Around The Long Island
A circumnavigation of South Uist by packraft and fatbike
Written by Annie Le // Photography by Huw Oliver
Produced in Partnership with Trash Free Trails & Komoot
Wild camping is one of the best ways to experience the outdoors. It allows us to take journeys to remote places and watch the sunrise and set from incredible locations. But as more of us camp off the beaten track, we must do more than leave no trace on the environment – what if we could leave a positive trace instead? Here, in the first of a series of purposeful adventures in partnership with Trash Free Trails and komoot, Annie Le shares how we can make wild camping sustainable for the future.
Starting a trip by ferry always makes it feel more exciting. That was my thought as we boarded MV Hebrides from Uig to Lochmaddy with 10 days of riding, paddling, and wild camping ahead of us. With our hometown of Aviemore was heaving with tourists – numbers that feel unsustainable at times – we were keen to escape the bustle and find somewhere to camp without feeling like we were part of a wider problem. ‘Dirty camping’, which has more in common with fly-tipping than wild camping, has been all over the news for the last two summers. It has certainly given us a greater focus on our own camping practices to help us make sure we aren’t adding to the existing pressures in the Highlands. Organisations like Trash Free Trails go one step further, inspiring us to make a positive impact when we head out on our adventures, and it’s a challenge that we’re happy to take on.
The ferry headed out of port, every mile further west producing gloomier skies. We were heading to the only part of the UK not to be basking in that week’s incredible heatwave. The mist was hovering at around 200m as we disembarked to begin riding – straight into a headwind. Over the next few days we would get very acclimatised to mizzle: a combination of mist and drizzle, often so light you don’t realise you are getting wet until it has soaked you. We spent the first few days riding on the white sand beaches of South Uist’s west coast. The strong westerlies whipped up sea foam and huge kelp fronds scattered the beaches. Groups of dunlin dodged the waves and oystercatchers screeched overhead. We passed no-one. Both tourists and locals were tucked up away from the beaches.
South Uist has the largest area of machair in the world. This rare habitat is a kind of coastal wildflower meadow that’s a result of the sandy ground and light, non-intensive farming of livestock. It’s only found on the north-west coasts of Scotland and Ireland, but is important for many bird species such as lapwing, dunlin, and corncrake. We camped just off the farm tracks to avoid disturbing any young birds, and we delighted in the flowers that added brightness to the gloomy weather.
Tip: Campsite selection
I always try to imagine how an area would be affected if it were camped on, regularly, and not just by me. Camping too close to riverbanks can create erosion, and can cause fragile plants such as blaeberry to die off. Always think about where you will go to the toilet. Lots of folk peeing in the same spots will change the soil pH levels and lead to nettles and dock invading, as can often be seen along bothy walls and old ruins. If the area is very open then the chances are that everyone has gone for a poo behind that same rock. Again, this is going to create environmental changes as well as being gross.
Tip: Toileting outdoors
Everybody poops. We carry a steel poo trowel, as it’s sturdy enough to take on hard ground and cut through grassy areas. There isn’t much point in carrying a flimsy plastic one; they are no use, especially if you have those urgent poo sweats going. A few folks I know dig their holes the night before in order to be ready when the time comes. If I’m camping in a busy area, I carry out my loo roll in a dog poo bag; if I’m somewhere more remote, I bury it deep along with the poop. I’ve seen a big rise in visible loo roll and wet-wipe waste in the hills, which is pretty nasty – and unnecessary. For ladies, rather than use loo roll when you wee, think about investing in a pee cloth such as a Kula Cloth – or make peace with the drip dry. If you must use loo roll, carry it out.
We nipped inland to ask a local if we could fill up from their outdoor tap – ironically it can be a struggle to find fresh water on these damp islands. As we rode back down to the beach, we passed a spot that had obviously been used for a good night by someone: greeting us were disposable barbecues, a huge messy fire pit filled with rubbish, and even a human turd partially obscured by pebbles. As we were close to some bins, we decided to spend a few minutes improving the area. We soon discovered there was not one but about five fire circles, all within metres of each other. Leave no trace means just that – leaving a pile of rocks is still leaving a trace. After a few more minutes of dispersing the stones you could almost believe that no-one had ever stopped by.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you come across the remains of someone else’s dirty camp. Things like barbecues, beer cans, old food, and human waste aren’t too appealing. Where do you even start? It’s not your job to tidy any of it up, but anything you can do is a huge positive. As Trash Free Trails say: ‘No guilt. Every action has an impact.’ I tend to carry a plastic bag with me for collecting rubbish. If it’s full and I haven’t managed to collect everything then so be it. I’ve tried – and made some improvement. If going near human waste freaks you out, don’t worry about it. If you are happy digging a hole to shove it in – preferably with a very long stick – then this is a good option. As always, be mindful of your own hygiene and safety, and be very careful around broken glass.
