“And this is where Rob thought he’d broken his leg”, said Andy, pointing to a mass of tightly packed contour lines on the map as he talked about the last time he had been to Knoydart. “Good job he hadn’t too, because if something happens out there, well… It’s not going to go well. Are you sure about going on your own?” I looked again at the place that Andy had pointed to, way out in the empty glens of Knoydart’s Rough Bounds, and saw that the nearest settlements from which help might come if it was needed were long distances away by water or over rough mountain passes. I wasn’t sure any more, but nodded anyway.
Water isn’t my natural element. I realised a long time ago that I have the staying power of a midge in a hurricane when it comes to getting cold and wet, so dry land has always appealed to me over Scotland’s chilly lochs and seas. The peninsula of Knoydart, way out to the west of the tourist bustle of Fort William however, is a place apart. Look it up on the map: bounded on three sides by sea lochs and the Sound of Sleat, and on the other by ranks of munro summits, its sole village of Inverie is accessible only by boat, unless you fancy a two day hike through the hills. It’s title of ‘Britain’s Last Wilderness’ is slightly disingenuous though; people did once populate the area, but now the only traces of them are the odd overgrown ruin and a maze of old trackways that are slowly melting back into the land. I had wanted to go there, drawn by the sheer inaccessibility, for a long time, but now I had a plan.
I’m not sure how Andy and Rob would feel about the term ‘rubber boat enthusiasts’ (I don’t think Andy would disagree, come to think of it), but as the UK distributors of Alpacka packrafts they had the means to take this adventure waterborne. The lochs and tide races that cut Knoydart off from the rest of the Highlands would become my highways through the hills, and Andy was busy strapping up the bright red packraft that would, hopefully, be my sea chariot. At least, that was what I had imagined when I spread the map out on the floor one evening; the reality would prove to be a little more daunting.
Equipped with my shiny red boat, I made a late-night drive across country to the tiny settlement at Kinloch Hourn, on the northern margin of the Rough Bounds. I say settlement, because it barely qualifies as a village – just a handful of farmhouses and an old stone jetty. Once I left the Road to the Isles, just after Invergarry, it was singletrack road for the 22 miles to the road end: a crazy rollercoaster of hummocks and sharp bends, punctuated by the occasional gleam of animal eyes staring out of the darkness. Past the inky waters of Loch Quoich, after which the tiny old road spat me out of the mountains with relish, down an improbably steep, tight and twisting course to the sea, dropping two hundred metres in the last few kilometres. The only hint of my location was the salt tang of seaweed, and the outlines of the hills above me casting darker silhouettes against the night sky.
I awarded myself a little lie-in the next morning, having just finished an 8-day guiding stint, and this proved to be unwise. In my ignorance I enjoyed a coffee, and listened to the thrum of rain on the roof of the van. When it cleared, it revealed precipitous green slopes that fell sharply into the loch, their tops still shrouded in fog. Making extra space on the bike for the raft, paddles and obligatory fishing rod took a little while, and four days worth of food needs its fair share of space as well. The upshot of all this meant that it was getting on for midday by the time I put cleat to pedal and began to grind my way up the impossible road that I had arrived by the night before. It began to rain immediately (setting something of a theme) and by the time I had climbed back up to Loch Quoich I was thoroughly wet. Getting to the water meant traversing a herd of highland cows, not that they seemed to care one way or the other, and then the soft ground stopped, and the silent, black water of the loch lay between me and forward progress.
It had been very easy to get excited about the idea from the comfort of home – to imagine graceful amphibious travel over land and water, quickly piling everything in to the boat when needed and having a jolly old time afloat – but those presumptions were quickly being washed away by the relentless rain. Try as I might, the various pieces of bike always seemed to work their way loose, and when I did finally get everything lashed down I found that the boat would capsize without my weight in it to balance everything out. I was wet, a little cold and more than a little nervous when I zipped up my buoyancy aid and stepped in, pushing off from the rocky shoreline towards a very uncertain future. The bottom of the loch fell away sharply in the first few metres, giving way to unwelcoming, peat-stained depth; I felt the echoing of a great deal of space underneath me and my tiny, overloaded boat, and decided to stick close to the shore.
