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Posts tagged ‘camping’

Making morning memories

P1070232When dawn is breaking at 04.15 and the sun’s rays are just starting to inch their way down the rocky mountain tops, it isn’t easy to walk away from the wilderness.

I’d been camping out in the remote wilds of Fisherfield in Scotland’s far north west for two nights, climbing some of the most inaccessible hills in the country, and it was time to leave.

My friends tents were motionless in the half light; the inhabitants still asleep. Quietly I packed up my dew-sodden shelter, stuffed the gear into my rucksack and set off on the track between the sprawling lochs and hills. What a morning to be alive and alone.

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At the first loch I unhooked my pack, washed my face in the soft peaty water, stowed my jacket and sized up the last of my food store: just an orange and a tiny breakfast bar. The walk would take at least five hours so I delayed my feast and crossed the stone causeway between two lonely stretches of water.

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I heard the cuckoo calling and startled a few red deer as my boots grazed the stones of the rough path. And as I walked I tried to think of other mornings in my life that had felt as magical and momentous as this one. The early hours when my children were born are unforgettable, of course; there’s a string of dawns spent walking out from a corrie camp one romantic summer many decades ago that merge into one; and most nostalgic of all are the occasional early mornings of an idyllic childhood when my father woke me early to walk with him up to our high fields to collect the cows for the early milking. I recall anxious swallows swooping with food for their young in the eaves of the barns and the otherwise stillness of summer dawn as I held Dad’s hand and we walked up the road. I remember my sandshoes getting damp on dewy grass, the herd rustling and impatient at the gate and the precious feeling that no-one else in the world was up this early.

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There was no-one else up early in Fisherfield either. I didn’t meet a soul for hours.

And I resolved to make more morning memories.

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Gathering no moss

P1050673I left my home in the hands of strangers today and walked away, feeling twitchy, unsettled,  a bit like leaving a child behind at playgroup for the first time.

The camper was just getting a service, but it has been my home for six months and I’ve clearly bonded. And yes, it does feel like home. I know it’s just a lump of depreciating metal but it contains everything I need and I really like living small, with only the minimum of everything around me;  clothes, books, food, recording gear, a slim laptop, camera and phone. And an excess of paper and pens.

And while I don’t carry much, I’m prepared for every eventuality. My tents, boots and walking gear are there, working clothes and high heels in the secret (no more) compartment under the floor . They don’t get many outings, but you Just Never Know. The van works well as transport, office and social space. Friends have stayed over, they’ve drunk wine and whisky and endless cups of tea, I’ve cooked meals in beautiful places as they’ve sat back and enjoyed the scenery. And it’s a pared down personal sanctuary too, a place where I can close the blinds and curl up in bed on a miserable night with hot chocolate and a book.

P1030845This has been a long, hot, wonderful summer. I’ve wakened early most mornings to the dawn breaking over beaches or hills and fallen asleep to the sound of water tumbling over rocks. There have been remote nights when deer and sheep  have been my nearest neighbours and the midges have battered to get in. I’ve spent nights in quiet city streets and car parks too, careful to pull the blinds tight, to shut out the light and keep my presence understated.

i’ve been caught in summer storms. And when the tail end of Hurricane Bertha blew in during the wee small hours, it felt a bit like being inside a black out washing machine, battered, shaken and blasted by squall after rocky squall. It was wild and exciting but the van stayed upright and I lay in the tumbling darkness feeling I was part of the weather. But warm and dry.

It would be wrong, though, to claim that there are no drawbacks to this nomadic life. I’ve  wanted to soak in a bath of hot bubbles after a hard day on the hill, or stare into a log fire on a chilly evening.There have been times when I’ve longed to choose a book from my collection that’s been boxed up in a garage for the last two years.

Occasionally I haven’t known which way to turn. Literally. North? Or south? Right or left? On the days when there’s no pressing schedule and no work, the options and horizons are almost too wide.

P1050064Then there have been weeks like this one, when I’ve been alone in a house, cat sitting for a friend. I’ve had the luxury of space to take stock, to do a thorough spring clean, to get some respite from being in perpetual motion. I’ve barely ventured from the house for the past few days, I’ve driven nowhere and hardly seen anyone or made calls, except for work. I’ve relished being still.

Maybe that’s the flaw. Maybe because there are wheels below my bed I feel I need to keep them rolling.

It’s coming to an end though. There are just a few weeks left till I need to settle down and hibernate till the long days start to loom again. But I’m not finished with this lifestyle yet.

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The thin line between adventure … and a forced march

 

The lonely Moine Path from Loch Hope to the Kyle of Tongue

The lonely Moine Path from Loch Hope to the Kyle of Tongue. We didn’t see another soul all day.

The next eight hours looked grim.

I  had a splitting headache, nausea and 15 miles to walk across boggy, inhospitable ground and empty roads before there was any prospect of a hostel bed. Could it have been an overdose of cleg poison?

Ill as I felt, there was no alternative to walking. No cars. No houses. No people. But hey, this was an adventure, wasn’t it? I popped some pills, heaved on my pack and we set off.

