Friday, 31 October 2014

Harris Lewis and Beyond Pt 2

Northern Scotland

By the time we had made it from the Isle of Harris/Lewis to Durness we only had 3 days left for actual walks, and as the weather was set to remain rather Scottish with heavy showers and yet more gale force winds, we again decided to stick with the beach holiday theme.  

Arriving in Durness just after midday we headed straight for the Sango Sands campsite which is set on the edge of the cliffs above Sango Bay.  

Campervans overlooking the beach

After lunch we headed off for a short walk that involved a visit to Smoo cave.  Having spent my youth caving in the Yorkshire Dales, I tend to avoid cave tours, especially if I have to pay.  That said I really did enjoy this little trip and the guy taking us down really knew his stuff. It's only a short trip of around 20 minutes and if you have never been down a cave it would be a good introduction.  You can of course still go into the cave without paying, it's just the cave accessed by boat that you pay £4.00 for.  More info in the links below

You can see a quick video of the trip here, or click on the link to watch in another window 

Apologies for my web address appearing throughout the video but a promotion company nicked parts of my Iceland video off YouTube and used it to promote a car hire business.

Balnakeil Bay and Faraid Head
Next morning was clear so I headed down to the bay just before sunrise.  I wasn't alone in my quest for capturing some nice light and another photographer from Ireland was already setting up further along the beach.  It was a bit difficult trying to keep out of each other's shots, but even so we both managed to capture some people free images. 

Sango Bay

After breakfast we walked around to Balnakeil Bay to enjoy a circular walk up onto Faraid Head, returning along the eastern headland.  

Balnakeil Bay is easily accessible and is a short walk I have done numerous times.  Each time there is always something interesting to see or photograph and today was no different.

While messing about photographing shells and crabs we came across a Dolphin stranded on the beach about 20 metres into the sea.  On the access to most beaches up here there are signs with phone numbers for the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme.  Typically we did not have the number with us, but fortunately while we were discussing whether to head back along the beach to get it, a couple of their members turned up.  They told us the person who had called them had also spotted a young dolphin in difficulty as well.  The guys waded into the sea to check, but sadly there was nothing that could be done for the adult and as the young dolphin appeared to have headed back into the bay, they dragged the dead animal ashore.

Leaving the rescuers waiting for someone to come and do an autopsy we continued our walk, eventually coming across another dolphin that had been found alive a week or so ago.  Again little could be done for it and it was put down to end its suffering.

Whether it was the storms, illness, pollution, or indeed a combination of these factors it was hard to say, but it was at least heartening to know that there are groups of people around our coast collecting data in order to understand the problems facing marine animals. More info via the link.

Leaving the beach we headed out onto Faraid Head and spotted a seal close to the shore.  A few minutes later we spotted what we thought was another dolphin in trouble.  It was too far off to photograph, but a look through the binoculars showed it was actually a dead cow floating in the sea!  

 Faraid Head

 The view from Faraid Head across Balnakeil Bay. More rain on the way.

Sandwood Bay
Sandwood Bay, or to give it its Viking name Sandvatn (Sand and Water) has a lot of myth, legend and folklore associated with it.  Stories of beautiful mermaids, ship wrecks and the ghostly wanderings of lost sailors all come together in this wild and remote setting.  It is one of those beaches that any lover of wild places should visit at least once in their lives and for me it is perhaps the best beach walk in the UK, it's certainly one I cannot help returning to. 

On reaching the remains of Sandwood Lodge we got our first view of the beach and could see the tide was almost fully in.  Despite still being at least a kilometer away, we could hear the constant rumble of large waves pounding the shoreline. 

On the beach itself any ideas of wandering barefoot along the tide line were soon quashed.  In fact due to the sloping nature of the beach it was pretty dodgy walking 20 or thirty feet above it due to the fact some of the larger waves would race up the sand way beyond what appeared to be the high point.  Some waves even managed to sneak up from behind due to the way the sand was deposited around the rocks in the centre. It was, both exhilarating and downright scary at the same time.