Things picked up a little when the sun came out to light up the greens and purples of the hillsides around me; I even paused from paddling to drift on the wind and take a few photos. The return of the rain reminded me that I still had a long way to go once I reached dry land, and I got back to the steady rhythm of paddling once more. Progress was steady enough though, and by late afternoon I landed at the mouth of the Abhainn Cósaidh where it met the loch, and began to unload and repack the gear on to the bike. I had been warned that the ‘rough’ in Rough Bounds was there for a reason – I knew that this part of the world was not plain sailing, having spent enough time in the adjoining hills looking for that promising looking trail among bog and heather. From the moment I set foot back on dry land though, the previous records were scrapped in favour of the relentless slog lying between me and the tempting prospect of the bothy in Barrisdale Bay.
It was a kilometre from the loch shore to where I could hope to pick up the trail, and for part of that kilometre the easiest route open to me was to push the bike up the knee-deep river, so rough and steep was the ground to either side. The trail, when I found it, was mostly rideable in sections, but the encroaching bog that had flowed over its surface meant that progress was often a slow grind at less than walking pace. My lie-in had long ago stopped seeming like a good idea, and I knew that I faced a long, hard evening if I wanted to rest my head in the warmth of the bothy, so through gritted teeth I marched on. The convoluted folds of the rock led me on a merry dance over false summits and round unexpected corners, until at last my faint green line of long-forgotten labour relented, and it began to fall between the hills into Glen Barrisdale.
My tired mind saw nothing but the homely welcome of the imagined bothy, but there was plenty of work left to be done to get there. At one point, navigating a tortuous course between inviting holes and ruts, I placed the front wheel onto ground that suggested firmness and safety. I realised my mistake too late, and was prevented from sliding off the back of the bike by the seat bag behind the saddle. I was going down with my ship in a long, soaring arc, and in the split-second of perfect clarity that we seem to be gifted in the slow motion of a crash, I remembered to roll my shoulder into the ground rather than meet it with outstretched arms. The impact was heavy, on to mud littered with sharp rocks, and the air left my lungs with an involuntary grunt. It began to rain again. I lay there in the water for a few seconds while my mind played catch up, before rolling over on autopilot to check the damage. It was only once I realised that nothing was seriously damaged or injured that the reality of my situation hit me: I was hours from help on a rough and barely-used trail, in the middle of Scotland’s most inaccessible peninsula; I was alone and darkness was falling. It was a silly crash, born from a tired mind and body, but it could easily have meant a broken wrist or collarbone, or worse, if I hadn’t tucked when I had. There and then, I was reminded that I was very much alone in the gathering dark with the consequences of my actions – with no-one on hand to kiss it better, it was time to get up and move again, feeling thankful that I had left a very thorough route plan behind at home.
The last hour and a half to Barrisdale was cautious, timid and slow: it was 9pm when the glow of lights through the windows greeted me and I splashed through the last remaining puddles eagerly. There were three German hikers already there, and we chatted briefly about the loveliness of the bay, and the hard work needed to get there. The feeling of relief to strip off the layers of grit and mud, unwrapping food and warm clothes from their protective dry-bags, was wonderful, and in only half an hour the trials of the day’s journey were lost in a drowsy, hot chocolate fug. I should say, too, that the bothy was an unexpected delight. Most Scottish bothies are maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association, a charity that uses what funds and volunteers it can muster to maintain a scattering of remote huts and old cottages throughout Scotland, England and Wales. They are very rudimentary, offering only basic shelter and warmth, but they are lovely in their own way, and very welcome to the weary eyes of someone who has been long hours out on the hill. Barrisdale is a private bothy though, attached to the estate that owns the land. They as for a small payment, only three pounds per night, but with that price comes the luxury of running water and even electric lights. Part of me felt that such luxuries somehow constituted ‘cheating’, but a much larger part of me told the other part to shut up and threatened it with bodily harm if it complained about the running water again. It was a peaceful night’s sleep.
The next day was brighter, although the rain was sulking in the corners of the mountains, threatening to make trouble at a moment’s notice. At least today was to be a simpler one, I thought as I left the bothy in weak sunshine. An hour later I was cursing as I shoved and heaved the heavy bike over Mam Barrisdale, the pass separating Barrisdale from Inverie. Manhandling aside, the day was a pleasant one, and the exploratory beams of sunlight had broken out into full-blown summer by the time I was bouncing my way down the other side of the 400m pass towards the white houses of the village. Inverie itself might appear remote to us, but standing on the green outside the only pub it felt as though I was standing in the centre of the world. What used to be the Knoydart Estate was bought out by the community in 1999, to be run by local people in the interest of preserving the landscape and keeping it a viable place to live and work. It seems to have worked, and in contrast to the dwindling populations of other remote highland communities there was a real sense of bustle and business in the village, as boat trips from the fishing port of Mallaig landed at the quay. Remoteness is only a matter of perspective.
