The sea had been calm up until the jagged point of Eilean Dubh or the “Black Island” about 1.5km out from Balnakeil beach, a few kilometres from Durness.
As my packraft rounded that rocky outcrop – heavy backpacking bag strapped to the front – the temperament of the estuary suddenly changed, probably due to the mix of the outgoing tide hitting the open sea and the unpredictable sandbars documented on the map. Ahead of me, I began to realise that large waves, at least 3ft tall, were forming – and then around 250 metres later – breaking.
Across the Kyle, I could see the spot I was aiming for – a beach and small house called “Daill”, where I could join the path that would take me across the Cape Wrath peninsula to my sleeping point that night – magical Kervaig bothy – and then on the next day to Cape Wrath lighthouse and the most northwesterly point of the UK mainland.
I aimed and paddled like mad, but it didn’t feel like I was moving anywhere.
The waves passing under me were becoming progressively more peaked, and within 5 minutes, the first wave broke on me.
The risk here was that the wave could break and toss me over, capsizing me from the packraft. For those of you that have ever surfed, you will know that horrible feeling of being “washing-machined” in the white of a large breaking wave.
Suddenly the 300 metres back to the coast felt like a very long way as I wrestled to stay upright on the breaking wave, paddling furiously to try and “surf” in my vulnerable packraft.
It felt like I no longer had a choice about whether to go back – my only choice right now was to try and stay upright.
A Cape Wrath Adventure
The Cape Wrath trail has been on my bucket list for many years.
Being born and raised in Thurso, the opposite end of the north coast (and arguably the more boring side of that coastline – as I tell anyone who asks me, “it gets better the further west you go”…), I have only passed through Durness and bits of the west coast once or twice. And superlatives abound when describing the Cape Wrath trail in terms of beauty and remoteness.
So when I managed to bag a chunk of May-time annual leave, it felt like the perfect time to give some of it a go.
Packrafting adds a new twist to the Cape Wrath Trail
At the end of last year, I bought a packraft. They are becoming mainstream enough now that most people have heard the term that describes a lightweight but incredibly tough blow-up boat that can handle everything from a still loch to a rapid river.
Around this time last year, I stumbled across a blog called “West Coast Stravaiging” by a Scottish adventurer David Hine. Starting in Mallaig, he had packrafted and hiked his way up through the West Coast to Durness.
I was amazed at how much the packraft had opened up the adventure and added a new dimension.
As I’ve heard other packraft adventurers state (and have started saying myself) – “suddenly all those blue bits on the map become paths you can take”.
Reading the West Coast Stravaiging piece was the final straw for me, and late 2018 I bought a second hand packraft from THE man in the know about packrafting in Scotland/UK – Andy Toop, who runs backcountry.scot and its store in Aviemore.
So it will come as no surprise then that in preparation for this trip, I painstakingly mapped out parts of a couple of David Hine’s routes in OS maps – “West Coast Stravaiging” here and another one here. I also took inspiration from some other blogs such as “Inflatable Kayaks and Packrafts“.
It was through this inspiration, that I came up with a bit of a rough edited route of how I wanted to do bits of the Cape Wrath Trail, and generally explore the North West Coast of Scotland.
Day 1 – Balnakeil to Kervaig
And so I found myself getting thrashed by waves in the Kyle of Durness on a Sunday evening at 1830.
I was fortunate that my father had been kind enough to collect me from Inverness as I got off the Edinburgh train, and drove me straight up to Durness. For those without the luxury of a highland father, there is the option of the Durness bus which leaves from Inverness on a Saturday, or from Lairg during the week.
As we drove past the dramatic Strath Dionaird, and alongside the River Dionaird that becomes the estuary of the Kyle of Durness, we saw the narrow point where the Cape Wrath ferry crosses from Keoldale.
However for some reason, I had got it in my head that I wanted a bit of a more substantial crossing – and I also thought I could cut out 2km of hiking – by putting in at Balnakeil beach and enjoying a longer paddle across a slightly wider part of the Kyle.
We had a bite to eat at the Smoo Hotel, and then drove down to Balnakeil beach where my dad helped me set things up and then watched as I disappeared out along the coastline from the beautiful beach (see video below!).