Heading north we did harbour thoughts of extending the walk to the Strathchailleach bothy, but the river outlet from Sandwood Loch was in spate and being pushed back inland by the force of the incoming tide.  With no way of crossing we turned tail and headed back along the beach to enjoying the spectacle of Am Buachaille appearing above waves, the tops of which were shredded and blown back out to sea by the strong wind.

Don't let anyone tell you there is no such thing as wilderness left in the UK, anyone who visits a place like this, on a day like this and is left unmoved has a soul that has long since passed away.  This really is a wonderfully wild place and it was with something of a heavy heart that we left and headed back to the vans.

Red Point
On the way home we stopped off at Gairloch, and yes you guessed it, yet another storm rolled in.  Pouring rain and strong winds which made the van rock so violently I actually felt queasy came in during the night.  Fortunately it had blown through by mid-morning and we headed out for a wander around Red Point.  

I nearly did not bother writing about this walk as I found it pretty depressing due to the amount of plastic rubbish littering the shores.  

The vast majority of this rubbish clearly relates to the fishing industry with crates, nets and rope all littering the shoreline.  We picked up quite a bit and moved some of it together before placing rocks on top to stop it getting back into the sea.  In reality though it was a futile gesture and I really am ashamed to be a part of a species that does this to the planet.  

Travelling does have its negatives when you see things like this, but then again it is about much more than just having fun and ticking off sights and experiences.  It should inform, educate and occasionally make you question yourself.  This little trip certainly had all of this and more.  

All text and images copyright David Forster

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Harris, Lewis and Beyond Pt1

A trip to the Outer Hebrides has been on my increasingly long list of places to visit for years and after reading blog posts by James and Chrissie it was time to get on with it.

Accompanied by Moira and friends Graham and Sandra the trip started well when we spotted a Minky Whale within the first ten minutes of leaving Uig on Skye. 

On reaching Tarbert we headed straight out to Huisinis to park up in the dunes.  The attitude to campervans is very relaxed here, but even so I had a chat with a guy working in a little hut close to the beach and provided we did not park outside of the roped off area he said we were welcome to stay. 

Being the back end of the year we were prepared for bad weather, but it was still disappointing when it started lashing down next morning within a few minutes of setting off for our walk. 

We had planned a longer walk up Glen Cravadale, returning over the hills of Huiseabhal Mor and Huiseabhal Beag, but unfortunately low cloud and driving rain meant we spent most of the time staring at our feet rather than the view, and on reaching Loch Crabhadail we decided to stay low and head back along the coast via the beach of Traig Mheilen. 

Frustratingly it was at this point I found my 4 month old Meindl boots were leaking.  I think this makes it 5 pairs of boots in about two years.  The only consolation with these boots is they are all leather so I can at least slather them with lots of wax to put of the inevitable.

Early afternoon saw us back in our vans watching the rain stream down the windows. With dripping gear everywhere and our little heater on full any guilt at foregoing true wild camping and using a tent was soon forgotten over a bowl of soup.  Later a close up sighting of an eagle flying along the coast a few hundred metres away from us also kept our spirits up.

The skies began to clear in the evening so we headed out for short walk along the coast.

View along Caolas an Scarp the narrow channel between Scarp and Harris from Cnoc Mor

Returning in the dark I grabbed a few long exposure night shots using our head torches to paint in the foreground. 

Not brilliant results, but something worth experimenting with a little more in the future perhaps.

Next day we planned to do a hill, but instead low cloud and pouring rain saw us heading up Gleann Mhiabhaig to the Eagle hide. 

After an hour or so we had supped all our coffee and eaten all our grub and with no sign of eagles in the murk we sloshed our way back down the glen. 

In need of fresh water and toilet emptying facilities we headed to a campsite at Drinishader for the night.

Minch View Caravan Park

Today was forecast to be better so we headed south to Northton in order to do a beach walk and bag a much needed hilltop view.  On the way we visited MacLeod's standing stone at Nisabost.

The stone is also known as the Clach Mhic Leoid standing stone.

Once we reached Northton we had a few problems finding somewhere at the far end of the village to park.  There was a parking area marked on the map, but it turned out to be a cafe.  In the end we returned along the road to park at the visitor centre. It added a couple of kilometres of road walking to the day but with blue skies and sunshine it was certainly no hardship. Our objective was the nicely placed hill of Ceapabhal via some lovely beaches.