I figured we could do the most isolated bit in four hours if I just kept my head down and followed Noreen’s relentless red socks all the way across the bog. And we almost did.

The first 10 miles were the worst, up and over the 1000 year old Moine Path (henceforth remembered as the Vomit Path – too much information?) a raised track across tussocky moorland between the great rocky strongholds of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. After nine miles I lay down on a stone and slept, spontaneously, and woke after 20 minutes, feeling decidedly better.

One of the beautifully built bridges that keeps the ancient path drier than the surrounding bog

One of the beautifully built bridges that keeps the ancient path drier than the surrounding bog

By the time we reached the village of Tongue on the far north coast I’d made a full recovery and we celebrated the end of the trail with an ice cream at the shop.

And life got even better when Julia, the fantastic warden of the Youth Hostel spotted our rucksacks outside the Post Office and popped in to see if we wanted a lift to our beds. We knocked her down in the rush.

I bought shampoo and had a long, blissful shower which was only marred by the revelation of considerable insect damage. We doctored our bites with antihistamine and hydrocortisone  then drank cup after cup of tea while we laughed and relived our adventure from the comfort of a soft armchair.

Finally I picked up a thriller from the hostel shelves and lost myself in someone else’s drama; so much less stressful than one’s own.

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We walked towards Ben Loyal, a beacon across the moor, and were finally rewarded with a view from a different perspective

 

Paradise … until the wind dropped

The sun was beating down, we’d been walking for hours, I was hot and sweaty – and the sign on the tree said “Rock Pool”. Irresistible.

We dumped out packs and climbed down the steep bank to a gentle waterfall which fed in to deep pools of brown peaty water. The somersaulting clegs were an incentive to get submerged fast and it was glorious; cool and soothing for my ravaged shoulders, slippery rocks to slither over and space to stretch down to feel for footholds on the stony bottom. I was a water nymph, in my head at least!

The trail passed by the manicured grass and gravel of Gobernuisgach Lodge, a remnant of the privileged Victorian approach to the Highlands; incongruous precision in the midst of wilderness.

The track from Gober  climbed up to the remains of Dun Dornaigil broch, a fabulous example of the type of dwelling used by Scotland’s earliest settlers.We looked around then plodded on in the heat and sheltered for a while in the rare shade of a cattle shed, oblivious to the dried cow dung around us. How quickly standards drop

I'm now an authority on the bloodsucking cleg, or horse fly. Their official name is Tabanidae and they're also known as breeze flies, deer flies, gadflies, or zimbs. In some areas of Canada, they're called bull dog flies or stouts. And in Australia some species are known as "March flies". And they're all more vicious than they look..

I’m now an authority on the bloodsucking cleg, or horse fly. Their official name is Tabanidae and they’re also known as breeze flies, deer flies, gadflies, or zimbs. In some areas of Canada, they’re called bull dog flies or stouts. And in Australia some species are known as “March flies”. And they’re all more vicious than they look..

And later, just as we were getting tired and hungry, the idyllic camping spot came in to focus; it was beside a river, the ground was flat, the grass short, and as open to a breeze as anywhere around.

But the tents were barely up and supper cooking than the wind died and – without warning – hoards of midges descended in impenetrable clouds. We clutched our pans of half-cooked food and ran for cover.

Calling it a horror movie doesn’t do it justice.  I lay in the stifling heat, listening to them lunging themselves at the mesh fabric and the outer tent walls, and staring at the thick mass of miniature wings that filled every inch of the “porch”.

I had no water. I needed the loo. And I wanted to brush my teeth. But if I unzipped the flap millions of tormentors would invade.  So I fell asleep instead and woke at midnight. This time I knew I had no choice.

I prepared as well as I could, but they were thick and heavy on my face, I breathed them in and choked on them, spluttering and coughing. I had the most uncomfortable pee of my life then ran back to the tent, threw myself in and zipped it up again then almost cried when the beam of my torch showed I had thousands of them for company.

My swollen cleg bites were painful. I was thirsty. Midge bites itched in new, unbearable places. A few metres away I could hear Noreen snoring gently in her tent. But for me it was going to be a long night.

Insect Endurance on the Sutherland Trail

We pitched our tents in the lonely Pass of the Thieves, the Bealach nam Meirleach.

It’s a bit off piste of the “official” trail because erudite Donald-who-drives-the-Durness-minibus told us when we jumped aboard it was the better route in to Gobernuisgach, the remote shooting lodge we were headed for, five miles away in the hills. And the old lady sitting beside him in the front nodded knowledgeably in agreement as the bus sped up the single track road. We took their advice and somewhere in the wilderness of Sutherland’s lochs and hills he pulled up in a layby, unloaded our packs and pointed out the track through the heather.

“Good luck with the clegs,” were his last words as he revved the engine and quickly rolled up his window.

The first of the legions of insects had silently settled on my forearm even before his van had turned the bend, but I didn’t notice until I felt the needle prick my skin. It was a foretaste of the carnage that was to follow.