Once I hit the waves, it was quite lucky that I can surf, because that was the only thing that saved me from capsizing. I managed to surf the waves all the way to the beach. The outside of my bag was wet, but everything was carefully packed in drybags, and I was in a drysuit.
As I finally stood on the beach, I couldn’t help but beam that I had made it across. It felt like I had passed my first test.
Heavy gear – the road to Kervaig Bothy
Even though I’d passed the first test, the work for the evening was by far done – after packing up the packraft, I started the ~8 km hike to Kervaig bothy where I planned to sleep for the night.
The downside to a packraft/hike trip is the weight you have to carry. My backpack weighed about 24kg.
- Alpacka Llama packraft – ~3kg (+water weight when it’s wet!)
- Kokatat Front Entry Goretex drysuit = 1.7kg
- Aquabound Manta Ray 4 piece paddle = 1kg
- NRS C Vest PFD (personal flotation device) = 1kg
- Booties + gloves = ~ 1kg
All that weighs up to around 8kg of weight just for the packrafting gear!
Add to that 7 days of food and my backpack was seriously heavy at the start of the trip, and I felt it on the evening trek through the moors of Cape Wrath.
Let’s Bomb Cape Wrath
As I progressed on the trail, I passed a notice board that informed me I was entering Ministry of Defence property, where “live firing can begin at short notice”, and with a very clear notice not to touch suspicious objects.
It turns out that the MoD uses this land for tri-service exercises – for example bombing some of the islands on the coast. You have to see it to believe it, and this short video is the best one I’ve found that shows what they do:
You can check the firing times prior to your trip on the government website.
I finally made it to Kervaig Bothy by about 2100 (Mountain Bothy Association webpage for Kervaig can be found here). As I lost altitude, the turquoise sea (even at that time of evening) came into view, then the white washed walls of the bothy.
I’ve wanted to see Kervaig for a long time – mesmerised by the beauty of its beachside location.
The next morning, I climbed the sea cliffs in the sun to catch this incredible perspective:
Day 2 – The Hike To Sandwood Bay
I trundled along the ~7km path to the lighthouse and Cape Wrath point, regularly being overtaken by bikers and also the minibuses that transports between the ferry and the lighthouse. No-one else seemed to be walking the path! The minibus stopped to offer me a lift, but I felt that taking up an offer of a lift on the first full day would be cheating and I was relishing the walk.
I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of fellow adventurers on the trail, who all stopped to say hello. One couple had come a long way to do the Cape Wrath marathon later that week, and were scoping the route on their bikes. A few others had finished the CWT and were relaxing at the lighthouse cafe, waiting to take the minibus back to the ferry.
Most people I met were quite intrigued by the packraft and the fact that I had crossed the Kyle of Durness myself.
After a quick coffee and a coke – and consulting the cafe staff on the best route through the pathless moor – I was on my way south to Sandwood Bay.
This was a tough pathless yomp, but with striking views back to Cape Wrath, and tempting onward views of Sandwood Bay beach. I crossed the bealach between Cnoc a’ Ghiubhais and Sithean na h-Iolaireioh and came down to Kerisaig River, trying to avoid losing too much altitude.
Strath Chailleach was beautiful and soon after I caught my first close glimpse of Sandwood Bay.
This magical beach is often described online as the most beautiful in Britain, and didn’t disappoint in the evening sun:
I set up camp for the evening in the shelter of the dunes and had a wonderfully peaceful sleep.
Day 3 – Sandwood Bay to Rhiconich
Day 3 started with a swelteringly beautiful morning in Sandwood Bay. I hiked over the dunes onto the stunning path between various lochans down to Oldshoremore.
I’d considered putting the packraft in at Oldshoremore Beach, and paddling close to the coast around to Kinlochbervie into Loch Inchard. However I think my brief experience crossing the Kyle was still fresh on my memory and I didn’t want to take any risks with open water, despite it seeming to be a wonderful clear and calm day.
So I when I reached Oldshoremore, I continued on the road towards Kinlochbervie, my pack feeling heavier and heavier in the sun.
