Thursday, 30 June 2011

Rhapsody in Blue

Kayaking off MacLeod's Maidens, Skye

Sea kayaking over the years has proved to be an exquisite blend of serenity, excitement, fear (sometimes, but not always overcome) and wonder bordering on worship for an intimate experience of the blue planet. Even so, there are moments where the blend is just so...well...overwhelming, that you know that the experience is even more amazing.

Some of the most memorable days so far have been on Skye. The first, when we barely knew what we were letting ourselves in for, between Dunvegan and the wonderful pub at Stein. Our second kayaking-of-a-lifetime trip also ended up in front of a well-tended pint at the Stein Inn as we beamed, bright red and crusty with salt, at the folk dressed in normal clothes. We were elated aliens from another blue world, one that was full of delightful surprises.

Taking off from Harlosh and out into Bracadale Bay, we eventually came to the cave-studded and towering clifflines leading out towards the stacks. The bay here opens to meet the Atlantic swell, and normally conditions here would be fairly dynamic. On this day of uber-calm, the swell just whispered gentle nothings to the coast, lifting the water's edge like a carpet. It was magical.

An immense cave full to popping with nesting birds. This one went back hundreds of metres, opening out into a cave cathedral.

A gentle splash of water disturbed the absolute stillness and a closer look revealed a stream plunging hundreds of feet off the basalt edges and into the sea.

A stream dropping into the sea.

Slowly the sea-symphony grew from small beginnings into a crescendo of situation and spirit of place. The immensity of the cliffs, the caves sputtering full of cormorants and kittiwakes with rarer puffins scudding along, just above the lilting sea’s surface. A sense of exposure that borders on high mountaineering and a truly awesome place to be.

With each turn of a corner in the dark, ruffled basaltic coast, the sense of exposure ramped up a little more until the theatre of spires opened out in front of us. A sensational amphitheatre of rising cliffs with the sea stacks breaking through the edge of the ocean.

The day was only half way through and our capacity for wonder was already full to bursting. With an ocean of time to play with, we crossed over the full span of the bay to the isle of Wiay. A stocky, basalt pile riveted with caves, we’d visited this isle before in bouncier seas. In the calm of the afternoon, this island was a rhapsody in blue. Cave upon magical cave and another wonderful place.

It had been a wonderful day.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Kayaking to Callanish

Looking for some shelter from the winds on a recent trip to the isle of Harris, we decided to take a look at Great Berneray. A circumnavigation would have been nice, but wasn't going to happen that day. Instead, we headed into the lochs east of there, to Callanish.

From the water's edge, the standing stones could just be seen and curling around the shoreline, they were once more out of view. I was thinking they'd be disappointing, sometimes the way with iconic places like this. But no, they are truly magical and even more impressive than I could have imagined. It was wonderful to see them.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Mountains and Molehills

The Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon 2011, Beinn Dearg, Northwest Highlands

The LAMM this year was tucked into the mountains south of Ullapool, on the Beinn Dearg massif. This is classic munro terrane: sculpted valleys with dreamlike rivers and waterfalls. Soaring cliffs set on a backdrop of one of the most sensational mountain panoramas to be found: Suilven, Canisp and the other instantly recognisable icons of the Wester Ross landscape. The LAMM has become a national treasure, and truly deserves its reputation as a conoisseurs mountain marathon.

Front runners in the B Class

Yet when all's said and done, this is one of the toughest of challenges, whatever class you choose to undertake. It takes a special kind of mindset to give the LAMM your all. And at the beginning, it's especially tough. It takes a while to chip off the layers of civilisation that say it's going to be cold, wet and midgified and the two hard days of the event hang over you like a shroud.

At the start of the Score Class

Slowly, but surely though, you eventually embrace what you have to embrace. The cold, the wet, the never-ending, punishing and relentless terrane.

Course-setter Angela Mudge's dog, digging at the start

And suddenly, you realise that there is less and less to worry about. The mountains open out to sensational panoramas and you realise you are experiencing something quite fantastic, somewhere where you may never set foot again.

Moving through awesome landscapes: the distant peaks of Stac Pollaidh and Suilven

On the LAMM, the low point comes at 5 am on Day 2, but this is deftly turned into the high point of the weekend with the cunning use of bagpipes. You awake from your half-sleep to the dulcet sounds of the Highlands' finest- an experience to treasure. It was, unfortunately, impossible to find a willing piper in the remote location of the overnight camp in Strath Mulzie, so we were left with the accidental droning feedback of Martin Stone’s loud hailer instead (which some, rather unkindly, thought was a good substitute for the pipes…). Some disappointed LAMMers in a nearby tent made up for the piper-less wake up call with a rousing rendition of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers”, so we weren’t short-changed…

Descending the rocky summit of Seanna Bhraigh

Somewhere along the way, this tremendous mountain journey has allowed you to restore your sense of balance, to see what's important again. And all of a sudden, you realise your mountains have become molehills.

Day 2 start with the lovely backdrop of Creag an Duine

B Class womens' team winners (I think)