I’d forgotten about clegs (or horse flies). I certainly didn’t know they’d be able to penetrate my thin clothing, or that they’d be impervious to the thick later of insecticide I’d plastered over every exposed inch of skin. They’re lazy, sneaky insects with a heavy-duty impact – as my red and swelling wrist was demonstrating.

P1040220We ducked, swatted and swiped our way along the old drove route that had been used by generations of farmers to walk their cattle to market hundreds of miles away in the south. Their long journey to Falkirk or Perth from Sutherland took weeks, and on one occasion when the men returned with their annual earnings, they were ambushed and robbed in this isolated place. The gaelic name, Bealach nam Meirleach guarantees the crime will never be forgotten.

The walking was flat, easy and (once the clegs retreated) lazily slow in the burning sunshine. We dawdled, stopped to rest, fill bottles and drink from sparkling waterfalls then by early evening, when the lochs spread out along the strath before us, we set up camp, ate and settled down in our sleeping bags.

A stiff breeze flapped my tent and I lay gazing out at faraway Ben Loyal, listening to the persistent gurgle of water through the rocks below. There were no ruins here, no signs of previous habitation, no stone walls or broken down fences.

As my eyes closed I relished the thought that I was likely to be the first person ever to lay my head down and sleep on this few square feet of remote earth.

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Getting back on the trail (Sutherland cont.)

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Sutherland, the far empty corner of the northwest, is Scotland at it’s most remote.

It’s wild, bare and beautiful but in mid summer it can also be catastrophically itchy because it’s home to the meanest, most prolific midges on the planet. And for the next few days we’re going to run the gauntlet.

It’s been 15 months since we had to pull out of the long-distance Sutherland Trail just half way through when the weather closed in with rain, snow and sleet – and the prospect of another three or four days in the hills with no shelter was just too grim.

We’ll be taking the train tomorrow from Inverness back to Lairg then transferring to a minibus to the tiny village of Achfary to pick up where we left off,  wild camping on the isolated tracks through glens and hillsides that should be starting to turn purple with heather in full bloom. The only niggling worry is that it’s peak season for the notorious midges so, unless there’s a wind to keep them at bay, we’ll be in trouble.

This adventure has been a long time in the planning but my rucksack is packed (and ominously heavy) for four days of walking, my new boots are about to face their first serious test and the weather is looking good.

All we need now is a strong Sutherland breeze to keep the beasties at bay.

Naked hills and empty glens

 

The remoteness was exhilarating, but last week’s hills were lonely and lifeless. I walked away from the wilderness more anxious than ever about the desolation and destruction we’ve imposed on these fragile places.

The brutal beauty of the rocky mountain tops remains stark and true. Up there, beyond 3000ft, where the ice and weather have gnawed and eroded,  it’s harsh and dangerous and there’s a grandeur to the bare crags and peaks. They evoke awe and respect; they’re tougher than us.

It’s the empty, treeless expanse  below the tops that worries me. On the green slopes, in the soft, broad glens,  beside gentle lochs and Highland rivers there should be more than the tattered remnants of ancient Caledonian pines, more than an empty greenness where only deer roam. There should be  animals and  birds. And trees.

Much of the land that stretches across wild Scotland  hosts little wildlife and no natural woodland. It’s often assumed  trees simply won’t grow on the poor soils, but in the bogs you see the roots and remnants of strong trunks and branches preserved in peat. And in steep river ravines or on inaccessible islands – places that the sheep and deer haven’t been able to graze – the birches, rowans, pine and other native species take root and flourish. The photographs of the tiny lush islands against the degraded land that surrounds them tell the story.

These places have been slowly dying from overgrazing for 200 years but we’ve become inured to the desecration. We walk to the echo of boots on paths and the occasional ricochet of a rifle. It’s what we expect to see and hear, along with the burnt strips and squares of heather on grouse moors; the preserve of the game birds, wealthy landowners and their foreign clients.

Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world. Just 432 families account for half of all non-public land and a handful  – “absentees” who don’t even live there – own hundreds of thousands of acres. Since Victorian times they’ve “managed” this land for their fun; the occasional forays north for “sport” – deer stalking and grouse shooting. All that matters to them are plentiful herds of deer and coveys of grouse. Everything else can wither and die.

There are some enlightened places where natural regeneration is now taking place, and beavers, sea eagles and red kites have been reintroduced to wails of protest. But the efforts of the green owners, which are often conservation groups, are a drop in the ocean and opposed at every turn.

At long last however there’s a glimmer of hope that our Government might be taking the situation in hand. Land reform is on the cards in Scotland and landowners are slowly wakening up to a new world where they no longer hold all the power and the mismanagement of our most precious resource won’t be tolerated.

My new boots won’t last long enough to walk through a more natural order but I’m confident that the monoculture, and the influence of the landed minority that enjoy it, will eventually wither as surely as the Caley Pines and wildlife they condemned to near extinction. Our landscape deserves it.

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