By the time I had reached Loch Innis na Ba Buidhe – about 1.5km out of Kinlochbervie, I was so desparate to get my pack off my back that I put into the loch there and paddled down to Kinlochbervie. It was then a quick portage over the road to reach the sea loch, Loch Inchard. I had serendipitously hit the loch just as the tide was starting to speed inwards, and I was gloriously carried down the loch, sheltered on either side by interesting coastline, all the way to Rhiconich, where I got my favourite snap of the trip:
This was one of those paddles where you beam the whole way – where the extra 8kg of weight on your back due to the packraft feels 100% worth it!
I had considered changing up the trip at this point and getting off on the southern peninsula at Rhivichie to hike/packraft down towards Loch Laxford – but on the way up north, my father and I had driven along the A838 road that passed by Ben Stack and Arkle and I had loved it, and I decided to hike through that area instead.
I slogged a couple more km up the Rhiconich river and pitched my tent just as the river became a loch, Arkle and Foinaven watching in the background.
I hit the hay about 1930 and slept until about 0700. This is one of the great things about hiking trips – you get so tired, you sleep like a log for hours!
Day 4 Rhiconich via Loch Stack to Loch an Leithaid Bhuain
This day felt like it represented what packrafting is all about.
The cape wrath trail follows the path to Loch Stack Lodge, then up a hill called Ben Dreavie, before coming down to Kylesku. But I didn’t want to do that – I wanted more packrafting. So I looked at the map, and forged my own path.
I had a beautiful start to the morning, getting straight on the loch with the packraft, and a small portage to get to Loch a Garbh-bhaid Mor, then a longer portage to cross beneath Arkle to Loch an Nighe Leathaid and finally onto Loch Stack.
I found creating my own path both exciting but also anxiety provoking. Going off the track is risky – you know that whatever happens the track can lead you where you need to go. So taking your own path there are loads of what ifs – “what if it’s not as good”, “what if I get lost”, “what if I’ve miscalculated and it can’t be done”… but I had done my calculations, and knew it should be possible – so I did it.
I was rewarded with some of the most beautiful views and paddling I’ve ever had. Loch Stack is a beauty, perched beneath Ben Stack and Arkle.
As I reached the end of the loch, I expected to have to get out and walk, but to my surprise the river was full enough to paddle for another km before coming to a stop at the car park for Arkle, where I got out and started walking along the road towards Loch More.
I took the turn off that went through Loch More lodge gate house and past the lodge itself – definitely worth a look in if you are ever there as the gardens were fantastic. It was then quite a steep slog up the hill with great views back into the glen of loch more and Arkle:
I was originally planning to get to Kylesku that evening via Bealach nam Fiann, but as I crossed the path underneath the crags at Bealach na h-Earba, I started getting this strong feeling that I should go off track and head for the pass and then down to the Loch na Leathaid Bhuain. So I listened to my intuition and hiked up the steep cliffs. I was rewarded at the top by a fantastic view of the loch:
I made it down in record time to the stony beach of the loch. It was obviously a common drinking spot for deer as I disturbed several getting down there and could see hoof marks in the stones.
It was so warm that I didn’t bother put the fly cover on my tent. My campsite for that evening was glorious:
I woke briefly at 0200 and because the fly was off the tent, I was treated to this amazing full moon view over the loch, with Quinag in the background:
Day 5 – To Kylesku and Loch Glencoul (then an unexpected trip to Ullapool)
The next morning I was straight on the loch and packrafted to its SW tip:
I changed out of the drysuit and portaged down the hill to Loch Glendhu. I was timing this to arrive in Kylesku at the well reviewed hotel for lunch – my first non-camping meal in several days!
When I got down to Loch Glendhu, the water was rougher than I expected, and the wind was blowing quite strongly from the southeast. This was fine for getting to the hotel (just about!) but I knew that there was no way I would be able to paddle down Glencoul.
As I ate fish and chips and had a well deserved beer at the beautiful Hotel Kylesku, I hatched a new plan.