By the fourth day we were on the water and making our journey northward up the island’s east coast. Our goal for the day was to reach Baigh Uisinis, some 25km of paddling away. We hopped on the water just after low tide (incoming tide flows north along this section), and by following the flood tide we could save ourselves some effort. We passed an otter hiding in the bladderwrack as we were blown out of Lochboisdale on the westerly wind, and seals soon began popping up to follow us with curious eyes. The tide carried us along, weaving between skerries and dodging shags as they launched from the cliffs. Eventually the tide turned and our arms tired. We could see our endpoint, but with the current against us, progress was slow. It was gone 5.00pm when we finally washed up on a cobbled beach: an idyllic scene with craggy, mist-laden hills above us and the bothy tucked up at their feet.
Jumping ashore to scout a camp spot, we soon found that the whole bay had become a collecting point for all sorts of marine rubbish. The fishing industry has a lot to answer for; rope, nets, buoys, and huge plastic pipes from fish farms littered the bay. It was an odd feeling to be so remote yet so surrounded by human detritus. There was nothing we could do to remove the industrial rubbish, so we focused on leaving our own campsite the way we found it, with just a patch of slightly flatter grass.
Our next day’s paddle took us past amazing gneiss cliffs. Mist rolled in and out and drizzle covered us in tiny water droplets. We delighted in watching guillemots: fat little black-and-white birds that bobbed around on the sea. Their take-offs were especially unglamourous, with lots of flapping and feet paddling desperately. We had seen a cave marked on our maps, and floated into it to find a huge cavern where the water was so clear that we could see all the way to the sandy bottom metres below. Compass jellyfish with their long tendrils pulsed beneath us in the turquoise water. Thin strands of kelp waved up at us. We finished the day by crossing the channel, or caol, between South Uist and Benbecula. The water had stilled to a mirror finish, and we savoured the feeling of smooth water as we moved slowly towards the triangular peak of Eabhal, North Uist’s highest point. About halfway across, a large seal leapt from the water, its body suspended in a graceful arc. It leapt again before popping its head up as if to say, ‘That was good, wasn’t it?’
Back on North Uist, we found ourselves camping on another big, empty beach. The sun had finally arrived and so had the clegs, or horseflies. Seeking relief from the biting insects, we scoured the high-tide line, and turned up old fishing floats and Russian catheters amongst the seaweed. Collecting enough old pallets and other washed-up wood, we built a small fire on the sand to enjoy while the sun set. Watching the flames with the fire’s warmth just offsetting the chilly breeze, we celebrated our journey with instant custard and apples: high cuisine after nearly a week of camping.
I camp roughly 100 nights a year, but I only have a fire on one or two of those. I think of them as a special treat rather than a necessity. There aren’t many occasions in the UK when it’s appropriate to have a fire unless you have carried your own fire pan and fuel. Beaches with driftwood are the main place I will happily have one without leaving a trace or damaging the local environment. The UK is the least-forested country in Europe apart from Iceland, which means that our trees are too precious to be burning. What about dead wood in forest, you ask? Deadwood is enormously important to the biodiversity and health of woodland. The decaying wood houses thousands of fungi and invertebrates that help create more diversity higher up the food chain.
What if it’s not just you? What if 20 people want a fire? Will there still be any wood left for the forest? In the Highlands, much of our upland ground is peat, which is a fuel in itself, and if we light a fire it can burn down into the ground to flare up later as a smouldering scar – or even a large wildfire. Sandy or rocky beaches are the only places I will have a fire without bringing in a pan to have it on.
Sidetracked is partnering with Trash Free Trails and Komoot to protect our trails and the wild places they take us. If you are looking for ideas of how to have a purposeful adventure, you can follow our series throughout September and head to Trash Free Trails for more projects you can get involved in. You can also head to komoot, where Trash Free Trails have a collection of recommended routes, built to enable community-led stewardship of the trails, remove single-use pollution, and empower riders, runners, and walkers to maintain and improve these important places.