3 day week

I think it was a short paragraph in a Douglas Adams novel where some civilised and smug aliens had telepathy conferred upon them. And had to thereafter, in order to disguise their real thoughts and motives, constantly shout or talk in jibber jabber about the trivial issues of day-to-day life. That's twitter isn't it?

So a break from society was required. If the trip had gone swimmingly I might have tried to claim credit for it but as it stands it was Mary's idea to take a week off and go visit Sandwood Bay. She has spent time there in the dim and distant past mixing in her mind the brackish waters of Rackwick's lagoon (if it exists) with the freshwater lagoon behind the dunes of Sandwood. I think the ghostly mariner of Sandwood has a time-share in Rackwick. Mermaids abound in both.

Sometimes it's good to shake off the rituals and habits of everyday life and live a bit more spontaneously. Not eat the same foods and not keep the same bedtime. Go and visit somewhere that has been on the list-of-things-to-do for such a long time you can't believe you're finally going to get there.

(Disclaimer: yes, but not always.) 

The trouble is it is a long slow drive (260miles+ and 7hrs) to get there. So you probably won't just go for the weekend. Last time we were in that corner of Scotland we were doing the Cape Wrath Challenge 5 years ago, and I was disappointed we didn't make it along the road to Sandwood. AGF told us Oldmoreshore was very similar and would be a fine substitute. We waved at that beach as we drove past on the way to the car park where a 4+ mile walk-in awaits. This would be the real deal, nothing could stop us this time!

angels around the Berlingo

The journey up hadn't been without incident. Just after Inverness it was getting dark and we pulled off the A9 before Alness when we saw a campsite sign. We had decided to break up the journey rather than do it all in one go. It turned out to be Evanton which had a reasonable pub/restaurant with rather ordinary overpriced food. Nevertheless we were on holiday and had a laugh, returning to the tent in the dark campsite and sleeping well on account of the beers. Next morning and we packed up, the tent soaking with dew. Then, to our horror, the Berlingo chugged and died as we tried to fire it up. Very similar to the problems of the week prior. Both of us were totally shitting bricks. We looked under the bonnet as if that would do any good and made a few of the actions that we had seen the mechanic make before he concluded it was dead. Holy holy fuck.

Then Mary tried again and it turned over. Thank the baby jesus! We jumped in and wondered if the early morning dew had made the engine reluctant to start or if it would now fail regularly. We decided not to retry it till we parked up in the Sandwood Bay car park. 

After Lairg we took the cross country single track road, (the A838) to Rhiconich which was slow but scenic. Our fears about the car slowly melted away as it behaved itself. There was a steady stream of vehicles coming the other way, and most were, like ourselves, courteous about using passing places. But not all.

worst name

The scenery was getting spectacular.

a gang of starlings watched our preparations

This wasn't really car camping because we had to bike the gear in 4+ miles. However because we had the car it was tempting to take far too much. About the turn of the millennium Mary and I did a 660 mile circuit of Scotland in about 10 days. (Covering a lot of the North Coast 500). It rained so comprehensively after the first week it has taken till now to combine camping and biking in Scotland again. And on the condition the car is close by. And that we can take the kitchen sink. I bought 2 new panniers then threw the sleeping stuff and tent on top. All clothes in Iain's Sack on my back. (Including an A4 book of butterflies: I pictured lying on my back in the dunes reading about painted ladies as they fluttered by.) It was really hot in the flat when we were packing so I didn't bother with a duvet jacket. It hurts to admit I can be a fucking tool sometimes. Nearly a whole pannier bag was consumed by carrying a wetsuit. (And essential cider and wine.)