I decided that where I really wanted to be was Loch Assynt and Inverpolly, and that I would hike down south of Kylesku to reach Loch Assynt that evening, just above Inchnadamph – unfortunately this meant a 6km stretch on the main road, before I could make a stalker’s path that curved around Glas Bheinn.
My eye! 👁
A few hours later, I had just about reached the stalker’s path.
Walking on the verge of the road, a truck accelerated as it passed me on a particularly rough section of road and I suddenly felt a piece of gravel hit my eye.
My vision was fine, but I felt the gritty sensation of something in the eye.
I tried to look with my phone, but couldn’t see much.
I persevered walking for around 30 minutes, but it was getting worse. It felt like there might be something under the eyelid.
Being an Emergency Medicine doctor, I knew exactly what I wanted to do – check underneath the eyelid, make sure there was no embedded foreign body, possibly put a bit of fluorescein dye in to check for scratches/defects in the corneal surface.
The last thing I wanted was to persevere, and end up in the middle of nowhere with an eye that was getting worse.
So I made the difficult executive decision to hitchhike to Ullapool, the nearest place with any sort of medical facility.
I was pretty lucky that the second car that saw me stopped and picked me up (Thank you Steve Pennington!) and took me straight to Ullapool. I called the health centre and within 30 minutes I was being seen by the lovely Dr Katrina Geissel. She was very patient with me, as I started dropping medical lingo and asking for fluorescein, and was happy to oblige – I was very grateful. There was nothing to see or find thankfully, and no corneal defect.
So I left with a tube of chloramphenicol ointment and headed into Ullapool. However the eye was still pretty irritating so I decided to stay in Ullapool for the evening, at the beautiful Ceilidh Place bunkhouse.
Thankfully, within a few hours and with copious lathering of chloramphenicol, there was a sudden moment of relief where whatever was in my eye dislodged itself and I immediately felt better.
I enjoyed a few beers that night, had a venison stew at the Ceilidh Place and arranged that my girlfriend come up to visit for the weekend – it seemed like too serendipitous an opportunity to miss!
Day 6 Ullapool across both Loch Brooms to Badcaul
I absolutely loved Ullapool – a beautiful town with friendly people. But it was heaving with tourists, so I was glad to escape. I had a late start as I wanted to wait for the 1030 ferry to leave the port to Stornoway. So by 1130 I was down at Ullapool point, ready to boat across Loch Broom.
From the shoreline, I could clearly see where I was aiming – a stunning white house:
I reached the small shingle beach in front of the house, packed up my gear and hiked up the steep private track that would take me over the pass to Little Loch Broom.
The view of Little Loch Broom from the top of the pass was great:
To the left I could make out the towering An Teallach, as well as several smaller peaks such as Sail Mhor that surround the loch.
I hiked down the hill, eventually leaving the road for the beach at Kildonan where I planned to launch the packraft.
I was a bit apprehensive because the tide was coming in quickly, however luckily I had a pleasant Easterly breeze, with some strong gusts. This made the loch a little rough, but pushed me across nicely and I didn’t even notice I was working against the tide.
I landed below Badcaul, and had a quick swim (with drysuit on – too cold for me without!) then hiked up the road where we had booked a beautiful AirBnB. The owner Nick was a gent and great company until my girlfriend arrived later that evening from Glasgow.
The rest of the weekend we enjoyed the area around Little Loch Broom, climbing Beinn Ghorblach on Saturday to get beautiful views of the Loch, and eating at the Dundonnell hotel which I was quite impressed by. Sunday it was the long drive back to Inverness and then Edinburgh.
I got a wonderful taste of the Cape Wrath Trail during this week – and I feel like the packraft added a flavour that made it all the more special. Being able to look at a map and go places most people can’t adds massively to the adventure – how many people manage to pop across Loch Broom from Ullapool. The people that do it in kayaks cannot then hike over to Little Loch Broom. That’s where the magic of the packraft lies.
I will have to return to the northwest to complete the rest of the Cape Wrath Trail – or at least my version of it – particularly the area around Assynt, Loch Maree and Torridon…
Various ideas for routes can be found on my map in ordnance survey here: https://osmaps.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/route/3285775/West-Coast-Stravaiging-Plot