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)

Monday, 9 May 2011

Spirited Waters

Alice before the rain

A while ago now, just as the freeze-thaw was releasing its grip on the north, we took off on another wonderful kayak trip with the sea touring group of the Scottish Canoe Association. These trips have come to be so much more to us than meeting a bunch of kayakers for a paddle. They have become food for the kayaking soul.

Meeting old and new faces at the Isle of Glencoe hotel, the air of expectation was jamming the lobby as the briefing for the weekend took place. Soon to be sealed in dry suits, Peter Venters asked Jim Weir if there was anything he needed to lead a group the next day. 'Big flask....lots of sandwiches', was his succinct reply.
The scene was set for another great sea kayaking weekend.

In opting for the trip to Lismore from Port Appin, we found ourselves standing in a group of rather good paddlers. A bit too good, and I was wondering how it would all go. Still, conditions were good, and the pace started off gently.

Towards the northern end of Lismore where a multitude of skerries streak through the tidal waters, I saw two large birds. Geese perhaps, but geese with funny, bent beaks. A couple of us had spotted them and turned to get a little closer. The birds took off, revealing their identity. The two sea eagles whirled above us, not concerned enough to fly off.

The day panned out into one of those unforgettable times spent on an infinite sea above a panorama of unending skyscapes. The trip was made all the more poignant by developments within the SCA which stand to threaten the running of trips like these. For those who've enjoyed these trips for years, it is a sad enough thought. But for us newcomers to this truly inspirational group of people, it feels like the wave has passed beneath us before having had the time to catch it. Let's hope it isn't over.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

One Day in Morocco

It's been a while since I was in Africa. Being near Tarifa in Southern Spain at Christmas meant that we couldn't have had a better opportunity to slip across the Straits and visit Tangiers.

The ferry crossing was rough- about force 5 I would say. The immense catamaran slapped heavily into the ravaged waves, driving many passengers into close encounters with the sick bag. We were shaken, but on this occasion, not stirred, and slightly uneasily, left the restaurant deck to the cleaners and wobbled out into the scorching sun.

To be in Morocco is to immerse yourself in what seems at first like an unreal place. Within moments, it seemed as if the natural reserve between strangers had disappeared. At the slightest flicker of a map from a pocket, someone was there, wanting to help.

Sitting in the shade of a street cafe, we were exhausted. We'd raced off to try and see everything in this amazing, arresting place. Drinking in the wild infusion of stabbingly-bright green mint tea, the rainbow displays of wizards striding by in swathes of decadent winter djellabas made it feel like a wonderful hallucination.

Something else slowly started to sink in, though, by the end of the day. Although it seemed as if this was as unreal and fairytale a place as you could find, it was quite the opposite. This was the real world, a kind of reality that we in Britain, and perhaps, Europe, have lost touch with. Intangible though it was, the full gamut of life was here as it had been for thousands of years and even in this immense city, everyone was connected to each other. With our unreal existence in the here and now in our technologically proficient but shallow world, it struck me that we may have by-passed something very special.

Maybe there was something in the mint tea, but maybe life in Tangiers is a window on a forgotten world. Reality check, indeed.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Mountain Kingdom

Join me on a photo journey through the landscapes of Corsica...A wonderful place for granite climbing and mountain running.

The ancient capital fortress of Corte

Thin wisps of cloud along a rock shelf

The path to the crag is paved with prickly pears...

Afternoon nap

Iles Rocheuses

The dancing granite spires of Campomoro

A true mountain kingdom: Monte Rotunda. What a place to be running.

The clouds came in...

And parted again...

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

A Handful Of Earth

The view from the summit of Ulva

Look out over the far west of Mull and you'll see a magical landscape of shimmering seas amongst gem-like islands of green baize. The pastel-pink and turquiose blues of Iona, towering ridges of basalt layers and the melancholic beauty of a hundred ruined villages. It is a landscape beyond description, beyond words and beyond time.

Every year, we visit this place. We are drawn back again and again on the pretext of one day circumnavigating the isle of Ulva, but the truth is, we don't try too hard to achieve it. The goal is really just to be there.

The Watermill, Ormaig

The south side of Ulva is a dream-like smatter of bright green and purple. The bracken is high, hiding a network of barrel-shaped tubes forced through by the stubby island goats. For humans, though, it's hard work. In amongst the bracken, the crofters' houses slowly sink back into the earth, leaving an ache of sadness as they go. Here on the south side is the village of Ormaig and the old corn mill. And below the high tide mark, near every house, pieces of broken china still wash back and forth with every tide. Striped, blue-pattern, earthenware, poignant reminders of how we are only separated by a thin selvedge of time.

This immense Atlantic Grey seal seemed to enjoy tailgating the kayaks. When we got to the shore, we watched as he spent a pleasant hour rolling around in the shallow water, playing.

We pulled the kayaks onto land at Starvation Point in a dank, dreichy drizzle. This austere row of houses clinging to each other against the ravages of their age, this was the place where the sick and the elderly were left to live out their days. Too frail to be thrown off the island, this place was the darkest on the isle.

Every year, there is something new, something special to see, and this year, it was a heart-breaking memorial to, I think, a paraglider.

The dizzying beauty of the seas

The ruined houses of Starvation Point

When the crofters were ordered to leave Ulva for the New World, there was not much that they could take with them. But many took with them something of Ulva: a handful of earth.

Kayaking out here on these isles is both a wonderful escape from real life and a true reminder of what real life actually is.