I sat quietly by Loch Dionard watching Red Deer on the opposite shore. The light was fading, but during May in the far North of Scotland that means the hour is already late. I made no more sound or movement than the mighty bulk of Creag Urbhard behind me and the evening was utterly silent other than for the sound of a nearby burn fed by the last of the melting snow high on the slopes of the mountain above.
It was only two weeks since I had set off on my journey. I’d felt like I was tied in a knot when I started out. That’s when you know you need a break!
I wasn’t particularly tired from the trip and would have liked nothing more than to have simply turned around and traced an alternative route South, through different mountains and across different waters. My return to work was still blocked from conscious thought. But I couldn’t block the gnawing feeling that the trip I had looked forward to for so long was drawing to a close. It was worth making the most of my last camp.
What I love the most about self supported backpacking is the satisfaction of passing through the land under my own power. I get more of a feeling of being in touch with the landscape as I see it change and evolve around me than I do when I visit places by motor transport. Distant hills, viewed from the summits of other hills, loom larger on the horizon as you approach. Then before you know it, you are among them and then leaving them behind. Camping each night in a different place, I always feel lucky to have the ability to access quiet little corners of the country and to take care of myself without the need for the gadgets of everyday life. Life becomes a lot simpler when lived out of a backpack and it’s strange how quickly it becomes complicated when the backpack is empty and stored away.
For me, a packraft is the perfect extension to what I enjoy most about backpacking. Planning routes, or just going on impulse, through hills, down rivers and across lochs before heading back into the hills, creates a wonderful feeling of freedom. And I find it remarkable how my perception of the landscape changes when viewed from the water. This opens up new experiences, not encountered when travelling by foot. For example, paddling to the head of a remote sea loch in the same water as porpoise and seals as they emerge and dive in close proximity. Or exploring isolated stretches of coast line and visiting little islands. There are some things a walker will just not experience without taking to a boat.
For me, a packraft is the perfect extension to what I enjoy most about backpacking. Planning routes, or just going on impulse, through hills, down rivers and across lochs before heading back into the hills, creates a wonderful feeling of freedom.
I couldn’t put my finger on the highlight of this particular trip, although a fairly long shortlist came to mind as the stars became brighter and brighter above my final campsite beside Loch Dionard. The empty glen became chilly but I put on insulated clothing and brewed tea rather than go to my shelter. A dram from the modest flask of single malt I had with me served to warm me inside, and I cast my mind back through the hills and glens I had walked, and across the water I had paddled.
The still snow capped mountains of the Knoydart Peninsula had made for an exciting start to the trip. Although the weather was overcast, I had enjoyed views out across their cracked, spiny ridges and over the sea. I camped high among the rock and heather and climbed still higher to their summits. I am enthusiastic about high, pointy places, and I always try to factor them into any trip in the planning stages. The mountains of Knoydart are rough and rocky, and would seem remote by Scottish standards. But they were not really empty and I encountered other people amongst them. The high ground of the Applecross Peninsula, on the other hand, was completely devoid of people and my experience there was one of utter solitude. High wind, low cloud and wet rock had made Applecross a challenge. But the cloud was not always too low to allow views of the mightily buttressed corries and sweeping glens that surround the hills.
Some of the packrafting which involved crossing longer stretches of deep salt water had been daunting, thus exciting. Paddling amidst swell on open water makes for a very different experience to paddling on flat mirror like water, where the temptation is not to paddle at all. While crossing Loch Hourn to land on the Glenelg Peninsula, I spent quite some time just drifting and looking back to the wonderfully broken hulks of the mountains from which I had just descended. On another such crossing (far less calm) I was forced to take shelter in a small cove on an offshore island, with only a very narrow opening exposing it to the sea. While a squall blackened the sky, and gave the waves on the open water white crests, I sheltered amongst barnacled, seaweed covered rocks in relatively calm water while rain pounded down on the spray deck of my boat and dripped off my waterproof hood. It might seem strange that I remember this as a highlight. But just as a comfy chair in a warm room beside a fire is all the more comfortable when you can see a storm raging through the window, rather than a clear day, I felt all the more cozy in my boat, as it nudged gently against the rocks, for the ragged seas immediately beyond the entrance to the cove.
Spectacular landscape was an ever present element of the trip, although its variety was astounding. Among the most fantastic of the mountains I passed through were those of the Assynt and Sutherland regions of the far north. The peaks in those areas are diminutive only in stature by comparison with other, higher mountains of Scotland. But their beauty is challenged only by a few that I have seen. Cutting across the land from South to North through this area, I utilised few paths. The rough tussocky ground, repetitive ascent and descent of one hillock after another and the weariness in my feet which these resulted in, was richly rewarded by the views all around. So much did I enjoy that landscape, that I cut a day’s walking short and opted to spend the night in a bothy which I came to. There is something special about Scottish bothies. They can be great, fun and sociable places when you meet others there at the end of a day. But there is a feeling of privilege when you find you have one of these little cottages to yourself. And so I had Suileag bothy to myself for the evening, and it was another night I was disinclined to retreat inside due to the constantly changing patterns of evening light cast on Suilven (the pillar like mountain due south of the bothy).
Many of the areas I visited I moved on from only reluctantly, and no area that I visited do I not now feel a desire to return to. A fortnight of exploring a small region in detail offers the chance to become intimately familiar with its character. But just passing through, with your eyes on the horizon, also has many merits.
Beside Loch Dionard I poured the last of my whiskey into my empty cook pot and mixed this with a little of the clear, cold water from the burn, which still made the only sound my ears are strong enough to detect. The sky was clear of clouds and the stars were as bright as I think I have ever seen them. The next day, if the water level permitted, I planned to paddle the River Dionard from its source at the loch down the broad Strath and towards the North Coast where I would finish my trip. Despite the disappointment which you find at the end of a great holiday I felt a real satisfaction in the journey as it had panned out. As I drained the last drops from my cook pot I was already planning further trips across hills and across water. Even if I only have time for a fraction of the plans I make, I enjoy the planning. And even when I am disappointed to be reaching the end of trips, I enjoy their memories and will continue to do so.
I’ve no idea what time it was when I finally retired to my shelter. But, as had been the case on many nights during the journey, I was asleep as soon as my head hit the rolled up fleece sweater I was using for a pillow.