As nice as the village looked, I kept moving to find what I had come all this way for – Britain’s most remote trail centre! The brainchild of a local man who didn’t want to miss out on the trail centres popping up everywhere else in the country, I’d heard rumours of a mysterious trail network hiding in the forest above the village. Following a breadcrumb trail of little wooden signs, I found an absolute gem of a descent that rattled its way back down to the village. Taking a very homegrown approach to trail design, including some interesting breezeblock ‘speed bumps’, the trail was a mish-mash of huge berms, rock slabs and stone staircases weaving in and out of the scrubby forest. Some kerbstone skinnies over bogs towards the bottom were made more interesting by the cumbersome weight of the bike, which I hadn’t thought to unload. Perhaps it was the effort it had taken to get there, or the sheer unexpectedness of man-made trails in the back of beyond, but the grin split my face from ear to ear and I had to go up again, and again, before I was done for the day. Happy to have found the treasure at the end of the trail, I pitched up for the night at the beachfront campsite run by the Knoydart Foundation, and watched the sun set while dark clouds still guarded the Mam Barrisdale pass behind me.
The third day of the adventure looked promising from my seaside sleeping point, and I was happy retracing my steps over the hills to Barrisdale. Knowing the hard work that awaited to get the bike over the top, I took an easy pace and enjoyed the hills around me, stopping sit and soak up the long-awaited sunshine. The descent was a brake-cooking rollercoaster that seemed to take as long as the climb had, but a lazy lunch in the sun made the day seem a bit more civilised – the previous two days of hauling and grinding had been long, and my arms were hurting as much as my legs. The estate owners at Barrisdale seemed surprised o see me return intact, which I took as a back-handed compliment of sorts, before pressing on to find a camp spot beside Loch Hourn, which would be the final leg of my journey the next day.
The arms of water that encircle Knoydart don’t give up their prize lightly, and the tide rushing through them twice a day boils and surges around submarine rocks until they look more like great rivers that seawater. I had to wait until the time was right and I could enlist the help of the tide rather than make an enemy of it. That wouldn’t happen until the next morning, but luckily the violent water makes an excellent spot to fish for mackerel and Pollack where the water runs fastest. I inflated the boat and paddled out with the rod, using eddies behind rocks to shelter from the tide race. In the space of a few minutes I was rewarded with two fat Pollack to put on the flat rock in the middle of my little driftwood camp fire, and I went to sleep full of fish rather than with a growling hunger like previous nights.
The rain began in the night, and seemed to have been falling forever when I woke. There was nothing to do but wait for the inching movements of the sea to start returning up the shore, and a succession of mugs of tea set the rhythm of the morning. By midday, the seaweed was beginning to stream out in the direction of home with the force of the tide, and with bike and kit lashed securely (I hoped) to the deck of the boat, I pushed off and left the dry land of Knoydart for the last time that trip. It was the first time that I had taken the loaded boat out onto deep, moving water, and nervous thoughts began to tap insistently at the back of my head. What would I do if I capsized? Would I be able to save the bag with the camera? What if the boat punctured? I might float, but all of the heavy kit would be going straight down to the seabed. Not that I had a choice, now, but to trust the sea to take me with it, and the boat began to glide smoothly forwards as it was pushed on by the tide. Kilometres slid by, and for a while I was joined by a pair of seals that bobbed inquiringly nearby. I could make out the whiskers of the snouts and the black coals of their eyes until they dipped with a ‘pop’ out of sight.
The rain fell harder and water pooled around my knees, but the packraft took me on and on around more false corners than I could count. Every now and then the tide would take me on a new path as the water coursed around some other hidden obstruction, but we made good time, me and the improbable little boat, until at last Kinloch Hourn came into sight. I landed at the foot of some ancient, worn stone steps beside a jetty, and gratefully stretched out stiff knees as I waded ashore. For the final kilometre as I rode back to the van the boat went on my head: a strange red UFO floating along the track. There was no ceremony, and no recognition from the same sheep munching on the same wet grass beside the van, just as I left the scene four days earlier. Those four days had been a lot tougher than I had imagined in Knoydart’s steep, rough terrain, but both boat and bike had coped amazingly, and as I nursed the van up the impossible road back to the real world, a whole heap of other land-and-water adventures began to take shape in my head…
Thanks to Andy and Rob at Backcountrybiking for the inflatable toys!