There is a perverse pleasure to overpacking a bike and riding it. It made me feel young again as I used to do this when young and stupid. (Cycle-camping in France with all the climbing gear and rope.) Taking all the what-if stuff and more outfits than strictly required. I bet folk have gone round the world with less than M and I managed to load up. Trouble is it can make a bike unwieldy and within a mile I felt that stomach churning squidgy sideways slew, and looked down to see I had a rear wheel puncture. Not even a mile ridden. We could still see the buildings at the trail head; and the starlings laughing.

if I close my eyes maybe this isn't happening

Managed to keep the heid and fix the puncture without even taking the wheel off even though the wind was blowing hard and I only had a teeny pump. (Well worth spending more than normal and getting a Lezyne pump - first time used and it was good, bordering on GREAT. Repeat, money well spent.)

All the kit back on and we both wondered silently how many more punctures on the sharp gravelly path before the big reveal of Sandwood.

(Spoiler Alert) this was all under water on the return

About halfway and the rideable path becomes unrideable. There were some places to padlock up your steed before continuing on foot but we had too much gear for that, so just dismounted and lifted our bikes over the drainage slabs every 40 yards. At the trickier obstacles (staircases (as above) and river crossing stepping stones) I'd carry Mary's bike then carry mine which involved making excruiciating faces while squeezing out sexual swear words between gritted teeth. This is the last trip ever with an over packed bike. From now on, 2 pairs socks, shorts and shoes and that's it. And no books.

After what seemed like an age we turned the corner and saw the coast. We took a couple of photos then pushed on - there were still about a dozen drainage trenches to cope with. If only they'd used pipes and buried them rather than open trenches lined with ill fitting stone slabs that threatened to puncture tyres. Still, after all of that we were here! Mission accomplished! The only kitchen sink in the whole of Sandwood Bay!

famously there is a stack, Am Buachaille on the left hand (south west) side of the bay

We dumped the bikes and kit at a likely looking campsite near the entrance and had a quick scout around to get our bearings and to check for potentially better sites. Mary talked me down from a hike round the back of the loch where I thought a small beach offered more privacy and shelter from the southerly gales. It may be a four mile hike in, but there was no shortage of visitors. I hoped it was just the tail end of the weekend traffic (we arrived Sunday afternoon) and everyone would bugger off before Monday, however there was a nearly constant stream of ramblers and campers and dog walkers at just about every time of the day and night and even as the weather deteriorated. I blame AGF and the marketing she does for Visit Scotland. It is certainly no well kept secret. Probably second only to the fairy pools in Skye. Putting a line through that part of the bucket list as we speak.

We had a bit of a walk around the beach and got the tent up and the stove on. We had opted for Pasta 'n' Sauce (just add water and boil for between 8 and 75 minutes) packet meals; (Leith Army shop was out of dehydrated meals), but due to problems with the wind, managed to make the first one taste like shit. (Maybe that is how they are meant to taste?) It was hot and filling though. We also had cup-a-soups from 2007 and 2009 (both vintage years for instant soup) though weren't racing to sample them. We were going to throw them out when we got home but I tried a couple and they were excellent and much quicker than Pasta 'n' Sauce. We had only carried about 4 or 5 lts of water and were a bit concerned about lasting a few days. 

We both slept well - and woke to a beautiful sunny (and windy) morning, (as above). The light from the Cape Wrath lighthouse 6 miles away blinked through our tent canvas the night before, as did the headtorches of a couple of poor souls who were out in the terrible weather. Quite an impressive gale blew up in the night and just as I was contemplating exiting the tent for a pee, the rain started to lash down. I turned over and spent the night dreaming about searching the hills for a toilet then going through the rooms of a large house looking for a toilet. I woke briefly as a torch strobed the wildly cavorting tent (thank you Mr. Hilleberg for making excellent waterproof tents!) and heard the foreign accents of 2 or more lost souls. Maybe it was the ghostly mariner. Who allegedly knocks on the missing windows of the bothy ruins.

that's more like it!

I went for an early morning ablution in a patch of bracken Mary had identified as the toilets. I wasn't sure if it was the overpriced mushroom stroganoff perched on the Balconie, or the Pasta 'n' Sauce, but, had I done hula hoops while in the act I would have produced a beautiful terracotta coil pot which once fired would be an enviable table centre, happily holding half a dozen breadsticks.