Ahead Ceapabhal, a wee hill with cracking views.

Beautiful beach, blue skies and a nice hill.  Just what we had come for

On the way we detoured to visit the lighthouse, chapel and broch indicated on the map at Rubha an Teampaill. Of the lighthouse there was no sign, but the remains of the broch and medieval chapel were still an interesting diversion.

Medieval chapel built on the remains of a Broch, the outline of which was still clear to see.  Bad weather clouds did not bode well for tomorrow.

A short, steep pull saw us onto the summit fairly quickly and for such a diminutive little hill the views were outstanding in every direction. 

 Ceapabhal and the view south

The highest point is marked by a large cairn north of the trig point. 
Instead of returning the same way we diverted slightly west and took a track through the dunes.

After spending a quiet night wild camping again we planned to climb An Cliseam but waking yet again to rain and very strong winds there was little enthusiasm for slogging up the hill simply to say we bagged it. Instead a quick visit to Tarbert for supplies and the forming of a plan B saw us heading up to visit the Callanish stone circles.  

The Callanish Stone Circle is only one of many spread across this part of the coast
The forecast was for yet more heavy rain and storm force winds next day so plans for climbing mountains were again abandoned and low level coastal walks seemed the best option.   We got a tip from a really friendly guy from Norfolk who told us about a nice campsite next to a beach near Cnip which also had a few nice walks nearby.  On arriving we noticed our friendly Norfolk chap was already in the best spot and enjoying the wonderful views north over the many tiny islands that dot this coastline.  We grabbed what we thought might be a fairly sheltered spot and cracked open a beer.

I have been a tad worried on many an occasion while camping in strong winds with a tent, but last night was the first time I have genuinely feared the van would actually blow over.  We were not the only ones fearing for our vans and around 11.00pm the vans in front of us all abandoned their rather exposed prime viewpoints and either headed back into the dunes, or hid over by the toilets.

We had a little shelter from a small rise in the ground as well as Graham's vehicle, but even so the gusts were so violent I did wonder if I should move.  In the end concerns over driving into one of the many holes around us in the dark, coupled with the fact I had had a fair bit to drink meant we decided to stay put.  Sleep however was not easy and dawn saw a rather bleary eyed photographer staggering against the wind along the beach in the vain hope of some decent light.  Fortune as they say, favours the brave, and I was rewarded with a glimpse of the sun just as a heavy shower raced by. 

Over a leisurely breakfast the wind had moderated quite a bit so we headed off along the coast to enjoy the spectacle of storm tossed seas and wind scoured sands. 

By the time we reached the conjoined villages Cnip and Bhaltos (Valtos), which had a little harbour sheltered from the wind the sun was out.

Beach on the Cnip side of the harbour.

Bhaltos (Valtos) Village side of the harbour

    It's sad to see these old boats slowly being reclaimed by nature

Heading further around the headland where the coastline met the full force of the wind it was somewhat bracing and just a little intimidating to see massive waves breaking against the cliffs.  It is not an exaggeration to say that some waves were breaking upwards of 60 feet high as they hit the cliffs.  Despite this were lucky to spot a seal bobbing about in one of the more sheltered areas.

The gusty nature meant we stayed well away from any cliff edges but even so we were still able to get some good views. 

Our final day was again dominated by yet more wet and windy weather so we headed north visiting the Blackhouse museum, a Norse Mill and the northern most point, the Butt of Lewis. 

The Norse Mill and Kiln
Restored interior

Next morning saw us back in Tarbert for the ferry back to Skye and despite days of strong winds the crossing was quite calm and we were even treated to a 10 minute long spectacle of porpoise swimming alongside the ferry and then diving under it.

So that was it our first visit to the Outer Hebrides and while we experienced a bit of mixed weather it tended to blow through quite quickly and by being flexible with our planning it meant we got out every day.  We will certainly be back for more.

Next Sandwood Bay and the beaches of the north.

PS sorry about the formatting, what I am seeing in the edit window bears no resemblance to what appears as it is published.