Breakfast of 3 types of muesli and granola mixed with honey was outstanding. (We carried UHT Soya milk and Almond milk. Smiley face)

grass art
wind and grass combine to draw circles

knott grass moth caterpillar (possibly!)

We decided to explore the path that led up the South West end of the bay. It was a bit damp in places. I was wearing my hill shoes - after a lot of thinking I took my hill shoes and just one other pair; Hoka long distance road shoes. It was a good combo, although I didn't get to do any longer runs. We both found walking much easier than running (no surprise there) but after getting a few shots of Am Buachaille (the shepherd) which is surprisingly far round the corner, we decided not to go right over to the cliff top. There was a strong offshore breeze and the prospect of being blown over the edge was enough to turn us around.

Cape Wrath lighthouse

Am Buachaille

you can see climbing gear at the top

This looks like the caterpillar of the Fox Moth (below)
Unlike the specimens on the Pentlands or at Aberlady it did not roll into a ball when touched

Although small (compared to caterpillar) these are more like bunny moths than fox moths
Also a bit Donnie Darko.

I know - fresh water (if a bit brown)
Why did we carry in so much?

there were several beetles on the beach and above it

I did this painting a few years ago (from photos).
At least I got the sand colour right.

We then went on a tour of the other end of the bay. There is a river flowing out of the loch into the sea that stops you going any further without getting wet feet. Mary was sure it was going to be brackish but it was fresh water. (Yet more!) As was the loch obviously. (Tens of thousands of gallons more.) We talked about going swimming in either the sea or the loch but decided as the weather got gloomier that we would not stay another night and it would be easier to pack and carry out dry wetsuits. This was a good choice as after a quick snack of oatcakes and cheese the rain came on while we packed up the tent.

I was really annoyed as just 2 days prior the weather forecast was set fine and the only rain was a brief shower during the night. The rain got steadily worse until you would describe it as a 2 spot downpour and pretty much stayed like that for the next 6~8 hours. Brilliant, weather-casters! How did you miss that one? Time you threw in the towel and just admitted you don't have a fucking scoobie. We would not have driven the length of the country for some of the worst weather this year. Utter shitpipes.


I didn't take any photos after we loaded up the bikes. We pushed them up the steep grassy hill (wow that was tough!) and onto the path, then lifted them 84 times (approx) over drainage trenches. The rain got steadily worse and by the time we were able to get on our bikes and cycle it was lashing down. Mary was emboldened by the conditions and pushed on like a champ although I did have to carry our bikes at the staircase and over the stepping stones again. (Lighter this time without Pasta 'n' Sauce and 4+lt water and some cider and wine missing.) 

The return journey along this trail is regarded as longer (I suppose because you are leaving and don't have the anticipation of the arrival,) but for me it whizzed past quicker. Partly because after halfway you can ride and everything speeds up. And then we had a couple of hill walkers catching us over the first half. They were 10 yards behind at the staircase, but after we got cycling, we left them well behind. There was a non-stop amount of seemingly water-proof day trippers (no tents) determined to make the journey. We must have past about 20 on the way in as we dripped our way past on the way out. "It's not worth it mate", was on the tip of my tongue. But I didn't want to notch up a karmic puncture so we just waved cheerfully as if we weren't soaked through and carrying a rucksack of damp clothes. (The butterfly book survived with only minor damage - wings slightly damp at the edges.)

Eventually we got through the last gate and rolled the bikes up to the car. We had been cycling through chain-deep puddles and NOT got anymore punctures. (And - proud boast - the one I fixed stayed fixed.) However we weren't out the woods yet. Would the car start? Would we be spending the night in this desolate car park 20 miles from the furthest tip of North West Scotland. I had hoped to run/walk over to Cape Wrath but that plan was shelved by the weather as well. It looked like the rain was set to last for 40 days and nights and our worst fears were that it was dampness in the car park at Evanton that snuffed out the ignition. We decided not to try the key until all the stuff was packed on board and we were into dry clothes (with damp patches.) The key turned. The engine started! Lucky, lucky, lucky!

Not wanting to do more single track road we headed down the West coast to Ullapool. If the weather improved I had plans and maps to do Stac Pollaidh and we knew a hostel from that terrible cycle trip 16 years ago. Also Suilven, though that might be a bigger day out. However the weather was shite. Wall to wall lashing rain thrashing off the windscreen and it was never in much doubt that the best option was to drive all the way back to Edinburgh and never come back for another 16 years. Well I suppose it kept the midges at bay.

Couple of things I forgot to mention. What's with the Crane Flies? You know, Daddy-Long-Legs. We had about 20 in our tent over the 24 hrs. A/ how do they survive in wind over 10mph (which was every hour we were there) being kind of fragile and built from very light thread and sweety paper celophane. And B/ How the hell do they identify tents, our tent from a distance and congregate inside it. Either between the outer and inner or, worse, inside with us sleeping. (Mary likes to sleep with the door half open.) We didn't have lights on much that would have signalled them. M adopted a better attitude than myself; describing their habits of buzzing past your ear in the dark, or floating across your face as you sleep, as a good joke. I caught the wee bastards in an open fist and showed them the door.

And the other: Elphin is having Chicken Saturday this coming Saturday. Probably a sacrifice to the rain gods, the posters and road side adverts didn't go into details. If you like rain, go along.

Here is the Kylesku Bridge. Last time I was here it was that dreadful cycling trip. We had got so far up the west coast but ground to a halt after a couple of days in the rain. Everywhere North of Ullapool was teeming rain. We stayed at some hostel to dry ourselves out and met the guys who were running minibus tours round Lochinver or was it from Lochinver? They offered to take us and our bikes on their wet weather tour then drop us off at the Kylesku Bridge. It was weather exactly as above and they gave us a look when we left like you would give a condemned man, as we set off with briefly dry clothes. 

The tour was pretty rubbish because even the prettiest of places looks soggy in the rain. We saw beaches that would have been the envy of the world, but weren't because it was raining. Not a little shower between sunshine and blue skies, but biblical rain like it maybe did that all season. I've been to Bergen and seen the same there. It's what makes Scotland not the greatest place in the world. Nationalists pay attention.

Which brings us to Visit Scotland or whoever is plugging the North Coast 500. There are video adverts running on a facebook near you for amber light and whisky, beautiful roads and hipsters in vw campers. But no rain. Lighting fires near deserted beaches and wild camping. Watching the stars at night. But no fucking rain. I've been to the Kylesku bridge twice now and it was hammering down both times.

I know it's just luck with the weather and there are times when you can shoot video that compares to the continent, (most of the drone shots in the above film are Skye not on the NC 500,) but the thing is, next holiday I'll be going to somewhere warm, maybe Portugal again. I am a warm weather person.

After another full day driving we were very pleased to see the romantic lights of the new Forth bridge. Just a pity a week's holiday was reduced to 3 days. 

Notes: in the unlikely event of doing cycle camping soon again: pack most susceptible stuff in most waterproof bags. Ortlieb Panniers (both M's and my new ones) worked 100% and kept stuff dry. So don't put the jars and wetsuit in them then get wet clothes because they are not in a dry bag (which you are carrying) in your rucksack. Prick. Carry less. Less is more. Good idea not to take the good camera or Mary's laptop which stayed in the car; the forecast was inaccurate anyway (did I mention that?). Take 2 pairs of shoes and keep one pair dry. Cup-a-soup vg, Pasta'n'Sauce not. Don't be too worried about carrying a lot of water in Scotland, there is often a source nearby. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post Peter!, missed not having a highland visit this summer so enjoyed seeing and reading about Sandwood. I have not missed the highland rain though! lol!